Amtrak Cascades, Bellingham to Seattle. Picture George Kennedy in the cockpit in the movie Airport. Add a few decades. The guy taking the window seat across the aisle couldn’t have fit into a telephone booth. When he was settled, his bald head tipped forward onto his chest—too heavy, I thought, to hold up.
A Retired Air Force baseball cap lay on the empty seat between us. It was only a matter of time before I spoke to him.
I worked for fifteen minutes on my laptop, then closed it and squawked out a yawn. “Time for coffee,” I said. “Can I get you anything?”
“I’m heading in the same direction. I have to move around. Get stiff otherwise.”
I waited while he grabbed the seat back in front, stood up and positioned his cane. I walked ahead of him through the automatic door (“That makes life easy,” he said), but when I spotted a restroom I ducked into it. It was a huge handicapped restroom, and I thought maybe he needed it, so I turned around in the doorway and said, “I’m making a pit stop, unless . . . you want to.”
“No,” he said. “I’m okay.”
In the Bistro Car, he waved me toward the empty stool next to him, but I was embarrassed now and told him I was going back to my seat. When he got back, I had to start all over: “Did you like your cinnamon roll?”
I wondered what it felt like to live inside that enormous body, that weighty head. I pointed at the hat. “My dad was retired Air Force.”
“I grew up near McClellan Field in Sacramento. Shopped at the PX with my mom. Went to cheap movies on base & bowled with my dad. Swam in the pool.”
My father, in his forties during World War II, died 28 years ago. He stuttered all his life, and from the time I was a teenager, Parkinson’s made the stutter worse. I’d like to say that I asked him questions while he was still alive; that he just couldn’t answer them. But that wouldn’t be true.
“A buddy of mine ended up at McClellan after the war,” he said. “I might see him today. Fifty of us from the battalion are still around. We get together twice a year. This time in Seattle.”
“Were you in Europe?” I was almost shouting, but I could see he was struggling to hear me, and the sign on the wall said Step between cars to use your cell phone, not Don’t talk to your neighbor.
“North Africa. Italy, on the Adriatic side. Flew bombing missions over the oil fields in Yugoslavia. I turned 18 over there, in 1943.”
I waited a minute. I didn’t want to spook him. “Were you wounded?”
“Shot in the neck above my flack jacket.” He pointed to a spot just below his ponderous head. “Missed the carotid arteries. A couple of guys in my plane knew what to do and kept me alive until we got back to base. The war was almost over by then.”
He turned toward me, one leg bent, the knee not quite resting on the bench seat. I didn’t think I’d been staring, but he said, “Oh this,” and spiraled his hand in front of him like Queen Elizabeth, as if to include his whole body, his entire kingdom. “A year ago I was playing tournament tennis twice a week. Then one day I didn’t feel right and by midnight I’d had a quadruple bypass.”
“We were just kids,” he said, talking about his battalion again, his youth. “I wouldn’t do it again, supposing I had a choice. I saw too much.”
He shrugged, looking not at me but at his hands in his lap. “I stayed in after the war, though. The reserves. Figured the fighting was over. I got called up again in 1950 for the Korean Conflict, but they sent me to Germany. My wife stayed home. She was pregnant with our first kid.”
“Couldn’t she go with you?” I said.
“She didn’t want to. I did a couple of stupid things, and she decided she was better off living close to her family. I was over there for two years.”
“But your marriage survived?” I said. I wanted life to have rewarded him retrospectively for his openness now. And he was wearing a ring.
“It did, until 1983. She died of colon cancer. Married again a few years ago.”
“How many kids?”
“Three. Lost one of my daughters. Didn’t show up at work on a Monday morning. Her sister went looking. She’d had a heart attack. She was 51.”
I thought I’d asked one question too many, that we were done. But after a few seconds he said, “How about you? Where are you headed?”