Thursday, November 8, 2012

More than words

I had dinner last evening with a ninety-two year old gentleman for whom I had done some translation work.  Because we are both volunteers for our local Forest Preserve District, I don’t charge him for my translation work which is related to our volunteer service.  He, in turn, shows his appreciation by treating me to dinner in his favorite restaurant. 

At ninety-two, his only problem is a bit of a hearing loss, electronically corrected, but problematic enough for him to request a corner booth rather than a table in the midst of the dinner traffic.  Dr. DuBose and I exchanged documents over a glass of Malbec, both of us refusing a refill because we each had to get behind the wheels of our cars to drive home later.  This morning, I saw the time stamp on his Email, thanking me, and realized that he had stayed up much later than I had after a sumptuous dinner that had made me overwhelmingly sleepy.

My own father, who is ten years younger than my dinner companion, has long since given up driving his enormous tank of a Buick and never made the leap to cyberspace, Email and the Internet.  He knows how to reset his answering machine and leaves me to pay his bills on-line for him.

Aside from studying the Secret of Youth that my dinner partner embodies, and listening to his acquired wisdom on the subject of the translated documents, I had an additional “cultural” surprise last evening.  The observance of cultural trends is vital to translation and interpreting.  Beyond my daily personal contacts in France, I make a practice of watching the French news on the Internet.  When I started interpreting, there was no “mad cow” disease, “bird flu” or “airbags” in automobiles, and watching the French news keeps me abreast of evolving vocabulary.  Without the Journal de 20 heures, I might not have encountered éthylotest, béguinage, or gaz de schiste.

Dr. DuBose’ blue eyes twinkled across the table when he took a small, battered box out of his coat pocket, and removed the rubber band that held on the cover.  “I wanted to show you this.”  He handed me a medal, his Purple Heart.  While serving in the infantry in France, he had been critically wounded by a German bullet.

I have always considered myself lucky and mysteriously supervised by a Guardian Angel, but this man clearly has had some miraculous chances in life.

The next thing I knew, the party at the booth next to ours had politely interrupted our conversation.  “Did I hear you say ‘Purple Heart’?”  The setting for the conversation was perfect, since Veteran’s Day is just around the corner and the restaurant had lined the walls with a collection of vintage Armed Services posters.

The young father who had spoken to us from the next booth handed his little girl out from behind their table to see the medal, which they all admired, to the complete delight of Dr. DuBose.  Wait staff moved in to eavesdrop on the conversation, and my dinner companion was repeatedly thanked by complete strangers for his service to our country.

After the young family left, our server came up to our table, glowing and clutching the black folder containing our bill.  “Before he left, the gentleman who sat next to you paid your dinner bill.”

Dr. DuBose and I looked at each other in amazement.  His was more an expression of pride, that his youthful brush with death on a battlefield could still be so appreciated this many years later.

In my case, my surprise took me back to an evening only a couple of weeks ago. 

I had been sitting at the table in my sister’s house and listening to my cousin Larry talk about his return from Viet Nam where he had served in the Marine Corps.  He and his fellow Marines, when they stepped off their plane coming back home onto U.S. soil, were met by complete strangers who threw animal excrement at their sparkling uniforms.

I am not (yet) as old as Dr. DuBose, to be able to witness as many sweeping cultural changes as he obviously has.  This change in public opinion of the military has a particularly strong impact on me since my son has just recently entered the Navy.  Coming of age in the Viet Nam era, I had always secretly plotted to move any as-yet-unborn sons to French-speaking Canada to avoid the draft.  I never thought I’d have a son who would voluntarily enlist.  As a mother who has watched her country in and out of a few wars, my heart swims in a dizzying cocktail of fear, pride, confusion and hope.

My thoughts went back to my visit with my father that same afternoon.  I had asked him if he had voted to re-elect President Obama.  Four years earlier, he admitted voting for McCain.  His reasoning at the time was weirdly prescient, if not tinged with racism.  My Dad didn’t have any personal objections to voting for a black President, but he explained that Obama didn’t have what basically amounted to a snowball’s chance in hell to get anything done, precisely because he was black. 

It was for that very same reason that he voted for Obama this time, saying he wasn’t going to vote for a loser.

Culture shifts in just such ways, changing perceptions over time.  The determination of who is a winner and who is a loser sometimes needs to mature, like a good glass of wine, over time.