I never cease to be amazed at the different encounters I have in my travels.
As I mentioned in my article last week, I am in Tacna, Peru with the mission team from my church where we are working toward completing the construction of a new church. It is the Tacna IML, which is the abbreviation in Spanish for the Free Methodist Church (IML is: Iglesia Metodista Libre).
After working very hard all week spreading dirt and rocks, mixing cement, welding trusses and all the rest that goes into a major construction project, we rewarded ourselves on the weekend. Friday afternoon about four o’clock the ladies on our team put a birthday cake in the oven. More than three hours later they pulled it out. Working with a Centigrade oven can be challenging. The cake never did rise much, leaving all of us to think we would merely be enjoying one very large cookie. To our surprise and delight, the cake actually baked and was quite tasty. This was all done to celebrate Ann's birthday on Saturday.
So, on Saturday morning we chartered a bus (not to be confused with Greyhound or Trailways), and headed toward Peru’s neighbor to the south, Chile. The first town inside Chile is Arica, where our host pastor in Tacna hails from. Great town which sits right on the Pacific Ocean. It was lunchtime so we decided to eat at a very nice restaurant sitting on the rocks of the shore, overlooking the harbor and beach area. Business was slow, so our party of twenty-one was a nice diversion for the restaurant staff. They seated us on a partially enclosed balcony where we could enjoy the view and the cool breeze.
Being ever interested in what’s around the next corner, I wandered off to explore the rest of the eating establishment with camera in hand. There were several delightful views from various places in the restaurant, so I kept clicking away.
I had noticed a middle-aged man when we first walked in, standing at the windows looking at the ocean view with drink in hand. I was struck immediately with two thoughts: First – he’s an American (Yes! We Americans actually look, dress, stand and move differently). Second – I was willing to bet he was prior military, quite probably a Marine.
I was standing a short distance from him, positioning myself for a camera angle on the coastline, when we caught each other’s eye, followed by verbal acknowledgements. This opened a
conversation in which we quickly discovered we had both served as Marines in Vietnam, though at different times. We also share the same first name. He served with 3rd Force Recon in Vietnam from ’67-’68. This was the same time period my brother was a Marine CH46 helicopter pilot in Nam. Chuck told me he had left the Marines after a tour of Embassy duty in Madrid, Spain. He returned home and spent the next thirty years serving as a police officer in central Illinois before retiring.
We talked for some time before being interrupted by one of the mission team members informing me that my shrimp soup was on the table getting cold. I invited Chuck to bring his drink and join us, which he did. I further discovered that he was in South America traveling alone on his motorcycle. His goal is to ride to southern Chile before heading back home to the good ol’ U.S. of A. He began his sojourn last September!
One of the ladies on our team is married to a retired Marine gunnery sergeant who was also with 3rd Force Recon in Nam, only a couple of years after Chuck. I wanted Anna to meet him since I knew it would be meaningful to her, and later when she got back home, she could tell her husband. Small world!
Chuck sat at the table with us until we’d all eaten our huge lunches, including ice cream for some. It was my duty to pay the tab for the team, after which I walked outside with Chuck to rejoin the team at the bus. We were still talking when the maitre‘d came running out with Chuck’s backpack. He politely thanked the man but explained that he had to come back in to pay for his drink anyway. The maitre‘d then said he’d thought Chuck was with our group, so he’d added the bar tab to the lunch tab. Since I’d already paid the tab for lunch, it was a done deal. Now, we Free Methodists lean toward being teetotalers, and the pastors are sworn to it personally. So you can imagine the hooting I received when the mission team discovered I had inadvertently paid for Chuck’s drink!
It has been said that if two Marines are in a room full of people, they’ll find each other. This is a true statement. There is a brotherhood, camaraderie, a shared experience that all Marines have. Chuck and I, from different parts of the United States, wind up meeting, not on some war-torn foreign shore, but in a sleepy little town on the coast of Chile.
I know a little something of the hell Chuck went through in Vietnam. Let me simply say it was an honor to meet him. And I’m proud to have bought him that drink.
Semper Fi, Chuck! Here’s to the Corps!