My sister and I were in Fort Lauderdale for the first time. We'd made better time than expected, but found that our hotel was nice, but remote, that neither of us had thought to bring our debit cards for taxi fare, and now it was getting ready to storm, which meant we couldn't walk to the beach as originally planned.
"No worries," we told each other. "We'll just hang out in our room and order in."
Not an hour passed before I began to feel claustrophobic. It was raining, which meant we couldn't even use the lovely outdoor pool nor hang out with the transfer students who were here learning English. I paced the room, as rain lashed the windows. Most people find Florida warm and friendly - we were finding it cold, remote, and rather lonely.
Finally my practical sister, who was probably tired of my pacing, made the suggestion, "Why don't we rent a car? They take credit card, don't they?"
They did and even sent a car to pick us up. It pulled up forty minutes later, a shiny SUV with a well-dressed driver. Let's call him David.
I'm a nervous sort, on the borderline of paranoid. Between the storm, the strange city, and the unsettled feeling I always get the first day I'm away from home, getting into an SUV with a stranger was an act of faith. I climbed into the front seat and introduced myself to the driver while Peggy got in the back.
David was in his late thirties, good-looking, professional, and remotely quiet. He wasn't exactly unfriendly, but my well of conversation dried up as we turned out into the busy street and headed into downtown Ft. Lauderdale. The radio was one, playing an R&B song that I was unfamiliar. I was trying to think of something to say that wouldn't sound like a dumb tourist, when the song ended and a news report came on. The Americans were moving in on Iraq again.
David reached over and turned up the volume. When the report turned to sports, He shook his head, disgusted. "War again," he said.
I've learned from hard experience that Americans are volatile and divided on the subject of the war in the Middle East. While some are appalled when you suggest that war is not the answer, others jump to the middle eastern side and lambaste you for your privileged upbringing.
David was different. He wasn't on a soap box. He was angry. I could tell from the way he gripped the steering wheel, the clench of his jaw.
I thought, "This isn't good. He's driving us and he's angry."
I said, gingerly, "It's so sad. So much waste," hoping to draw out a response.
I got one.
"We shouldn't even be there!" he said. His voice was soft, but his tone was explosive. "Not in Iraq. It's a waste of good men."
"I agree," I said, and he looked at me with new appreciation.
"What do you think about the situation?" he asked.
"I don't know much, I'm afraid. What's your take on it? Should we just bring everyone home?"
"We should be in Afganistan. That's where the real problems are, not Iraq. Iraq is a waste of time. I know. I've been there and I've seen it. It's a mess, but it's not ours."
"You're in the military?" I asked.
"Was in the military," he corrected and he started to relax as the story came out.
I never caught his rank. He'd been the leader of a group of men, and saw enough action in both countries to take the charm out of military life. But he only decided to leave the army after an insurgent tossed an explosive into a room he and his men were living in.
"I lost two guys," he said. He said simply and didn't expand. It was enough that they had been under his protection and he'd lost them. But that wasn't the worst part of the story.
"I was on the phone with my daughter when the explosion went off," he said, and his knuckles turned white as he remembered. "I couldn't get a hold of her for two weeks. For two weeks, she thought I was dead. Twelve years old, thinking her father was dead. I was done. I couldn't let her go through that any more."
I couldn't tell whom he was more angry with. The insurgent who threw the explosive or the military who'd let his daughter down. In the end, it didn't matter. He had to leave.
He did his stint in the hospital, got honorably discharged, and since then put his life back together. He works for the car rental agency now, and is able to be a real father to his daughter. I got the impression that life wasn't a cakewalk, but it was pretty good all the same.
By the time we arrived at the rental agency, the rain had lifted somewhat, but the heaviness that was in the car had dissipated. David was lighter suddenly, and we raced through the rain to the rental office, cracking jokes about tropical weather. Inside, David bustles about, getting us our keys and our agreement, and joking some more as Peggy makes her easy quips.
We leave with a shiny, like-new car. The rain has started again, heavier now with lightening thrown in. The unfamiliar city looks even stranger in the storm, but somehow it is not as intimidating as it was. Now when we go off down the street, it is clear to me that this is someone's home, even if it's not mine.
That knowledge makes it much easier to see the silver lining behind the storm clouds.