“Now I know how my cat feels.”
I said the words aloud before considering that someone might hear me. I was in a bit of pain, and the words came as much an expletive as a realization.
Realization? Well, I thought a little more, not really. Perhaps I knew better how my cat saw things. Jogging along the lane, I had made way for a couple of bicyclists, and in the process I had slipped off the edge of the macadam pavement. This had caused me to stumble and fall against the stone wall guarding the edge of the bridge spanning a ravine. My prescription sunglasses jarred loose and fell, I knew not where. I certainly couldn’t see them. I could barely make out the differences among the tulips blooming in one bed after another decorating the park. Yellow, red, pink, purple, orange, white – all the glorious colors still obvious, but blurring together as though splotched onto a canvas in a quick, expressionist painting.
Grape hyacinths? Carpets of blue.
Forsythias? Explosions of gold.
How would I see my glasses in all the growing green foliage under the bridge? When would I get down there to look for them? I had hurt my right foot in the stumble. Trying to walk it off, as the athletes say, proved increasingly painful.
I heard the sound of a man singing. No words. Just sound, like that of a songbird, one of the many making music that morning.
Around a curve in the lane, I saw a bench. On it sat a man wearing a blue suit with a matching cap. As I approached, I could make out decorations in red. Ah, it must be a uniform. Park employees, however, wore olive green and tree bark taupe; police officers wore black.
The man sat upright, away from the backrest and leaning ever so slightly with both hands on top of a cane placed between his legs, facing east. When he noticed me, he quickly stood and gestured at the bench.
As he had been sitting on the end farther from me, I took a seat on the opposite side. Instead of resuming his, though, the man walked behind the bench and in the direction from which I had just walked … or limped, rather. He stopped about ten feet away, again faced east, and stood with both hands atop his cane. His movement revealed nothing in the way of an infirmity.
“No need for you to yield the entire bench,” I said. “We can share.”
“Sharing is good,” he replied. “You may want to put your foot up, though.”
I tried that. Doing so made me shift so that my back faced him. “There’s still room,” I said over my shoulder.
“Thank you. I’ll stand.”
“What? You think I stink? I haven’t been running that long, or that far.” I smiled when I said that, but then surmised he couldn’t see it. I shifted to my first position so that I could look at him.
“As a matter of fact, you do,” he said.
“Sunscreen mainly. Soap. Sweat. Shoes.”
“You forgot deodorant.”
I looked at him as carefully as my defective vision would allow. His sense of smell was so good that I couldn’t help but wonder if he were blind. But he saw me coming! Well, maybe he heard me coming … or smelled me coming. But he saw me pull up lame! Well, maybe he heard that, too; maybe he could hear the arrhythmia in my steps. And there’s the cane. Well, yeah, but it’s not white with red. It’s brown.
“It’s all that bad, huh?”
“Certainly not,” he said. “It’s all too much, though. I came here to smell the flowers of Norway maple.”
I could see we were surrounded by trees, all responding to spring. I couldn’t see what kind they were, though. Indeed, even with my glasses, I wouldn’t have been able to tell one maple from another. I was one of the ecologically challenged who would say pine for any conifer, be it spruce, fir, hemlock, juniper, cedar, cypress, larch, or pine.
“I didn’t know that maples have a scent,” I said.
“Of course you did.”
“And how do you know that, pray tell?”
“Maple syrup?” He faced me and flashed a smile bright enough that I couldn’t miss it.
“Oh. Well, yes. I do know what that smells like. I think. I don’t usually buy the real stuff because it’s so expensive.”
“It’s good stuff, though.”
“The scent of Norway maples in blossom is subtle. It can’t be too breezy, and there must be a number of trees in a stand, otherwise it’s easy to miss.”
“I guess I’ve missed it my entire life.”
“There is a balm in Gilead, says an old song. At this time of year, in this place, this is a balm.”
Certainly, it was a balmy spring day. I just had to get out and enjoy some of it myself. “So you can smell it,” I said. “The flowering of maples.”
“Norway maples. The scent is specific to Norway maples. And yes, I can smell it now. The wind is just right. And being upwind of you, there’s no interference.”
“You’re welcome,” though I wasn’t so sure about that.
“I have a barber who likes to hunt and fish, and he likes to travel as much of the world as he can afford to have new hunting and fishing experiences. He says that, wherever he goes, he can always smell an American.”
I repeated myself: “No! Really?”
“According to him.”
“So what do Americans smell like?” I asked as one guess after another came to mind.
“How should I put this?” the man asked. “Scat.”
“Mosquitoes are out already?”
“No. I mean scat the way a hunter thinks of it, as in scatological. Feces. Manure.”
“Americans smell like….”
“They eat too much meat, the guy says. Too much red meat, especially.”
“Is this guy an American?”
“Oh, yes, born and raised. Served in the United States Navy.”
“And this guy hunts. Meat.”
“He used to. Now he hunts with a camera.”
“And the fish?”
“Catch, take a picture, and release.”
“He was in the Navy back during the war in Viet Nam. I was in the Army then. Word was that the Viet Cong could smell us, never mind the concealment of jungle or nighttime darkness. I knew some NCOs who had fought in the Korean War, and they said they could smell the Norks.”
“Is that one of those spiteful slurs military people shoot at other people?”
“Gook is spiteful. Nork is no more pejorative than Rok or Yank or Brit. How’s your foot?”
I tried standing. “Not good,” I said as I resumed sitting. “How am I ever going to go back and find my glasses?”
“I lost them when I stumbled. They fell into the ravine.”
“Obviously you don’t have a second pair.”
“Not out jogging.”
The man walked over. “Let me help.” He knelt in front of me, laid his cane on the ground, and began removing my shoe.
It became my turn to sit upright. “What are you doing?”
“Examining your foot and ankle.”
“What about the stink?”
“We all stink.”
“I’m a stranger. You’re a stranger.”
“You’re my neighbor.”
“Are you some kind of medic or something?”
“Why are you wearing dress blues?”
“It’s still a little too cool to go with just a shirt.”
“Well, yeah. But you’re in your blues. Are you on your way to a wedding?”
“A friend came to my wedding. He was in the Army at the time. He asked what he should wear since we had asked him to be an usher. We said something formal. This was some years ago, of course. Anyway, he said the only outfit he had that was formal was his dress blue uniform. We said that would be just fine. He had the same kind of red trim on his outfit as you do, but you can’t be an engineer.”
The man paused to look up and straight into my face.
“What?” I asked. “If you’re a medic or surgeon or something, you can’t be wearing red trim. Can you?”
“What color are my eyes?” he asked.
“Can’t say. They might be blue or gray or even hazel.”
“You do need your glasses.”
“And I do want them back. They were expensive.”
“I was in the artillery. Red accents apply to both the Corps of Engineers and the field artillery. Yellow accents apply to cavalry and armored units. Blue applies to infantry….”
“Whoa! You’re pretty good at this.”
“It’s a variation on Korean foot massage.”
“You learned this in the Army?”
“You can say that. I’ve learned a lot while I’ve been in. I’ve learned to love people of every nation, tribe, and language, of every ethnicity.”
“In the Army?”
“Stand up,” he said.
“Take a couple steps.”
“Better,” I said.
The man nodded.
“What is it you do?”
“Will you please stand up?” I said. “I’m an American, and despite what other people around the world think and say about Americans, as an American, I feel uncomfortable about someone kneeling to me.”
“And about kneeling to someone else?”
“ ‘The servant is not greater than his lord.’ ”
I had to think about that line, so I said nothing.
The man stood and handed me my shoe.
“Thanks.” I sat on the bench again to replace my footwear.
“Use this.” He handed me his cane.
“You don’t need it?”
“No. But I want it back, please. That is, unless you really need it.”
I stood and walked in a small circle to ascertain how much I did. “Why do you carry it?” I asked. “That friend of mine…. Well, the day of the marriage, it threatened rain. The reception was at a location some walking distance from the church, so I offered him an umbrella. He wouldn’t take it. Can’t, he said. Not part of the uniform, he said.”
“I like the feel of the wood.”
“It belonged to my father.” The man looked around and about at the surrounding woods. “He was a forest ranger. Dress and keep, he used to preach. Manage and conserve.”
I looked at the cane. “What are all these markings?”
“It’s a Biltmore stick.”
“You can use it to measure the diameter of trees, the height of trees, and the number of logs in standing trees.”
“Maybe you can. Me?”
“This one can serve also as a cruising plot center stake, a surveyor’s compass mount, and a walking staff.”
“That sounds like a whole lot of measuring to me. I thought you said you weren’t in the Corps of Engineers.”
“The word is mensuration.”
“Let’s go find your glasses.” And with that, he started walking along the lane toward the ravine.
I followed, and surprisingly well. “If you are an engineer, you must be some kind of medical engineer. My foot feels much better.”
As we approached the abutment of the bridge, he asked, “Which side?”
“East.” He pointed along the lane. “Go to the place where you had your accident. I’ll look for you from down below.”
“I don’t know that I’ll be able to tell exactly where I was. I wasn’t keeping track of my paces, and I surely didn’t count the stones in the wall.”
“Perhaps you can remember which tree or trees grow near the place.”
I nodded. “Perhaps.”
I walked slowly. Eventually coming to a stop, I leaned over the wall. “I’m here, I think. Can you see me?”
“Oh, yes. I see you.”
“They couldn’t have been flung too far.”
“Right. Now it’s avoid stepping on them before I find them.”
“Did I say they’re sunglasses?”
“Neutral gray lenses. Titanium frame.”
How did that name ever come into such use, I wondered. Then I heard music. The tone, the timbre, the tenor: newly familiar. So was the song. I called to the man making the music as he worked. “Are you going to tell me you sing in the Army band?”
“As a matter of fact, I do. Sometimes.”
“Well, you’re good enough … in a crooning kind of way. What tune is that?”
“ ‘In the Garden.’ It’s another old-timer, and my grandmother’s favorite.”
“Yes.” The man held up my sunglasses. “And in good shape, too. Stay where you are. I’ll bring them up and over.”
In a few minutes, he stood before me again. “Here they are.”
“Fantastic!” I said. Then, “Trade you.” I held out his stick.
He handed me my sunglasses.
“Thank you!” I said slowly and with feeling.
“I’m in the business of reuniting,” he said.
“Now.” I put the glasses on. Then, “Oh my G…. Sorry. I mean, it’s just….”
“It’s like, you know, ‘was blind, but now I see.’ ”
“I pray so.”
“Yeah, but … I’m so embarrassed. I thought you were in the Army. Or at least, I wondered about you’re being in the Army. I also kept wondering, how old is this guy? I mean, shouldn’t he be retired by now?”
“Different army,” the man said.
“I see that. So … what does the S stand for?”
“Saved to serve; saved to save.”
– End –