Roy Exum: My Best Breakfast Ever

Thursday, December 13, 2018 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

As I have grown older, I have grown more peculiar. I love having so many wonderful friends who I’ll see out in the mornings, all hail and hardy, but most of the time I enjoy having breakfast by myself. Hear me out: whether it is the Cracker Barrel, the Bluegrass Café or any number of other places I enjoy, most often there are delightful people who invite me to share their table when actually I prefer to sit with my newspaper and my thoughts and sort through both alone.

A little over a week or so ago I was at the Bluegrass Café – the absolutely five-star breakfast haven on Main Street – when I got situated with my coffee. Only when I searched for a sweetener did I happen to notice a woman who was near the corner of the back room eating by herself. She was about my age, but still so very handsome sans make-up, and when she caught me looking and smiled back just so, it was a God moment, one you pray for each day but because the biggest are so rare, therein is the treasure.

Our eyes locked, I mouthed, “Are you, you?” She nodded, and oh my heaven’s mercy: “I am here to eat by myself, and respect wherever you are, but if we could visit over an egg it would mean more to me than the world.” She nodded and said as a quip, “My table or yours?” I discarded my newspaper and renewed a friendship that for over thirty years had been vacant.

This girl and I were in high school together – late ‘60s – and while she was attractive and popular, we never dated because the ‘ying’ didn’t meet the ‘yang’ – or whatever -- but I thought she was cool and kept an eye on her. My life soon took a jetstream pace but I’d heard she was in the Navy, a medic nurse, and she became more cool. When I would see mutual friends, they only knew the fringes, but I followed her as best I could in admittedly a fleeting fashion – oh, how busy we all get.

Allow me to call her “Judy,” for I would never embarrass her for the world, and let me ask further that you’ll allow me to identify “Judy” as one of three greatest heroes I have ever known in my entire life. At breakfast I asked about her “today,” and she said her dad was in his 90s and now in a convalescent home, and said her two sisters had done a great job but that … yeah, she was in town just a day or two … to, yeah, say goodbye.

Judy lives in San Francisco. She never married, no children. She has no religious preference, and in her words, is “content.” She tries to go on an “outdoor adventure” every summer, go on a European or Caribbean trip in the fall, and volunteers three mornings a week at … “I guess you’d call it a hospice center for indigents.”

Yet, as it turns out, I know more. “Judy” was a “tag girl” in Viet Nam. This is to say she was a key player in an unspoken daily drama that, ironically, has saved more lives than you can possibly imagine. No, we never mentioned it at breakfast. But she knows that I know and … for whatever … we were both at peace as we dabbled at the corners of her silent greatest.

This may seem barbaric to some, uncaring and evil, but the United States long ago adopted the “tag system” in medvac field hospitals that has saved thousands of soldiers’ lives. I don’t know exactly how it works but as ruthless as it may first sound, I am told that when the wounded are hurried to a field hospital, every wounded soldier on a gurney who comes through the door is met by the Most Valuable Player in the game … the triage nurse.

The brilliant surgeons, the anesthesiologists, the top “scrubs” are already up to their elbows in second-by-second trauma, but at the entry gate is the triage nurse and she has three tags in the hip pocket of her scrubs. She has a green tag, one that signals keep morphine steady, the oxygen coming, but the triage’s bet is that the patient’s prognosis is good. Watch the blood pressure, monitor the heart rate, but the blessing is this one can wait until the rest of hell calms down.

The yellow tag means ‘stat,’ a hospital word that in it’s simplest form means “hurry faster,” but simplest doesn’t count in a field hospital. I am talking about bleeding out (the biggest trauma worry), a sucking chest wound, open ventricle loss, severe dehydration … lord, there are too many minuses to count, but “yellow” means a chance. Hope. Stat.

And then there is the red. Imagine being tasked with the split-second responsibility to look at a badly-wounded soldier who, with the miracles of science may indeed be saved by a time-consuming process. Conversely, in the predictable massive effort to deal with this one man’s horrific wounds, four other wounded men could die waiting for that lone spot on the OR table. Puts a different slant on ‘For Whom The Bell Tolls,’ huh.

That’s not fair, is it? Hers is the last face some men would ever see. It is equally the first luckier men would see again, but in war, as in life, we always cut to our losses. As we shared breakfast – and she ate half of my fresh sliced tomatoes because she didn’t know they were available – I had a million questions that I’d never dare ask.

So, do you look at this battlefield giant and say thank you for the lives you saved? Do you tell her no one else in our junior class – to this day -- has come close to what she once did days without end in the stifling heat of Viet Nam? Do you share that you know “on authority” the Navy considers her a great heroine, that you heard about her Purple Hearts, the men who died as she shielded them with her own body in muddy banks of some god forsaken foreign river or, to be tragically blunt, what I’ve been whispered she actually “survived” that was far, far worse?

Lately, I’ve gotten to be something of a patriotic bother, telling vets “I appreciate your service,” or now, the better oath, “We’ll never forget.” But I’m one of a very small handful who knows my classmate is way past that. Twice her field hospitals were overrun by the Viet Cong, so it is said, and neither time do I suspect the horror movie crowd could possibly replicate what that must have been like.

As we drank the last of our coffee over the empty plates, her face was calm, void of emotion as she said, “I need to tell you something … I can’t believe I’d run into you but this gives me the chance… I want you to know I’ve still got a letter you sent me in Viet Nam. I’d tell you how much it meant to me but you always were smarter than most,” she slightly smiled.

“About ten years ago I went through and finally threw away so much of what has enabled me to be unable to forget a lot of back then. When the doctors urge you to throw away the baggage for the past 30 years, and finally you drum up the courage to do it, it’s not quite as easy as all of that … not for any of us … but it was a big step for me.”

Quietly I motioned for a coffee refill. This was more than her sister told me she would ever say.

“I’m at peace that there will always be some things … but I was telling Daddy a couple of nights ago it’s easier now. I think for him to know that, after all this time, meant more to him than anything I could have ever said. He believed me. He needed to know I was finally okay … but you need to know I still have your letter … I’ve kept it because it was kind of a symbol, or something, that I … well, there will always be a ‘home’ for me.”

Thank you, Lord Jesus for handing me in the instant to come the best reply imaginable. It was this. I did not say one word. She could see my watery eyes, my quivering lip. What else could there possible be that words would not ruin?

I stared in her face, one that after a lifetime like hers can remain expressionless, and then, ever the cavalier, I snatched up the tab, thanked her for still being “you,” and told her that sometime when she’s back in town, maybe we can rustle up some old .45s of the Platters or the Shirelles as they sing some happy music of a long time ago, back when we were young.

She laughed, and, when she did, her nose wrinkled. Do you know how cute girls were when their nose would wrinkle?

I haven’t seen her do that in 30 years. But her nose did wrinkle, and God is good.

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