John Lennon said, “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.” Life happened to me the morning of July 10th, 2015. My plan that day was to buy water toys for my son’s play date later that afternoon. I was air-testing various water shooting devices at the Dollar Store when life beckoned, “Wow! Would ya look at those legs!”
I’ve been “approaching” middle age for the past fifteen years. So, I was a bit surprised when I realized the comment was directed at me. I was even more surprised that I was not offended by it. But, something told me he intended no harm.
Standing about ten feet away, the elderly man wore a crisp Milwaukee Brewer’s baseball jersey and a navy cap. As if I didn’t hear him the first time, Mr. Brewer tried again. “Ya know, with legs like that, you should be in magazines!”
Knowing he wasn’t going to let me off the hook, I responded, “Thank you. But, I think I’m a little old for launching a modeling career. Don’t you?”
“Naw, not a bit. Heck, there was a 71-year-old woman on TV last night. And, you’re not gonna believe this, but…” he paused for dramatic effect and inched closer, “she was wearing a bikini!” His eyes grew as large as moons. He certainly was a character.
“Thank you for the vote of confidence,” I couldn’t help smiling back at him. That’s when I noticed the World War II Veteran’s patch on his cap. “And, thank you for your service. What branch were you in?”
I’m ashamed to admit it now, but at that moment I was mostly just grateful for the opportunity to change the subject.
He hesitated before speaking. “Well, I’ll tell ya. When I was 17 years old, I had a bad habit of falling asleep in class. You see, money was tight and I had to work the night shift at the factory. One day Ms. Mason had enough and kicked me outa school.”
Having grown up in a very different time, I was astounded. “She kicked you out?” I replied.
“Yes. She did. When I left that day I thought to myself, ‘Now what am I gonna do?’ So, I took a bus to Milwaukee and enlisted in the Army.” He shrugged his shoulders, as if the decision had been made for him. Glancing at the blue and green water guns in my hand he asked, “You got children?”
“Yes.” I held up the toys. “These are for my son and his friend.”
Mr. Brewer reached for the blue water gun. Holding it in his hand, he slowly squeezed the trigger. Then, he nodded and looked out the window. In a solemn tone he confessed, “I killed men. Many men.”
Prompted by my silence, he continued. “When the war was over, I asked Father Pontillo what God was gonna to do with me. He told me I was forgiven. That I did what I had to do for my country.” Mr. Brewer bowed his head as if he wasn’t sure he believed it. Then he went on.
“One time, I was standing on a ridge. I watched the Japs kill 150 of our men. They had smoke billowing out of their chests.” He paused, looked me square in the eye, then asked, “And, do you know what this tough guy did?” He jabbed at his chest with his finger tips.
A wave of heat rose up inside me. “No, I’m sorry. What did you do?” I replied, knowing I wasn’t prepared for the answer.
“I peed my pants.”
Then, he shook his head, studied me for a second and laughed with disbelief. “Why am I telling you this? I never told anyone this before. Not even my own daughter. She asks me, ‘Dad, what did you do in the war?’ I tell her I chased the ladies.”
“I guess some habits are hard to break,” I shot back with a smirk and a shrug of my shoulders, hoping to lighten the mood.
I was successful. A smile emerged from the corners of his mouth, until it pricked his eyes. “When I see you in here shopping for your boy, I know I did the right thing.”
I wanted to hug him. But, instead I used my words. “Because of your service, my son is free to run and laugh and play with his friend today. He doesn’t have a care in the world. Thank you.” This time I meant it.
Then, I reached for the water gun Mr. Brewer was still holding and returned both to their respective hooks. The garden hose suddenly seemed like a much better option.
“So,” his voice rose an octave, “where’s your husband today, Little Lady?” This time the smile started in his eyes. The stories he tells his daughter may not be complete, but they are truthful.
“He’s at work,” I replied, not entirely comfortable where this was going.
Playfully, he nudged his elbow in my direction, but was careful not to make contact. “You wanna go fool around?”
“I think I’m gonna pass on that offer,” I teased, as if I would actually consider it. “Besides, I already have a date this afternoon. Remember?”
“Ah, yes…” Mr. Brewer winked, held me in his gaze for a moment, then set off to do his shopping.
What Mr. Brewer Taught Me:
At some point we all meet a Mr. Brewer. This is the person who shows us what it means to live a life of service. Not only do we get a glimpse of the sacrifices made, but we are surprised to find that a burden of suffering often accompanies it. And, while it doesn’t seem fair that any one person should have to carry that weight, we are grateful that he does. For, it is in Mr. Brewer’s suffering that we discover our own opportunities to serve.
While I hope my life legacy will be carrying out the mission of New Friends, there are no guarantees that this venture will be a success. So, while I work diligently at planning, writing, meeting and recruiting, I remind myself that my greatest opportunity to serve is in the moment I am living.
Sometimes that service presents itself as lost child at the museum. Or, it is a friend in need of a cat-sitter. Recently, through hospice volunteering, I had the opportunity to read Charlotte’s Web to a dear friend who was passing on. And, of course, there was Mr. Brewer, who just needed to be reminded that his service still matters.
I am not alone in this journey. Whether we are conscious of it or not, each of us was born to serve. Sometimes the calling is unmistakable, like the blaring siren of a loved one in distress. Other times the voice is soft, like a kitten trapped under the stairs. In the case of my Mr. Brewer, it was a relentless cat call—one that I will always be grateful for.
If this story has inspired you to serve in a new way, please consider joining the New Friends Volunteer Program.