• Jefferson Weaver

Jefferson Weaver • A Debt We Cannot Pay

He shuffled down the street, wearing a winter coat in the heat of summer, suit pants and mismatched jacket that had long since given up hope of a dry cleaning. His wool hat was ragged around the brim, with the sad remains of a feather in the ribbon.

“Cold,” he always said. “I’m so cold.”

His name was Jimmy, or Mr. Jimmy if you were a little boy growing up in the shadow of the heroes of World War II. My barber was a soldier in North Africa; any given Saturday morning in his shop was like a veterans meeting. One of my dad’s best friends flew B-17 bombers over Europe. Another was a Marine who landed on virtually every beach that the Corps took in the Pacific. Yet another was a sailor with a hook who managed the engines on one of the ships at Normandy (his prosthetic arm came from a post-war accident). There were infantrymen, a fighter pilot, a tanker or two, and others I have since forgotten. The Korean veterans were there in smaller numbers, and one or two Vietnam vets, but most served during the Second World War.

And there was Mr. Jimmy, who was fighting before many of the other customers in the barber shop were out of diapers.

Mr. Jimmy was a soldier in the First World War. After his death, I saw a portrait of an entirely different man than the one who shuffled and muttered his way down the streets of my childhood. He was dapper in his Sam Browne belt, gaitered trousers and rakish campaign hat (the same kind my grandfather wore) a smiling, slightly mischievous looking, arguably eighteen year old who reportedly had a way with the ladies. There was the beginning of the mole beside his nose, a mole that would become a wart that constantly irritated him while fascinating and repulsing many who saw him in later years.

His eyes were clear and bright in the photo; I never saw them that way. His hair was short and silver (likely blondish-red) in the studio portrait. It was thin, wild and dirty gray when I knew him, often greasy from his disreputable hat.

Mr. Jimmy sometimes smelled bad, like the cats he so dearly loved that overpopulated the porch of the home he shared with his brother, a couple blocks from the cotton mill. They were born there, when their parents came to town to work, leaving behind a hardscrabble tobacco farm where there was never quite enough to pay off last year’s debts. Jimmy was several years older than his brother. I think there may have been some other siblings in between, but I never knew anyone but the two old bachelors, one who served in World War II but didn’t really talk about it – and Mr. Jimmy.

Since some of the customers didn’t care for him, Mr. Jimmy often ended up at the end of the row of chairs in the barber shop, where it was darker and the light didn’t hurt his eyes. I sat there, too, as did most of the boys who could be trusted to go see Uncle Rip for a trim without parental supervision.

I couldn’t always understand what he said, but sometimes Mr. Jimmy would tell stories of his time in France. It was strange to the boys who would listen, since he spoke as though the things were current events. Sometimes he called us by the names of the men he had known. Sometimes the stories were of everyday soldier life, sometimes they were descriptions of this fight or that skirmish, when he would be confused that we didn’t remember being there with him in the mud and the stink and the cold.

He was always, always cold.

On a very few occasions, his stories were of the saltier kind, tales about girls. Those stories led to uncomfortable questions being asked of parents and more parental oversight on future visits. Needless to say, we young’uns weren’t entirely clear what he was talking about, but we found the subject fascinating.

I am not sure I ever saw Jimmy actually get a haircut, but he shuffled in and sat in his chair several times a week. Other times he wandered aimlessly around town.

Whatever Jimmy went through in WWI took away a big part of him. He was hospitalized near the end of the war and came home after the armistice. I was told he had a girlfriend he was promised to marry on his return, but when he got out of the hospital either she wasn’t interested anymore or he was too far gone to remember. I never heard of him self-medicating with alcohol, like my grandfather and so many other “shell shocked” veterans did (a habit that led to Grandfather Tom’s ironic demise, but that is a column for another day). Mental health care for veterans was completely non-existent back then, and men simply didn’t discuss their feelings or fears. I never heard of Jimmy drinking. Something apparently just happened to him while he was in France. He was okay for a while when he came home, but something slipped away in the years afterward. By the time his brother was drafted to fight against a new generation of Germans, Jimmy was already said to be a little touched.

I think of my old friend every year when Veteran’s Day rolls around. Jimmy was in France at 11 a.m. on the eleventh day of the eleventh month, when the War to End All Wars stopped.

We are five or six generations away from the men we first honored on Armistice Day, which eventually became Veterans Day to honor all who have served. I am blessed to count among my dearest friends and relatives men who have stood in the line against America’s enemies. I have no right to call them my friends, since they have given so much for those of us who are often so undeserving.

There is sometimes a tendency to forget the veterans who never actually saw combat, but they too deserve our honor all the time, not just on one day of the year. Without the line that stands in time of peace, we would see nothing but unending war.

It takes a special person to be willing to walk away from everything familiar and set aside the individual to become part of a group that goes where it is told, does what it is ordered, and knows that there is the real possibility of someone not coming home.

Some are blessed and come home able to flip a switch and begin new lives, or resume old ones. Others have to make adjustments, but also live what seem to be normal lives. Still others have nightmares and problems that the average comfortable American cannot understand. And sometimes, there are those like my homeless friend Tom down in Wilmington, or “Crazy Isaac” in Clinton, or Mr. Jimmy. They are the ones who sit with their backs to the wall, never stop watching everything around them, and have nightmares caused by fireworks or a car backfiring.

We owe our veterans much more than just a day of flags, music, speeches and war movies on television. We owe them more than museums, parks and memorials, although those reminders help. We owe them more than the GI Bill and shoddy government run healthcare that can’t begin to cover all the needs and often leaves heroes dying in hospital waiting rooms.

We owe our freedom, or safety and our country to our veterans, but too often that debt goes unpaid.

Yet they still soldier on, because they have a love we cannot understand, just as we have a debt we cannot pay.

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