Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Chance Encounters

       After reading this, a friend commented on the vague comparison to the main theme and the description of the African Waterhole gathering in the piece. I had hoped that would be part of the message…although subtle.            
                                                       Chance Encounters

Diane had located a really nice small hotel, just half a block from the beach near Mission Bay in San Diego.  We wanted to get away for a few days for our Wedding Anniversary.  No specific ‘must see’ or ‘must do’ plans.  Just being together as non rushed tourists.

I certainly don’t consider myself a serious student of human behavior, but I do have a layman’s interest in observing how different people interact…especially with strangers.

One exception to the ‘non must do’ is visiting the San Diego Zoo.  While we find zoos generally depressing after spending a few weeks in the game preserves of Kenya a few years ago, San Diego does as good a job as humans can in trying to imitate nature.  But, seeing the magnificence of elephant’s, rhino’s, lion’s interacting in their natural surroundings makes one very conscious of even the best zoo’s limitations.  The interplay of predators and their prey on the African Plains simply cannot be duplicated. I know the other side of the controversy…if it wasn’t for the work of many zoological parks, many species would be extinct by now.  So we excuse humanity for trying to undo what other humans do.  Poaching, incursion on natural habitat, the misuse of human intellect to subjugate other species.  Maybe zoos are a necessary evil.  But if you have ever seen lions, Impala and zebras peacefully sharing a waterhole at dusk, it’s possible that you too, would wish for humans to step back and let all those species, predator and prey, behave as they were created to be.

Diane has lot’s more energy than I.  While I proudly kept up with her for a good part of the day, by late afternoon she had a few more things to see, while I found a shaded bench near the park entrance.

As I savored the warm sunshine on my face, I believe the only conscious thoughts I had were a sense of peace.

“Mind if I share the bench with you?”  It was a man, probably in his mid forties, carrying an outlandishly large tankard of beer. “Sure, provided you share your beer with me,” I replied jokingly.

“Hey buddy,” the stranger said with an expression of conviviality on his face, “I’m happy to buy you a beer.”  “I was just kidding,” I said.  “Of course you’re welcome to share this shady spot.”

We hit it off. His name was  Sergio.  “That’s Hispanic,” he explained.
Somehow, Sergio and I were immediately comfortable exchanging personal information to each other. He was a recently retired Marine Master Sergeant.  When he learned that I had been a Navy Medic attached to a Marine Battalion, we deepened the communication.  He explained to me how, in Afghanistan he had been wounded and a Navy Corpsman had saved his life.  He advised that he had been recently divorced, and that his new love was here with him, wandering about the zoo as was my wife, Diane.

“I’m not sure whether to get too serious,” he explained.  “She comes from a different, (Asian) culture, and I don’t understand some of her actions, which seem to be less rigid than mine….wait, there she is. I want you to meet her.”  

He introduce me as “my medic…my hero.”  Of course I was not “his” medic,  although he was likely not even born at the time I served in the military.  Not only that, I had never been in battle and never ‘saved’ anyone from more than a tootheache.

During our conversation, Sergio revealed his battle with PTSD, and some of the pain of wounds he had suffered.  Yet somehow he still managed to spend several hours a week volunteering a VA hospital, counseling other victims.

“Are you sure you don’t want a beer?”  “No, but thanks again.”  
Diane showed up, her extra wanderings satisfied.  I introduced her to Sergio.  “Let us take you out to dinner tonight,” he said…his new girlfriend seemed uncomfortable with the suggestion.  “Thanks,” I said and lied.  “We already have plans.”  The young woman smiled, and I think I heard a sigh of relief.

The encounter was over.  Sergio gave Diane, whom he now knew for about five minutes, a bear hug, and we all went our way.  Somehow this entire episode added to our experience at the San Diego Zoo.  There was the almost instantaneous comraderie between the two men, counterbalanced by the discomfort of the two women.

It was a memorable and satisfying day.  I hope things work out for Sergio.

The following day, (Sunday) our last full day in the area, we went to a quiet community and just strolled.  There were many interesting curio shops, boutiques, book stores and art galleries. Diane loves to browse.  I, on the other hand was always happy to find another bench while waiting.

We were headed back to the car, ambling through a non commercial residential area.  Beautiful day…at peace with the world.

As is her custom, Diane carried her purse slung over her shoulder, with a hand on the strap to avoid it slipping.  Coming from the opposite direction was a young black man, apparently enjoying the mild weather and the just plain idyllic day.  As we approached him, he looked up.  “Oh, yeah, lady,” he said, “Hold on tight to that purse ‘cause you see a black man, and he probably wants to steal it!”

I protested that while he was accusing us of stereotyping, he was doing exactly that to us. “Hold on, man.  You don’t know us and…..”
“Shut the fuck up, honkie.”

It was just a moment, and the confrontation ended without further words or action.  But Diane and I felt somewhat uncomfortable with having just been painted with the broad definition of white racists.  How could this guy accuse two strangers he’d never seen before of this?

It dawned on me a few minutes later; “How COULD he jump to such a conclusion?”  I had to wonder; how many times he had been in similar situations where someone had acted defensively without cause, and how many times with cause? 

It was an educational few days.  In the space of thirty six hours, I had at one time been elevated to personal life saving war hero and at another, consigned to hateful bigot.  And I will admit savoring one and rejecting the other, both were inaccurate. Both of those men are probably certain of whom they met, and with their individual experience as their guide, how can anyone challenge either? And while I realize that both are mistaken, I am neither hero or devil, it makes me think about first impressions. I am left with my own thoughts about them.  And I’m probably as inaccurate as they, the fact is that impressions are stubborn things.

Battlefield savior saint?  Bigoted devil?  The accusations are equally false.  In the cause of honesty,  they cancel each other out.

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