This is Mike Ryan

This is Mike Ryan. 

Let me introduce you: Mike Ryan startled me outside of Albertson’s from a dark corner when he asked me for a cigarette.  I had stopped to roll myself one and hadn't noticed Mike sitting in the alcove on the sidewalk outside.  He was wearing a camouflage canvas jacket, combat trousers and sandals. I nodded, finished rolling and handed him the cigarette.

 I had returned San Diego after half a lifetime at sea, sailing past foreign shores, exploring jagged islands and visiting shining cities because my mother could no longer care for herself. Her needs were such, (fluctuating, day by day), that I had to be on hand to tend to them when needed.

I had learned of her condition from the doctors when I came back for my father’s funeral 3 years previously.  My father had a military funeral in respect for serving his country at the Battle of Ardenne and the taking of Munich. 

Tonight was supposed to be my respite, a meal with friends, one old, and two new.  I was looking forward to wine and food and laughter. But most of all the comfort of familial conversation.  Instead, I was pursuing this conversation.

'Thank you, brother' Mike said reminding me of my poet-friend Gerald Arthur Moore (Art) who called everyone he met or passed on the street either brother or sister which used to bug the hell out of me until I began to realize he wasn't a Jesus freak or a hippie. 

He was worse than that: he was sincere.

So, I lingered in the moment, having set my meager groceries down.  I asked Mike how he was doing and his name.

'Up and down', was Mile's reply 'could be better, could be worse'. 

‘Mike, my name’s Mike.’

I took a closer look at Mike and saw under the street grime, a clear gaze.  I took in his craggy Irish features and asked:

'Has anyone ever told you you look like Chet Baker?' 

Mike looked quizzical.  Well I did play the trumpet, long time ago'. 

'You do remind me of him'.

'Everybody reminds everybody of somebody else,' 

Mike replied.

It was this Bodhisattva-like wisdom that pulled me in Mike's direction.  He told me he was 64 and served in Vietnam having seen action as a Corporal with a tank division.    Mike acquired a slight stutter when he talked about his time in Vietnam.  Near the border with Laos, driving through and over villages, flattening them, hoping there were no families or children left inside the flattened shacks. 

 'Action!' Mike snorted.  'They call it action now like it was some John Wayne movie we were all watching.'

I saw Mike stand up even though he was still sitting.  His clear eyes flashed anger and focus 'You know what we called it?  Us boys shooting other boys in the jungle?  We called it living hell."  Mike said the two words with no exclamation; as though he was just naming a town or a state:  living hell. 

My father hated the military with a passion.  He told me some mornings he woke up in his foxhole and didn’t know whether to point his rifle at the German line or his own officers.  He never let me be a patrol boy in grade school or a boy scout.  “No son of mine is ever going to wear a Goddamn uniform”!  He had bought the train and plane tickets for my elder brother in the late 60’s in case his number came up and he had to flee to Canada.

My father hated the brutality, the cruelty of the military training but mainly he hated their senseless bureaucracy, their SNAFU rules and how the system never cared for the average GI.  Catch 22 was his favorite novel.

I asked Mike where he was staying and he told me under the bridge near the onramp to 5, heading from the north all the way to the border.  I asked Mike about his Veteran benefits and he gave me a convoluted, fading answer about extradition of forms as he lost his focus and slipped back into a comforting slump.  He was vigorously scratching his scabbed legs. 

'Man. You got to get yourself to a clinic and have that seen to!  And ask to see the social worker too; they should be helping you with those forms.' 

'I know, I know. I will, brother, I will'. He said those words so they sounded just like he meant them; meaning he wouldn't. Just another plan for tomorrow that never comes.  Later, meaning never.  I tried one more time.  And this time I heard my father’s voice speaking through my tongue and lips.

"You're entitled, you know.  You served your country, you're entitled to what's yours.  I pay my taxes.”   In my mind, I paused on that word 'entitled' . . . 'entitlement'. What the mean and petty conservatives of this nation had succeeded in reframing as a handout, against the very grain of the meaning of the term.  'Entitled' means you earned it; no question of deserving it.

My father kept speaking through me and to me. “To say otherwise is an insult to soldiers, to Veterans, to the disabled and the elderly and to those who are just plain down on their luck, there but for a roll of the dice, go you and me, brother.  God Damn those latter-day Puritans with their work-to-death ethic and their loaded dice.” 

Mike deserved better than this, but he was too distracted by his own confusion to ask for-no, demand-the help to which he was entitled. Mike had served his country, but his country had failed to serve him for more than half his life.  Sixty-four and sleeping under the bridge.   God damn it!  My father had always cursed like a soldier.

Mike looked at me annoyed. 

'You ever been to war?'

'Me?'  I shook my head.

 'No, my dad did, WWII. He was a private in the army infantry; Rainbow Division'.

'Well you don't know shit then, do you?  And I ain't nobody's dad, I'll tell you that for nothing!"

My father remained silent: he had been dead for a while.

Mike was right, I had no idea what he had seen, or had heard or what had broken his mind.  I just remember my aunt telling me that when my father first came home from his war that he had had screaming nightmares for weeks in the soft bedroom he shared.  She told me about waking up to her mother cradling my father’s head in her lap and repeating over and over in comforting Yiddish

"es s olreyt, alts vet zeyn olreyt" 

“It’s alright, everything will be alright”. 

Over and over.

 I didn’t know, couldn’t imagine what Mike had been through in his war, but I had a pretty good idea of the what he was going through now. There was no maternal lap for his head.

I didn’t give Mike any money or any of my food or take him home to my living room couch.  I don’t know that he would have accepted even if I had offered.  I had only given him the couple of cigarettes.  But in doing so I gave Mike Ryan something we all desperately need, more than money, more than a place to live, more than food, more than medicine.    I had given Mike Ryan the one thing money can’t buy, the one gift in life we are free to give or deny anyone we meet along our path.   I gave him the gift of acknowledgment, the simple consideration of one human being for another. 

Isn’t that all we really have to give to each other, to our fellow hairless apes infesting this little blue marble of a world?  Isn’t that what we mean when we use the word humanity?

We can’t save the world.

But we can save each other.   We can teach the Mike Ryans of this world the meaning of the word humanity. By the acknowledgement and recognition that he or she has an intrinsic value, regardless of circumstance.

One human at a time. 

“You don’t know shit”, Mike repeated

And with Mike’s dismissal, I picked up my bag of groceries, traded another rolled up cigarette for these photos, and wandered on my way into the safe, warm San Diego night.  My father had stopped speaking.  There was a roof made of stars above my head.  It was the same roof that rests above Mike's head.

And yours. 

Igor Goldkind

Igor Goldkind is widely published and has contributed to Ariel Chart in the recent past.

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