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Chance meeting becomes special reminder of past

I always thought flea markets were home to the museums of human imagination. Go there and you'll find everything from pipe pelican storks to children's toys made of toilet paper rolls. It's a sight to behold. It really is. What's more spectacular is that most of the things made are done out of love of hobby rather than moneymaking intentions. That's what makes each of those items something special.

This is a story of a man who makes matchstick boxes. This is about a man they call KoKo; about his life and his art. This is about a man who told me of Japanese knives, Crystal River policemen and a Swedish woman. This is about a man who taught me a lesson I had shamefully forgotten.

On a recent Tuesday, I walked into the Crystal River Ale House to meet a childhood friend. She was talking to a man, sitting at the bar. He looked over to me.

"Who are you?" he asked.

"I'm Pratik Patel," I said.

"P-A-T-R-I-C-K," he asked.

"No, put the r in between the p and the a," I said.

"What are you doing," he said.

"I'm here to meet the woman you are speaking with," I said.

"How do you say your name again?" he asked.

And that's how our conversation started. After a few unsuccessful but genuine attempts to pronounce my name, he finally nailed it. We talked of his nephew in Boston, and how he knew someone who taught at Harvard Medical School, the school I attend.

My friend left to attend to things she needed to, and I sat at the bar talking to a 70-year-old man I never met before, a man who had a special way with words. He told me that his wife had passed some time back and he was living now at a nursing home behind Kash n' Karry. He told me how when he first came to the Ale House, he misplaced his camera and the whole ordeal involved in getting it back. He talked passionately about a woman he loved, a woman whose picture he still carries in his wallet.

We spoke briefly of the Great War. He told me about the pieces of Japanese knives that pierced his skin and still remain in his body. Pieces of knives that serve as a constant reminder to the sacrifice he once made for a country that called on him. And in the meanwhile, flashes of scenes unfamiliar to me passed through my mind. Scenes of the atrocities of war, the disease, pestilence and sheer hatred we see in old videos and new movies. And then, while talking to this man, I thought to myself, thank you KoKo. You can't possibly hear those words enough.

This article serves as a reminder for all those who died fighting for our way of life. This article is for those oft-forgotten soldiers who gave their futures for their country's future. This article is for those Vietnam vets who sacrificed so much, yet came back to ridicule and shame. This article is for those soldiers who suffered so much criticism back home that they almost forgot what they were fighting for, what they were giving their lives for. They protected our freedom and were looked down upon for giving the greatest gift of all: the opportunity for a country and its people to live freely. This article is a testament to their courage and determination.

But most of all, this article is about the man who takes a taxi to the Crystal River Ale House to watch football games on Sundays. If you have an idle Sunday, do me a favor; stop by the bar to listen to his stories. For as sure as the sun rises from the east, he will be there. Buy him a beer and listen to what he has to say. I can guarantee you one thing: You'll come out a better person for it.

He will talk of his childhood, and his past. He'll talk of writing screenplays. He'll show you his amazing matchstick boxes; he'll tell you that he charges $3 for each hour he spends working on them. And before you leave with a smile on your face, don't forget the most important thing. Look him in the eyes and say, "Thank you, Matchstick Man, thank you."

_ Pratik Patel is a Lecanto High School graduate. He is studying law and medicine at Harvard University.