Eight unforgettable minutes at the lake

Beverly Lott

“It’s taken,” I said to the young man who quickly approached the co-ed bathroom door I was guarding. It was a sultry 85 degrees that clear day in July, and I was sweating. I was waiting on my niece who was inside the restroom, changing into her dry clothes.

My sister Pam and her children have always enjoyed watching the fireworks display held at Foster Lake above Sweet Home. I, along with my grandson, had come down from Washington for the weekend to visit my family.

We had decided to make a day of it, packing swimming gear, folding chairs, blankets, and a picnic lunch. We spent hours watching the kids swim, or more accurately bob and dog paddle, around in the cold water. Jayma, my niece, decided that after several hours of water fun, she was ready to get out and put on some dry clothes. This chore involved going to the upper parking lot, getting her clothes out of the car, and then seeking the shelter (and privacy) of the small male/female bathroom to change in. Pam and I had agreed that for safety reasons, these rituals had to be done while in the accompaniment of an adult, so I had offered to go with Jayma.

This, however, isn’t a story about a family spending time together on a warm July day caught up in some “Americana” scene often painted by Norman Rockwell. It is the story of the young man mentioned above, told to me in the span of eight short minutes while waiting outside that bathroom door. He touched my soul in a way that it had not been touched in a long time – if ever.

I was so deeply moved, that I felt the need to put my experience with him on paper. Even now, as I am typing it, I must fight back the tears and lump in my throat.

“That’s OK, ma’am, I’ll wait. Looks like they’re all taken,” he said, nodding towards the porta‑potties provided for the expected crowd, compliments of the U.S. Corps of Engineers. I glanced over at him. He looked about 15 or 16 years old and was built small, maybe 5-foot-7 at most, and thin, with the smooth face of a boy.

“Yeah, a hot day and mass consumption of beverages will do that.” I said, smiling politely. I wasn’t really in the mood for small talk, so I tried to gaze off into the distance beyond the young man’s face.

“Ma’am, I’m here spending some time with my buddies. They brought me to this . . . this hunter’s holiday celebration thing, which is cool, ’cause I didn’t really get to see any fireworks displays on the Fourth (of July). I’m on military leave. I’m a Navy SEAL, stationed over in Iraq.

He paused, glancing upwards towards the sky and the fir trees surrounding the bathrooms, “I’m from Oklahoma City. This area kinda’ reminds me of home,” he added. I nodded my head, gesturing that I’d heard him. Because of the slurring of his words I’d guessed that he’d been drinking; but the tone in his voice, and the words “stationed in Iraq,” beckoned me to lean in closer and listen to what the young man had to say. I decided to engage him in conversation.

“Wow, Iraq, that’s gotta be hard I bet – to be so far from home I mean,” my words, seemed clumsy and inadequate. Attempting to lighten the mood, I continued my meaningless dissertation. “You know, strangely enough, the little gal in there changing, her dad and his family are from Oklahoma.”

I didn’t know why I’d just shared that bit of information with a complete stranger, or if he even cared, but I was grasping for some common ground – a connection – that would narrow the gap between our two worlds.

I continued, “So, hum. . . I imagine you’re really enjoying spending time with your family and friends, and having a chance to get back home (referring to the U.S.A.) for a while.”

Kind of chuckling, he said “You have no idea.” Then he asked “Are you from there?”

“Where?” I responded, not understanding his question.

“Oklahoma, or somewhere in the South” he said, clarifying himself, then added, “’cause you kinda have an accent.”

“Nah,” I answered, then, quickly rethinking my response, “Well, in a way I am – I was born in Texas, but I’ve only been back once since I was 11. I guess if a person spends much time at all in the South they’re pretty much guaranteed to have an accent of some kind,” I offered in explanation.

“Yeah,” he smiled, nodding in agreement with what I’d said. “I’m glad to be here right now – with my friends I mean – something I had to do. My uncle – he was a little disappointed that I wasn’t going to spend the time with him. I feel sorta’ bad, but I told him that what I really needed right now was to hang out with my buds, clear my head you know,” he said, as if feeling the need to apologize.

My immediate thoughts were sympathy for his uncle’s displacement, and yet I heard myself reply, “That’s important – especially at your age. You need to be around those who have interests in common with yours, and nobody else can boost your spirits like friends do.”

Barely missing a beat, the young man went on, “I’m a sharpshooter. My brother, he’s over there too. He’s a point man. I’m glad I got some time off, but I’m really worried about him, ’cause over there you don’t know from one minute to the next what’s goin’ to happen, or who’s still goin’ to be around tomorrow. [Right] Now things are pretty good though. We’re starting to build things – like shopping malls, libraries, and . . . stuff, but it’s hard – you always gotta be on guard.” He stopped in contemplative silence.

I didn’t interject. What I had to say didn’t seem important. This wasn’t about chatty dialogue. It was about release – HIS release – of feelings, and guilt – emotions that had been walled up for too long and needed to spill out – but only to a complete stranger, someone anonymous; someone not likely to judge or condemn. My part in this exchange was to listen.

He continued, “My friends, they’re always asking me about it, you know, what it’s like over there. I’ve tried to tell them some things, but I can’t tell them about. . . There’s no way. How can I tell them? Ma’am, I go to church. I’m religious, I believe in God and . . . Jesus. I’m 20 years old. The first military arena I was in – in my first five days there, I killed four people, f-o-u-r people. How do you tell someone about that? By now, I’ve probably killed over 30. More

than some of them have killed deer. I can’t even begin to talk to them about it, what it’s like. They couldn’t understand. You never get over something like that. I never will, you just don’t. . .” his voice cracked.

He glanced off to the side trying to conceal his red and glazed eyes, which, I suspected, were filled with tears. Any bravado he’d managed to muster was betrayed by the pleading sound in his voice, “I’m supposed to go back there in three days ma’am, and I gotta tell you, I’m scared to death. I wish I didn’t have to go back. I know I have to . . . but I really don’t want to go back there,” he said, his voice trailing off.

After a long period of silence I guessed he was finished speaking. He’d said his piece. Now the torch had been passed to me. I knew it was up to me to let him off the hook.

“Listen” I said, “You’re doing the right thing. Just keep on doing it – going to church and praying every time you get a chance. God knows why you’re doing what it is you’re doing. He understands about war and being a soldier. Mankind has been involved in one war or another since time began, and we’ll likely keep it up until our time ends. As a soldier, you’re doing what has to be done and God bless you. Don’t be ashamed,” I finished what I had to say just in time for my niece to emerge from the bathroom freshly attired in her jeans and sweatshirt.

“Thanks ma’am, it was nice talking to you,” the young man said, waving to me as Jayma and I headed down the path that would take us back to the lake. My niece gave me a puzzled look, when, with a backwards glance, I said, “You take care now, and God bless. I’ll be thinking about you.”

The next morning, over coffee, I told my mother the story of the soldier I’d met while guarding the bathroom door, and the shame I felt because of words – words that I’d held back – and that now he would never hear. The words, “my prayers go with you,” were not spoken; because, at that point in my life I didn’t want to feel obligated to pray for anyone else, especially not a stranger.

When I make a promise to pray for someone, I honor that promise. It seems that my list gets longer and longer, while my memory gets shorter. In a weak and selfish moment, instead of thinking about the young soldier’s sacrifice – my thoughts were of myself and the burden I would bear if I made him that promise.

There are times when, as if by the hands of God, we’re stationed in the perfect place and time to lend comfort – even if it is by doing something seemingly trivial, like listening to someone who so desperately needs to be heard.

You poured out your soul when you opened up to me, and that touched my heart. I don’t even know your name. Maybe that’s not important though, because you represent every soldier, every mother’s son, and every child’s mother, that has sworn an oath to do a duty, a duty that is not always easy.

It is a thankless task and often wrought with burdensome responsibilities, and I thank you for reminding me of that.

So, to the soldier whom I had the honor to spend eight unforgettable minutes with, God bless you, my thoughts and prayers go with you. And yes . . . you will be remembered in my prayers.

Beverly Lott lives in Longview, Wash. Anyone with information regarding the identity of the young man she met is encouraged to contact her by e-mailing [email protected].