I entered Alabama at 11:03 a.m. The sky was vivid blue and cloudless. I pulled into a gas station not far from the state line.
I was exhausted and depleted after a morning on the road. For nearly 40 miles I had been stuck behind a dilapidated truck on a two-lane highway. The truck’s bumper sticker read, NICK SABAN IS MY LOVE LANGUAGE.
I swiped my card. I started pumping gas. And that’s where I met the General, at gas pump Number Eight.
The General introduced himself to me. He was maybe five-four, with a blazing white beard, a pronounced limp. He was bone thin and smelled like a distillery.
There were strips of duct tape on his shoes. His jeans were ragged. He had a duffel bag slung over his shoulder and a calico cat resting in his arms.
“Can you help two travelers out?” he said.
“Where are you traveling?” I asked.
“Ain’t decided yet. Right now we’re fundraising. Can you spare anything?”
“How about ten bucks?”
It was a pittance, but it was all I
had. The General took the cash and thanked me. He told me the United States Army thanked me. Then he nodded to the calico cat, who was purring. “My lieutenant general thanks you, too.”
I almost saluted, but thought better of it.
A few more of the General’s troops emerged from the shadows near the filling station. Some in the General’s company were Persian-white, others were orange striped, one was tri-colored. They flocked to the elderly high-ranking officer, meowing their tails off.
The brass hat stooped on his heels, reached into his heavy duffel bag and removed a bag of Walmart-brand cat food. He scooped out several handfuls and placed the multi-colored food on the pavement near the pump.
“Troops got to eat,” he said.
“What about you?” I asked. “You need to eat, too.”
He shook his head. “They eat. Then…