The Panera Stranger

This was an introduction to Seeking Quan Am that I kept for a long time before going in a different direction.

Mark Smith and I were sitting with a friend in a coffee shop in Ithaca, N.Y. waiting for a mechanic to repair my car. The three of us had been to Vietnam together and we were enjoying a reunion visit. Mark wore a cap with “Vietnam Veteran” embroidered above the bill. We sipped our coffee and nibbled pastry, talking. Suddenly, a stranger appeared at our table, thrust his hand at Mark, and boomed, “Thank you for your service!” Mark, who was holding his coffee cup in his right hand, used his left to simultaneously take the man’s hand and wave him away. The man said something else in a hearty voice and left.

The stranger had thought he was doing the right thing but his interruption unsettled us. Many Vietnam veterans had felt that their return from that war, difficult enough under any circumstances, had been made worse by the deep divisions they encountered among civilians at home, so perhaps the stranger wanted to make up for that, doing now in a random, drive-by kind of way, what had not been done then. The encounter left us – and perhaps him as well – feeling awkward and vaguely annoyed.

What the man did not know, and did not take the time to find out, is that while he does not want to be thanked for something called “service,” Mark is happy to talk to people who want to hear his story. As a witness to war Mark had written about his experience in the 60’s but his writing had no audience, no one – apart from a few close friends – willing to take the time to listen. If I had gone after the stranger, invited him to come back and sit down with us, he could have listened to the story of a young man, raised in an ordinary, JFK-liberal family, living in a college town, who decides to experience at first hand what it is like to go to war.

Mark’s father had been drafted into the Army and had spent three years in the Pacific – Guadalcanal, Bougainville, Cebu – and had earned a Combat Infantryman’s Badge, the Bronze Star and a Presidential Unit Citation. An uncle on his mother’s side had flown in B-26 bombers in the Aleutians, his mother had worked as an Army civilian employee in Boston, and a grandfather had been an engineer officer on the Western Front in 1918. Nevertheless, there had been no assumption that Mark would join this or that service to continue a family tradition. Until high school he had not given much thought to the military as an alternative to college. When he had thought about military service at all, he saw himself on a Navy destroyer in the North Atlantic, playing cat-and-mouse Cold War games with Russian subs and making his way into a meteorology career.

All that changed at the dinner table one evening when Mark heard the correspondent on CBS say that, now that 3,000 combat infantrymen had gone in to Vietnam, “It’s an American war.” The blunt judgment gave him the feeling that his life had slipped into sympathetic harmony with history, that he understood, in however vague and undefined a way, that Vietnam was destined to be the defining event for his generation, just as the Depression and the Civil War had been for generations gone before. He wanted to see for himself. He wanted to go to Vietnam.

I had gone to high school with Mark. The war in Vietnam had defined my coming-of-age also but I had taken a different path. As a woman, a civilian, and an anti-Vietnam war activist, I had had to learn to listen to Mark and it had not always been easy. This is our story. We invite you to listen in on the conversation.