It’s a frigid Saturday afternoon and I’m at the dog park with Buster, my joint custody pooch. As I watch Buster evade a Chihuahua by leaping on top of a picnic table, I stamp my feet in an attempt to keep warm. I might be freezing my balls off, but, by the way Buster’s tail is wagging, he looks like he could stay out here all day. Then again, he hasn’t got any balls. I should know. I paid to have them removed. Maybe this is Buster’s way of getting back at me.
A gust of wind bounces off the nearby river and the park’s nude trees begin to shiver. I pull my watch cap down over my ears and glance at my watch. If Buster doesn’t get his daily bout of exercise he’ll act like a whiny nudge all night. I guess I can survive fifteen minutes before terminal shrinkage kicks in. As I try to remember the first aid protocol for treating a frostbitten penis, I hear the latch to the dog park’s gate rattle. I turn around and smile when I see who’s coming in. It’s an old man named Peter, being dragged along by his his six month old Jack Russell terrier, Rembrandt.
“Hey Peter,” I call out.
“Hi Steve,” Peter replies. “Happy New Year.”
“Happy New Year to you too.”
“How’s Buster doing?”
“Being his normal anti-social self.”
Peter laughs and pulls his coat tighter around him. “That’s the kind of dog he is.”
“Lord,” Peter says, “It’s freezing out.”
“This is when owning a dog sucks,” I reply.
“Tell me about it,” Peter says. “So how’s the new book coming along?”
“I’ve been doing a lot of interviews lately,” I reply. “Now that the holidays are over people have time to talk to me.”
“Who’ve you been talking you?”
“Doormen, strippers, hair stylists, waiters – any one who lives on tips.”
“Strippers huh?” Peter says, his eyes glinting. “Tough research huh?”
I chuckle. Peter’s a ninety-one year old guy with a lively wit and a zest for living. I don’t know many people born in 1918 who surf the web, drive hybrid cars, or rescue dogs out of shelters – but Peter does. Peter was born when Woodrow Wilson was President. He lived through the Great Depression, served in World War II, married and buried a wife, and saw the entire world change around him. It amazes me to think that he was fifty-one when I was born. Heck, he’s old enough to be my father’s dad.
“I’ve been doing most of my interviews over the phone,” I reply. “But soon I’ll be traveling to places and seeing the real thing.”
“So you’ll hit a few burlesque shows?” Peter asks.
“Maybe,” I say, winking.
“Where you gonna travel to?” Peter asks.
“Well, I’m trying to get a gig working at a coffee shop in Portland or Seattle. Try and get a sense of what those baristas go through.”
“Hey,” Peter says. “I know Seattle well.”
“I was in the coastal artillery back in ’41. Guarded the Bremerton Naval Yards.”
“Never did see any Japs,” Peter says. “But after Pearl Harbor we were convinced they were coming.”
“They did try floating balloons with bombs from Japan,” I say. “A few actually reached the Northwest and caused damage.”
“That’s right,” Peter says. “But it wasn’t a big deal.”
“Unless the balloon fell in your yard.”
“Did you spend the whole war with the costal artillery?”
“No,” Peter says, “I guarded German POWs for a while.”
“Any of them escape?”
“A few, but we always caught them.”
“What did you do to escapees?”
“We put them on bread and water for a day then let them back in with their buddies.”
“Sounds kind of soft.”
Peter laughs. “If an American serviceman went AWOL we threw him in the stockade for three months.”
“Better to be in the German Army in that case.”
“The krauts were dating the American girls in town,” Peter says. “Man’s gonna jump the fence when he gets lonely.”
“I’ll bet some of those guys married those girls and settled here in the States.”
“”Some of them did,” Pete says laughing. “Some of them did.”
“So did you finish out the war as a guard?”
“No,” Peter replies. “I got bored guarding prisoners so I trained as a medic. Eventually the army sent me to Walter Reed in D.C. to help with all the casualties.”
“That must have been rough.”
Peter looks at his dog and says nothing. For a long moment he looks his entire ninety-one years. “I saw things there that I never should have seen,” he says, softly. “Guys missing half their faces, all four limbs gone, crazy from shell shock. It was bad.”
I nod silently.
“But what really tore me up was when the soldiers’ families would visit,” Peter says. “And they’d see what happened to their sons or husbands.”
I remember something I read recently, “War is worse than hell, because hell punishes sinners but war punishes everyone.” But I don’t have to tell Pete that. He understands that on a level I never will.
“So what you do after the war?” I ask, changing the subject.
“Oh, lot’s of things,” Peter says, his face brightening. “I got married, had kids, that sort of thing.”
“What did you do for work?”
“I worked for the phone company for forty years,” Peter says proudly. “Then me and the wife traveled the world when I retired.”
“Very cool,” I reply. “Where did you go?”
“Everywhere,” Peter says. “Europe, Australia, China, Africa, Japan – you name it we went there.”
“Sounds like you and your wife had a great time.”
“We did, we did,” Peter says. “How about you? You ever been to abroad?”
‘I’m afraid not,” I reply. “Canada is about as international as I’ve gotten.”
“That’s one of the nice things about getting old,” Peter say. “You get time to travel.”
“My parents are doing that now,” I reply.
“Good for them.”
“What country did you least enjoy visiting?” I ask.
“Ugh,” Peter says. “I visited the Soviet Union back in the early ’80’s What a joyless place.”
“I can imagine.”
“I didn’t see anyone with a dog like we have here” Peter says, pointing to Rembrandt. “Isn’t that nuts? I think most people there couldn’t afford one.”
“They were standing on line for toilet paper back then.”
“True,” Peter says. “But you want to know the craziest thing that happened to me in Russia?”
“I was staying at a hotel in Leningrad,” Peter says. “It’s was for Westerners only. I got on the elevator to go the lobby and you know what I saw?’
“The most incredible set of violet eyes in the world.”
Since I’m a fan of old movies I make the connection instantly. “You met Elizabeth Taylor?”
“Yep,” Pete says. “Can you believe it?”
“That’s very, very cool.”
“She was once considered the most beautiful woman in the world you know.”
“It was her eyes,” Peter says, shaking his head. “Her eyes were amazing. Like jewels. And I got to meet her.”
I look at Peter. He’s thin, wearing an old down jacket and a hat with ear flaps. His face is lined with wrinkles and some of his teeth are askew. Many people walk past him and think he’s just another old man walking his dog in the park. But if you took five minutes to talk with him, you’d quickly realize that you were in the presence of someone who had lived all of his ninety-one years well. Peter’s eyes have seen the world in all it’s agony and ecstasy. As a result, they they shine with a luster that would give Ms. Taylor’s peepers a run for their money. I wonder what my eyes will look like when I’m old.
“Elizabeth Taylor was beautiful,” I say. “But I was always an Ava Gardner fan myself.”
“Oh boy,” Peter says. “She was something else too.”
At this point Buster nuzzles up against my leg. He’s finally had enough.
“Well Peter,” I say. “It’s time for me to go. I can’t feel my face anymore.”
“I think it’s time for me to be going to,” Pete says. “These old bones hate the cold.”
“I’ll see you next time.”
I leash Buster up and get into my car. As we wait for the heater to kick in I watch Peter climb into his macked out hybrid SUV – the kind with video cameras to help see behind you. He’s a piece of work.
And I want to be just like him when I grow up.