Channeling Lieutenant Dan

Janet Steigler

The homeless vet brushed a stringy lock of hair from his face and sat on his heels.  Despite an unkempt appearance, he was not bad-looking.  His long, wavy hair framed a tanned but smooth complexion.  Straight white teeth peeked out from behind his beard as he chewed on a stogie. A wheelchair perched behind him on the grassy commons held bags of clothes, food, and other belongings.  Strumming a beaten guitar with one missing string, he eyed the passersby, hoping one or two would open their wallets.

Choosing this location in downtown Los Angeles was deliberate.  It was less than a mile from several tourist attractions, and being surrounded by other vets provided purpose and camaraderie. It was not that cold, but the homeless man pulled a blanket around his lower half, hiding his disability.

Suddenly, a smartly dressed woman stopped when she saw him.  “It’s Lieutenant Dan!” she said, pulling on her girlfriend’s arm.  Her friend was eager to walk on, but the woman was mesmerized.  “Look, look, Lucinda!  It’s Lieutenant Dan from Forrest Gump,” she said to her girlfriend, pointing at the homeless man.

The woman approached the homeless man and asked if she might take a picture.  He pointed to the plastic pail in front of him, indicating that a snapshot would cost something.  “Of course,” she responded blushing, then asked to get in the picture with him.  He gave her a rakish smile as she crouched next to him.  Lucinda snapped a few pictures of the pair before plucking a five-dollar bill from her purse and placing it in the pail.

By this time, a small crowd had gathered around, wondering why two well-heeled women were taking pictures with a grubby homeless man.  “Is he someone famous?” asked one man.  “I heard her call him Lieutenant Dan,” said another.   “Whose Lieutenant Dan?” asked a woman, standing on tiptoes to get a better view.

“You remember,” answered her husband, “the Army Lieutenant in Forrest Gump who believes it’s his fate to die in combat but loses both his legs instead.  The actor was nominated for an Academy Award.  This guy is the character’s spitting image!”

At least twenty people had gathered around the homeless vet, taking pictures and filling his pail with bills and coins.  Periodically, the man would shake his fist at the sky and yell, “Is this all you got?  You call this a storm?  I’m right here, come and get me!”  Some people were frightened by his random outbursts until a few movie buffs explained that they were just lines from the movie.

The other wounded vets watched the spectacle with amusement, and a few inched closer to see if they could benefit from the unexpected windfall.  It seemed to work.  Passersby waiting to get a picture with Lieutenant Dan wandered over to the other homeless men and dropped money in their pots.  By the end of the afternoon, Lieutenant Dan had made $329; as a group, they had just under $460.

The crowd slowly dwindled with the waning sunlight.  Satisfied, Lieutenant Dan slowly stood up, folded the blanket that had hidden his lower limbs, and brushed the leaves off his jeans.   The other vets watched with puzzlement as he divided his take among them.

Suddenly, a car cruised to a stop by the sidewalk where the homeless men had gathered.  The window on the passenger side lowered.  It was the well-heeled woman who had started the afternoon’s ripple of excitement.  “Come on, Gary,” she shouted.  “You don’t want to keep the Marines waiting!”

Lieutenant Dan turned back to the homeless vets.   “That’s my wife, “he explained to their curious looks.  “She doesn’t shy from playing the celebrity card to make things happen. Then he removed his wig, put it in a shopping bag, and sped off in the car.

Huddled together, the men dug into the bags of food and clothing Lieutenant Dan had left behind.  A page of a discarded newspaper swirled across the commons and caught against the spokes of the abandoned wheelchair.  The headlined article: “Oscar Nominee Gary Sinise and the Lieutenant Dan Band performing tonight at Camp Pendleton: Forrest Gump Role Leads to Life Supporting Veteran Causes.”

(Note:  Although this story is fiction, actor Gary Sinise co-founded the Lt. Dan Band in 2003, and the group frequently performs for veteran causes and at military bases around the world.)