Took the Mannion guys to Barnes & Noble this afternoon so they could do a little Christmas shopping, and naturally, after they’d bought their presents, we lingered in the cafe and while we were there lingering an announcement came over the intercom. Over in the children’s section was a special visitor to the store. The author of Monsters Do Not Know Tae Kwon Do was going to be act out the story with the help of any kids who wanted to join in. This meant those kids would get a free lesson in tae kwon do and Ken Mannion hurried over to take a look. Ken’s sport is karate, but he’s interested in all forms of martial arts and always on the lookout for tips and tricks he can work into his own routines.
When he came back and started to deliver a report to Oliver and me, a customer at a nearby table interjected.
“Think you could take him?”
He was a round-faced, white-haired, gray-goateed man in his sixties wearing a ball cap embroidered with the letters USMC and the Marine logo of an eagle perched on a globe skewered by an anchor. Sixty-something former Marines are likely Vietnam vets but he wasn’t wearing any clues about that that I saw and for all I know the cap was just a souvenir or a tribute to somebody else’s service. But I don’t believe many people who aren’t Marines, ex-Marines, or related to a Marine go around sporting Marine Corps paraphernalia. It’s a good way to irritate actual Marines. So let’s say this guy was a former Marine and a Vietnam vet.
“No,” Ken answered earnestly, “He’s far more experienced than I am.”
I don’t think the guy was expecting a serious answer. He thought a bit about what to say next.
“You do tae kwon do?”
“Karate,” Ken said and he began to explain what style. The guy let him finish but he wasn’t really interested. He had some advice he wanted to impart.
“Well, you know what they say. Never enter a fight without two other people. You always want three on your side.” He held up his fist. He opened his thumb. “You.” He opened his pointer. “Mr Smith.” Opened his index finger. “And Mr Wesson.”
Ken got the joke, but he didn’t think it was funny.
“I don’t like guns,” he said.
This took the guy aback. He’d been anticipating a laugh.
“Better not come to my house then,” he said. He smiled but it wasn’t the sunniest of smiles and there’d been a defensive note in his voice. I decided I needed to intervene to lighten the mood.
“Are you a hunter or a collector?” I asked in a friendly and sincerely curious way. I’ve been a reporter. I know how to ask a non-judgmental question. But he looked at me suspiciously, probably wondering if this was a case of like father, like son and if he was opening himself up to having his Second Amendment rights challenged. But I waited him out, and finally he replied, although he sounded wary.
“I used to hunt,” he said. His turn to wait me out. He frowned. I smiled. We both waited. And again I outlasted him. He decided to risk making the next move. “I used to hunt,” he said again, still sounding wary. “I gave it up.” We both waited again. He gave in first again. “My dog died.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said.
“I could never bring myself to get another dog.”
This I understood. I’ve only ever owned one dog. I got him when I was in seventh grade. He died when I was twenty-nine and in all the years since I’ve never wanted another dog. He and I had been friends for sixteen years. You don’t just go out and get another friend like that. And that’s clearly how this guy felt about his dog.
“She and I must have tracked over two thousand miles together.”
“What was she?” I asked.
For a second it seemed as if he didn’t understand the question, but I think he was lost in a memory and hadn’t really heard it or, rather, he heard it but didn’t hear it, if you know what I mean. He had to go back and review. Then he got it.
“Golden retriever,” he said. But now he didn’t seem satisfied with his own answer. Her breed was beside the point. It didn’t describe the most important thing about her.
“She was a good dog,” he said. “A good dog.”