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SOLDIER

By Sean Dietrich

Morning. I’m drinking my coffee when his photo pops up in my cellphone memories. And I’m thrown three years backward. I remember it all too well.

There I am, watching him. He sits on the steps of the Shell Station. A backpack beside him. His skin is rawhide. His beard is white.

His name is Buck. He’s from North Carolina. He says he completed two tours in Vietnam.

He’s not here begging, he’s resting his feet.

“My old feet hurt more’n they used to,” says Buck. “Hard getting old, buddy.”

There is a half-smoked cigar next to him. He dug this used cigar from an ashtray. It still has life in it, he says.

He’s sipping coffee.

“First cup’a joe I had in a week. Fella gave me a quarter a few minutes ago. Piled my coins together to buy me a cup.”

A quarter.

When Buck went inside to buy it, there were only cold dregs left in the pot. He asked the cashier if it were possible to brew a fresh pot. She told him to get lost.

“But I’m paying for it,” he insisted.

She escorted him to the door.

So, he’s drinking dregs for which he paid full price—for which he is grateful.

There are holes in his shoes. He found these sneakers in a sporting-good-store dumpster. Buck estimates he’s put nearly eight hundred miles on them. Who knows if he’s exaggerating or not. Buck has a flare for the dramatic.

Still, his bloody toes poke through the fronts. His middle toenail is missing.

Buck explains, “God says, ‘Don't worry what you’ll eat, drink, or wear.’ And I believe it. But it's hard sometimes. ‘Specially when you ain’t eaten and you don’t have [cussword] to wear.”

So I walk inside the gas station on a mission. I ask the aforementioned cashier to brew a fresh pot of coffee—I tell her it’s for me. I am very polite about it.

She smiles and says, “Sure, sweetie.”

Ain't she sweet.

I buy a hot cup, an armful of snacks, and a pack of Swisher Unsweetened Mini-Cigars. I give them to Buck on the sidewalk, and I tuck a bill into his hand. I wish I had something bigger, but I don't.

You would think helping someone down on their luck would make you feel good all over. Instead, it just makes me feel like I can’t do nearly enough.

Buck starts crying.

And the truth is, I’m embarrassed to even be telling you all this. Because this story isn’t about me—it’s about Buck.

Buck says with glazed eyes, “Did you know that I see God in you?”

And now I’m the one who has some major eye-glazing going on.

I stumble over my own words. All I can get out is, “Thank you for your service.”

I'm a bumbling fool. The words sounded better in my head than they sounded coming out of my mouth. They seem so… Lightweight.

He smiles. He stands to walk away. His big backpack must weigh eighty pounds.

“Going to Walmart,” he says. “Gon’ buy me some new shoes. Gon’ get me a hot pizza, man. Yessir, just saw God on the street corner.”

And he's gone.

I’m a middle-aged American. I’ve never known hunger. I’ve never not had a Sheetrock ceiling to cover my head. In many ways I'm spoiled. I'm lazy. I'm selfish. And sometimes, I get so lost in my own self-centered world that I can't see.

But.

I just met someone. An invisible someone. A man who—despite whatever his problems may be—isn't lost at all. A man who knows things, different truths than I will ever know.

Yes, he smokes secondhand cigars. But he also sees mankind. He sees us at our most charitable. And he sees us at our worst every time we tell him to get lost.

He sleeps in the open air, counting stars, covered by his military-surplus blanket. He prays for heaven to feed him every day. And somehow heaven does.

He is a man who people overlook because it's easier that way. A man who asked me for nary a thing.

Mister Buck, sir. Today, you met a young redhead who happened to have a few extra dollars in his pocket. A guy who wishes he could do more for an American serviceman, but is too ignorant to know how sometimes.

So you were wrong, Buck. You didn't see God on a street corner today.

I did.



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