When total strangers say thank you

Today was an unusual weekday drill day for me in the Army Reserve. Ordinarily it is just one weekend a month, but occasionally there are times when you gotta put in more than just a Saturday and a Sunday. On the way from work at the end of the day today I stopped at Barnes & Noble up near 10600 South & State Street in Salt Lake City, Utah, to find a copy of Juliette Wade’s cover issue of Analog, and do a bit of browsing around the store. And precisely because it was a drill day, I still had my Army uniform on — the pixelated Army Combat Uniform (ACU) that has become the Army’s standard since 2006.

In the past if ever I’ve gone anywhere in uniform — I avoid if where possible, both because we’re advised to not wear our uniforms out due to us marking ourselves as targets for mischief, and because I don’t like to show off — I’ve gotten occasional handshakes and thankyous from other Americans who have felt prompted (upon seeing me) to walk up and express their appreciation for my service in the Service.

This is always, always, always a very surprising and humbling experience. Especially since I usually forget I have the ACU on and when I am in a public place and someone suddenly sticks their hand out and says thank you, I usually stand there stupidly for a few moments trying to figure out what I could possibly have done for a total stranger to give me thanks. I usually manage to smile and blush, bumble through a few pleasantries, and then go on my way astonished that in our cynical day and age there are still people who can be touched in the way they are apparently touched when they see a uniformed servicemember.

Tonight was extra astounding however, because a complete stranger saw me in the checkout line with my copies of Asimov’s and Analog, and just outright said, “Let me buy those for you.” Per usual, I stood dumbly and tried to figure out what was happening. At first I thought the man had merely wanted to snag my copies from me, as if seeing them he suddenly had to have them before departing the store. Well, I’m a nice guy so I was perfectly happy to surrender the copies — there were more back on the magazine shelves. Then he repeated his insistence and it registered: he was insisting on buying them for me.

Oh my goodness.

My pride said to tell him no, which I did, and politely too. After a bit of back and forth however, I smiled sheepishly and surrendered my copies, not because I couldn’t pay — I have money — but because the gesture had nothing to do with me as an individual. Such gestures have a much larger, broader context, and it isn’t fair for me to spoil the gesture by being stubborn. This gentlemen wanted to give back to a person in uniform — I believe I symbolized something important for him, and he decided it was in his personal power to pay homage to that symbol. It wasn’t about me, it was about the uniform, and that flag on my shoulder.

Or at least that’s how I take it. And took it.

So thank you, anonymous sir, for your kind and generous purchase of my science fiction magazines on this night of November 19, 2010. I was too flabbergasted to get your name, but perhaps that doesn’t matter. I shook your hand, and was grateful for what you did, and I hope you know that such gestures as these are priceless for those of us in uniform who experience them. Because in the end we are not, in fact, mercenaries — as has occasionally been declared by those hostile to the U.S. Armed Forces. There are easier and better ways to make money. More lucrative ways too. In the end, to serve, I think you have to have a bit of the patriot in you. More than that, I think you have to have a bit of love for your fellow American — enough to want to step up and do your part to ensure that your fellow Americans get to keep on keeping on with their American way of life. To continue being Americans.

Anyway, I just wanted to post these thoughts as they are fresh in my mind. Juliette Wade’s issue now has a whole new level of significance for me, and I won’t ever be able to think of this issue or see it now without remembering the anonymous fellow who, through inspiration or prompting, decided to do an Army guy a favor on a cold autumn night.


8 thoughts on “When total strangers say thank you

  1. Wow, that’s amazing. There’s hope for humanity and her nature, after all. 🙂

    One random act of kindness is all it takes to just totally change the world. Or one person’s.

  2. You did the right thing by being gracious and letting him buy the magazines for you. It can sometimes be embarrassing when you come from a sub-culture that prizes self-sufficiency and that views service as a privilege, but accepting a fellow citizen’s gesture of thanks reflects well on both the Army and yourself. Letting strangers do nice things is one of those acts that helps bind us together into a society.

  3. I never know what to make of the “Thank you for your service,” thing either. I experienced it when I got back from Operation Desert Storm, still clad in my chocolate chips at the Country Kitchen in Manhattan, KS waiting for the first real salad in months. An older gentleman came up and shook my hand to say, “Thank you.”

    These days on campus, I get that from time to time from my students. I don’t hide my past, if anything I use it as a teaching tool. It always makes me just a bit uncomfortable.

    However, for each thank you I have gotten, I have also received a fair amount of crappy behavior. So I’ve learned to be grateful for the thank yous.

    Given how fickle the civilian population is, they’ll come to an end soon enough.

    BTW, keeping an eye out for an Analog with your story in it, Brad. I read Stan’s editorial on science fiction vs alternate history with great interest.

    S. F. Murphy
    On the Outer Marches

  4. Was passing through Las Vegas, on my way home from NTC on emergency leave, awake and in the same uniform for the last 2 or three days, and out of cash, and somebody bought me a coffee. Was so out of it I never really said thank you.

    Gonna go write up a thank you thingy of my own.

    Thanks cool people!

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