It had been over a year since we'd last spoken. When the call came in to meet him, I wasn't surprised. When he told me where, I nearly fell off my chair.
JUMP TO STORY:
I approached him as he sat on a bench in Queen Victoria Park in Niagara Falls, Ont. He was dressed in a burgundy Italian silk suit that mirrored the fall colors sported by the giant elm tree under whose branches he was finding respite from the unseasonably warm October sun. His ever-present ivory walking cane was propped up on the back of the bench as he flicked peanuts to a hungry crowd of black Canadian squirrels. If one of his bushy-tailed friends from the Sciuriane subfamily knew his real name, he'd be one up on me. I know him simply as Chickie C.
"Hey, Chick, good to see you," I said as he took my extended hand into a firm embrace. "What gives? We've never met outside the country before."
"The country's the problem, kid. Have a seat," he said as he slid aside the warehouse-sized bag of peanuts occupying two-thirds of the rustic park bench.
"What do you mean, Chickie? What's got you down on the country?"
"What is dere to get me up? That's the better question, kid. Of course, asking the right questions ain't never been yer strong suit."
"Did you drag me across the border just to insult me?"
"All right, kid, don't get yer Fruit of the Looms all in a knot over there. I'm just grieving over the death of a good friend of mine."
"I'm sorry to hear that, Chickie. What was his name?"
"His name was 'common sense' and I just shoveled the last spade of dirt over him yesterday."
"I'm not following you, Chickie."
"Kid, if you wuz a caboose, you couldn't follow the locomotive. I'll try to speak in simple terms for you. The country's gone bats."
"Can you be more specific, Chickie?"
"Yeah, I can be more specific. Fer the first time since I started exercising my right to vote nearly 60 years ago, I'm ashamed to be a Republican," Chickie answered as he tossed a peanut to a squirrel nearly the size of a poodle.
"Why's that, Chickie?" I asked.
"Cuz we got the Wizard of Oz in the Oval Office, that's why."
Before I could ask him what he meant, he broke into an impassioned soliloquy.
"I spend a lot of time at the Duke Center on Hyde Park Boulevard. I listen to the scuttlebutt and all I hear is that Bush is a hawk and Kerry's a dove. I asked this one old coot, Charlie, why he'd think such a thing and he tells me it's because of the Swift Boat Veterans group and their Web site denouncing Kerry.
"'If doze guys say he's a bum, how can he be any good?' he asked me.
"I said, 'Charlie, you wuz in the Air Force just like me in the big one, weren't ya?'
"'Yeah,' he says.
"'OK,' I says, 'Then you know that in the 50 years that we known each other, we ain't never spoke a word about doze days, have we?'
"'No,' he says.
"'Why izzat?' I asked him, and before he could answer I said it's because we earned the right not to on account of we wuz there."
"So you're saying that Swift Boat Veterans are wrong for denouncing Kerry," I said.
"No, I'm saying that they're wrong for backing Bush. When Kerry came home from Vietnam and told Congress that the war wasn't on the square, he earned the right to that opinion, kid. The president, on the udder hand, spent the war on AWOL from the National Guard drinking with the rest of his privileged frat buddies. The only time he turned up on base wuz to have his teeth straightened. My point is, if Kerry's actions during or after the war upset doze guys, how can they feel good about a guy who couldn't even turn up for Guard duty?"
"I see your point, Chickie, but this Swift Boat stuff is old news. What else is eating at you?"
"I tell you what's eating at me, kid. It's the fact that the president just conceded that there never were any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Then he starts talking about Saddam abusing the U.N. oil-for-food program. Don't get me wrong. I was as happy as anyone the day that they dragged that yellow-bellied coward from that hole in the ground, but over a thousand young men have come back in flag-draped coffins since Bush assured us that Iraq had nuclear weapons. At my age, kid, you understand the fragile nature of life. I can't imagine a greater sin than sending brave young men to meet their maker based on faulty intelligence. Like I said, we got the Wizard of Oz in the White House and Toto's just pulled the curtain back soz we could all get a better look."
Hoping to change the subject, I asked Chickie if he had given up on the Bills yet this season.
"Not the Bills, the whole NFL, kid. Or, as they should be known as, the Numbskull Fodder League," Chickie answered.
"How could the National Football League upset you?" I asked.
As was often his custom, Chickie answered my question with one of his own.
"You ever get a free T-shirt fer entering a contest or walking fer a charity?"
"Then you know that those shirts are always one-size-fits-all and that that term is nothing but a bunch of baloney. One-size-fits-all means it will be big on most women and kids, it'll fit average-sized men and will barely fit over the head of anyone answering to the term 'portly.'"
"What's this got to do with the NFL, Chickie?"
"Jake Plummer, that's what it has to do with the Numbskull Fodder League. As you well know, kid, Plummer wuz both a college and pro teammate of Pat Tillman. After Tillman wuz killed in Afghanistan -- a country we wuz justified in invading, by the way -- the league honored him in every stadium on opening day. Plummer decided to honor his friend by wearing a black patch on his helmet with Tillman's No. 40 on it. Sounds simple, right? Wrong! The Numbskull bigwigs tell him that they'll fine him $5,000 per game fer honoring his friend, so he takes the sticker off his helmet."
"But allowing Plummer to wear the sticker would open the door for other players to put stickers of any kind on their helmets," I offered as a weak defense.
"Puh-lease, kid. Don't trifle me with that lame line of reasoning. I thought that you might pull some cockamamie nonsense like that, which is why I brought this, just so I could get the quote right."
Chickie pulled a scrap of newspaper from his pocket and read the following out loud.
"'You can't just pick and choose and say one message is OK but another isn't,' said NFL spokesman Greg Aiello. 'Where would you draw the line?' I'll tell you where you draw the line," Chickie said. "You draw the line at guys who turn down multi-million dollar contracts, join the Army and have the cojones to make it as a Ranger and bleed out their life on a battlefield defending the freedoms that allow your sorry butts to put on a game fer three hours each Sunday, that's where you draw the line. Forget this one-size-fits-all nonsense and make an exception where one is warranted. In the Middle East they've got people who are so angry with us that they cut off the heads of innocent contractors. Here, kid, here we won't even let a guy honor his friend who gave the ultimate sacrifice because we can't figure out how to tell the next guy in line that wearing a sneaker company sticker on his helmet just ain't the same thing."
"When you look at it that way, it really is pretty foolish," I said. "What is it that you want people to do about all of this, Chickie?"
"Just one thing, kid. I want them to realize that life is fragile and to take a good look at who's been disrespecting it. I've seen way too many young men die for old men's follies and I don't want to see one more."
And with those words, he turned away from me and went back to feeding his four-legged Canadian friends.
|Niagara Falls Reporter||www.niagarafallsreporter.com||Oct. 12 2004|