I was at a place that served good burgers and cold beer. There was a Labrador running around, begging from customers. Dolly Parton’s voice was overhead.
The old man beside me was eating a burger.
“You aren’t from around here,” he said.
“No sir,” I said. “Just stopped for supper.”
“Well, you picked a good place, they got decent food.”
Things went silent. The gentle quietness that passes between two patrons at a bar is sacred. You don’t interrupt a man and his ground beef. It’s irreverent.
The Labrador showed up at our feet. The old animal sat right on his haunches. He wagged his tail when the old man made eye-contact.
“Dadgum dog,” he said. “What’s a dog doing in here anyway?”
The old man removed a piece of bacon from his hamburger and tossed it to the dog. The dog ate it in one bite. Fido indicated he was willing to go for two.
You can tell a lot about a man by the way he treats a dog. And you can tell even more by the way the dog treats him back.
My grandfather used to attract local dogs and small children. They followed him wherever he went.
So he’s originally from Chattanooga—the old man, not the dog. I don’t know where the dog is from. We pump hands and introduce ourselves.
A long time ago, he was an EMT. He spent the better half of his life saving people in the backs of ambulances.
“Started in EMS back in the early days,” he said. “Back when we had low headroom vehicles that looked like white hearses.”
The dog is still staring at him.
The old man tosses the stray a few French fries.
“Yeah,” he went on, “I’ve seen a lot in my time.”
When he was a young man, he was a student of atheism, he told me. Back then, he believed mankind was alone on this big rotating rock. He didn’t believe in anything but death at taxes.
But his occupation changed his mind.
He said, “You can’t hold a critical two-year-old in your arms and not believe something big is up there.”
I ask a few more questions, and I get a few more stories.
“I remember this wreck,” he said. “A Camaro got T-boned, a mother and three kids were in it. Everyone died except the oldest daughter.”
The task of consoling the surviving girl was left to him. It shook him up. Ever since that night, he’s kept in touch with that child from afar, just to make sure she’s getting along okay. He prays for her every night, even still.
He tells another story. It happened when he was in his late forties.
There was an old woman in the back of his ambulance who had suffered a massive stroke. She was not doing well. The woman was slurring her words, shouting, “Elaine! Elaine! I can see Elaine!”
“And she was pointing right at me,” the old man said. “I almost lost it ‘cause, you see, Elaine was my mother’s name, and she’d been gone for years.”
The man asked the woman who she was calling for. She looked him in the eye and said, “You already know Elaine!”
The woman died in the ambulance, but that memory didn’t.
He told the family of the deceased all about it. The family of the woman said they did not know anyone named Elaine.
“It was the kind of thing that changes you,” he said. “She coulda said any name, right? But she said my mother’s name.”
He’s been out of the EMS lifestyle for a long time. Not by choice. The work finally became too much for his lower back.
“If I were your age,” he said. “I’d still be out there doing it, nothing I love more than being on the move.”
When I finished my burger and beer, I shook his hand. His grip was firm. And it occurred to me that I was not shaking a normal hand.
The wrinkled mitt I was holding was a hand that had prevented hundreds, maybe thousands of deaths. The hand of a healer. A helper. A man who held the dying. A hero. The realest kind there is.
He bid me goodbye, I wished him well.
I stood at the cash register to pay my tab. The bartender approached the register and said, “You don’t owe anything, Mister Chuck already paid for your burger and beer.”
“Really?” I said.
“Yeah,” she said. “Isn’t he a great guy? I don’t know him that well, but I figure he must be alright because that old dog follows him wherever he goes.”