Creative Nonfiction Friendship Inspirational


                                        By David L. Elkind

I have been volunteering at Perception for two years. Perception helps people with cognitive problems, usually from Alzheimer’s disease. It hosts a series of activities each weekday that require its members to think to solve problems. The goal of Perception is to delay the time when each person’s cognitive decline renders them unable to function. I am a huge fan of the program because I’ve seen how much it benefits its participants. I’ve also had the good fortune of becoming friends with some of the most extraordinary people that I’ve known.  

I volunteer for an important personal reason. I’ve had a good life and I believe that I have a duty to give back.. Perception suits me perfectly. I participate fully with the members. I help them perform activities when they need help, and I tell countless jokes, some of which have the virtue of being funny.

One of the amazing people that I’ve met is Phil. Phil’s short term memory is poor. He has trouble remembering the names of the people who work at Perception and what year it is. His long term memory is still sharp. He tells long stories about old events. Some members have complained to me about the length of his stories. To avoid conflict, I have addressed their concerns by telling them that these long- winded stories help Phil because remembering them gives him a feeling of some control over his life. So far that has placated them.

One day Phil stood before everyone and said that he had a dollar for anyone who could guess his age.

“You’re 85,” I said.

“How did you know that?” he asked in wonderment.

“Because you told me,” I said. Everyone laughed. I wouldn’t take his dollar.

Phil is one of those larger than life figures. His shoulders are a little stooped, his gait has slowed, and he’s lost a couple of inches from his normal adult height, but there’s something imposing about the way he carries himself confidently, without saying a word. The first time we shook hands, he smiled and I couldn’t believe how firm his grip was. He seemed to enjoy my discomfort, releasing my fingers slowly, looking me straight in the eyes, a smile never leaving his face. It was as if he was saying, “You’re lucky it isn’t 30 year ago.” I shake hands with him frequently now, and I always steel myself for the strength of his grip.    

Phil served three tours in the Army during the Vietnam War. He was a helicopter pilot. “I started out with 35 colleagues,” he said. “I was the only one who wasn’t killed.” I did the research. The average life span of a helicopter pilot in Vietnam was from 13 to 30 days. It’s a wonder that anyone would accept the role. I asked Phil whether he had any close calls. He said that one time when he landed his helicopter had 13 bullet holes.

Phil told me about the time that his commanding officer forced his best friend to fly a helicopter that Phil knew was unsafe. The helicopter exploded, killing all aboard. Phil was so incensed that he punched out his commanding officer. “They sent several senior officers to our until to decide whether to court martial me,” he said. “They ended up sending the commanding officer to prison” at Leavenworth, Kansas.

Phil spoke often about the toll that the war took on the men in his unit. “You know how on MASH they show everyone drinking a lot,” he would say. “That was nothing compared to what happened in Vietnam. Everyone got so drunk they passed out. That was the only way that they could fall asleep with all of the horror going on.”

Phil saw how being in Vietnam sapped many of his colleagues of their humanity. Once he was flying over a clearing when he saw a large herd of elephants. He reported it on his radio, saying how beautiful they were. One colleague said, “Kill them.” Phil ignored him.

With all the of the awful events that he saw in Vietnam, I asked Phil if he could remember one that was particularly horrifying. Phil didn’t hesitate in his response. “There was a plane that tried to break through an area rife with North Vietnamese soldiers. What caused the incident was never determined, but the plane crashed near some mountains.” Phil was told to recover as many bodies as possible. “It was terrible,” he said. “The bodies were in so many pieces that we couldn’t tell when we had recovered an entire body, or who some body parts belonged to.” Then he saw something that brought him to tears.

“There was a young nurse that I had become friendly with,” he said. “She had gotten engaged just before coming to Vietnam and she was so proud of her engagement ring. She had one month left in Vietnam when the plane went down. I saw a hand with a ring on it. I knew.” He stopped after telling me the story and had to wipe his eyes, 50 years later.

I became a teenager in 1970 at the height of the war. My family was strongly anti-war. We went to all of the demonstrations, some of which were called moratoriums. The war left a scar that seemed impossible to heal. Then the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial opened in 1982. When Maya Lin’s design was shown in the newspaper, it was often panned. Then people saw it in the ground. It was breathtaking. As the memorial widens while you walked through to the peak years of the war, the tension is palpable. Seeing 58,000 names of young people who gave their lives to what was a senseless war provokes strong emotions every time I walk through it. It’s so sad that these peoples’ lives were ended in their youth.

One day seeing all of those names at the memorial opened my eyes to a problem that our antiwar feelings had caused. We had failed to separate our feelings about the war from our feelings about the people that fought the war, many involuntarily. I became ashamed that we had heaped scorn on these soldiers.

Phil’s stories gave me the ability to remedy some of the harm that my feelings had caused. When he told me his stories, I thanked him for his service. I told him that I was against the war, but that I appreciated what he tried to do in the service of our country. He told me that when he came back from Vietnam some people spit on him. He told the story with sadness more than anger.

I am honored to know Phil and to be able to consider him my friend. I sense that he had an intensity about life when he was younger, but that age had brought him the ability to remain calm under difficult circumstances. For the first time since I began volunteering, one person recently snapped during a session and yelled at Phil. Phil didn’t react, and the other man was led away. When he returned, Phil told him that everything was fine and hugged him. After what he had gone through in Vietnam, a little spat fifty years later wasn’t going to faze him.

I’ve made many friends at Perception. I’ve never had so much fun for so long in my life. Being able to help people and to give back has been wonderful. But my relationship with Phil has been special. I often hug him when I see him. He tells me how happy he is that I’m at the facility and I tell him how pleased I am to be with him. He tells me that he loves me and I tell him that I love him. I had to decline his invitation to go hunting in Idaho because I don’t hunt.

But every moment that I spend with him is special. Best of all, despite my negative feelings about the Vietnam War, I can see Phil as a hero who risked his life to serve his country. Phil chose three times to serve his country in what essentially was a suicide mission. He did so because he felt that it was his duty to serve his country even if he was putting his life at risk every day. With the release of the Pentagon papers, we know that the War should never have been fought. We still need to honor the men who risked their lives to serve our country.  

August 16, 2023 22:52

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Anthony Mansueto
13:32 Aug 24, 2023

This is a beautiful story about a beautiful person told straightforwardly. If you wanted to add some more emotional tension and interest you might begin by setting the stage with an opening like this: "Everyone at Perception thought that Phil was ...." You might also set up some surprises along the way. But as someone who loves to listen to the long stories of octogenarians I am so glad that you are there for Phil and so glad that you shared the story.


David Elkind
20:20 Aug 24, 2023

Anthony, Thank your for your thoughtful comments. I like your suggestions, which will help me next time I write a story. Perception is really Insight, where I volunteer 4 days a week. I've never had so much fun and I've met the most extraordinary people that I've known. It feels good to give back. Best, Dave


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