The Company We Keep

By Paul Zolbrod, MAMF Writer-in-Residence

“How’re you doing?” I asked a fellow vet at the V.A. clinic this afternoon. He was on his way out, I on my way in. Like me he was hobbling with a cane, although he gripped his with his left hand, I mine with my right. He wore a brace over his right wrist, I mine on my left.

Once I greeted him at the far curb of the parking lot in front of the entrance, he stopped, looked me over, saw the same resemblance I had spotted, and smiled. “Not so bad, brother,” he said. “Under the circumstances.” We both leaned on our canes and rested before going our separate ways, ready to chat for a minute or so. As a rule it works that way; guys are always willing to connect–especially the older ones, the Vietnam vets, the Korean vets. There aren’t many WWII guys left, although those who can still get in and out on their own like to schmooze too.

“What’s wrong with you?” I asked.

“Everything,” he replied, looking at his feet and cupping one knee, then looking back at me, still smiling. “Knees. Both feet numb. Shoulders all stiff. What about you?”

“Everything except one,” I laughed.” I’ve had one knee replaced, the other’s still pretty good.” I looked him over again. He was maybe two or three inches shorter than me, but a little rounder and wider around the waist. Hair about as grey as mine, his face about as wrinkled or a little less. “How old are you I asked?”

“Seventy three,” he answered, which made him Vietnam. “You?”

“Eighty-three,” I said. “Korean War.”

“Aw, c’mon,” he replied. “You don’t look it.”

“That’s because you guys had it rougher,” I said, still laughing. “Folks hated you, they only forgot about us.”

And so it went for a few more minutes–light-hearted talk, easy-going chatter, even when the matter was fundamentally serious. He told me about his sessions in the heated pool for his shoulders, me about the exercises I was doing for mine under supervision up in physical therapy, the mutual concern genuine, the well-wishing sincere. Then we shook hands and bid each other happy Easter, he heading for his vehicle, I going inside to check at Orthotics to see if the special shoes had come in yet custom made for my messed up feet. Infantry feet they call it up in that department.

That’s the way it is at the clinic–perhaps my favorite place in Albuquerque. I like to say I’m lucky to get such good care; everybody deserves that kind of health care, I like to say, where we’re treated with dignity, there’s very little paper work, and nobody talks about money. But I’m luckier still to enjoy that kind of fellowship. Nowhere else that I know of do people get along so well. You have to be one of us to understand.

I recommend visiting a VA hospital. You’ll see guys going in and out with canes, on crutches, in wheel chairs, carrying oxygen tanks. Some of us move slowly. Some have to be pushed. Some have to lean on a wife or a son or daughter. Some of us are old like me and some older, some so young I want to cry for them. But boy do we get along. We make eye contact. We smile. We joke and tease. Folks need to see for themselves how well men can get along. It’s that way with the women vets, too. Those differences disappear as well.

There’s a great lesson to be learned at a VA hospital. No matter how bad I may be feeling as I set out for the clinic, I feel better once I’m inside, which is pretty often now, thanks to the company I get to keep.

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