Peaks and Valleys
By Clement Hanson
Sally stepped through the door carrying a stack of envelopes. She sorted through bills, coupons, and “one time only” offers.
“Clem, aren’t you supposed to get your first Army pension check this week?”
I glanced at the Army wall calendar and reached for a binder near the phone. “Here, Tab A: ‘Your First Military Retirement Paycheck: If you have not received it after thirty days of date of retirement, contact Albert Mobley, Retirement Services Officer.’”
“Sal, I called Albert two weeks ago. He said the check would arrive ‘the first business day of the month after retirement, direct deposit into the retiree’s checking account.’” I logged on to our bank website. “No check deposit.”
The wall calendar stared at me. “Six weeks ago, the career counselor said, ‘veterans are in big demand in the job market.’ Baloney. Three weeks of emailing resumes, two interviews, no offer.”
“Clem, I balanced the check book yesterday. For now, we’re okay. Isn’t the Retirement Office open this morning?”
“You’re right.” I dialed Albert’s number. The line was busy. There was no way to leave a voice message. I never bothered to get his email address. “I’m driving over to Al’s office.”
I hugged Sally as tight as I did years earlier after coming home from Operation Desert Storm. When I opened the garage door and climbed into my rust-speckled Volvo, I noticed the faded blotch on the right rear seat. Anne, then a one year old, spilled milk on the seat cover as I drove our family from east to west coast. It was an Army “permanent change of station” transfer that culminated in a five day car trip which crossed four time zones with two kids, wife, and a stuffed trunk.
I arrived at Al Mobley’s office before lunch time. He clasped my hand. “Colonel Hanson, how are you? Haven’t seen you since your retirement ceremony.”
How could the Army screw up mailing a paycheck? I deserved better treatment after serving my country for twenty years. “Fine, I guess.”
Al motioned me toward a chair next to his desk. A U.S. Army Airborne banner spread over the wall behind him adjacent to the American flag. In a nearby conference room, I heard a male voice explaining Army’s Survivor Benefit Plan and Veterans Administration disability benefits.
Al rang the Army Finance Office in Cleveland and settled the issue. “That should take care of it, Colonel. Sometimes the beaurocracy messes up.”
“Thank you. But in my experience, military beaurocracy messes up more often than ‘sometimes.’”
“Clem, I’ve known you for over ten years. Retirement after a full twenty year career is a huge transition. Let’s be frank. There are retired officers less fortunate than you.”
I felt my blood pressure rise. “How?”
“Do you know Lieutenant Colonel Lawrence Sterling?”
“Yeah. I worked with him at Fitzsimons Army Medical Center. Nice guy. Haven’t heard from him. How is he?”
“Not well. He’s hospitalized at the Denver V.A. for stage three prostate cancer. According to the VA, he’s eligible for disability compensation due to Agent Orange exposure.”
My mouth turned dry.
“Larry and I served together with the One Hundred and First Airborne in Vietnam,” Al said. “He retired from active duty last month. Now he’s in hospice care at the VA.”
I recalled Larry’s tenaciousness and hard work ethic. But I never had bothered to keep in touch with him. “Does he have family here?”
“No. But his brother and sister are in Seattle.”
“I didn’t even show up at his retirement ceremony. Completely forgot. Too busy with my own problems.”
Al rolled his eyes.
“Thanks. I have a personal mission.” I drove to the Denver VA. When I entered the lobby, a front desk receptionist gave me directions to Larry’s private room. I shuffled inside. The room smelled of Pine Sol.
A gray-haired African American man wearing a green Seattle Mariner’s tee shirt and blue hospital pants lay on a metal frame bed. A pillow elevated his swollen legs. A bag of Normal Saline hung to his left, delivering fluid through a catheter in his left forearm. His face was drawn and his limbs showed muscle atrophy. Larry’s brown eyes flashed unbridled joy.
He let loose a hacking cough. “Hey, Doc, haven’t seen you for a while. How are you doing?”
I pulled up a chair, sat down, and took his right hand. “Fine. Out looking for a civilian job.”
He released my hand and poked a slender finger at me. “Buddy, don’t mess with me. Your face tells me you’re not ‘fine.’”
Over the next fifteen minutes, my pent up emotions erupted. Larry listened patiently as I ranted about the overdue paycheck, unsuccessful job hunting, my aging Volvo, and the Transition Training Officer who underestimated challenges of veterans hunting jobs in a bruised economy.
Larry held up his left arm. “I’ve got a tube in my arm and somebody has to help me to the commode. But you got a family, house, a car, and something to put on your resume.”
My cheeks reddened. I buried my face in my hands.
Larry reached over the bed rail and rested his hand on my shoulder. “Hey, that’s okay, buddy. Everyone’s life has peaks and valleys. Most people want only the peaks. Then they find out the peaks are sometimes ‘false peaks.’ But the dark valleys show you what’s really important.”
I straightened up.
“Clem, dig deep down in your soul and thank God for what you have.” He coughed. “When’s the last time you took your wife and kids out to dinner?”
“You got a lot more to do than hunt for a job.”
After fifteen minutes of polite conversation, I stood up and grabbed his hand. Though his fingers were thin, his grip remained strong. “See you again, Larry.”
He waved me away. “Get home to your family.”
The pension check arrived in my bank account the following week. My job hunting continued over the next two weeks. A close friend and former Army doctor helped me land a job as an Occupational Health physician. Sally kept her job as a full time teacher. The kids did okay in school, and the Volvo continued to run, despite mounting repair bills.
Three weeks from my visit with Larry, I faltered through the door after an eleven hour clinic shift. Sally had gone to an evening parent-teachers meeting. I could hear the kids upstairs tapping on their computer keyboards.
The phone rang. I raised the receiver and pressed it to my ear. Al Mobley’s voice rasped. “Clem, I’m sorry to call you so late. Larry died last night.”
My breath froze.
“One of his junior officers had volunteered to put his affairs in order. I arranged for transport of his body to Seattle.”
I eased down on the sofa. Hot tears streamed from my eyes. “Thanks, Al.” My voice choked. “Thanks for helping my buddy.”
Over the following years, Sally and I learned that the valleys in our lives brought us sum and substance. But the peaks provided hollow transience.
I thanked God for my “buddy.” It took Larry to set me on the right trajectory.