It was a beautiful day outside which I thought was nice. We hadn’t had many beautiful days lately. As it neared one o’clock, I stepped outside onto my stoop and within 15 steps, I was on Raymond (Ray) Schaefer’s front porch. Out came Ray and his sidekick, a chihuahua-beagle mix named Little Man, upon the doorbell’s beckon. Instead of his iconic yellow measuring tape suspenders, he wore ones striped with red, white and blue. His eyes were just as round and bright with wrinkles at their edges while his smile was as big and cheery as always. As we made our way inside, he did a dance while Little Man followed obediently behind. He makes me laugh when he does these sorts of things because I can never tell what’s going on inside that man’s head, but it sure seems fun. It’s moments like these that I forget my neighbor Ray is a veteran of war.
Ray entered the Vietnam War at the age of 23, a time in his life when the ticking of adulthood grew louder and his childhood of sandy feet and fireflies began to diminish into memory. Whether you're living through that time of your life now or haven't personally reached that place yet, I felt it important to note. Sometimes, we forget that veterans had lives before the war; that they too walked the path towards adulthood where many of us find ourselves on today. Nevertheless I wanted to know, “How would you have described America when you were 23?” He jumped right in. “It was a different country. [There was] prosperity; old-fashioned values.”
We left it at that. I wanted to question Ray about his experience serving in Vietnam, but before I could ask him any further questions about his time there, Little Man frolicked to the screen door and let out a human-like squeal. Next thing I know, as if he knew exactly what Little Man said, Ray jumped from his chair and towards the mutt he went. He opened the door for him and then landed back in his chair just as quickly as he’d gone. But with a little twirl, of course. “Okay, keep ‘em coming,” he said.
“October 1965-April 1966...I was drafted."
I inquired further. “Any stories or experiences from the war that you want to share?” He blushed a bit and scratched his head. “Oh, okay. I wasn’t in the infantry, I was in the Signal Corps because I worked for the phone company.” Ray continued by explaining to me what seemed to be the time of his life. He’d been assigned to wire communications in Vietnam. He’d never been out of the country before and he’d never forget the experience of being in a far eastern country. He described it as one with such a “rich history.” He loved working with the people of Vietnam, especially with a man named Mr. Quan.
“I learned a lot from him, and the language somewhat,” he said.
It was as if he landed in Vietnam yesterday by how quickly the facts and stories he shared came rolling off his tongue. I found it almost comical that Ray didn’t remember I’d be stopping by to interview him, but could remember Mr. Quan’s age. Like I said, there’s really no clear way of telling what’s going on inside that mind of his.
After Ray’s tangent turned history lesson about Vietnam, and the interruptions composed of chirps from the 100 or so birds that he and his wife took care of, I had more forward questions to ask.
“What do you think was the biggest issue America faced as a nation during that time?”
“Welp, by the time I came home there were questions about the escalation of the war...the combat losses; casualties were high and people didn’t understand the war back home.”
Ultimately, Ray and I came to the conclusion that it was an issue of “tug-of-war” between Americans; whether to go to war or to cease the fight in Vietnam. Nevertheless, at the age of 23, Ray stepped out of Vietnam after saying goodbye to Mr. Quan and stepped back into America as a nation divided.
A nation divided. It sounds all too familiar, doesn’t it?
Since the 1960s, America has advanced exponentially in various fields. Modern improvements in medicine, technology and education all prove that it was a different world in the 60s than it is today, simply by the fact of science. However, Ray explained to me that when he came home from Vietnam, he came home to a nation divided. And here we are today. Still, a nation divided.
Maybe not much has changed after all.
There’s not a lot Ray is unfamiliar with. That’s why it didn’t come as a surprise to me that he knew what it meant to identify as transgender and all about President Donald Trump’s hopes of banning the transgender population from the United States military, as expressed via Twitter on July 26th, 2017. He was also completely aware of the atrocities that took place in Charlottesville, Virginia on August 12th, 2017.
We sat and discussed these two particular events for what seemed like hours. We shared in opinions, ideas, reactions and our overall feelings surrounding both matters. It was a very intense conversation, mostly because of the subject matter. However, every second of it was worth my while. I believe that when we as young people discuss our government and politics, it's easy for us to focus our attention and energy solely towards our generation and the generations that follow us. Although this is necessary for change and improvement in our nation, I also think we're making a big mistake by not listening to what the generations before us have to say. We never stop to really listen to what the small town teacher who taught English during the 1960's has to say, or the engineer who watched the world change through their office window or even to what the veteran who lives one door down has to share. Our future depends on how well we interpret the past, but how can we interpret the past if we don't talk to the people who lived through it?
So I sat and listened to what Ray, what the past, had to say.
When asked if everyone has a right to serve our country, Ray quickly replied with a simple “yes, indeed.” He continued to explain to me that he felt it a privilege to serve our country back in the 1960's, therefore if one is physically and mentally qualified, a job could be found somewhere in the military for anyone.
I also questioned Ray about his stance on the social divide in our county in response to the atrocities in Charlottesville.
There was no head scratch or a chuckle this time but rather an unprompted response in which he replied, “In Vietnam, people worked and served and died together...it was [about] the quality of a man; for who he is and what he does.”
There it was, the reason why we need to listen.
It suddenly occurred to me that we were no longer discussing the transgender ban or the atrocities that took place in Charlottesville. We were talking about human beings. Not America as the bigger picture, but as Americans – as individuals.
I quickly realized that I no longer had any reason to keep berating Ray with questions, because my answer was right there. Is it crazy to think that the problem could be the mentality of looking at things in the bigger picture? That one could be so fixated on this blueprint of which we are inherently expected to thrive on, that we forget about the very people we walk the streets of our cities with, the people we stand in line at the grocery store with, the people we work to support our families with, the very people we fight for our country with?
Just when I thought I had heard everything I needed to hear, my conversation with Ray grew more personal. He is my neighbor, after all. I asked him how he’d been and what he’d been up to. His response could’ve been expected. He’d been spending time with the grandkids, going to community meetings and chasing Little Man all around our small and almost forgotten beach community that stands quietly outside one of the biggest cities in the world. He did, however, mention spending time with his fellow veterans at the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) base in our community. This led Ray to talk about his friends that also served in the war. He explained how some suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and started to describe having PTSD as being “damaged inside.” That’s when it all came together.
It’s nothing you can see.
Under that bigger picture and between the blank specs of blueprint in this country are individuals living under the establishments and systems we built for ourselves to sustain and improve the very way which we live. Although imperative in holding America together, these establishments make it difficult to see the everyday people that live between such man-made societal layers. These layers make it difficult for one to see or understand the emotions and character of another or the interactions between neighbors and coworkers. In the same sense, it’s also hard to see the suffering or pain of an individual. Like a war vet suffering from PTSD, the divisions in America today have beginnings deeply rooted in matters that lay far away from establishments and systems. It comes from the places you can’t see.
We already know how to assist a war vet in dealing with PTSD, but how do we help a nation in dealing with circumstances that are slowly tearing it apart?
That’s when I think of Ray. He’ll keep doing the same thing he’s always done. Hanging up flags on the avenue for Memorial Day, building his boats and taking his grandkids out on the water, providing shelter for injured birds with his wife only to end up keeping them and salting down the icy streets before daylight so no one will slip when leaving the block. You see, it's the things that one thinks are insignificant that make the biggest difference. Healing happens when you focus on the American rather than the America. It starts with just one.
So he’ll keep going about his day practicing healing like always in our small, almost forgotten beach community.
Take it from me. If you really want to know, if you really want to make our nation whole again, you need to ask. You need to listen. Because it’s nothing you can see.
Lead Image Credit: Unsplash