The Cracker Barrel is slammed. And loud. Inside, there isn’t much in the way of elbow room. There are heaps of people eating dangerous amounts of biscuits. And I am trying to master the wooden Triangle Peg game.
The object of this game, of course, is simple. Leave the fewest pegs remaining on the triangle as possible.
Let’s say, for instance, you finish a game and only one peg is left. This means you are a NASA-level genius. Two pegs; you are moderately clever. Four pegs; your parents are first cousins.
I love it at Cracker Barrel. But then, I have a long history with this institution. I’ve eaten at Cracker Barrels from Beaverton, Oregon, to Prattville, Alabama. I’ve eaten here on Thanksgiving, the day I graduated college, the morning after my wedding, and the day after my father died. The food suits me.
The overhead music always has steel guitar in it. The people in the giftshop always ask how you’re doing. And if you’re bored, you can always embarrass your wife by buying a Davy Crockett hat and wearing it into the dining room.
Today, an elderly couple is sitting next to me as I fiddle with the peg game. The old man is skinny. She is frail. They are shoulder to shoulder. The man is wearing a hospital bracelet. His entire lower leg is in a medical brace. His face is bruised purple. There is dried blood on his forearms. He is resting his head onto the old woman’s shoulder because it looks like he’s been through hell itself.
She is helping him drink his Coke with a straw.
“I love you, Judy,” he says between sips.
She just pats his head.
On the other side of the dining room is a table of paramedics. They are young, wearing buzz cuts, clad in cargo pants, with radios mounted on their shoulders. Their eyes are drooping, and the coffee isn’t helping. It looks like they’ve had a long night.
I eavesdrop on their conversation:
“What’re you doing for Easter?”
“Sleeping,” says the other.
“My kids wanna hunt eggs at church,” says another.
“Yeah, well, I’m just gonna give my kids 20 bucks and go back to bed, I’ve worked two ten-hour shifts. I’m about to start hallucinating.”
These men are modern day saints. I don’t care what you say. You can have your reality TV stars and your social media influencers. Show me an EMT, and I’ll show you the embodiment of all that is good in America.
Meatime, behind me is a young family with several kids. Four boys. Three boys healthy looking. One is not. One child is small and slight, with a colostomy bag. He has a device mounted on his head, just behind the ear. I believe it’s a neuroprosthetic implant for those with hearing problems.
The boy stares at his older brother’s plate and says, “Can I have some of your pancakes, J.D.?”
The older boy rolls his eyes. “You mean, you already finished your pancakes? You old pig.”
“I was hungry, J.D.”
J.D. does something incredible. Although he is a teenager, and although he is at that age where kids are notoriously selfish, the teenage boy relinquishes his pancakes and places them onto his little brother’s plate. J.D. hasn’t even taken a bite of his pancakes yet, and still, he gives them away.
The little boy’s face glows like a landing strip. “Thanks J.D! YOU’RE SUCH A GOOD BROTHER!”
Across from me, I see the elderly woman is now feeding the elderly man. She is administering spoonfuls of grits to his mouth, blowing on them to cool them down, then dabbing his chin with a napkin. Occasionally, she kisses his forehead.
Then, the room fills with a loud beeping sound. Everyone’s heads turn to look at the EMTs, whose radios are squawking and hissing. The paramedics stand. They leave cash on the table. They slam their coffees. They jog out of the restaurant and we all see them through the windows. Off to save a life. They pile into their vehicles, sound the sirens, and speed toward hell itself.
Genuine heroes, I tell you.
As it happens, I’m not smart enough to conquer the peg game, but I know a few things.
I know that people are beautiful. I know that life is a treat that does not last half as long as we expect it will. I know that the elderly couple beside me embodies the purest of love known to humans. I know that all EMTs deserve a giant pay raise. And above all, I know that J.D. is a very good brother.
I sincerely hope you have a Good Friday.