Theodore and Catherine arrived at the bar halfway into my first glass of a mediocre Cabernet. I had been the only one there up until that point. My two oldest sons were happily playing air hockey and video games just down the hall of the ski resort where we were staying; we were killing time before dinner.
I had enjoyed talking with Cindy, the very interesting 28-year-old bartender. I smiled when one of her co-workers handed her a Grolsch bottle and told her it was his latest homebrew. She was instructed to please return the bottle when she was finished with the beer. Cindy said, "Hell, yeah. Thanks."
Theodore was wearing a sportcoat. That should say it all. We were at a bar, next to a Mexican food restaurant, an arcade down the hall, at a Utah ski resort technically still off-season. People were skiing, but the snow was poor. Theodore pulled a chair out for his wife, leaving an empty chair between the two of them and me.
Over the next thirty minutes, I learned how Theodore hates to be called Ted or Theo and Catherine isn't a fan of Cate or Cathy. They had two teenage kids who were up in their rooms because they were tired from their private snowboarding lessons and "...just had to have sushi." *obnoxious chuckle* The family was from Los Angeles. Theodore told me about the runs he'd skied and how he's a lover of powder. I think he's skied nearly every mountain in the U.S. and in Europe, per Theodore himself. He told me he grew up in Europe and misses the loong runs of European mountains.
Theodore and Catherine... bugged me. Theodore talked too much about money, clearly a man who's ego was fueled and identity defined by his income and bank account. He and Catherine both recounted the winds and cliffs they'd conquered while skiing earlier in the day. They looked older than me, and were the large, squishy variety of people. It's always a little suspicious when the large, squishy folks boast about their athletic prowess. Then again, I've been out-run by chunky gals, and seen some grace in motion on the mountain from the plus-size set. You never know.
In walks Gus. Glorious Gus. He didn't look old enough to drink... legally. He was carded and proved that he'd been 21 for three months, then he took a seat in the empty chair between Catherine and me. He'd been coming to Utah every year for Thanksgiving since he was a kid and was meeting some buddies.
NOTE: Gus' real name is something so COOL, but I can't tell you. When we were talking about names he said his parents almost named him Gus. I shared with him that Chris and I also almost named our 4-year-old son, Gus -- after Augustus McCrae in Lonesome Dove.
With a smile on his face and a thick, boyish lisp, Gus gave Theodore, Catherine, Bartender Cindy, and me a gift that night.
Gus joined the Army when he was 18 and is halfway through a six-year commitment. He's currently stationed at Fort Hood and had just returned from Afghanistan when the massacre occurred. He was in the building across from the tragedy when it happened. Gus spoke freely about some experiences and understandably sterilized others. He received a Purple Heart after being shot in the chest when he stood up in a foxhole. He pulled the collar of his t-shirt down so we could see a portion of his scar. He grinned and told us he and his buddy had been filming each other prior to the shooting. As he went down, he childishly and honestly admitted that he looked at his friend and said, "Please tell me you got that on film..."
Theodore and Catherine were quiet. Cindy listened as she cleaned glasses behind the bar. I selfishly thought about my own sons as I absorbed Gus' words and mannerisms.
The conversation jumped from Gus' Army experiences to his high school days, and vacations with cousins. We all let him drive.
Gus has seen young men die and recently lost his Lieutenant. His mother encouraged him to seek psychological help to process all he'd endured at his young age. I told him the media has highlighted the need for more mental health professionals in the military. He told me, "Those guys sit behind a desk and push paper. They don't know what it's like." His half-smile and cheerful tone, punctuated his words with sharp irony.
He shared a particularly disturbing story about a puppy he'd adopted in Afghanistan. He said the stray dogs were difficult for him because he loves dogs. If a dog continued to trip a flare wire, intended to alert when an enemy was approaching, orders were given to kill the dog. Gus used his night vision device to identify the dogs and threw rocks to scare them away. He couldn't bear the thought of shooting the animals.
He adopted a puppy and named him Reggie after a dog he'd had as a child. He said the puppy was still basically a stray because pets weren't allowed at camp, but everyone knew the dog was "his". He said he has a picture he loves where he's cradling Reggie with one arm, the puppy's nose peeking out of his jacket, and his gun in the other arm.
One night one of Gus' fellow soldiers returned to his sleeping spot to find Reggie had peed on his blankets and bed. Reggie wasn't even three months old. Enraged, the soldier killed the young dog.
Gus' demeanor never deviated from light. He didn't come across as complaining or trying to showboat with heavy stories. He was a kid, talking with people at a bar, answering an occasional question, checking his cell phone, all with a boyish smile, Ron Howard eyes [sweet but old] and that awesome, thick lisp.
Theodore and Catherine needed to get their kids to a sushi bar, and Gus' buddies had called with word on where they planned to meet. Theodore picked up Gus' tab and shook his hand. Gus chatted with me for a few more minutes before excitedly leaving to join his friends. I shook his hand and said, "I know it sounds corny, but thank you." He smiled and said, "You're welcome."
Cindy and I visited for a while, discussing life, parenting and war... I imagine topics a bartender is well-versed in.
My sons entered the bar, signaling they were out of tokens and ready for dinner. I proudly introduced them to Cindy, then she politely asked them to step outside of the bar... because they were... too young.