Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Chopsticks and Veterans Day

My refuge after a busy day, which today involved hours of meetings --- all positive but some inflicting wear and tear --- is Chariton’s Chinese restaurant, the Panda Buffet. Panda is not on the menu, but the fare is very good (that’s something I know a little about).

An unusual thing about the Panda, owned and operated by nice people of Chinese descent, is that the wait staff and some of the kitchen help are of Russian descent. The result is an interesting mix of food, people and accents served up where those not familiar with Lucas County wouldn’t expect it.

Anyhow, I was minding my own business and well into my second (and final) plate this evening, when one of the owners sat down in the adjacent booth and just watched me eat. “How long did you practice with chopsticks?” she asked. “You eat like a Chinese.”

That’s the nicest thing anyone’s said to me all week.


Thursday is Veterans Day, one of those loaded occasions when some are inclined to say and write the most absurd things about veterans, war, peace and stuff in general while many veterans squirm and aren’t quite sure what to do with themselves --- or ignore the whole thing.

In Chariton, we can eat --- free breakfast at Hy-Vee, supper at the Legion Hall, and I’m considering breakfast this year. Dog tags on my keychain for 30 years; they’d probably get me in. It’s not the free breakfast but the principle of the thing I’m thinking about.

Monday evening, several of us visited for a while with the mother of a young man deployed during midsummer to Afghanistan. I watched him march proudly in the 4th of July parade here, Mom and Dad standing near me. Now he’s headed home for a week and a half of rest before returning to Afghanistan for the remainder of his tour of duty. He’s a combat engineer, not the safest occupation right now. His parents haven’t had a day of peace since he left. Another son is in the military, too, so there’s the possibility as combat continues of a double deployment whammy in a year or two. She works at the veterans hospital in Des Moines and perhaps has seen too much. “What’s a mother to do?” she asks.

All of us around Mom try to make affirming and reassuring noises, but it’s difficult. She muses about the uncertainty of life in the best of times and places, suggesting various ways her son might die unexpectedly here in Iowa were he not in Afghanistan. It’s a good thing they’re doing, though, she says. We agree. Breaks your heart.

Thousands have died in Iraq and Afghanistan, more will and the result is highly likely to be as pointless as the outcome of Vietnam. But no one says that; we hold our breaths; don’t let ourselves even think it. I’ve been down that road before here and don’t propose to go again right now. It’s too sad. I’m glad chopsticks turned my thoughts to food.


As I’m quite sure I’ve written before, the group of people I worked with in Vietnam was for the most part on its own when it came to food. Our hotel had a “club” specializing in beer, frozen pizza, bad hamburgers, stale cigarettes and the occasional stripper. We could buy meals if we wanted to at a military mess hall a couple of blocks away, the Dakota I think, but few did. There was a canteen at our center, airy rooms filled mostly with Vietnamese civilians and military types sandwiched between cemeteries and an abandoned soccer field on two sides, Tan Son Nhut and the Vietnamese equivalent of the Pentagon on the others. I’ve rarely had better omelets than those prepared there and the french bread was wonderful --- but the Vietnamese version of an American lunch menu left much to be desired. Evening meals weren’t served.

So for the most part we patronized restaurants and sometimes street vendors, the neighborhood bakeries and quite often were welcomed into the homes of our hospitable Vietnamese friends noon and night. Sharing lunch with our Vietnamese military co-workers could be problematic --- that tended to involve grouping around a pot filled with chicken soup --- including the head and feet. I never adjusted to dead chicken eyes staring up at me from the soup kettle.

Every trip to the Chlon PX (and many other trips, too) involved a meal at the Fuji, a wonderful series of garden pavilions within the compound of an old colonial villa. There were Chinese restaurants of every shade and flavor from simple to spectacular and a Vietnamese restaurant that specialized in multi-course meals, each course from soup to dessert featuring beef.

On really special occasions, we ate at Le Cave, a French colonial relic offering incomparable onion soup, or the Italian cafĂ© a block or two away. Our Korean friends, the fierce Kims, always insisted on accompanying us to Koream restaurants in part to protect us from the pure fire preferred by many of their countrymen and also to ensure that we weren’t served dog, looked upon by some as a special treat.

The long and the short of this all is that unless one wanted to eat with fingers, one learned quickly to eat with chopsticks. And once mastered, that is a skill not forgotten. It is a sensible way to eat and becomes as natural as breathing. So that is why, without even thinking about it, I can “eat like a Chinese.” And today, still, I enjoy eating out the most when chopsticks are involved. Every time I pick them up, I remember Vietnam, but food isn’t the only thing I think about.


Veterans Day is not a convenient holiday, falling as it does (with the exception of 1971-1978) on a date that has significance --- the signing of the armistice that ended World War I on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, 1919 --- rather than on the nearest Monday so that non-veterans can enjoy a three-day weekend. Few businesses close, school continues, many non-Federal offices remain open. To do otherwise is just too inconvenient, too costly. Few care. It’s all about the economy now. War, you say? What war?

But don’t worry too much about that. It’s OK. It’s not a day when you-all should feel obligated to hug a veteran or wave a flag. You can get over that.

Wouldn’t hurt to sit quietly for a while somewhere though and think about it for a while. Then maybe try giving peace a chance. Pray for it. Speak it. Practice it. Breathe, sleep and die it. Love your neighbor. Love your enemy. Live it. That’s the way you honor veterans. Remember that God damn it!

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