Same Old Sam
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The best soldier's are old soldier's.
The old man ran through the streets of St. Anthony regardless of weather. I had seen him every morning without exception that winter while driving to work. What else he did, or who he was outside the predawn gloaming I did not know. He ran with a hitch, huffing great frozen chunks of breath into the air. Dark clothing trimmed with reflective silver tape was all I could make out, except for the occasional fist pump he’d offer me as I went out of my way to avoid hitting him. What could possess such an obviously old man to engage in such an activity? This went on week after week, month after month, even on the very worst of sub-zero days. He had to have been seventy years old, easy. Maybe even older. He was so ubiquitous I eventually failed to see him at all.
And then one day, as the first green bits of spring poked through the icy somnolence, he was gone.
Rather, one day I noticed he was gone.
An uneasy feeling that he had been missing from my morning commute for many days or even weeks without my noticing filtered through me. Had something happened to him? Where had he gone? Did a car hit him? Was he…dead? And then it came to me- he must have been drafted into the Fleet.
This past winter he had been training.
I didn’t consciously think of the old man again for many years, until one day shortly before my 50th Birthday. I received a most curious thing- a letter in the mail. I opened it with barely remembered movements and unfolded the heavy bond paper. It read: “Greetings from the United States of America.” I had been drafted by Big Uncle.
I had spent my career as a conceptualist, a job field falling somewhere between design and psychology. I was the guy who brought you the “triple-u” key on your keyboard for instance, back when we still used keyboards for everything. A small paradigm tweak, to be sure, but as anyone who ever grew tired of hearing the phrase “double-you-double-you-double-you-dot-com” can attest, a simple “triple-you” is music to the ears. Another example- and my most lucrative conception- had turned out to be convincing the cell phone industry to adopt as standard a device that automatically shut itself off when moving faster than 5 mph. The resultant decline in auto fatalities due to texting brought me my 15 minutes of fame and several job offers. In my college days I had even worked blue, as the saying goes, and made a few dollars on an adaptation of the children’s literature classic “Pat the Bunny.” It virtually wrote itself, as I’m sure you can imagine.
All of which is to say that my career had slowed down significantly since the heyday of publicity and huge paychecks. I had saved quite a lot, and freelanced occasionally, but was no longer really in the game. My latest venture- Taco Johnston’s- was mired in a lawsuit. Still though, being drafted into the Fleet came as something of a shock. “What do they want with a guy like me?” I wondered.
Like most people I was only dimly aware of the war. It had been going on my entire life, and had become a constant presence in the background. By design it had never been a huge deal. Of course I had studied the re-branding of Uncle Sam into Big Uncle when I was at college. It was required reading in our marketing course. Instead of the belligerent finger pointing Sam, the Fleet had decided the friendly and helpful Big Uncle was the best way to interface with people. Uncle Sam wanted you to go and die under the guns. Big Uncle wanted to help you cut the grass and drive you to the grocery store. The campaign was sheer genius. The general public had become more docile and productive. The war continued unchallenged.
I got out my sneakers and started jogging that winter. I ran through the pre-dawn streets regardless of weather and convinced myself that the Fleet needed a top-flight conceptualist to help out with the propaganda effort. I even composed some musical adaptations to run by, cadence of a sort: “Yankee Doodle went to town, riding on a rocket…”
In the end Big Uncle was just the same old Sam. Given my vocation, I should have known better than most. I was sent to fight and die just like the generations before me. The twist? This cannon fodder was old. Fifty plus- just like me. The young were considered too valuable to waste in their most productive years. Most of us ended up dying of starvation before we ever saw any action. Rumor had it the war was more an exercise in population control than anything else. Eventually a few of us “youngins” did in fact make it to the front lines on Como-9.
But that’s a different story.
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