It seemed like a wonderful plan. Sherod and I would leave from the ARAA reunion to catch a train at 8 in the morning that would take us to LA. There, we would get to spend about 4 hours with Len before coming back to San Diego. For a time, when we lived in Fort Lauderdale, Len and his now husband, David, were neighbors. We became very good friends and fell into an easy rhythm of going back and forth between our homes for Sunday supper. They live in LA where David is a highly regarded psychotherapist and Len is an artist. We have missed them since they left Fort Lauderdale in 2005 and though we wouldn’t get to see David, because he was out of town, we were simply thrilled to get to see Len.
We got to the station in San Diego about 20 minutes before the train was supposed to come through. At 8:04 (departure time), no train. Forty-five minutes later? Nothing. More time goes by, no train. And then some more. Now it’s starting to get dicey–we’re not going to get to spend hardly any time with Len because we have tickets to come back to San Diego at 3:00 pm. Do we go or do we stay? Go. It matters too much to get to see Len. Finally, 2 hours late, the train came in. The ride is lovely as long as the train goes along the shoreline, much duller once it curves into the ‘burbs of Orange County and LA.
We got to Union Station in LA, which is a magnificent building. We tried to use the Uber ap and at each and every step, it gave us problems and meantime, the time was ticking. We finally caught a cab but we barely had an hour to spend though Len had prepared the kind of vegetarian feast like he used to prepare when it was his and David’s turn to have us over in Fort Lauderdale. Finally, the Uber ap worked, the Uber car got there too fast, and before I felt like I could blink, we were back on the train, heading back to San Diego.
I rode back south with a huge knot in my throat. I have a hard time describing the friendship I have had with Len for so many years. Len is a brilliant artist and perhaps because of that, has a way of seeing the world and a way of being a friend that has made my life so much better, richer, more meaningful. My grandmother and mother both had their brokenness and issues and both also understood the place of beauty. Len does too, in ways even more profound than I had known before I met him. I still have the hand-me-down cutting board he gave me when he and David were moving west because it is the most perfect blue. Whenever I take it out to use, I smile. To have had to rush through lunch when we used to sit for hours around the table, talking, laughing, and breaking bread together was absurdly, heart-breakingly wrong. I kept telling myself, at least I got to see my friend. But it wasn’t enough.
We got back to San Diego, got settled in the Airbnb we’re staying in for the remainder of our time here and crashed early. This morning there was a text from Len and then a flurry of texts back and forth. Schedules were rearranged and Len, together with the two pug girls he got from a pug rescue organization in Korea, Rosie and Viola, drove down to hang out with us. The traffic he encountered was minimal and we ended up having this big, beautiful chunk of time together that just made my soul sing.
We ate at a lovely Lebanese restaurant close to Balboa Park, with the two dogs amusing us and laughter abounding. Then, Len, Viola, Rosie and I walked to Balboa. It was beautiful. Because the two sweet girls were with us, we couldn’t go into the museums we would have spent hours walking through under different circumstances. What Len did urge me to do was walk into the Botanical Building. It was like walking into my mother’s garden in Cali. It was so beautiful, and so alive, and so, both exotic, and so familiar, to this woman who is now every bit as much Alabama as Colombia, it left the kind of stillness of the soul that only comes with great joy.
We came back to our Airbnb, Len fed and walked his girls, allowed us to babysit them while he went for a run. A little more conversation and then it was time for him to head back to Los Angeles. Here’s what I see about the time we spent in Del Mar on Saturday, and in San Diego today: it’s about time. The kind of time that comes with shutting off phones, with letting time go where it will go, quickening and slowing down in ways that are so mysterious and open to the Spirit. The Spirit blows where it will and there’s a kind of time that only comes with trusting there is enough of it. And that’s at the heart of the matter, isn’t it? That we live as if there is not enough time, though we really, we don’t have to live like that, at least not all the time.
Sherod and I flew to San Diego on Thursday night. It’s some vacation time for me and for Sherod, another time to gather with his brother gunship pilots at the Aerial Rocket Artillery Association.
This morning, I braved the streets and highways of San Diego to get some camera supplies I needed, while Sherod attended the regular business meeting that happens on the last day of these annual gatherings. We’d talked about going for lunch at a place in Del Mar, north of San Diego. We knew one of the guys who was in Sherod’s flight group in Vietnam, Jerry, and his wife, Georgia, were coming with us. We asked two other couples to join us as well, but only Jim and Rose were able to do so. The restaurant we were going to was too full and we lucked into another joint, not on the beach like the first one, but close enough, with plenty of space and enough quiet for the three couples to sit for a long lunch.
Of the three guys, Sherod is the only one who is divorced and remarried. When talk turned to the R&R leave they all got about midway through their tour in Vietnam, it was funny, and awkward, and I found myself wondering what it would have been like to fly out to Hawaii to meet a young warrior for just a very few days in a crazy-weird in-between time and place. Hawaii is so much closer to Vietnam than Alabama—and by the time these guys met their wives and girlfriends there, they had already seen so much. I think I’d probably have had a harder time letting go of the person I loved—I would already have known too much about the loneliness and fear that would travel home with me as he flew in the opposite direction.
I listened to more than two hours of stories, some so funny I laughed till my sides ached. Some were white-knuckle stories of the crazy risks young men at war take, pushing their war machines way past the envelope of endurance they were built for. At one point, Sherod stopped and told the story of a conversation he had with his ‘Gram’—the grandmother he absolutely adored. It was many years after the war and somehow they got to talking about whether or not Gram had worried if Sherod would make it back. She told him she hadn’t. Instead, every night, she would get on her knees by her bed and pray for him and all the others he was fighting with. She said she’d pray until she was so sleepy she’d be afraid she might topple over so she’d get in bed, and keep on praying until she did actually go to sleep.
Jim, who is about as wild a man as I know, had ordered a chocolate croissant to have for desert but started on it a bit before our entrees were brought out. Before too long, Rose, his wife, gently pulled the plate toward her. The meal continued, the stories continued to unfurl, and then after everyone was almost finished eating, I watched Rose carefully, gently, break that partly-eaten croissant in smaller pieces. She took one and handed the plate to Georgia, who took a piece as well before handing the plate to me, and then I did the same, a ritual that as a priest I know down to my bones. “Take, eat. Do this for the remembrance” The plate went on to Jerry, then to the other two guys. The conversation never stopped. I don’t suppose anyone noticed this moment except me.
Eucharist is about remembrance— remembrance of love, of sacrifice, of life and death. It is also about promise, a horizon of eternity. The promise today, at that slightly wobbly table in Del Mar, was more bittersweet than most I am a part of Sunday in and Sunday out. I have been struck, watching a band of rapidly aging guys, whose wives now have serious health issues and whose children, and children’s children, and even children’s children’s children, tell their own stories of hardship and joy. The men are more stooped over. They walk more slowly. Their eyes may still flash with the mischief and life of a young man flying a helicopter, but now I think all of us who, in one way or another, are a part of this band know the days are getting shorter and fewer and not one single one of the days and reunions and lunches and stories should be taken for granted. If for no other reason than that, this was a holy meal, a holier meal than most I get to share with others.
Tonight there will be a banquet, lots of pictures taken, a guest speaker who is a well known correspondent from the days of Vietnam, lots of hugs and a promise of “Next year in Savannah”. But it’s that time out of time, when bread was broken and shared in remembrance and thanksgiving that matters most, it seems to me.