I had just finished my business, and was in the process of zipping up when I heard a commotion off to my right. I turned to see what could possibly be happening. I watched as an old man, hands full of cleaning supplies, fought his way out of the last stall.
“Hey, don’t I know you?”
He never looked up. “Doubt it.”
Head lowered, eyes boring holes in the toes of his shoes, he walked past me towards the door. He looked like he had just gone 15 rounds with the devil and was waiting for the decision he knew was going to go against him. Gray stubble dotted his weathered face, and what little hair he had on his head looked like it had lost its color years ago.
Damn, he looked familiar. I washed my hands, and was reaching for a paper towel when the old man pushed his way back in. He had ditched the cleaning supplies and had a mop in his hands.
Now I remembered him. “You’re Joe Stanton, aren’t you?”
This time he looked up, his face weathered by time, his eyes bloodshot. “What if I am?”
“You’re a Hero. Everybody who’s been to P.I. knows about you, what you did at Khe Sanh. I want to shake your hand.”
He stared right through me. But he did grasp my hand and pumped twice. Then he walked on, abusing the mop head as he pushed it before him.
“I just met Joe Stanton.”
“Yeah, he’s in the head, cleaning the place.”
The three guys I was with all jumped from their chairs, almost disrupting the pitcher of beer and the glasses on the table between us. They pushed their way through the sparse crowd, intent on meeting the man that every Marine knows, but few have met.
My buddies and I were at the Nippelodeon for our annual get-together. Each year we meet at a different place. This year Jeff had picked a seedy strip joint on the outskirts of Durango. He said we’d have a good time. Two steps inside the front door and I had decided that it was going to take more beer than I could possibly drink for that to happen.
It was good to see my friends, though. We’d been meeting every year since we came back from Afghanistan. It helped us deal with what we had seen and done in the desert on the other side of the world, a place where the people that lived there thought we didn’t belong. We agreed with them.
“There’s nobody in the men’s room.”
“Did you check the women’s?”
“You been smokin’ something you’re not sharing?”
“No. I’m serious. Joe Stanton was cleaning up in there. He’s older, but he looks just like his pictures.” I rose to my feet, intent on finding the man whose hand I had just shook. As I turned I saw his retreating form shuffling through the door behind the bar.
“There he goes.” I pointed.
My buddies all jumped to their feet, and we made our way to the bar.
“Where’s the old guy that was cleaning up?” Bobby asked the bartender.
“Joe? Who knows. That old drunk is about as useless as tits on a boar hog.”
Alex reached across the bar and grabbed the startled bartender by the front of his shirt and pulled him halfway across the wooden surface that separated them. “Listen here you slimy, spiky haired son-of-a-bitch. That man’s a walking hero and you’ll give him some respect.”
“I didn’t mean nothin’ by it. He’s probably in the backroom taking a break. Or drinking his lunch.”
We four amigos started around the end of the bar, intent on making our way into the backroom to meet a true American Hero.
“You can’t go in there.”
Alex took a step towards the cowering bartender. The young man took two steps back. “That man’s a goddam hero. He won the Congressional Medal of Honor for what he did in Khe Sanh in sixty-eight. He saved more men than you’ll ever know in your lifetime. Furthermore, he’s the only person to have ever won the Medal of Honor and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He took out that shooter at the mall in St. Louis about ten years ago with a baseball bat. You have no idea who he is, do you, you little shit? That man has a set of balls like no one walking this earth. There’s not enough guys like you to make one of him.”
Alex was worked up. He looked like he was about ready to explode. I stepped forward and put my arm around his shoulders. “Come on, man. Let’s go find Joe.”
The four of us squeezed through the door into the backroom. The old man had vanished.
“Only one way he could have went.” Bobby opened the door that led to the alley. He looked left, then right, and then cautiously stepped into the darkness. We followed, ever alert for the unsuspecting surprise. Once again, it was like we had been transported to that far away land we all wanted to forget. The hair on the back of my neck rose to attention, and every nerve in my body was firing signals back to my brain.
“You boys don’t give up, do you?” The four of us jumped. Joe was sitting on an empty keg, deep in the shadows on the other side of the alley.
“Are you really Joe Stanton?” Alex cautiously crept towards where the old man sat smoking. “The Marine that single-handedly held off the advancing VC, saving the lives of doctors and nurses as they tended to the injured?”
“That was a long time ago, son.”
Bobby walked over to where Joe sat. “Sir, I want to shake your hand. We learned all about what you did when we were at Parris Island for basic training.”
We all shook the old man’s hand. We wanted to hear more, but he had other ideas. “Boys, that was a lifetime ago. Why don’t we just let it lie.”
I had to know more about the man. “What made you take a baseball bat to a gun fight, for cryin’ out loud? Didn’t it occur to you that you might be shot?”
“I’d been shot before. Anyway, someone had to stop that son-of-a-bitch. He was shooting innocent women and children.”
“But, a baseball bat?”
“It was the only thing close at hand. It felt like it was the right weight. So, I just swung for the fences.”
“No shit. The video is kind of grainy. They played it on all the news stations at the time. You connected real good. If you hadn’t done what you did there’s no telling how many more that guy would have killed.”
The old man stared right through me. “Someone had to stop him, and it didn’t seem like anyone was rushing to get the job done.”
Alex walked out the back door of the Nippel with five beers and bottle of Jack. “Thought we might have a drink with a true American Hero.” He handed out the beers, and then passed the bottle of sour mash to Joe. “It’s only fitting that you take the curse off this bottle, sir.”
Joe twisted the cap off the top, held the bottle up and tipped it towards each of us before taking a healthy drink of the amber liquid. He then passed the bottle to his left, to Bobby. It began to make it’s way around the circle of drinkers.
We sat and talked through the night, and watched as the eastern sky began to lighten. We nursed that bottle of Tennessee Courage through three more beers.
Thinking back on that night, I don’t remember Joe doing much talking. We four amigos did, but Joe mostly listened. He wouldn’t talk much about killing that guy in St. Louis, other than the fact that someone had to stop him. And we couldn’t get him to tell us anything about Vietnam. He kept telling us that that was another lifetime ago, and that we should just let it be.
We, my buddies and I, weren’t feeling any pain when Joe took the last slug from that bottle of Jack. He looked, spoke, and acted as though he had been drinking water.
“Boys, I want to thank you kindly for making an old man’s day. It was great shootin’ the shit with you, but I’ve got to get on home. Gotta work tonight and this old man needs what little rest he can get.”
“Joe, why are you cleaning toilets for a living? You’re a hero. You deserve better than that.”
“Son, a man’s got to eat.”
Alex was still riled up about the bartender. Several times we had to talk him down from walking back into the bar and doing bodily harm to a young man who was just trying to make a living. “That goddam bartender should have his ass kicked. Him and his kind need to be taught a lesson about what it takes so they can enjoy their freedom. He’d never make it in The Corps”
Bobby looked like he was about to fall off the crate he was sitting on. “Alex, just let it be. Most people, like that bartender, just don’t care.”
“Boys, they may not care, but we do. That’s all that matters. We care.” Joe Stanton rose from the keg where he had been perched, and shuffled off into the fading night.
My friends and I silently stared after the last of a dying breed.