Friday, May 29, 1998
Zeke has that gift with children. Rapport. Leadership. Empathy. Especially with boys. He has a boyish face himself - I doubt he could grow a beard if he tried. He used to coach my son's AYSO soccer team and managed to keep it fun and non-competitive. He has three children of his own - all boys.
When you meet Zeke, he offers you a stick of gum. He's got several packs in his pocket. He's a salesman for Wrigley's, so he's well-supplied. Cynically, you might think it's like a drug dealer offering free samples - and I tease him about this - but with Zeke it really seems like a friendly offer. Zeke's a friendly guy.
Zeke's wife has hired me to install a hot tub. Today it will be delivered. Zeke is here to help. A truck with a crane will have to lift the heavy tub to their second-floor deck.
While we wait for the truck, Zeke and I chat. I ask how he came to be in the chewing gum business.
"I didn't exactly plan for it," Zeke says. "I got a degree in Education. When I got back from 'Nam, you look at the starting salary of a teacher. And you know what happens."
"It's a waste, Zeke. You have such a natural talent with children. You should teach. You selling gum is like Michelangelo selling paint at Home Depot."
"Michelangelo never went to 'Nam."
"What was it like?"
"I was on a PBR. You know about them?"
"Yes. I had a cousin. He served on one." PBR stood for Patrol Boat, River. The boat had a two-foot draft and could go up shallow rivers through weeds without getting stuck. They had machine guns, a grenade launcher, and they were speedy. They were also sitting ducks for Viet Cong snipers hiding in trees along the shore.
Zeke is frowning. "Your cousin died?"
"No. He came through."
"Drinks a little too much? Wakes up in a sweat? Maybe some drugs?"
"I don't know about sweat."
"I never did the drugs," Zeke says. "Half my unit used heroin. Can't blame them, but my one and only goal was to survive. Drugs always seemed like another way to die. Casualties for river patrol were eleven percent a month. That's each month, eleven percent. In twelve months, not good odds. Got a little better after they started dropping Agent Orange. It cleared some space around the river's edge."
"Sounds like you could teach math."
"You want kids to hear that?"
Zeke shows me his arm. Little spots, like mini-boils. "I get these. Hundreds of them. Little fatty growths under my skin."
"Can't prove it."
A truck arrives with a crane. Zeke and I go out to meet it at the head of the driveway. As we walk, Zeke says, "I wouldn't want to scare them. If I taught."
"Maybe they should be scared."
"Maybe. I just want to forget."
"Can you?" It's been almost 30 years.
"Not yet." Zeke smiles. Turning to greet the driver of the hot tub truck, Zeke offers him a piece of gum.