If you're looking for a place to meet that special someone, maybe get a phone number, you could do better than a Veterans Affairs hospital waiting room. But if you're looking for a unique perspective of human interaction in a multi-generational setting, the VA is the place for you.
There are worse ways you can spend an afternoon than sitting at a hospital where 100 percent of the patients once fought for our country. If you didn't appreciate our troops before, you would by the time you left.
Sitting in a vet's waiting room is like a Ken Burns documentary came to life. Leave the history book on the shelf; you want to know what war is like, spend some time at a veteran's hospital. And besides war stories, there is plenty to learn just by doing a little watching and a little listening.
Here's what I took from my recent visit to the VA in Sioux Falls with my parents:
In one aisle sat two war vets with a book's worth of stories to tell, probably speaking to each other for the first time but bonded forever by their service. I'm thinking they went from strangers to buddies in about 14 seconds.
As they waited for a nurse to bellow one of their names over the din of a zamboni-like floor polisher, I could hear parts of their respective stories. They were both emotional, which only drew me in more. Even though I caught myself eavesdropping, I couldn't help but continue doing it.
Most of the people in any waiting room at the VA are elderly men, there with their elderly wives who kill time by knitting or paging through a Kohl's insert. But on this day, there was a young woman there, maybe in her late 20s. Hello, generation gap.
While most of the patients at the VA swap stories or discuss land prices with their new friends, from time to time you'll stumble across a veteran who doesn't qualify for AARP benefits, one who would rather drink a Monster than a Styrofoam cupful of the blackest coffee you've ever seen. This woman stuck out like a piece of cauliflower in a bowl of Skittles - not because she didn't walk with a limp, use a walking stick or ride in a scooter, but because of her age and how that defined her.
As the other patients talked or people-watched or read the Argus Leader, there was this young woman looking down the whole time, her hot pink smart phone cradled in her left hand - a prime example of how technology has shut some of us off with the outside world and has built a roadblock to human interaction.
A streaker could've run out in front of this gal and done the Harlem Shake and she wouldn't have noticed.
But I get it. She's of a different generation than 80 percent of her fellow patients. Staring into a tiny phone screen until her eyes water is nothing new to her.
What I didn't get was the old guy in the U.S. Navy baseball cap sitting two chairs down from her. After glancing at a few pages of his "Hot Rod" magazine, this veteran got a call on his cell. He then transferred the call to his Bluetooth.
This fine gentleman had to be at least 70 and he has a Bluetooth? I don't have a Bluetooth. Come to think of it, I don't know anyone who does, but I'd feel safe betting most Bluetoothers are under 40. A 70-year-old geek. Wow.
So here he is, having a conversation with - for all anyone in the room knew - no one. He continued to flip the pages of his magazine, every once in a while letting out this deep guttural laugh. Seeing this, the fellas sitting a few chairs down from me looked at each other and one of them suggested he might want to go to a different floor - the one where doctors see patients who don't necessarily have a physical injury if you get my drift.
One on hand, I was impressed this old fella was utilizing today's technology. On the other, I felt a bit sad. Well not sad, really. It was more like a lost, hopeless feeling, because it really made me realize even more that we are losing ourselves in our own technology. I want to hear two old timers talk and complain about the weather and politics before going their separate ways. At least they made a connection. This guy, and the woman to his left, didn't even give themselves a chance to make a connection that day.
I guess that is kind of sad.
As much as I'd like to say technology is a fad, I know better. This is a digital world, we just live in it. But that doesn't mean I can't pine for the pre-tech era where we communicated with each other with our voices instead of our thumbs. That's how they do it at the VA, where every so often you can overhear a conversation that will make you think.
Those are the kind of priceless conversations that can't happen in 20 characters or less.