Friday, June 06, 2008

"A country depends upon the heart of men. It is miniscule if the heart is small, and immense if the heart is great"--Simone Schwartz-Bart

About a month ago I was out alone on a Sunday evening, sitting at the bar of a well-run chain restaurant watching bad sports in half-assed fashion and making "to-do" notes for myself. The chain is upscale though not fine dining with a decent winelist, decent menu, good food, and really well-done physical plant. The only thing I have trouble getting past is being asked fifteen times during the course of a short meal, "is there anything else I can bring you?!". That said, I've been there a hundred times and will go back a hundred more.

On this particular evening there was an older man about three stools to my left. He was well-dressed in a properly cut and styled suit and tie--squared away, as those from this part of the world like to say. He was alone, and he seemed set up to do just what I was doing--pretending to watch TV while eating, making occassional notes [in his case into a black leather notebook rather than a legal pad like me], and purposefully wandering in his own thoughts.

It took about ten minutes before I realized that something was wrong with the picture, and when I realized what it was I immediately found myself in a terrible quandary. Sitting in front of this gentleman on the bar was The Macallan 55 in its unmistakable Lalique decanter--a $10,000.00 wholesale bottle of liquor--a bottle so rare that I doubted there would be a single one found behind any bar in my city, much less in this fine but unremarkable chain establishment.

To the quandary--when I am out to dinner alone, which is about half the time, I will often order a bottle of wine rather than drink vodka or wine-by-the-glass. I rarely finish the bottle, and servers/bartenders who know me are usually doubly happy to see me coming, as my arrival solo signals normal fat tippage PLUS some tasty leftover juice. Sometimes however, other patrons can be so surprised by the sight of a single person having a "whole bottle of wine all by themselves" that they just can't seem to shut the fuck up about it. Because of how annoying this has been to me in the past, the last thing in the world I would ever want to do is intrude on this gentleman's privacy in the same fashion. To be honest though, the mystery of the scotch was killing me and I resolved to wait the guy out no matter how long he stayed so that I could quiz the bartender once he had departed.

A little time passed and the raging itch of my curiosity subsided a little, allowing me to return to my thoughts. That's when I heard a soft, unaccented voice say, "absent friends". As I write anonymously now and after a fair amount of introspection during the intervening time, I am pretty confident when I say that what happened next was purely unconscious on my part. As the gentleman uttered his singular toast I was just about to take a sip of wine, and following his "absent friends" automatically came my "missing comrades". For a moment I didn't even realize that I had finished the toast, the same one I had heard my father and his friends give scores of times--what I noticed right away was that the gentleman's eyes were set on me like the gaze of a hawk.

Surely just a second passed before he spoke, but it was long enough for me to feel like I had intruded.

"Desert Storm, young man? Your hair is a little too long and your skin a little too light for you to be on the job now, and you're not old enough for anything else I don't think."

I realized that this man assumed I was a veteran. "Oh no, you give me way too much credit. I was just finishing the toast I've heard my father and his friends give over and over."

"Your old man, eh? Korea for him?"

"Actually World War II...Pacific Theatre. Maybe he'd even cop to a little Chinese adventure before that if he was drunk enough."

A pause, and a sip.

"If your father was in the war [said just like that], then either you have a fantastic plastic surgeon or he's a man of uncommon vigor"

"Almost fifty when I was born, sir. As for being vigorous, I expect he'll outlive me."

After a second during which I quickly hoped this man had not outlived any of his children, thus making me into an instant asshole, he responded without any change in inflection or tone, "long life is a blessing, but it's a small victory to be the last man standing."

Immediately struck dumb with embarassment, he thankfully went on, "there used to be four of us gathered around this bottle every year--last summer and fall the other three passed on."

"I'm almost surprised. That's a bottle worth sticking around for", I said.

The story was remarkable to hear, though I imagine similar traditions and meetings were once as common as fantasy sports leagues before time started getting short for members of "the greatest generation".

Remarkable men. Paratroopers. This man and his comrades were some of the first soldiers to meet the enemy on June 6, 1944--drifting down slowly silhouetted against the white of their parachutes--easy targets if anyone was looking. One out of every three men from this man's company never left Europe. One third of his fellow troopers have been there every day since, resting under granite crosses. This man and his three best mates all made it. All four were wounded during the invasion, none seriously. All four received a personal thanks from their commander Maxwell Taylor, all four had suitcases full of medals. They all eventually came back home, married, had families, and were successful. They all retired with money. They all met every year on June 6th to drink a toast, or truth be told to drink many. Each year the destination was different. Everyone got a turn in their home city, then a trip to England, then the next year to France, then they started over. Many different bottles of scotch, always the finest they could afford. Better stuff all the time as the years passed, but never the real reason for the meeting. For 63 years.

This year it has been a different schedule. A quiet dinner and a toast on each missing friend's birthday--the night I was lucky enough to meet this remarkable gentleman was the last of the birthday dinners, leaving only one more stop.

Tonight that old man is somewhere in France with their bottle of Macallan 55. In a small bistro, perhaps near the coast, maybe near one of those massive cemetaries he will sit. He'll make notes, he'll have a meal, and he'll raise his glass three times.

Absent friends, missing comrades.