Memorial Day is a time for remembering. Maybe that’s why this Memorial Day weekend, I remember a strange encounter I had in Tucumcari, New Mexico, three Memorial Days ago.
I was on a road trip with my wife and daughter from our home in Charlotte, North Carolina, to Manitou Springs, Colorado. By the time we arrived in Tucumcari, we had driven more than a thousand miles. We had stopped at Graceland and the Oklahoma City Bombing Memorial, and now we were at the end of our interstate travels, at least for a while. Our plan was to turn north and drive on back roads—what William Least Heat Moon called America’s “blue highways”—to our ultimate destination.
Tucumcari is the only town of any size between Amarillo, Texas, and Albuquerque, N.M. I was not hopeful we would find much here, but the city has a rich history as a way-station for travelers, and it makes the most of its location on America’s Mother Road, Route 66. Some of its diners are intentionally retro, a throwback to the 1960s, and the town hosts several festivals a year that celebrate America’s automobile heritage.
Upon our hotel manager’s recommendation, we had an excellent dinner at Del’s, run by two sisters who own three restaurants in town. Several years ago they were named Restaurateurs of the Year by a regional trade magazine. All of which is to say you never know what surprises you might find on the open road.
I learned that lesson again the next morning as we filled up our car with gas and prepared for the journey north. A black Volvo pulled up at the pump next to us. The car had Tennessee license plates. Tennessee is one of the few states that display counties on license plates, and I noticed that the Volvo came from Davidson County. I also noticed three white oval stickers. Two of them said “IRAQ” in large letters, and in much smaller letters: “I SERVED.” The third sticker said, “AFG.”
The man who got out of the car was large, well over six feet tall and at least 220 pounds. He was dressed casually to the point of being unkempt—sweatpants and a T-shirt, with unlaced boots. But as he moved around to the rear of his car, closer to me, I could see that he was more disheveled than shabby. The sweatpants, though casual, were stylish, with a designer label. The shirt was made of one of those high-tech fabrics that athletes wear, which cost a fortune. It fit his sculpted body carefully. He opened his trunk and pulled out a pair of black high-top Nikes that probably carried a $200 price tag. He pulled off his boots one at a time, balancing on first one foot and then the other as he changed into the sneakers.
He then reached into the trunk again and pulled out a large prescription pill bottle. He palmed the childproof lid and poured a pill into his other hand, immediately slapping it into his mouth and swallowing without water.
I didn’t immediately notice that his arms were covered with tattoos, the largest of which said in an elaborate script, “VERITAS.” Truth.
“Are you from Nashville?” I asked. He didn’t appear startled by my question. He had been watching me watching him. I remembered I had read somewhere that hyper-vigilance was one symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder.
“Yeah,” he said. “A long way.”
“We were there three days ago,” I said.
“So you know,” he said. “I drove as far as I could and had to stop. Couldn’t focus anymore.” It was more than a thousand miles from Nashville to Tucumcari. Had he driven it nonstop, by himself?
Sensing a story, and encouraged by his willingness to talk, I ventured another question: “Where are you headed?”
“Vegas,” he said. “A buddy of mine shot himself.”
That was not the story I was expecting.
“A guy I had been, you know, sort of mentoring,” he continued. “It’s funny. We had talked just a week ago, and I could tell something was up. But I had my kids that weekend. I told him I could shuffle things around, but he told me not to, so I didn’t think things were that bad. Then a couple of days later his mother called. I could tell right away that something was wrong.”
He stopped talking and tears welled up in his eyes. He clenched his jaw in an unsuccessful attempt to keep his lips from quivering.
I took a step closer to him and held out my hand. He reached out his massive arm, the one with the VERITAS tattoo, and folded his hand around mine. I noticed then that I could barely talk either. I was able to squeeze out, in a whisper, the wholly inadequate words: “I’m sorry.”
Right about then, on the other side of my car, the automatic shutoff on the gas pump filling my tank loudly clicked off. It startled both of us and we let our hands drop.
“Safe travels,” he said softly.
And that was it. We both got in our cars and left. I headed north to Colorado, to teach high and college kids about the Christian worldview, and he headed west to Vegas, to comfort his buddy’s grieving family, and likely to shed more tears himself.
Today, I find myself in Manitou Springs, Colorado again, once again preparing to speak to kids interested in learning about the Christian worldview, interesting in learning about the Truth. A part of what I will teach them is that we live in a broken world. In a way, that’s what Memorial Day, rightly understood, is about. When we remember those who died for our country, we remind ourselves of the brokenness of the world and the need for sacrifice to restore it to some semblance of the goodness for which God created it. It is a hard but necessary discipline, this discipline of remembering, especially when the remembering calls to mind our own brokenness, and the brokenness of the world.
And that is why, on this Memorial Day weekend, in the Year of Our Lord 2017, all I can think about is man with the VERITAS tattoo.