Which is what happened last week.
Riding the Metra train downtown from Rogers Park, I sat next to a casually dressed businessman a few years younger than I, in his mid-to-late sixties, old enough to have served during the Vietnam War, though not in Vietnam.
I learned all this because as I sat writing in my journal, he asked me if I was, well, writing in a journal. “Yes, I’m a writer, so am always writing.” With that as our official introduction—including first names—we didn’t stop talking until we reached Ogilvie Transportation Center some 25 minutes later. As we exited the train and waved goodbye, Paul’s last words to me were “I’m going to start journaling again.”
We crammed a lot into our brief conversation: how he’d kept a journal 15 years ago and enjoyed going back and re-reading it; how his father had emigrated from Greece alone and in his teens; and my experience of the Vietnam War through my relationships with two men who’d served there: Eddie, my first real love, who was killed in action at age 25, and Philip, whom I married after his tour of duty ended in 1967.
Philip was fortunate never to have seen action during that year, though the war and its aftermath did haunt him in some way, enough that his descent into drugs resulted in our separation and eventual divorce.
That conversation then led Paul and me to talk about the Wall, the Vietnam Memorial where I first saw Eddie’s name inscribed on a small traveling replica in Grant Park in the late ‘80s. (I’ve written previously about that experience and how it so undid me to see his name listed there--and nearly twenty years after he’d died.)
I then asked Paul if he’d ever seen the Wall. Turns out, he had. While working in D.C., he’d visited it the night before it officially opened on November 13, 1982. And when he started to describe the experience, he suddenly choked up and turned away to regain his composure.
Only it didn’t work.
Turning back toward me, starting to talk, he had to turn away again, the lump in his throat even more visible. Finally on the third try, he managed to speak about what had so moved him, including the stark, simple design of the Wall, and how each of the two sections slanted downwards into the ground. (And maybe put him in mind of the number of graves holding the remains of those 58,000 plus who’d died in the war?)
And then we paused, and the conversation shifted, got lighter. We even laughed about how there we were, two strangers on a train, talking as if we’d known each other for years.
And maybe we had, I thought later. We both grew to adulthood as part of the Vietnam generation, each involved in our own way in that war. We shared that history, a kind of bond, and so perhaps were not strangers after all.