Rest in peace Senator McCain
“Hello Senator Reed,” I said without considering that maybe he preferred to be left alone. It was too late to take it back so I pressed on.
“Don’t you have people to do this stuff?” He chuckled at that, and replied with a little grin, “I sure do. Me!”
We made small talk for a few minutes; comfortable things gray haired guys talk about at a hardware store. I wasn’t purposely avoiding political talk, it just didn’t come up. I did offer my condolences for the passing of his colleague, Senator John McCain, figuring the two of them must have been friends.
“Sometimes we would get heated, and when it looked like we were getting nowhere, John or I would mention the reason for the impasse was because he was an Annapolis man, and I was West Point or vice versa, and the tension would evaporate, and we could get back to work.”
The respect and admiration for his former friend, adversary and fellow Senator was genuine. I was fortunate to witness his true depth of emotion, and the cynicism I had allowed to fester for years was granted a welcome reprieve. We were silent for a time, both lost in thought. For Senator Reed it was no more than a passing moment on a Sunday afternoon and a comfortable chat with a constituent. For me it held far more significance.
I got to see the man behind the press releases, and the carefully worded responses to pointed questions concerning national security, budget matters, the president and whatever tragedy warranted a senatorial response.
The people turning the engines of our country; people like me, people working part time at Lowes on a Sunday afternoon are not often privy to the people who represent us in Washington. We are spectators to the grand schemes portrayed on the twenty-four hour news and our social media feeds. We get the two dimensional view, the cardboard cutouts and the edited versions of the events of the day. We hear speeches that are far too often written by teams of writers, and vetted by focus groups and checked and rechecked for anything that might expose the person speaking as one of us.
Every now and then one of us has an opportunity to connect with another of us who happens to be a United States Senator.
We talked about Highland Falls, a little town that lies on the Hudson, next to West Point. I told him about a little RV park that my wife and I stayed in last year, and how the proprietor sat on his porch that once was a railroad station telling us stories about his past.
The old man talked about the history of his little place, which as it turns out both of the senator and I had been profoundly impacted by. I spent a leisurely summer day on the banks of the Hudson, gabbing with my wife and a nice old guy about history, and President Lincoln who had disembarked on the very spot I sat on. Senator Reed told me the story of how he and his classmates boarded a similar train from the same spot that Lincoln had stepped off of, and rode the tracks all the way to Philadelphia.
“It was the last year they used the train,” he said. “We filled it. It was quite a ride.”
As we spoke my mind was filled with images of the Senator and his classmates in 1971, the specter of Viet Nam and growing discontent at home hanging over them as they rode the same tracks that had transported troops to battlefields in Gettysburg, presidents to Washington and regular people to the city to find work. It was kind of overwhelming.
But gray haired men can’t whittle away the whole day gabbing, there is work to be done. I took my right hand off of the handle of the broom I had been holding during our conversation, shook the Senator’s hand and finished sweeping.
I actually enjoy that job; it gives me time to think.