Just got back from vacation and my vacation recovery. We spent a week in Gatlinburg/Pigeon Forge area. Much fun was had, but I want to share with you an encounter I had while I was there.
It was the third night we were there, the wife and I decided to hit the grocery store. It’s much cheaper to eat at the hotel than going out to eat every night. We were at the cashier and I had just handed her some cash to buy our few purchases, when behind me I heard, “Thank you for your service.” Yes, I wear a hat that says “Army Veteran.” I do get the occasional thank you, but that isn’t why I wear the hat, I wear it cause I am damn proud of my service.
As the cashier was making change, I turned and thanked the man behind me in line for his service in return. He was wearing an “Army Retired” hat. He was just your average 50 to 60 year old, middle class , white male. He attempted to downplay his service because he was not an combat veteran. I told him that it didn’t matter, a veteran is a veteran. Period.
That could have, and should have, been the end of a pleasant little episode. We thanked each other, and bonded a bit over our shared service. Except, he didn’t leave it at that. He continued the conversation with, “Yeah, but I’ve never shot anybody.” I found that a bit weird, but I informed him that I had not shot at anybody either.
Again, he could have let the encounter end, but again, he didn’t. He than patted his hip where he had a poorly concealed weapon. Then he said, “But, I’m ready for any Muslim I see.”
My wife, the cashier, and I all froze for about 30 seconds. Too stunned to do anything. I know the cashier was shocked because she stopped counting out my change.
Beth and I finally overcame our incredulity and spoke at the same time. She said, “That’s not what we fought for,” while I said, “That’s horrible.” That was all I was able to pick out of the thoughts swirling around in my head.
This man then felt he needed to justify his bigoted, hateful opinion. He told a story of a brother who was permanently disabled by an IED when a child ran up to the side of his HUMVEE and detonated himself. Not that I want to disparage anybodies service, that sounds much like a scene from Platoon or Full Metal Jacket.
Again, I simply said, “It’s still a horrible, and you are completely wrong.” I turned and grabbed my change from the cashier, who has this “WTF is going on!?” look on her face. I collected my bags and Beth and I walked out of the store.
I may have thrown a “with peace” in Arabic over my shoulder as I was leaving.
While I was not scared for the safety of my wife and myself, I felt angry, sad, and shamed by the entire encounter.
I was angry that he had to ruin a simple exchange of mutual respect into something slimy. What gives him the right to include me in his hate? Because I’m a veteran? Because I’m white? Because I am male? I am so pissed that he felt comfortable to tell a complete stranger that he is ready to commit genocide
That also saddens me. That we have gone back to a time where open racism or bigotry is tolerated and accepted.
Then there is the shame in knowing that in at least 7 out of every 10 encounters like this one, he would get a favorable reply.
Then there was that small bit of optimism, that maybe I can reach him, maybe he can gain just a small amount of empathy for others. Then I take in his posture, the tilt of his head, the slight grimace on his face, all of those subtle clues your mind picks up on, and I realize that he won’t listen. That no matter the verifiable facts I had, no matter how eloquent my reply, he would never give up his shitty outlook.
So, I finally picked, “That’s horrible.” That was all I was able to say without that torrent of emotions causing me to lose my self-restraint and telling him how I really felt.
I really shouldn’t have been caught off guard like that. We see it everyday in the news. This rise, in not just hate, but of violence towards others. I was caught flat-footed though. Maybe that is part of my privilege, that I don’t have to be ready for an encounter similar to this one, at all times.
I still haven’t figured out a suitable reply though.
Oh, we saw a black bear in the wild, maybe 30 yards away from us. It was pretty damn cool.