I love collecting stories from people, even I never record their words on paper. That was the case the other day at work, when in a lull I found myself conversing with a man in his sixties. He was a retiree who spent some of his free time flying old WWII planes, mainly Mustang knockoffs and (my favorite) the Corsair.
I asked him what he was doing in Milwaukee, since he mentioned he lived 45 minutes away in Lake Geneva.
"Oh I was up at the VA getting something looked at. The docs want to take some more shrapnel outta my back, but I said I'd get back to 'em. Sure they numb you up, but that sucker hurts like hell for days after the surgery."
I asked him if he'd been a pilot in Vietnam, thinking he'd been a helicopter pilot that took some flak. He said no, he was an Army Ranger. Now when you talk to a guy from that era and you hear the words 'Ranger', 'Green Beret' or 'Seal', it makes you wonder if you're about to hear a tall tale. No one wants to say 'I spent the war as a clerk typist in Saigon', but I had a genuine feeling about this guy, especially when he detailed how he got his wound.
"We were checking out a village, see, that was our job. To come on in before the troops and make sure things were the way they were supposed to be. Sometimes it got hairy, but most of the time we weren't there to fight, we just had to check things out. Anyway I'm wallking through the village and I tripped over a landmine. And I mean I tripped over the damn thing, like my shoelace was untied or something. Blew right up. My back looks like a damn road atlas. It was allright tho, I left with all my arms and legs, which was good. But every once in awhile they want to go digging for some shrapnel. Last time was twenty years ago, but they said some of it shifted. Might be no bigger than a grain of sand, but they move. They might just move a [shows me his fingers a cm or two apart] in five years, but they work their way around. Doc says its near an organ and he wants it out."
He shrugged. "You know I'm on pysch meds. I ain't ashamed or nothing. Had a nervous breakdown. Doctors at the VA say it's Post-Traumatic but that's bull. I was always a little mixed up, from way back. It started getting worse and my wife bailed on me, and that was it, I cracked up."
He shrugged again. "Anyway, nice talking to ya. I didn't know it was this late. I gotta get back."
Fifteen minutes I spent talking to the guy, and in all that time I never got his name. Not once. If I see him again I'll ask for a formal interview. I've done two or three, with research, transcriptions, the whole ball of wax. One's even on file down at the Milwaukee Historical Society.
But even if I never see him again, it was time well spent.