"Hello," a stranger shouted as I walked by the little town green at the end of my street. "Can I meet your dog?"
This green is where the World War II War Memorial stands, a stone slab inscribed with last names still recognizable at the Post Office around the corner. We'll gather there with our neighbors Monday morning, as we do every year, to hear a rough rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner" by a local Fife and Drum Corps. A few of us will sing, and one of us will give a speech.
The stranger was a fit young man in military fatigues, and as he came nearer with his long, confident stride I thought he might notice the memorial. But he had eyes only for my German Shepherd dog. He was already beside us before I could finish saying, "Sure, you can meet her. She's very friendly."
"What's her name?" he asked, crouching down and in one seamless move running his hands along the dog's ribs. "Darcy," I said. "She's 12 years old, but you'd never know it. She used to be a seeing-eye dog, but she was retired early after a few years on the job. My husband and I got her six years ago."
Darcy greets everyone with gusto, but something clicked with this stranger that I'd never seen before. Instinctively, I dropped the leash, and within seconds my dog was at his command, circling him where he stood, sitting at a flick of his hand. "Wow," I said. "She really responds to you."
"I had a German Shepherd dog," he said. "His name was Cisco, and we were partners when I was in Iraq. He was an amazing dog. Nothing spooked him, and he was always with me, always ready to work."
I asked if the name had anything to do with the "Cisco Kid" television show that I sometimes watched as a child. He had no idea what I was talking about. Then I asked if Cisco had come home with him from Iraq.
"Cisco saved me from an IED," he said, "but the blast killed him. I still have a few pieces of that IED in the back of my neck." The stranger turned and pointed at the spot, but I couldn’t make out the scars. I was too busy thinking what to say.
"Wow," I said, stupidly. Then I stopped thinking, and just said what I felt. "I hope you never have to go back there again."
The stranger continued to play - or was it work? - with Darcy a short while longer, and then he handed me back the leash. "Thank you," he said, before striding off as swiftly and deliberately as he had come toward us. "My pleasure," I called out after him. "You were really great with her."
As I stood there, it suddenly occurred to me that I had forgotten to thank him for his service, as we're all supposed to do now. Then I smiled, because that would have formalized, and perhaps even ruined everything.
The stranger wasn't looking for thanks. He was looking to run his hands along the soft fur and strong body of my German Shepherd dog. And I was happy to have given him that.