With the clear space between us Andrew slowly reached across the table and took my hands in his.
That's when the tears came.
• • •
Can you picture this scene in a KFC with two strangers deeply connecting across a table?
After my story Andrew did something unusual. He began pushing our lunch plates, used napkins and plastic ware aside, creating a clear space between us across the table.
• • •
What do you think is going to happen?
When I told Andrew about the Viet Cong woman and our similar reactions to our husbands' deaths I did not cry. I had relived my own scene so many times that I think I numbed myself to its horror in order to go on.
"I became that Viet Cong woman when I saw her collapse in front of me on the television screen. Nothing separated us but a stupid war. Women. Wives. Now widows."
Andrew closed his eyes. His expression remained solemn, even prayerful. I felt his compassion across the table.
• • •
Was I really numb?
I continued to tell my story. "What got me in the 1968 segment of the documentary was a Viet Cong woman discovering a dead man's body, presumably her husband's. She fell to her knees, doubled over and began rocking and wailing."
I stopped to look out the window again, then spoke. "I did the same thing when I saw the tall Marine Lt. holding a yellow sheet of paper in his hand in the doorway of my summer workplace. He began reading it, but I didn't hear a word he said above my own wailing. I was slumped over, rocking back and forth crying out 'no, no, no.' "
But it was true.
• • •
Can you see why I identified with this woman?
I pushed my fried chicken around on my plate, leaned over and took a few sips of my fountain drink, then spoke.
"I knew the 1968 episode of Ken Burns' documentary was going to be tough. But I've wanted to know more about what Henry faced during his short time in combat. I wanted to see the terrain, the conditions. But something quite remarkable happened to me during that episode."
Andrew cocked his head.
• • •
Any guesses what might have transpired for me during that Ken Burns 1968 episode?
The silence between us lengthened. Were Andrew and I thinking the same thing?
Then I dared speak. "Do you think you may have carried Henry's body off the Hill?"
I shuddered imagining the scene.
• • •
How is this story affecting you?
Andrew told me he was in Cam Lo, 25 miles from Khe Sanh at a firebase on the DMZ. "I was watching 16-inch shells from the USS New Jersey fly though the air on their way to visit the enemy. But in July of 1968 I was riding in helicopters with supplies and soldiers headed for the hills as well as evacuating injured and KIAs."
I struggled to take in a breath. "Henry was in Cam Lo at that very time before he was helicoptered to the Hill. Two days after his arrival he was killed by Viet Cong along with a group of his men attempting to get water from a spring."
Andrew hung his head. I looked out toward the parking lot through the large window by our booth.
• • •
"I watched every one of the Ken Burns Viet Nam episodes. The war within the war was only touched on in one episode," I said.
I sat up straight, looked Andrew in the eye and took a deep breath. "My first husband was killed in Viet Nam. July 5, 1968, Khe Sanh, Hill 689. Henry Ledford, a 2nd Lt. in the Marines."
Andrew's eyes narrowed and focused on mine. "I'm so sorry."
• • •
Do you know anyone who lost someone in Viet Nam?
"Did you watch the Ken Burns 'Viet Nam' series?" I said.
"Only a little of it. I didn't want to re-live those scenes. I've spent enough of my life trying to forget them."
• • •
Did you watch the Ken Burns "Viet Nam" documentary series? Why? Why not?
"Yeah, three wars," Andrew said. "War against the Viet Cong and against North Viet Nam." He became quiet for a few seconds, shifted in his seat. "And the unspoken war within our own ranks that reflected the Civil Rights movement and anti-war sentiment back in the States."
I stared at him. Cocked my head, wanting to know more about the third war.
• • •
Did you know about the war within the war?
Andrew began his story. "There were three wars going on in Viet Nam."
I raised my eyebrows.
• • •
Any thoughts about three wars going on in Viet Nam in 1968?
"You seem different. Very present, a good listener," Andrew told me.
"Thank you. I think allowing a person to be heard may be one of the greatest gifts we can give each other. I hope to do that."
• • •
Do you agree with me about the gift of allowing folks to truly be heard?
I kept quiet about my own Viet Nam story. Andrew seemed to want to tell me more of his.
"I've never been moved to tell anyone this story before, except fellow Viet Nam vets. Do you mind if I make an observation about you?" he said.
"No," I answered, wondering where this was going.
• • •
What on earth is Andrew going to observe? We've just met.
I told Andrew I went to Edison High School in Fairfax County, VA and was in the first graduating class, 1964. Then I added I went off to William and Mary as an English major. "I got my first job teaching English at W.T. Woodson High School in Fairfax." He knew exactly where both high schools were located.
"I was already in the Army headed for Viet Nam in 1968." He lowered his eyes and spoke softly. "Changed my life."
• • •
Where were you in 1968?
"I started at Texas A and M in architecture," Andrew responded. But the program was very cut and dry. I wanted to design in my own way. I switched to a business major."
There was more of a hint of rebellion in his voice this time.
• • •
Can freshman architecture majors actually design in their own way?
Andrew wore blue jeans, black tennis shoes, a black crew neck sweater with a navy blue polo shirt. One side of the shirt collar was still buried underneath the sweater.
He had fly away gray hair and a matching beard and mustache. I think he wore glasses, but I paid more attention to his clear blue eyes.
"Where'd you go to college?" I asked.
• • •
Is there any significance to Andrew's fly away hair and his shirt collar half buried under his sweater? What do you think?
We slid into opposite sides of our booth at KFC and eyed each other before we removed our food from our trays and pushed them to the side of the table.
As we shook hands across the table he spoke. "I'm Andrew Le Blanc. My mother was English but my father was from French stock. Thus, the odd pairing of the names."
"I'm Robin, and my mother was part English, part French. My father was Scotch-English. I've always liked my name even though kids used to cajole me that it was a boy's name. Probably from reading about Christopher Robin."
I don't recall how we discovered our first coincidences. There were so many. We found that we had lived in Northern Virginia nearly at the same time, had graduated from nearby high schools. Our fathers were both Colonels, his in the Air Force, mine in the Marines, both pilots whose careers had landed them (and our families) in NoVa after many moves.
"I worked in the hobby shop in Falls Church. That's all I did besides go to school." I detected something different in his voice. Perhaps a hint that he did not buy into the high school scene.
"That was the best hobby store around. My father and brothers bought all their model airplane kits there. I sometimes came along. I wonder if you might have been there?"
• • •
Have you ever had this many coincidences reveal themselves this fast when you connected with a stranger? Are these coincidences? Can you share your story?
After my invitation to eat together, the man stopped, hesitated, then turned to me. "Yeah," he said. "That would be okay. Where do you want to sit?"
"I like the booths over by the windows, in the sun," I said. "Will that work for you?"
He said that would be fine. I heard something flat in his voice.
We took different routes to our chosen booth. He stopped by the condiments table and then arrived carrying plastic ware and napkins for both of us. I already sensed a politeness, a gentle- ness I liked about him.
• • •
What might the "something flat" in a person's voice be about?
The man nodded after he heard my remark about our same lunch orders. Both our trays were slid cross the slick counter. I turned to him, not expecting to say what I did.
"I'm on my own for lunch today. Do you want to eat together?"
• • •
How would you respond to a stranger's invitation to eat lunch together?
I recalled asking Priscilla about her name. That may have been the first time I spoke to her in particular, more than just a customer placing a lunch order.
"I like your name. I had a friend named Priscilla in grade school and junior high. She had long brown braids."
"I guess my mother just liked the name. I'm after no one in my family," she said softly. I loved how her eyes crinkled when she smiled.
I fiddled with my wallet to hand her exact change, $5.35 to the penny. Maybe I enjoyed the regularity, the predictability of this lunch routine, right down to the set price for lunch. And this KFC played 60's music, my kind of music. I often began humming melodies the minute I entered the doors.
So not seeing Priscilla today disrupted my routine, unsettled me. I ordered my usual, paid my usual and then stepped to the side of the counter to await my tray.
A man entered through the side doors of KFC and walked up to the counter to order his lunch. I overheard his request. It was exactly the same as mine. And he seemed to know exactly how much it cost.
I looked over at him when he moved near me to wait on his tray.
"We ordered the same lunch," I said.
• • •
Am I too out-going?
I craned my neck to see if Priscilla was in the kitchen filling buffet containers or wiping trays since she was not at the counter to take my order.
"Is Priscilla here today?" I heard the worry in my voice as I asked the young woman who stood behind the register.
"No, she has the day off. She had errands to run."
"Is she okay, she's always here on Wednesdays."
"Yeah, she had to take her daughter to the doctor."
I knew her daughter had been quite ill; hospitalized for some sort of surgery. Priscilla was taking care of her along with working her shifts at KFC. One day I had noticed Priscilla's usual sparkly blue eyes, one narrowed to a near-wink, appeared more gray and bloodshot. Her shoulders were more hunched. I mentioned to her that she looked tired.
That's when Priscilla opened up to me, began sharing her story in tiny, quiet snippets.
• • •
What do you think made Priscilla open up to me?
I remembered the last time I talked to Priscilla she told me she had worked the KFC counter for twenty-five years, pointing to the small gold pin on her black uniform; a token she had received for her service.
"Did they give you a raise or a gift?" I said.
"Naw. Nothing like that," she said softly, her cheeks dimpling with a smile. There was no anger in her voice.
Priscilla was an aging, black doughy grandmother. I imagined her grandkids loved to hug her. Maybe someday I would hug her. She lumbered when she walked as she replenished the KFC buffet table after the waves of construction workers, senior citizens, young highway workers piled their plastic plates high with fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, limp green beans, jello, gooey cake. She favored her right leg as she delivered more food for customers' second and third trips through the buffet line. I wondered if she had a painful hip.
Hour after hour, she either shuffled back and forth from the kitchen to the buffet table or stood at the counter taking orders and ringing up sales. At any rate, she was on her feet all day.
But it was unusual that she was not at work today.
• • •
How does Priscilla's reception of a 25 year pin with no monetary reward affect you?
Excerpt #1 from Open for Lunch
I really stopped by Kentucky Fried Chicken to see Priscilla. Over the last couple years she had begun to recognize me when I ordered the same meal each time I stepped to the counter in south Asheville on occasional Wednesdays. Crispy fried chicken breast, coleslaw, biscuit, cookie and a drink. A total carbohydrate bomb. And all for $5.35.
To alleviate my guilt, I usually wrapped up the biscuit and cookie in the skimpy brown paper napkins I pulled from the plastic dispenser at the condiments table, and took the leftovers home for my husband, Gordon.
Neither of us usually ate this way but his eyebrows always popped up and his eyes opened wide when he saw the KFC treats on the kitchen counter.
Today, Priscilla was not there behind the counter.
• • •
OK. Be honest. How many trips do you make to KFC?
"Something" has led me to ask perfect strangers, especially persons who don't appear to be like me, to have lunch with me when I'm out alone and grabbing a bite to eat. This "something" has driven me to seek lunch mates for over 12 years and continues to this day.
Just last week an invited diner, a man named *Andrew, and I found heart-felt connection over fried chicken and coleslaw at KFC. We ended up talking for three hours.
You may ask what that "something" is that drives me to turn to a stranger and say "Would you like to eat together?" Why do I do this? How do these impromptu meals turn out? The honest, amazing personal stories I have heard over a sub sandwich or a hamburger and fries have moved me, informed me about who I am and what drives my behavior. My risky outreach has filled my plate with a deeper love and understanding of humanity, and of myself.
OPEN FOR LUNCH, my second book, is nearing completion and weaves my collected lunch encounters with my own story into an unusual memoir.
Andrew, my new friend, has given me permission to tell his/our story in weekly excerpts starting in May so that you can get a taste of OPEN FOR LUNCH, due out from Pisgah Press in fall of 2018.
Hungry? Let's do lunch!
*Andrew is a pseudonym
If you believe that there is value in reaching out to strangers, what might your gift be for doing so?
Most tell me that I can do this because I'm me. Probably so.
But you're you........what can you do? A smile? Eye contact? Pay it forward? Listen? It only takes seconds to reach out.
• • •
What ideas do you have about engaging in this kind of behavior with a stranger?
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Open For Lunch
Award Finalist in the "Health: Alternative Medicine" category of the 2017 Best Book Awards