Two days ago, Pastor Walter Mitty decided to go to the military and police supply store on Main Street and pick up Swiss Army knives for his two nephews who had gotten into camping during the summer.
Before going inside, the pastor of Poplar Park Community Church paused for a minute to calm himself. Truth be told, Sarge, the owner, irritated him to no end. He had been repeating over and over on Facebook the Big Lie about the election, as if repetition would finally wear Poplar Parkers down to where they would believe the lie even without any evidence.
What’s more, Sarge had referred to him as a bleeding heart liberal when Mitty posted on Facebook that we should welcome immigrants at the border because Jesus said we should welcome strangers.
Before entering the store, he noticed a big sign the owner had put in the front window. “This Veterans Day,” said the sign, “say thank you to those of us who served our country in defense of freedom.”
“Hmm,” thought Mitty, “I can support that. I’ll try mentioning the sign to Sarge as a way of finding some common ground.”
So he took a deep breath, said a short prayer and opened the front door.
“Hey Sarge,” said Mitty in the most pleasant voice he could muster. “I really like that sign you put up in the window.”
“Would you have even remembered that November 11 is Veterans Day if I hadn’t put up the sign?”
“Ouch,” is what Pastor Walt said to himself.
“Well, um, actually no, Sarge,” is what he said out loud.
“You’ve never been in the military, Rev, have you?”
“Maybe I should buy those Swiss Army knives somewhere else,” thought Mitty, realizing that he was thinking one thing in this conversation and saying another.
As he regained his composure, Mitty noticed that Sarge was wearing a camouflage baseball cap with a patch showing a yellow flag with three horizontal red stripes sewed on the front, so he decided to rewind the conversation and start over by saying, “You’re a Vietnam Vet, right Sarge?”
“Damn right and proud of it. All you liberals can say about that war is all of the atrocities we Americans committed. All you college student types were busy dodging the draft. If you never served, how do you know what really went down over there? And these days I don’t see many of you so called progressives volunteering to defend our freedoms by joining the army.”
“That didn’t work so well,” thought Mitty, so he made his purchase, decided that discretion is the better part of valor and made a hasty retreat.
Pastor Mitty always thought of himself as a bridge builder, so his brief interaction with Sarge bothered him all the way home. The first thing he did after hanging up his coat was to call his neighbor.
“Hey, Walt. What’s up?” Michael as usual was glad to hear his friend’s voice.
After listening to his best friend’s account of what happened at the military and police store, Michael laughed and said, “Bad toilet training, Walt. Bad toilet training.”
“No, seriously, Michael. I was trying to take the road less traveled and an IED exploded in my face.”
“And you’re having a hard time loving your enemy and praying for those who persecute you, right?”
In spite of himself, Mitty had to laugh and said, “I hate it when you quote Scripture at me, Michael.”
After a moment of silence, Mitty found himself using the word “seriously” again. “But seriously, Michael, does Sarge have a point? I mean, I haven’t a clue about what he went through in Nam. And these days, only 1% of Americans serve in the military.”
Michael considered what his friend had said while Mitty continued. “Sarge and Tammy Duckworth both flew in choppers, but that’s where the similarity ends. He was a door gunner; she was a pilot. He graduated from high school a couple months before getting drafted. She had a college diploma. When we watch the Newshour or read the Times online, do we ever hear the perspective of a PFC?”
“So,” said Michael after his friend had finished, “are you saying you and I are more like Senator Duckworth than Sarge? And that because Sarge isn’t good with words it doesn’t mean he doesn’t have a perspective worth taking seriously … even if we have to dig for it a little bit?”
Mitty again had to laugh. “Not only do I hate it when you quote Scripture at me, Michael. I also hate it when you complete my thoughts before I think them.”
After they finished their phone conversation, Pastor Walt got to thinking. When his Jewish friend quoted Jesus about loving your enemies and praying for those who persecute you, he did feel unfairly judged a little. He knew Michael wasn’t out to get him with his comment.
Did Michael have a point? And did Sarge also have a point even if he didn’t know how to put it into words very well?
“If I had just put more effort into listening instead of feeling defensive,” said Pastor Walt to himself, “would I have learned something? If nothing else, about myself?
In the internal debate going on inside him one side wanted to protest that Sarge had started it and another part immediately realized that being childish and blaming wouldn’t bridge our polarized cultural chasm and that being a grown up means taking responsibility for your own feelings.
Later that evening, when he processed the day one more time before going to bed, the one thing he was sure of was that being an adult is hard work.
Tom Holmes writes a regular column in our sister publication, the Forest Park Review.