I found a case of cold beer on the side of the road Saturday morning.
That’s my story, anyway, and I’m sticking to it.
It was more than a case, actually, it was a 30-pack — unopened, untampered, cool and delicious — just sitting there. I would guess it was somewhere around $25 worth of beer. Who could have left it there? Obviously, there had been some kind of mistake.
Really, that’s my story. It’s amazing what you can sometimes find on the side of the road.
I had just left downtown Charles City, assigned to take a photo of nine Charles City kids. When I call them “kids,” it’s a comment on my advanced age, and not a comment on their lack of maturity. They are men and women, not children, but when you’ve crossed the half-century mark, everyone younger than you seems like a kid.
And they were kids, not too long ago. Our own Charles City kids, most of them born, raised and educated here. Saturday morning, they were young adults, standing together on a flatbed trailer downtown, on the side of the road. It was the 2021 version of a parade — those being honored just stand there, while others drive by, honk, wave, fly flags and yell “thank you.”
They are members of the Army National Guard who have recently returned from a year’s deployment in the Middle East.
Remember their names, thank them for their service — Austin Ferch, Mitchel Fox, Nick Jacobs, Dallas Nehls and Conor Sherman (CCHS Class of 2016); Dave Dejongoy and Jaden Foster (CCHS Class of 2017) and Marco Concepcion and Elizabeth White (CCHS Class of 2018.)
I met them, I talked with them a little, I joked with them, I took a few photos. There was no way they understood how happy I was to see them, alive, in one piece, smiling — safe home. I’m sure it seems strange that I felt that way. I’d never before met any one of them, didn’t know them personally. I don’t think I even know any of their parents or grandparents.
But I have known people who didn’t come home. And these kids reminded me of that.
On Aug. 2, 2005, U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Michael A. Benson was riding in a gunner’s turret in Baghdad when a suicide bomber on the side of the road, driving a car that was carrying an improvised explosive device, attacked his three-vehicle convoy, resulting in his sustaining severe head wounds.
He was initially transferred from Iraq to a hospital in Germany where he was awarded a Purple Heart, and, while he did not immediately perish from his injuries, he died in a military hospital in Maryland on Aug. 10, 2005.
Mike was just 40 years old. He was in his final year of service. He was my cousin.
He enlisted in 1985, and during his two decades in the U.S. Army, he was awarded at least 23 medals, awards and decorations in recognition of his outstanding military service.
Mike also loved fast cars and spicy foods, and rooted passionately for Dale Earnhardt Jr., the Minnesota Vikings and the Minnesota Twins. When I was just 10 years old, he introduced me to good rock music, and got me hooked. I’ll always be grateful for that.
He had a deep belief in God and country. He was a good cousin, a good brother, a good husband and a good son.
I left those nine kids Saturday, struck by how much they reminded me of my cousin Mike, when he and I were kids. I never really got to know him as an adult, so I’ll always think of him as a kid.
I doubled back a few minutes later. I’ve always thought it was a good idea to double back for your friends, especially if you believe they’d do the same for you.
I doubled back, with my newly-found case of beer riding shotgun, and drove right back up to those young soldiers.
“I found this on the side of the road,” I said, as I set the 30-pack down on the flatbed. “I thought maybe you guys might know who it belongs too.”
Their smiles broadened and a few of them laughed, and that was exactly what my heart needed.
“I’m just going to leave this here and let you guys figure out what to do with it,” I said. I walked back to my car, without looking at them. I couldn’t look at them at that point. I was afraid if I looked into their eyes, I would see Mike.
I was buying them the beer I never got the chance to buy my cousin.
Or maybe, U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Michael A. Benson, KIA 2005, was buying them a beer, through me. That’s what it felt like at the moment.
And I then I went home, opened the fridge, and even though it wasn’t quite noon yet, I had a cold one. I turned on some good rock music, and cranked it up, loud. I thought about Mike. I thought about those kids, all smiles, so happy to be home from the hot hell they’ve been cooking in for the last year.
I thanked God that they all were able to return home, and whispered a prayer for all the young men and women who never did. Then I had a second beer. I figured that would be enough, and it was.
They say if you drink alcohol before noon, you might have a problem.
Saturday morning, it was a good problem to have.