I recently had an unexpected urge to paint my dining room, so I made a snap decision, jumped in the car and drove to my favorite hardware store to buy paint. Little did I know that my spur of the moment decision would land me right in the midst of a Veteran who would unabashedly share a small piece of his life story with me.
Let’s refer to this Veteran as Joe; a man possibly in his late fifties, no taller than 5’9, sporting light rimmed glasses, thick salt and pepper hair, and the tiniest bit of a belly. Joe wasn’t really rough looking in any way, but his hands were full of stories; the reward or penalty for years of hard work.
As he walked toward me waiting in the paint department, he was direct, “Are you all set?” he asked, and I knew he was all business, and that was fine with me. I said I knew exactly what I wanted and off we went to the mixing room.
“One gallon of glacier white, in eggshell,” I said. Joe readied a gallon of base paint, adjusted his glasses and plugged various numbers into the paint mixing machine. We watched in silence as various blue and brown pigments drizzled into the can, and then, he told me about his day.
“I’ve only been working here for 21 days,” he blurted out, a prelude to how his 22nd day started. He went on to say his morning started off on the left foot when a customer called in with a question and he was having extreme difficulty understanding him. He said he kept trying, but the gentleman on the other end of the line was losing patience and fast. I’m not sure how the call ended, but Joe said to me, “Usually what you put out, you get back,” so I’m guessing it didn’t end well.
After replacing the top on the paint can and placing it in the ‘shaker’, he smiled and asked me what I planned on painting. I replied, “my dining room,” adding that it was dark, right off the front porch, and I wanted to brighten it up. From there he told me about the time he bought a ‘fixer upper’ in Illinois; there was a lot to do from painting to carpentry. He shared with me how his brother couldn’t get over how he knew how to do certain things, “I just did them,” he said. “I didn’t need a degree, or any certifications…I didn’t need hours of reading books – all I needed was experience.”
Then Joe filled me in on his background as a mechanic. “A lot of kids get out of high school and don’t know what they want to do, but I always knew,” he shared, “I was always tinkering with things. I remember one time picking up spare parts at a junkyard and building my first bike,” he said with a smile. “God gave me the talent to fix things; I always could do mechanical work.”
From there Joe told me about serving in the military. “What branch,” I inquired, “The Army,” he said proudly, “for 21 years! By the time I was eight I knew I wanted to serve in the military.” He told me about his days in Iraq, “I did a lot of shooting,” he said, and I looked at him with concern, “with my camera,” he added with a grin.
“I wasn’t one of those guys who wanted to go over and kill anyone. I prayed I wouldn’t have to do that…of course you never know, but God watched over me, and I was never faced with that… but I would’ve if I had to. Going over with the intent and desire to kill is just premediated to me,” he explained. I understood and agreed.
Suddenly the whirr of the paint machine stopped, and our conversation came to a halt. Joe awkwardly retrieved the paint can. I could see that his left hand was a bit disabled. He put the can on the counter and proceeded to open it to show me the color. When a tiny bit of paint spilled over the side he quickly apologized to me and cleaned it up.
After I paid my bill, we parted with the typical have a nice day, but he used my first name as he saw it on my account, and that’s always nice. I never caught his real name; a shame for all the details he shared – his humanness in starting a new job, in dealing with an irate customer, in coming to the end of a long day just trying to do a good job and be respectful, and for his stories from the past.
Joe shared a piece of himself with me, a complete stranger. I was in the hardware store on a whim; little did I know that meeting an honest guy like Joe would give me pause to think about how we all just need to be heard sometimes. We all just want to share a bit of ourselves, struggles and triumphs, with another human being.
Sometimes it’s nice to be on the receiving end of a story; to let someone else talk and to listen with more than just an ear – but with heart as well. Sometimes it’s nice to go down a path and be blown away by what you may find along the way.