Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Thank you, Eddie Joe

I always think of Eddie Joe Williams on November 11. He and I worked together in the Criminal Court Clerk's office for a time. I was a restless college graduate, looking toward my uncertain future, and he was an elderly retired blue-collar soul who lived in the past. He would often remark kids like you think you know everything, and every other conversation stopper you can conjure. He was an off-putting compulsive smoker who worked hard at being a crank toward the public we served. Eddie Joe and I both "worked the counter",which amounted to waiting on customers, making copies of warrants and other documents to which the public had access. I made up my mind one day to pursue him in conversation about things in which he was interested. We talked about the American Legion Post of which he was a proud member, his son, from whom he was estranged, and what he perceived as his right to smoke, which was one of his all time favorite topics. He never asked me much about what interested me, though when I enrolled in law school a few years later, his words of encouragement given resonate to this day: you need to get out of this place-you will be a good lawyer.

Eddie Joe's reluctance to talk about World War II intrigued me. Other colleagues in the office cautioned me about pushing him to talk, so I gave him a wide berth-I respected his privacy and did not pursue the topic of war. One day something ruffled his feathers, I think it was in the early 1990's during the first Gulf War. We were in some downtime at the counter. No customers loomed, and there had recently been enacted an ordinance prohibiting smoking in the courthouse. The way I figure it, Eddie Joe was experiencing a little more change than he bargained for. He was angry he could no longer puff at will on the Salems he smoked like a fiend, and maybe he was fearful his grandson, whom he never saw, was going off to war. At any rate, he started to tell me the story of his life, and this is the reason I always remember him on November 11.

In the course of little over an hour I heard a condensed version of hell he lived for four years. His best buddy was shot in the neck in a forest in Germany and died in his arms. Two of his other buddies were annihilated right in front him on the same day before he could catch his breath. He gestured about the agony of war, his fingertips a jaundiced yellow-stained from decades of smoking. His lower lip quivered as he continued with more gruesome tales of death and destruction; he cursed and took a break for a cigarette. When he returned, he confessed he started drinking to excess in 1945, after returning home and could not abide life without the hope of his favorite pours of bourbon and water at the Legion. Yet, every day he proudly donned an American flag lapel pen on his suit coat, the same pin was fastened there on this day, the day he bore his soul. He told me he would fight all over again for his country. I believed him, and I'm in great debt to men and women like him in all generations whose willingness to put themselves in harm's way to preserve collective freedom cost them dearly- countless paid the ultimate price. Thank you Eddie Joe and company.

No comments: