This week my friend and I went to our favorite pub. We like the pub because it is consistently entertaining and feels like our own version of Cheers, where everyone knows our names. The pub is full of people cycling through, and we come home with the most interesting stories. This week, I met a red headed, freckle-faced Marine named McCready.
We talked for a while about sand spiders in Afghanistan. Someone I know recently told me these spiders can be as big as the size of a steering wheel, and I want to know if it's true or not. McCready tells me someone has been exaggerating. But they do get to be really big, about the size of your hand. And they crawl into cool places, like sleeping bags. I can handle spiders, but not when they're the size of a steering wheel. We talk about Afghanistan, and about being a Marine.
He tells me about war strategies, and losing some level of hearing in his left ear because of an IED. He talks about the extreme heat in Afghanistan. Sleeping in holes in the sand. Jealousy of those stationed in Iraq because the conditions are much better now, and they have a McDonald's. He talks about how he disklikes training new recruits. He talks about recruiting during a war. And about the differences of fighting a world war in comparison to these smaller wars that are largely misunderstood or supported.
Our conversation pauses for a moment. McCready looks embarrassed that he has been talking for so long about the Marines and Afghanistan. The pause seems to bring him back to the present, sitting in a pub talking with an American woman that's never been there, much less through any military training.
"Sorry. I could talk about it all day," McCready says. "I'm sure it's boring."
He mistakes the pause as my lack of interest. In reality, I am letting it all sink in. Little does he know just how enthralled I am by the details. It's not likely that he'll understand that without knowing about our film.
I tell him about the documentary, the research, interviews, subject matter, and meeting people like Col. Roger Donlon, Mike Benge, Maj. John Plaster and the Montagnards. I tell him their stories, because I have been mentally living their experiences in Vietnam for so long. I tell him their stories because that's what I know well now, and it mimics what he has been sharing with me. I tell him about Col. Roger Donlon's experience at Nam Dong, and Maj. John Plaster's experience behind enemy lines. I tell him about Mike Benge getting captured, and his experience as a POW. I tell him about Viet Cong war strategy, and the relationship between the Montagnards and Special Forces.
Then, similarly, I realize I've been talking too long. And the pause brings me back to the present, sitting in a pub with a soldier surrounded by people drinking heavily and laughing loudly. The setting is a stark contrast to our conversation, and the pause jolts me back to the present moment.
We sit there, in a crowded and very loud pub. Two strangers from very different places, unexpectedly finding common ground. I am silent at the thought of what's happening today, and how closely it mimics what I have been studying about the Vietnam War. He again looks a little uncomfortable, and asks if I'm OK since I'm visibly lost in thought.
Our eyes reconnect, and I smile. "Yes, thank you. I'm fine." He seems more at ease.
He is protective about others constantly bumping into me, but in an old fashioned and very polite way. Like a gentleman, he helps me find a seat so that we can keep talking with less distraction. He offers to buy me a beer as we continue to talk. Our bar tender, now busy with a new incoming crowd, misses McCready's signal for drinks. I offer a quick glance at our favorite bar tender, who he responds immidiately to my eye contact. It makes me think that McCready's restrained strength could be easily missed. He does not advertise it, nor does he demand attention. His manners, gentlemanly ways, stature and stance remind me of my grandfather.
My grandfather would be celebrating his wedding anniversary tomorrow were he still alive. He was a Marine. Semper Fi to the day he died. A true gentleman who opened doors, wrote love letters to his wife, and fought during WWII. Never pushy or militant. Never boastful. But humble with a quiet, restrained strength.
In his honor, my grandmother still gives red, white and blue flowers to the church for the alter during our nation's Independence Day weekend in honor of their wedding anniversary. They got married in their hometown, at a little church, and had a reception at my grandmother's family home. The black and white pictures of them are so charming. In the photo, she carries flowers from her family's garden wearing an understated white dress, and he wears his Marine dress uniform. She still points at the picture, smiles, and says, "Isn't he handsome?" The love for her late husband has never left her eyes or her smile. It's almost tangible. One of those things that seems almost unfathomable today, when you find yourself in a conversation about the recession, bad job market and divorce rates. Her continued love for him seems like an enigma, something you can't believe until you witness it first hand.
Suddenly, the details of my life, and all that has happened before I was born seems orchestrated by a force larger than me. All of the details that feel so unrelated and nebulous start to form a recognizable pattern. Something that feels like it's leading me towards a future that is uncertain, but beautiful. Something that gives me hope that we will finish this film soon and share it with others. Something that uplifts my spirit, and makes me feel a great sense of pride for our country. A country that has not always done the right thing and is not presently favored by the world, but a country that has the chance to change the future. Suddenly, I understand that the possibilities that are truly endless.
Suddenly, too, my friend signals that it is time to go. I shake the Marine's hand. I thank McCready for his service, the time he's just shared with me, and the drink he bought me. And as we walk out of our pub, my friends laugh loudly about something unrelated. I walk quietly, realizing that, to me, this man represents what Independence Day means right now. I look over my shoulder, caught between my laughing friends and the quiet McCready still sitting at the bar.
He's the man on the ground. He's the one who lost hearing in his left ear because an IED blew up. He's the one sleeping in a hole in the sand, fighting in a war that I don't fully understand. He's the one training new soldiers, so they don't make mistakes. He's the one waiting to be shot at by the enemy because he's not allowed to shoot first. He's the one in 140 degree heat making sure I can stay comfortable in my home here in North Carolina.
Today, the sun is shining. Blue, peaceful skies and green grass surround me. My family and friends are grilling out. The pool is open and inticing. Life is good. And I find myself appreciating it more because of working on this film. I hope, with genuine sincerity, that this film may honor and uplift those that have given me the great priveledge of this freedom and independence. It is not something I take for granted. That is certain.