31 Aug, 2011
The sort of gentleman who would be described as “distinguished,” John Harris is 67 years old, though I told him he doesn’t look a day over 61. Straight-backed, and impeccably dressed in a tailored suit for the wedding he’s here to attend, John drapes both his hands over the top of a cane, the first few fingers intertwined, gold rings alight underneath the lobby chandeliers.
“Is it always this busy?” John asks as he sits in the chair opposite me at one of the lobby tables where I’m observing all the action of a Saturday afternoon in summer. We talk while he waits for a shuttle to the offsite reception for his wife’s niece, who’s getting married today. Himself married for 36 years—celebrated in May—John points out his wife. Seated on the couch among a large group of finely dressed people of differing ages, she certainly stands out: her blonde hair swept up, her glasses frame her face beautifully, while a sparkling necklace circles her throat. She has the proper carriage of a fine lady, and exudes warmth underneath her beauty. The secret to a long marriage, according to John? Consideration, care, patience and always staying in communication.
Home for John and his wife, is Chicago. Both are recently retired: she from several decades as a doctor in the Chicago Public Schools, he from life as a restaurateur, running lounges that featured live music—both contemporary ‘Top 40’ acts and classic jazz. His finest establishment, City Life, still operates as he set it up, even though it’s under new management, and offers three jazz shows a week. When I tell him I’m a fan of classic jazz and blues, he tells me I need to come listen to “June Yvonne” sing Billie Holiday.
John is quiet-spoken, but with a definite twinkle in the eye contact he levels at you and an understated intensity to his conversation, though laced with nothing but sincerity. It’s not a surprise, then, to learn that he was a Marine, serving for 12 years and doing two tours in Vietnam. The noise of the crowded lobby evaporates into a mere background murmur as we talk about his time served. His comrades are still his friends, though only three of his ten closest are still alive: “When you go through what we did, you forge bonds for life.”
Impassioned, his eyes a little watery, we talk about how different things are now for returning veterans of wars and other armed conflicts, compared to Vietnam. There’s a new generation, it seems to both of us, who can oppose a conflict—sometimes vehemently—but who maintain great respect for those who serve. Mostly I listen as he talks about this concept and what a welcome change it is to what he went through; he particularly feels it’s important to keep that human connection to one another, especially as war becomes increasingly mechanized and anonymous. Despite our differences, we can all find common ground within our humanity; perhaps if we focus on that, we can only become more considerate of, and care for, one another.
Our conversation is suddenly interrupted by a younger guy, jacket slung over his shoulder and carrying a baby, who approaches jocularly, calling out, “John! Time to go! Quit flirting!”
John stands, balancing on his cane, introduces me to his wife and, before he goes, shakes my hand. It’s a double handed shake—my one enveloped in his two—the kind you get from a person you feel it is an honor to acquaint yourself with… and however brief an honor, an honor it was indeed.
We who have seen war, will never stop seeing it. In the silence of the night, we will always hear the screams. So this is our story, for we were soldiers once, and young.
(quote from ‘We Were Soldiers’)