I was in the depths of Louisville, Kentucky when I noticed a man I later came to know as John barely making his way across a busy intersection. His shoes were falling off of his feet and held together with black electrical tape. He had a cane in his left hand bracing every step. He slowly made his way in front of my truck, the top of his head barely reaching the height of the hood with his shoulder and back slumping forward. He looked worn. He appeared to have gone unbathed for quite some time, possibly a month or longer as his hair and pony tail were badly matted. Men whom I would describe as hipsters with their jeans tightly rolled and clinging to their calves passed him by not even glancing at him. Women steered clear of him, I would guess in fear brushing up against his unclean clothing.
After making it across the street, he neared a light post that he grabbed a hold of to brace himself and catch his breath. As I approached him I asked, “Where are you headed?” He took a second to breath as he grabbed his left leg… “I am going to the bus stop down the street to catch a ride.” It was obvious he was in great pain. I smiled and asked, “Could I give you a ride,” as I closed the shutter on my camera. “Really? I wouldn’t want to keep you from anything,” he said in a pleasant voice. I told him, “I have nowhere to be, I’d be happy to give you a ride.” He looked towards my camera and immediately said, “I was once a photographer.”
Prior to getting into my truck I asked, “So, are you a Veteran?” He was breathing easy at this point and he responded, “I was… I was a photographer in the Air Force during Vietnam.” I thought to myself… Man, we have something in common but, I was greatly wrong. He has been in the heat of war. He has seen and documented the loss of life and the miracle of surviving. He has seen it all.
As we neared the truck he said in disbelief, “I don’t think I can make it up there.” My truck is a four wheel drive that stands a little over 12.5 inches off the ground. I told him not to worry, we will get you in. John stood about 5’5” and could barely walk. As he took a step onto the sidebar he struggled, but just couldn’t get in. He studied the seat, the truck and the ground and in discouragement said, “It’s okay, I can walk.” I then told him it would be an honor to drive him to his destination. I lifted him into the truck with ease and once in the seat, he was quite comfortable with the cool air blowing from the air conditioner.
During our ride my curiosity of his time in Vietnam grew, “Where were you in Vietnam,” I asked? He looked out the window with his stringy grey hair blowing in the wind, “I was stationed in Cam Ranh Bay.” For those who are not familiar with the area, Cam Ranh Bay is a deep water bay in the providence of Khanh Hoa at an inlet of the South China Sea in Southern Vietnam (180 miles northeast of Saigon). Multiple foreign and American warships were anchored in the narrow water way due to the depth of the sea and its proximity to land. The Air Force used the area to stage tactical fighter planes headed into the hell of Vietnam. The area was also utilized to treat those who were badly wounded requiring extensive medical help… In other words, the most serious casualties who were often near death were flown by helicopter to Cam Ranh Bay, some breathing their very last breath as John captured their faces to document the history of Vietnam.
As we neared the bus stop I asked, “Where do you live, I’ll just drive you home.” He politely said, “It’s okay, I’ll just go to the bus stop on Broadway (about 7-miles from where we picked him up). “Where do you live John,” I further inquired - - “Oh, I have my digs,” he said without ever mentioning that he may indeed be homeless. Of course, I already knew the truth and he did not need to say it. “Can we stop somewhere so that I can get you some new shoes,” I asked. “No, I can get those… I appreciate it though,” he said with a slight smile. He then changed the subject talking about all the different cameras he shot with in the 1960’s.
When we got to the bus stop I decided to take one more photo of him. “What do you have it set on,” he asked with curiosity. He then told me where he would set the metering, etc. I said, “Good idea John,” as I changed all of my settings and took another photo. I showed him the picture and he smiled and said, “Much better.”
The next morning my friend and I got up early in search of John. We found him… asleep on the bus stop bench. I didn’t want to wake him so I headed directly to the store to buy him a new pair of slip on shoes. After I made the purchase I headed back to the stop with only 20-minutes passing from the time I saw him asleep to the time we made it back. He was gone. I then went to the local church that was serving food to the homeless about two blocks away from where he was sleeping. I described John to a volunteer who said, “I’ve never seen him before and I’ve been here a long time… I think I would remember him.” Our search continued, but we never saw him again. He was gone as quickly as he appeared before me crossing the busy intersection where I first saw him.
About two hours later we came across a recovering alcoholic who had been sober for the past six days. The man said, “I would love to get rid of these boots.” The shoes went to him.
I want to close with the fact that John never asked for one thing. He even turned down my offer to purchase shoes for him. He touched me far more than I helped him with a simple ride to a bus stop that he was too proud to call home.
Billy Graham once stated, “Believers, look up - take courage. The angels are nearer than you think.”