I catch the Skip at the last bus stop on the route, the one right next to the homeless shelter. Usually, I see folks riding from this stop for a few weeks before they move on. But this guy I only saw once.
He sits down next to me toward the front of the bus. He’s thin with long hair and an Army jacket. I know others in the shelter are “Vietnam vets,” a phrase that’s become its own stereotype. I suspect he may be a vet, too, but maybe that’s my bias. I’ve been teaching In Country all week. My students know nothing about that war, including that people their age were drafted into it.
The man’s quiet at first but then says hi when I smile at him. He tells me he normally lives in Denver but his building is being renovated so he’s moved to the shelter for a few days. I assure him Boulder’s a nice town, even though I know this is only partly true for people who don’t have much. But the library is open to anyone who wants to use the internet. Maybe he’s going there. I don’t ask where he’s headed.
Then he tells me he’s a Vietnam vet. He was drafted at 18 and signed onto a second tour, and a third. The war felt more normal, he says, than going home.
He takes his wallet out of his back pocket. Or maybe from his jacket. I’m not paying much attention because I’m watching for my university stop. When I look at him again, he opens his hand to show me something. On his palm lies a flat piece of metal an inch-and-a-half long and three-quarters wide with a curved hook on one end, two-dimensional yet steely. “Do you know what this is?”
“A fishhook?” I guess. It’s an odd shape. I really don’t know.
“This is the can opener they issued us in Nam. This is all we had to open our rations. If you lost it, you were SOL.”
“Wow,” I say because I’m impressed, both by the simplicity of the tool and the longevity of his keeping it. “That doesn’t look easy to use.”
“You get used to it.” Like a lot of things over there, maybe he means.
“Thank you for showing it to me,” I say when we reach my stop, as if that’s enough for everything he’s given.
I tell my class about the man on the bus. I don’t have to say he was their age when he went to fight. In the novel we’re reading, the soldier never comes home. The students are silent, imagining the hook.
Micro Life Interview
Tell Us What Sparked This Piece?
I wanted to write flash nonfiction based on an object and the hook came immediately to mind. That little piece of metal added a powerful dimension to my teaching of a compelling text, helping the students understand the Vietnam War in a new way.
What do you like about the flash form?
Flash nonfiction challenges me to look for stories with underlying, but not necessarily obvious, connections between people, place, and time.
What’s something great you’ve read (or learned) lately?
Richard Powers’ new novel, Bewilderment, knocked me over with its gorgeous prose and mournfully beautiful story. It’s the kind of book that brings the apocalyptic right up to our doorstep in a way we can no longer ignore.
Writer, farmer, teacher, and activist Kayann Short, Ph.D., is the author of the Nautilus award-winning memoir, A Bushel’s Worth: An Ecobiography (Torrey House Press). Her work appears in journals such as Midwest Review, Burningword, Hawk & Handsaw, The Hopper, Dash, The Colorado Magazine, Pilgrimage, and Mad River Review, and the anthologies Dirt: A Love Story and Rooted: The Best New Arboreal Non-Fiction. Dr. Short runs a CSA and organizes community writing events at Stonebridge Farm on Colorado’s Front Range. Read more about her work at kayannshort.com.
Photography by Mos Sukjaroenkraisri