Prichard, Alabama—I’m pumping gas. This is a bad part of town. The kind of place you see on the evening news, where they string yellow tape on people’s porches.
Here, locals often speak to news cameras, saying: “He seemed like such a nice man, pumping gas, minding his business, then WHAM!”
I should’ve waited to buy gas somewhere else.
I see a man pushing a shopping cart full of tin cans. After him: two women in leopard-print Spandex, probably on their way to Bible study.
When I pay at the pump, I hear a voice. It’s a man. He makes a beeline for me, hollering, “Hey boss!” He’s old, wearing a backpack and an Army ball-cap. His eyes are bloodshot.
He says, “Help a veteran out, man. I’m a veteran. I swear. You wanna see my veteran card?”
I shake his hand and introduce myself. He misunderstands me when I tell him my name and calls me “John.”
This man’s breath is strong enough to kill mosquitoes.
I reach for my wallet. All I have is a ten and a Target gift card. I hand them over.
It’s not much, but he thanks me and says, “John, I’m gonna use this to buy food, John, I promise.”
I wish he’d quit calling me that.
Anyway, modern wisdom says it’s unwise to give money to men like this. And maybe that’s true. But, I come from a long line of men who do stupid things with cash.
My great grandaddy, for instance, was a card-playing gambler and a whiskey sipper.
My father was frivolous in a different way. Once, I rode to Franklin with Daddy. He picked up a hitchhiker. We rode some two hundred miles while that young man talked Daddy’s ear off. He was filthy, and smelled like a substance commonly found in cattle pastures.
My daddy just listened.
We pulled into a truck stop. Daddy bought him lunch, then gave the kid the contents of his wallet.
The boy started crying. He hugged Daddy and said, “God bless you, sir. I’m gonna use this for food. I swear.”
“Don’t care how you spend it,” said Daddy. “Long as you buy American.”
A patriot, my father.
I asked Daddy why he gave money away like that.
“I didn’t GIVE nothing,” he said. “I BOUGHT something. That kid God-blessed me. You realize how much God-bless-yous are worth these days?”
I guess I’m still learning.
Anyway, my homeless veteran doesn’t hug me. No magic. No light from heaven.
But I do get a salute. He says, “God bless you, John.”
Then he rides away.
And just before I write this, I say a prayer for a stranger—who could be a veteran—who mistakenly calls me John.
Which as it happens, was my father’s name.
God bless you, sir.