Back in winter, I was riding on the train from Brooklyn into Manhattan, when a large black man about my age sat down next to me. He dropped something on the floor and said to the white woman sitting across from him, “When you get older, you lose things.” And she smiled. I just listened.

He got going on the Vietnam War, how he had been in combat and had been shot three times in his right hand. He had a huge mitt of a hand. He showed me the scars and said one finger had been shot off and reattached. With some bitterness, he said, “It was only the black kids that were doing the dying. The white boys were off protesting the war!” I sat and listened, saying nothing about the protests I had been in, the clubs and rifle butts that had whirled around me, the hospitals I had worked in.

He changed tone and said that after the war he had gone to college on the GI bill and had a pretty good life. He volunteered the incredible piece of information that he hadn’t had sex until he was 20. I sat and listened. I figured it was important for him to say these things and for us to listen. Mostly he had mellowed over the years; there remained only these few drops of sorrow to release.

When my stop came, I shook his hand and wished him luck, and he smiled. As I exited the train, a thought formed in my mind, that his hand had somehow attracted those bullets to it, from other parts of his body, and therefore saved his life. He had survived the war, and the years following, with both hands. I regretted I had been unable to tell him my thought about his big lucky hand. But I was glad he had told his story and I had listened.

Comment posted in response to The Great Trauma Of Your Generation, by Ta-Nehisi Coates, on The Atlantic, June 15, 2011. By Hudson Owen

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