The Soldier

Unsplash Soldier.jpg
Photo by Tyler Barnes via Unsplash.com. 

On Southwest Flight 2503 from Chicago to SNA with a stopover in Denver, I boarded the plane and saw an empty middle seat in the first row on the right. A middle-aged man with salt pepper hair wearing checkered board shorts and a Chapman university jacket sat in the aisle seat and a young, handsome Asian man wearing wraparound sunglasses and a stoic expression sat by the window.  He was tanned and lean with strong ropey arms. He sat with his back stick straight, arms resting calmly on his knees as though he had been there since the beginning of time.

I paused for a minute, waiting as the hefty woman in front of me struggled with her carry on, and wondered if I should take the seat. The middle-aged man looked up at me, but the young man stared straight ahead. I imagined him willing me not to sit there. He held nothing in his hands – no magazine or smartphone – and as far as I could tell, had already placed his luggage in the overhead compartment. In my self-conscious way I held up the line debating whether to take the seat when the middle-aged man said, “Why don’t you sit here.”

So the older man made the decision for me. Thanking him, I sat down and turned to smile at the young Asian man who neither smiled nor turned to acknowledge that a young woman similar in age and ethnicity had taken the seat next to him. He said nothing and stared straight ahead. I sensed a vein twitch in his left arm and looking down, saw him rub his left hand on his thigh, the calmness I had perceived just a minute earlier broken by – by what, my presence? I turned to look at his profile and was disturbed – the hollow of his left eye was just that: hollow, like a tiny cave in which dark thoughts crawled.

And unabashedly, because he would not look at me, I began to stare at him. I studied his hair, shorn close to the scalp like a buzz cut just beginning to grow out; his skin, smooth but not too smooth; his strong jaw, for me a defining marker of masculinity, and the thin, unsmiling yet sensuous lips which sat upon said jaw. And of course his arms and hands, which upon closer inspection seemed to belong to two different bodies. His left forearm, hands and fingers were as strangely flat as a human appendage could be, as though crushed by something, though on the skin there was no visible damage. His right arm was another story: though rounded to a normal fleshy diameter, it bore on the inside a giant raised scar in the shape of an abstract jellyfish, not unlike a Portuguese Man-o-war. A few other raised scars dotted the surface of his arm, disappearing up into his shirtsleeve, and beyond that, who knew. Instead of speak he began to crack his fingers, first the flat left hand, which truly truly confounded me. It was almost like a glove with its flatness – the palm the thinnest human palm I have ever seen – a philosopher’s hands, I thought, or in this day and age, perhaps a computer programmer, though the rest of him seemed accustomed to daylight rigorous exercise. And then the right, almost fat in comparison, with round, rugged manly fingers and a meaty palm. Two hands, one man. What a physiological marvel!

I half expected him to say, “What the hell are you looking at,” but he said nothing. Besides, being somewhat of a frequent flier and a nosy one at that, I have nearly perfected the art of minding others’ business from the headrest of my seat. I was studying him, surely, but if he turned to stare back I would simply dart my eyes or turn away. But there was no need as he sat, aside from the cracking of the knuckles, like a statue, stone-faced and silent.

As we lifted off I made up my mind about him – he was unhappy, probably a computer programmer who had never had a girlfriend. There would be no speaking to this man, so I turned towards my book until the the middle-aged gentleman and I struck up a conversation. He and I, it turned out, had a common destination: we were both from Orange and lived just a few streets apart.

A lengthy conversation ensued in which we discussed the things we each knew well, though from different perspectives. The man, a contract “finisher” was flying home from having supervised the setting up of a new Microsoft store in New Hampshire. His wife would greet him at the airport and drive him straight to Ricardo’s on Katella, his favorite mexican restaurant in town. He had three children, two of whom were about to graduate from college and one who was in her junior year. I told him I was unemployed and in the throes of grad school applications, pursuing, for lack of a better phrase, “my dream” of becoming a writer.

“You remind me of my youngest,” he said, after we’d been talking for about twenty minutes, “She’s like you, really analytical and observant, just cuts to the quick of things.”

I thanked him for the compliment and was about to say something vague about how writers ought to be when I heard a smooth, deep voice:

“Excuse me,”

I turned. The young man looked at us through his sunglasses, his torso leaned towards me.

“I’m sorry to interrupt, but may I use the restroom?”

I was surprised by the plangency of his voice and the kind, almost apologetic way with which he spoke that it took me a few seconds to see the folded White Cane he clutched in his right fist. My face blanched as a deep shame washed over me – of course he was blind! How could I, of all the conclusions to jump to, not arrive at the most obvious one? The sunglasses, the strange hollowed left eye socket – there was no eye – and the absolute peace with which he sat and stared off into space without anything to read or watch. I stared the stick and said nothing while thankfully my neighbor, more human than I rose to the occasion.

“Certainly,” and though the blind man did not ask, provided directions to the lavatory as well: “You’ll need to take a right, two steps, then a left.”

The blind man nodded, “Thank you.”

We pushed ourselves back into our seats as far as we could and allowed the man ample room to move. He unfolded the white stick and pushed himself up, crouching low so as not to hit the baggage compartment, then tapped and felt his way out of the row, where an attendant with curly hair and a bright smile guided him into the lavatory. The “Vacant” clicked into “Occupied,” and my neighbor turned to me.

“That just breaks my heart,” he said, and before I could confess the very embarrassing fact that the man’s blindness had been a mystery to me until I saw the white stick, he continued, “I think he’s a soldier. I saw his military backpack when I boarded and I’m thinking he was hurt in the war.”

“A soldier,” I said, “He did sit with his back very straight.”

The man laughed and shook his head in the way you do when you are impressed, “His back straight! No wonder you’re a writer. The things you notice.”

I smiled though inside I felt like a fraud. I had missed the most obvious thing.

The plane landed in Denver and the soldier pulled out an iPhone, turned it on, and with his right thumb began a series of well-practiced swiping movements that seemed ten times faster than the average, seeing iPhone user’s. The screen never came on, and why would it? What ensued was an aural barrage of rapid clicks and Siri’s voice issued at warp speed, not unlike when you fast forward an old cassette tape. I tried to understand what she was saying and caught the following, “Southwest…. departure… forty-five pm….”

It was marvelous technology I had never seen and I wanted badly to ask him about it, but could not bring myself to. Instead, I asked if he was deplaning in Denver.

“I am,” he said, and, sensing my readying to push back and allow him room to leave, he raised his right arm and motioned for me to pause, “But they are sending someone to escort me off the plane, so I think I will wait a while.”

“Oh,” I said, “Alright.”

I wondered if i should ask him something else – a million questions erupted at once but it was an awkward time. He was about to deplane, and I had the whole two hours before to talk to him but instead chose to talk to the middle-aged man from my hometown. But blindness, though it invites curious stares and projections, does not invite smooth conversation. At least not from me. There were too many ways for me to offend, however unintentional, including my annoying tendency to say “I see,” and, “Look at it this way.”

The bubbly flight attendant with the curly hair leaned in and asked the man if he had any luggage she could retrieve for him.

“Yes,” he said, “I have a military backpack.”

She reached up and brought down a large, army green backpack with the name S. Baskis stitched upon the front pouch. I took out my phone and pretended to type a message, but copied down the name instead.

The middle aged man next to me decided to start the conversation.

“Excuse me, sir,” he said, “Did your blindness happen in the army?”

S. Baskis nodded, “It did, four years ago.”

“May I please say thank you and shake your hand?”

I, between them, leaned back so that the man could reach the blind man’s hand. Then a portly man in the row behind us stood up and shook the soldier’s hand as well.

“I just want to say I sell the gauze that helps the wounds clot faster. I hope it saved your life.”

The soldier replied without irony, “My medic saved my life.” And to show the men exactly what had happened, he lifted his sunglasses and blinked a few times, though what point there was in blinking, I am not sure. Tucked between rather long eyelashes his eyes were still there though hardly, for they had sunken deep into his skull, as though they, seeing the atrocities of war had retreated until they could not retreat anymore.

The men clucked and shook their heads, saying “Thank you, thank you,” and the soldier merely shrugged.

“No regrets,” he said. And that was all.

I wondered if I ought to say thank you and shake his hand as well, but I didn’t. It did not feel right. Instead, it was now my turn to sit, silent like a stone.

Rather than talk to him directly, as I should have done, I came home and Googled “S. Baskis Denver Soldier”. Steve Baskis is only a year older, married, and doing amazing things with his life, despite his blindness and injured left arm. He has climbed the Himalayas, plays the drums, and is pretty much more active than I will ever be in my entire life. We all have our handicaps. 

You can read about him here.

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