Friday, August 21, 2009

A Guy Walks Into A Bar.....

We played the penultimate game of the '09 edition of the softball season last night. Upon vanquishing this year's League rookies, Aguilas de la Ley (which I believe translates into "Legal Eagles"), a number of us who play together gathered at the Star Tavern to eat some pizza and drink an adult beverage or two. It seems to me as if it might be worth the per person share of the entry fee annually and the hot summer nights playing softball just to have the opportunity to make the occasional post-game journey to the Star. The beer is ice cold and the pizza is excellent. Rumor has it that the Star also makes a mean order of french fries. However since none of us is a complete idiot and the joint has apparently won awards for its pizza we tend to "dance with the girl we brung to the prom" as it were and limit our food consumption to pizza.

Most nights the representative group ranges in number from 7 to 10 and in spite of our relatively large dynamic, we are usually able to find a table. Last night however the line for tables was extraordinarily long so the seven of us who were there pulled up stools at the bar instead. I ended up at one end of our string septet, which meant that while to one side of me I had a face with which I was familiar, off of the other shoulder lurked an unknown.

Having what could fairly be described as underdeveloped people skills, I was less than ecstatic to be the end man in our lineup for I knew that before too long whoever occupied the space to my left would attempt to fill the void of our unfamiliarity with one another through conversation. I was not surprised but still annoyed when - about forty-nine seconds after we all sat down the gent who was next to me started what appeared to be an endless game of Twenty Questions. He ambled from that (undeterred by the visible lack of interest displayed not only by me but also two of my mates seated directly to my right) into an endless, inane story about how me made a lot of money and then apparently lost most of - if not - all of it.

Fortunately, after what seemed like several hours but I am certain was a far shorter period of time he either went home or drowned in the toilet in the men's room. It matters not to me what happened to him (a point I tried in vain to make for the entirety of our "intersection time" together). All that I cared about it was that he ceased to occupy my airspace.

Minutes after Contestant #1 took his parting gifts and headed off into the great wide open, a little old man sat down in his now-vacated space. He too began to engage me in conversation. And oh the stories he could tell. While he looked to be closer to sixty-five, he reported that he is eighty-five years old. He saw our team jerseys identifying us as "City of Newark Law Department" and shared with us that approximately sixty years ago he began his law enforcement career as a City of Newark Police Officer before becoming a Sheriff's Officer in Essex County and ultimately the Essex County Sheriff.

He mentioned to me that he was a veteran of the United States Navy and served in World War II - in the Pacific theatre. One of ten children, at one time in WW II he and his seven brothers were all in active military service (different branches but all serving) and were all in combat areas. He said that he and his brothers, unlike the Sullivan Brothers, did not serve together and did not know - in fact - for long stretches of time the health and status of each other. Thankfully all seven of them made it through the war relatively unscathed - as did an eighth child - a sister - who ended up serving in (or perhaps with) the U.S. Navy before the war ended.

An evening that started as a wind-down from an admittedly silly pursuit - slow-pitch softball - turned into something extraordinary. It turned into an exceptional history lesson. A lesson presented in the form of well told, slowly spun stories by a man who has seemed to live one hell of a life.

After he departed, one of my friends seated towards the other end of our group asked me the old man's name and laughed when I told him I had not bothered to ask. Nor had he bothered to ask me mine. It hardly seemed relevant.

It's the little things that count. Last night was chock full of them. And every one counted.

-AK

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