Jim is wearing a cowboy hat, suspenders. Sometimes he sells tomatoes on the side of an old two-lane highway.
He’s sitting in a folding chair. His brim is pushed upward. Jim is smoker-skinny, and his belt looks too big.
He is my friend’s uncle, and his tomatoes look suspicious.
“Are these HOME-grown?” I ask.
The tomatoes are pink and blemish-free. They look like industrial candle wax.
“Did YOU grow them?” I ask.
He winks. “Friend of mine.”
But of course.
We talk. He’s been wanting to talk. He heard I’m a writer. He tells me he is a writer.
Since the third grade, he’s written over seven hundred poems. Maybe more.
His poems are mostly for his own reflection. Though he’s written poetry for local papers—a few funerals and birthdays.
He recites one. It’s about rows of peanuts, blue skies, and a dying mother. My kind of poetry.
But he never got a chance to pursue a career in writing. When the Vietnam draft enacted, he joined. Instead of poetry, he learned how to jump out of airplanes.
“Killing changes you,” he says, “You’re trained to think of your enemy as nothing but a target, not human. Just how it is.”
All I can do is nod.
“But then,” he goes on. “You’re back home, you get to thinking about their mothers and such. And it messes with you.”
When he arrived stateside, he wasn’t the same. The guilt was crippling. Not for killing, but for surviving. His best friends met their ends before his eyes.
His first week home, he slept outdoors. Sleeping inside made him nervous.
And he had no interest in writing—it was hard enough just making conversation at a supermarket.
So he read.
He tells me his favorite book is the King James Bible. His other favorite authors: Whitman, Eliot, and Emerson.
You don’t meet many cussing cowboys who read Whitman for kicks.
One night, while reading, he had an idea.
“Decided I didn’t wanna be ME anymore. I wanted to be reborn. Figured, ‘Hell, I’m gonna give myself a clean start.’”
So he started calling himself Jim.
His whole life, he’d been Robert, but he’d worn out that name overseas.
He laid Robert’s dog-tags to rest and re-baptized himself into a normal life.
He got on with living, and it wasn’t easy. He wrote a little; cried a lot. He got married. He had a family.
Today, he’s a faceless gray-headed American who pays his taxes and plays with grandkids. He is a forgotten hero in a ten-gallon hat. A God’s-honest patriot.
And now he puts the shuck to out-of-town travelers, selling factory-farm-grown tomatoes for homegrown prices.
I ask if he has a favorite poem.
He recites one without even thinking. He says the lyrics have helped him survive the hardest periods of his life. And battlefields.
His voice is slow. I’ve heard this poem before. It’s one I’ve always liked.
The last line is my favorite:
“For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever.”