Ol’ Man Joe by Scott Pritchard

Joe, or “Ol’ man Joe,” as I liked to refer to him was a short, frail, old, Jewish man. He stood about 5’4″, and weighed, oh maybe 120 pounds. He was in his late 80’s when I met him and was one of the nicest, “mean old men,” that I ever knew. I wish that I had had more time to spend with my friend.

Joe was a simple man who forever seemed to have a scowl on his face; in fact, all of the neighbors advised to steer clear of him. Seems everybody knew his name, but yet nobody really knew him at all. His wrinkled skin resembled that of leather, perhaps from a lifetime spent in the sun. He had but a wisp of stark-white hair on his otherwise bald head, which would only be revealed if you were lucky enough to see him without his grey, flat, knit hat, which he always wore. He always appeared to wear the same tattered tan kaki pants, along with a red plaid shirt, which looked about two sizes too big for his small frame.

Joe loved to walk. During the summer months, almost like clockwork, I would see Joe with his cane rounding the corner at the end of the single lane street to take his daily meandering stroll around our short block. Step by small step, Joe moved along ever so slowly. I never really decided if he walked so slowly because he actually had trouble walking, or he simply wasn’t in a hurry. Perhaps he was just enjoying the feel of the sun on his face, or the sweet smell of the neighborhood lilac trees.

One morning, as I went out to get the newspaper, I had my first opportunity to speak to Joe. It just so happened that Joe had begun his walk a little early that day. I hadn’t noticed him at first, but when I stood up after picking up the paper from the grass, there I was, within yards of this so called “cranky old man.” I awkwardly raised my hand, still holding the newspaper, as if to wave. I timidly spoke out, “Good morning Joe.”

Joe stopped his gait for a brief moment, raised his head and looked at me with a puzzled look on his face. Joe then raised his scratched up, copper colored cane in the air and with a tiny, soft voice simply said,”yep!”

“Nice day for a walk, eh?” I asked with much hesitation, not knowing what kind of response I might get.

“The best,” Joe replied in the same soft voice.

As he lowered his cane back to the cool pavement to continue his trek, I thought for a moment,       “maybe this guy isn’t as bad as they say.” With that, I blurted out an invitation that was completely out of my character.

“Hey Joe. You know if you’re not too busy.”

I paused and realized that I must have sounded completely dim-witted because Joe immediately stopped, looked again with that same puzzled look and replied sarcastically, “I’m 87 years old. I’m always busy.”

To which I replied, “What I mean is, if you’d ever like to share a cup of coffee and some conversation, stop on by sometime.”

“I might just take you up on that offer,” Joe said with what appeared to be just a quiver of a grin on his wrinkled face.

The following morning Joe indeed took me up on my offer. We sat and talked over hot coffee for a couple of hours. Joe must have been a little nervous at first because I don’t think ever stopped stirring his coffee the entire time we sat there. Each time I’d ask if he wanted a warm-up, however he’d simply nod and smile, as if to affirm his content. I discovered that Joe was a Navy pilot in WWII. Like me, Joe had a passion for aviation and you would see his tired eyes light up like a child’s eyes at Christmas, when he spoke of anything that had to do with flying.

Joe visited quite often in the few years that I got to know him. He mostly spoke of his wife of 60+ years, his services in the military, his children, and of course our favorite subject, flying. Joe passed away during the winter of 2006. I can’t help but wonder about the stories that I missed out on. Turns out that Joe wasn’t the “tyrant” that others had made him out to be. I’ll always be grateful for the friendship we shared. It is said to never judge a book by its cover and that has never rung more true than with “Ol’ man Joe.”

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