We were sitting at the hotel bar after a long day of product and sales training when the man limped in and sat a few stools away from us. He was older--in his sixties most likely--trim and fit, with a bit of grey hair left on his head and a well-kept goatee. He listened to us yammer on for a while and then, clearly lonely and looking for some conversation, he asked us where we were headed. My companions were native Angelenos, but I was on my way home to Tucson. He was from Nogales, and he decided that this was reason enough to strike up a conversation.
He yakked for a while about this and that, and we nodded politely and offered up just enough of a response to avoid being rude. Then the man mentioned something about Amsterdam, which prompted my colleage, Charles, to chime in with his own memories of that city. After the man had dropped a few more place names, Charles said, "you must be prior service." The man nodded and said he had been in the air force back in 1968. He had served in Vietnam and elsewhere.
Charles smiled and gave his own service history, and they proceeded to trade stories of the places they had been and the things they had seen. Interestingly, their anecdotes all centered on fun times and fun places--where they had gone on leave, where they had gone on vacation, times they had gotten in trouble (the kind of trouble you look back fondly upon). They did not say a word about what had brought them to those distant places in the world.
I knew a little of Charles' history. I knew he served during Desert Storm--in Desert Storm, in fact. But he doesn't talk about it much. Our new friend had obviously been involved in the Vietnam War, and while he did bring up the subject and did want to reach out and connect to a fellow veteran, the wars in which they fought remained a large elephant in the room.
Darrell and I looked on and occasionally nodded as they spoke. We had nothing to add.
After half an hour or so, Charles raised his beer glass and said, "Hey. Thank you for your service." The man nodded and raised his own glass. It was over. We retreated back to our inane conversation, and the stranger found a new conversation partner at the bar.
Sometimes you have access to conversations and people to whom you never had access before, and it makes you remember that the real world is neither a Hollywood movie nor a political pundit show on CNN. It makes you remember that people are very complicated--annoyingly complicated, perhaps--very hard to pin down, categorize, and therefore...dismiss. Sometimes you get to discover words like prior service--words that mean a whole world to some people, and nothing to you. You don't exactly get to break the code, but you do get to have a glimpse into someone else's universe. You get to remember that the people around you are not just extras in the movie of your life, but are real people, each one a main character in his or her own right, each one on a difficult journey that you will only ever get glimpses of.
It's an important and humbling thing to reminder.