Apparently they were two young men, freshly shaven, scrubbed, and smiling. Crewcuts and shiny boots. They had an American flag and an Army tent, and they had buckets.
Their buckets were heavy, but they urged on more. One of them was charming, walking up to the shopping crowds. It was Sunday and the mall was full of hungry workers and hungry shoppers, the latter packing the food court when they weren't thronging the stores. The young man urged them to give. "Come on folks: it's for the vets!"
My mother-in-law was there, entertaining the boys for the day. She gave them dollars to give the young men, who were friendly and personable. They talked to the kids. They were model spokesmen.
But my mother-in-law wondered exactly for whom they were speaking. As she told me later, they had no insignia.
"Name tags?" I later asked. None. "Anything noting branch of service?" None. No VFW, no VA, no US Army. Not so much as an anchor. I knew before she told me. I let her continue on.
She didn't say anything, or ask anything, because she didn't want to give the boys the wrong idea. She assured me at least three times of her commitment to the troops. She didn't need to. She's married to a veteran. Takes the boys to the war parades every year. Dresses in red, white, and blue often and on the right dates. This isn't posturing, as much as it'd be easy for a cynic to assume. She does feel it. I know that. There's not an ironic bone in her body. She doesn't lie, but often she does stay silent.
And she stayed silent still when they folded up their tent, took their crisp, ironed fatigues and their polished boots, rolled up the flag, and walked out with their several heavy buckets while the multitudes sat at chow.
I had to admire their boldness. Sunday, when management can't be bothered to approve or disapprove such talented panhandling. Lunch hour, when the marks are numerous. Even still, what if they met an actual vet? Were they prepared to list off real or false dates of service? Would they bolt? Either way, I had to hand it to them. A couple hundred bucks at Army Surplus and they must have made thousands.
I am sickened, yes, when I think of veterans who are homeless, psychotic, and uncared-for, but even were they representing an organization I would hate them for their marketing for mass murder with profit at the slender top. And I would hate the marks who know only of war efforts as sentimental acts of hindsight or holier-than-thou acts of nationalist display. Last Men dreaming of marching. It's easy to loathe them.
But I wasn't sure what to think of my mother-in-law, who was not fool enough to be completely persuaded, even as she handed them their money. No--Had my children and my nephew hand them her money.
I hope they actually were vets. And I hope they blew it all on painkillers and alcohol. I hope they got to forget the sickness they fed in service, the sickness they allowed, and celebrated their chance to prosper, to play others when they had once been played.