James Walker: Veterans? Sometimes breaking the rules feels good

James Walker

Like most people, I try to follow the rules and guidelines put forth by a business or organization.

But I admit, it doesn’t always work. Sometimes, I find the rules senseless or more cumbersome than I am prepared to deal with — so I do what a lot of people do: break them.

And not for a second would I take back the rule I broke.

I don’t remember the exact year, but sometime between 2001 and 2003 in the months leading up to Christmas, I heeded a call to volunteer at the veterans hospital in Newington.

I was sent to a ward where many of the veterans were elderly and propped up in wheelchairs.

I wasn’t exactly sure what I would be doing, but assumed I would be running errands around the hospital, reading to them or just listening to what they had to say.

But the biggest thing many of them wanted was to be taken outside.

There was one old veteran who was really kicking up a fuss.

He was either 92 or 94 years old; I have forgotten his age but for the sake of this column, I will use 92.

I was warned to tread lightly with him.

They were not lying. He was a cantankerous old guy with a foul mouth and nasty attitude. I guess that is why I so vividly remember our time together because it ended as a lesson in life.

I decided to take the old guy for some fresh air anyway. On any given day and under the right circumstances, that foul mouth and nasty disposition could come from me. I figured a lot of his attitude may have to do with his inability to get out of the wheelchair and move around freely.

Veterans may get good care at veterans hospitals, but they are dreary places to be. I haven’t been in one yet that doesn’t look and feel like it needs a serious upgrade and a fresh coat of paint.

So I didn’t blame him for wanting to get a breather.

I was warned by the nurses not to give him a cigarette under any circumstance because of his health problems.

As we made our way through the hospital heading toward the exit doors, he kept up his stream of expletives as he damned any and everybody and everything — and he wasn’t shy about who heard him.

I am a naval veteran and live in urban America, so foul language does not fall on virgin ears. But I had no intention of listening to his rant for the rest of our time together.

That’s when I went veteran-to-veteran on him.

I read him the riot act and told him if he couldn’t control himself, I would rather take him back to his ward. I told him to make a decision because there were other veterans who wanted fresh air who wouldn’t give me a hard time.

His simply grunted but was quiet the rest of the way until we got outside.

“Give me a cigarette,” he demanded.

I told him I couldn’t do it.

“Give me a cigarette,” he demanded again, his voice rising.

Again, I said I could not do it.

Then his whole attitude changed and that is when he went veteran-to-veteran on me.

“Look at me,” he cried out. “ I’m (92). What difference does it make? Come on, give me a cigarette.”

There was something about what he said that made me hesitate. I had been looking at him as an elderly, feeble patient whose body was worn out, not as a man still in control of his faculties. Did I really have the right to tell him no? He was my elder and I was not his doctor. It may sound strange but I really felt wrong not giving him one. I kept hearing him say, he was 92.

So I pulled out my pack of Marlboros and gave him one.

His hand trembled as he took the cigarette and I lit it for him.

He took a deep drag — and then went into a coughing fit that almost stopped my heart.

He was coughing so hard the wheelchair was rattling back and forth and I was afraid he was going to go into cardiac arrest and die.

I knew I had made a big mistake by not listening to the nurses.

I rushed forward to take the cigarette from him and that’s when I found out that 92 year old men still have a lot of spunk in them.

He started flailing his arms toward me, protesting “no, no, no.”

He stared at me daringly as he took another deep drag, sucking it in like a Hoover, and went back into a coughing fit.

I really didn’t know what to do at that point.

He must have seen fear on my face because between the coughs he started saying, “I’m all right. I’m all right.”

And indeed, he was.

By the time he took the fourth puff, the coughing had settled down — and he was grinning from ear-to-ear as he looked at me. He had found a friend and he was no longer nasty and combative.

He even laughed — and smoked a second cigarette as we sat talking.

The next day when I returned to the ward, I suddenly had become a very popular volunteer.

Several veterans were eagerly waiting for me to take them outside — including the old guy with the nasty attitude.

“They really like you,” one of the nurses remarked.

I took each one of them outside.

And yes, they all wanted a cigarette.

And yes, I gave them all one.

And no, I don’t regret a minute of it.

Bad or habit or not, I know I put a smile on their faces and brought a little independence back to their lives as we smoked in solidarity.

Lessons in life come from many chalkboards and I learned a lesson from that old nasty guy.

What good is life at 92 if everything that gives you pleasure is taken away — whether it is good or bad for you? At that age, you really don’t have long and in most cases, are even considered lucky to still be alive. So who cares if cigarettes are going to shave off a minute or two or send you into a coughing frenzy? What good is being alive if you have no voice?

My volunteer effort ended sometime during the week of Christmas. The veterans had pooled their money and brought me a really cool-looking sweater as a gift. I remember standing in that ward as they presented it to me with broad smiles on their faces. We were like little boys who had conspired to break the grown up rules and had gotten away with it.

But I doubt very seriously if I fooled any of the nursing staff at the hospital. Cigarettes carry a distinctive odor and in a non-smoking facility, the scent would really stand out.

But maybe secretly, the nurses agreed with what I was doing and decided to let it be. Maybe the rules and guidelines prevented them from doing the “human” thing for a group of old veterans, but they knew, it did not prevent me.

I don’t if that is true or not — and quite frankly, I don’t care.

Veterans? Sometimes breaking the rules feels good.

Connecticut Media Group