The distance between us
Bob and I sat about ten feet apart, separated by more than a measured distance.
We were of different generations. He was as old as my father. I was the Boomer. Again, a measurement that didn’t explain why he was difficult, angry, impersonal.
Perhaps it was that we belonged to different unions and our duties sometimes appeared to overlap.
Bob was very protective of the tasks outlined in his contract. I was instructed to stay on my side of the aisle between us even though our shared responsibilities required frequent communication, collaboration, and the passing of papers and equipment. Still, if there was any hint that I strayed beyond my territorial limits or intruded on his duties, I would soon be on the receiving end of a verbal tirade or the subject of an official grievance.
We rarely talked about anything beyond work. Talk about family, our personal lives, and sports were brief with little-shared insight that might allow me to better understand Bob.
Other technicians weren’t nearly so quick to anger over transgressions. We often shared our woes about the Braves, a new BBQ restaurant, traffic, MARTA, family mishaps, hunting trips, and past exploits.
I thought Bob’s demeanor might have been the product of a long-ago contract dispute resulting in a lockout and failure of my union to honor picket lines. It happened long before I began working in the office. Even then, the dispute didn’t anger other technicians enough to make it difficult to have conversations beyond what was necessary to get our jobs done.
Bob played golf. I didn’t. I knew he liked to play after overhearing him talk about a specific course he’d played.
One day I brought Bob a copy of Time magazine with a cover story about golf becoming a global phenomenon. Knowing Bob’s affection for the sport I offered it as a gift, a way of showing my understanding of his pleasures. And, perhaps to soften him up a bit. Little did I know.
I stepped halfway into the narrow aisle between our desks, leaned into his space, head bowed, and offered the magazine. He accepted my totem with a grunt, glancing at the cover before setting it aside and returning to his work.
Later I heard the impossible. “Hey, Kid. Come over here. Look at this.”
I’d knew that Bob’s space was private, a shrine both personal and professional and that I was not allowed to enter no matter the reason.
Now I was being told to step across the threshold, to cross the divide.
Bob held up the magazine, its pages spread open. He pointed to a photo.
“Look at this! I was there!” he said, pointing to the small image. He was excited, his voice evoking a joy I’d never heard before.
Like a child bathed in the excitement of the invite, I moved to look over his shoulder at the photo keeping my feet ready for a quick exit when he realized where I stood.
The photo showed a small lagoon, it’s blue water and coral beach ringed by lush foliage under a sky with clouds casting no shadows across the postcard-perfect fairy tale view. It was the site of a new golf course, an indicator of how the sport has moved even onto small South Pacific islands.
“I was there. That’s where I landed.” he continued to explain.
I quickly looked at the caption to see which island held this idyllic lagoon.
I began to understand. Marine. Guadalcanal.
For several hours, I listened as Bob found his voice.
Each story he told began with his head down in reverence to the memory. At its conclusion, he lowered his head returning to the reverential pose.
There was little excitement in the telling. Each sentence seemed measured, weighted with memories of the battles that created them. Nervous laughter filled the empty spaces between tales where death, or fear, or futility, or the smell and viciousness of death, revealed his history.
Dead Marines. A hilltop several feet shorter after a battle against Japanese fighting from the high ground. Layers of dead Japanese soldiers, their bodies tossed down the incline by the soldiers ordered to replace them. The search for and discovery of alcohol to anesthetize the new wounds. His friend dying during the search.
More battles continued when he returned, his ship docking in San Francisco. Stories of infidelity, drinking, and fits of anger tempered his return home. There was more nervous laughter but this time it punctuated his personal battle against an invisible enemy.
He never went into battle again although he trained for the invasion of Japan, a task that ended at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
I’m not sure when our conversation ended. Perhaps when his relief came to work. Maybe I stepped across the aisle to do my work and I didn’t get invited back. All I remember is Bob, his head down, staring at that photo.
Bob and I never spoke about that afternoon. The conversation was a one-time exposition of his Marine experience.
We continued as coworkers for several more years until I moved to another bureau. Bob no longer seemed angry, so quick to disagree, no longer hostile to transgressions.
Then again, maybe I no longer let these emotional outbursts get the better of me. I knew about Bob and Guadalcanal.
Photo Credit: Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=379350