I entered Alabama at 11:03 a.m. The sky was vivid blue and cloudless. I pulled into a gas station not far from the state line.
I was exhausted and depleted after a morning on the road. For nearly 40 miles I had been stuck behind a dilapidated truck on a two-lane highway. The truck’s bumper sticker read, NICK SABAN IS MY LOVE LANGUAGE.
I swiped my card. I started pumping gas. And that’s where I met the General, at gas pump Number Eight.
The General introduced himself to me. He was maybe five-four, with a blazing white beard, a pronounced limp. He was bone thin and smelled like a distillery.
There were strips of duct tape on his shoes. His jeans were ragged. He had a duffel bag slung over his shoulder and a calico cat resting in his arms.
“Can you help two travelers out?” he said.
“Where are you traveling?” I asked.
“Ain’t decided yet. Right now we’re fundraising. Can you spare anything?”
“How about ten bucks?”
It was a pittance, but it was all I had. The General took the cash and thanked me. He told me the United States Army thanked me. Then he nodded to the calico cat, who was purring. “My lieutenant general thanks you, too.”
I almost saluted, but thought better of it.
A few more of the General’s troops emerged from the shadows near the filling station. Some in the General’s company were Persian-white, others were orange striped, one was tri-colored. They flocked to the elderly high-ranking officer, meowing their tails off.
The brass hat stooped on his heels, reached into his heavy duffel bag and removed a bag of Walmart-brand cat food. He scooped out several handfuls and placed the multi-colored food on the pavement near the pump.
“Troops got to eat,” he said.
“What about you?” I asked. “You need to eat, too.”
He shook his head. “They eat. Then the general eats. That’s the rule. We take care of our own first.”
“Are you really a general?”
He smiled his tooth at me. “Would a five-star general lie to you?”
The old man said he enlisted when he was 19. His wife was pregnant. They needed money, and the military was a promising career. The Army was good to him, it was an organization that treated people fairly.
“You do good at your job in the Army, they treat you good. Just how it works. In the civilian world, it don’t go that way, they’re always hiring someone cheaper. I miss the Army. You knew where you stood in the Army.”
They sent him to Vietnam. His son was 2 years old when he left. It almost broke him to leave. But after two tours of duty, it was even harder to come back home.
“I slept in the backyard, first few years when I got home, couldn’t sleep indoors. Didn’t feel right inside. Shoot, man, I could tell stories.”
But this is all the General tells me about himself. I wanted to ask more, but I got the impression he didn’t want to share. He just wanted me to know that he could tell stories.
I pointed to the Waffle House across the street. I asked if the man wanted to join me for a late breakfast. Maybe a cup of coffee.
“No, thank you,” he said. “Officers don’t eat with enlisted men. That’s the rule.”
Then he gave a wink.
“Are you really a general?” I asked again.
“In a manner of speaking,” was his answer.
He sort of staggered away on unsteady feet. His troops dutifully followed. His men formed a kind of single-file line behind him.
The General hobbled into the gas station. I saw him purchase something. I stayed in my vehicle to see what he was buying with his newfound funds.
Truthfully, I was expecting the General to exit the station carrying a brown paper bag containing a 40-ounce Bud Light, maybe one of those godawful hotdogs from the spinning grillers.
But instead the venerable officer left the station and walked to the back of the building. He opened multiple cans of cat food, maybe six or seven cans, and placed them on the sidewalk. The cats congregated around the food and ate greedily.
Once they were finished—and only when they were finished eating—the old man unwrapped a microwaved burrito and ate.
“They eat. Then the general eats. That’s the rule. We take care of our own first.”
I can’t help but wonder who is taking care of the General.