The first time I was shot at was after I got out of uniform. I was at a bus stop in Minneapolis, Minnesota, after my closing shift at the chocolate shop. I can’t recall if it was late at night or still daylight. I was seated on the wooden bench and the shot entered the glass shelter, just above my head.
The word for hose in Russian is “schlang”. When the short, stout Irina Leikina was addressing us in her mad bursts of Muscovite Russian, she demonstrated with her flying hands.
“And my son,” she bellowed. “He was pouring water out of the schlanga–” She gesticulated towards her groin, as if she were her tall, half Slavic half Jewish son, pouring water from a hose, at waist height.
The room erupted in laughter. She stopped abruptly, her dark eyebrows waggling, looking at each of us in turn. Black Navy uniforms, green for Army, light blue Air Force. Nearly everyone in the room was male, except for me and an Army Specialist sitting kitty-corner to me at the tables placed around the room.
“Vat is so funny?” She asked us in her sparse, heavily accented English.
Don, whose last name I can’t remember, the highest ranking person in the room, a Warrant Officer, also the oldest, with a wife and kids already, spoke to her gently.
“The word schlong in English,” he said, face composed and only slightly pinking up, unlike that of the two blondish army guys giggling on either side of him, “the word schlong, is a slang word for penis in America–and you were gesturing at your, you know–” Don looked pointedly at Gospozha Leikina’s groin.
Her round face immediately bloomed into a deep red.
“It is German word.” She breathed heavily. “It is, word for–” She looked at Don again.
“Yes, yes it is, “ he said. “It just sounds funny to us Americans.”
“Ah, I see.” Gospozha Leikina paused for a moment and wiped the sweat off her brow, turned to the chalkboard and began to write words with force and motion. She wrote the cursive heavily looped word SHLANG across the green board in white, then wrote an example of how to use the word properly, in any of the 8 cases that typically baffled native English speakers.
“Genitive case,” she said. VODA IZ SHLANGA. Water comes from hose. How do you say?”
“Water from a hose.” Don nodded. “That’s how you say it.”
Gospozha Leikina nodded.
We turned back to our rapid note-taking, as she barrelled on, filling the board with words and phrases we had no idea we’d ever use.
It’s Veteran’s Day in the United States. Armistice Day in other countries.
I wanted to this post to land at the 11th hour and the 11th minute, on November 11. In years past, that was when we would toast the veterans in the dining room. That was usually after the parade, the marching band, and the speeches, the endless speeches.
This year, I’m not sure there will be a parade, and I know that many of the celebrations of America’s veterans will be reduced and curtailed by the restrictions of the day.
As a woman who is a veteran, this saddens me.
I have a family that has long served this country in uniform. In fact, some go back to the men in blue during our Civil War. Union soldiers out of Pennsylvania. And there are family members who registered for WWI – and three out of four of my grandparents served in WWII. Paratrooper, Navigator, Women’s Army Corps.
Later, uncles served in Vietnam, peacetime, and then me, during Desert Storm so very long ago.
I’ve had the opportunity to meet people who served in all wars in the 20th century, and to meet those who have come back from recent stints. I’ve met people with missing limbs, bad backs, tinnitus, aphasia, all kinds of scars, physical and emotional.
Once upon a time not too long ago, I knew and loved a Pearl Harbor survivor. I knew a woman who survived the Holocaust and served the U.S. out of gratitude because we saved her and her sister. I still know many veterans, and I meet them with respect first, camaraderie second.
That’s not to say all veterans are good. After all, not all the apples on a tree will be ripe and pure. Some will be sour, some bitter, some ruined by worms. But you don’t condemn the tree for a few bad apples.
What I really want to say here is that if you know a veteran or are one yourself, it’s not just a day.
It’s an entire life.
You gave, and we all changed because of it. Saying “Thank you for your service” may not be big, broad, and bold enough to acknowledge the sacrifice you made in taking the oath to serve. It’s pretty scary when Uncle Sam suddenly has direction and control over your life. We can only hope that those in command lead honorably, with intelligence and compassion.
If you know a veteran, remember that what they did by serving was something most people are too frightened to do. Some are too selfish to put their lives on the line. Some are dismissive of those who do put the uniform on. Some still harbor anger over 50 years later for wars they didn’t agree with and administrations they didn’t respect. Some spat on those who served.
Don’t be a spitter. It doesn’t become you.
If you have the time, especially for our elder vets, ask them where they served, what they did. Many will tell you their tales. Of homesickness, lost loves, draft cards, letters from home. Some will speak of terror, HumVees, desert sands, berserkers, and nightmares. Some will still scan the horizon for snipers when they walk through their hometowns.
These are the people among us this day is for. Remember them. Pay your respects if you can. At the very least, thank them for their service.