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Late in the afternoon some time back Anne and I were at the Blue Desert relaxing with a brew and an appetizer. We often sat at the counter down on the other end. Not many people had yet arrived. It was still early. We were debriefing each other as we normally do at the end of the day.
This older man walked in wearing shorts, a pullover, and a cap which he promptly removed. He sat at the counter too, up towards the other end. We took note of him and continued our conversation. After a modest dinner, the man turned to talk. He was from Minnesota and was on his way back from a short stay in Tampa. He’d driven in to Cedar Key a few hours earlier and parked a camper at Sunset Isle. He’d been out to the airstrip. He’d stopped at the Blue Desert on his way back.
He was a former Marine, an aviator, a pilot. He’d flown over the Cedar Keys on training runs years earlier. He never stopped. This time driving his way back from Tampa, he’d come mainly to look over the airstrip. And to remember.
He’d been to Tampa to pick up the cremated remains of his son who had died days earlier and quite suddenly of a massive heart attack. His son, also a former Marine, left a family behind in Tampa. “My boy had lived in Tampa six-and-a-half years, and I’d never been down to see him. I’d promised, but somehow I never got there. This is one hell of a way to make a first visit, and it’s tough, really tough,” said the man.
“You know, I traveled the Pacific. I was all over. I enlisted in the Marines when I was seventeen. I watched my childhood friend, my life-long buddy, go down over Midway and there wasn’t a thing I could do about it. That was pretty tough.
“I made it through the war with a couple wounds, but I always returned to active duty. Then I laid my mother to rest, then my father, and one by one, brothers and sisters. Those times were pretty tough. But I made it okay.
“I once was hit while on a mission. My instruments went out, gauges, altimeter, and whatnot. I radioed the flight commander. He told me I had a compass and a watch, and if I put the sun over my shoulder, I’d make it home.
“I did, I made it home. After that I had a compass installed in my vehicle and I wear a watch at all times. I’m never lost. I just look for the sun and I’m okay. Can you imagine, six-and-a-half years and I never made it down? Never went to visit my boy?
“My church is against cremation, but in this case it was okay, I guess… I’ll be up early in the morning. We’ll take our time going back home, back to Minnesota. I know we’ll be okay. I have my watch on my wrist, a compass on the dash, and I’ll just put the sun over my shoulder.”
He climbed down off that stool and stood up straight, not so easily, with legs and hips damaged by shrapnel over fifty years ago. “Donald A. C–––, Sir, United States Marine Corps, retired. Honored to have had your presence,” he said as he extended his hand.
This former Marine, this wounded combat veteran, this man was hurting deeper than he’d ever known. But he’ll be okay. He had his watch on his wrist, a compass on the control panel and the sun over his shoulder.
And with his boy at his side, he should be back in Minnesota by Sunday.
And this year, his son will be home for Fathers Day.