I really wasn’t looking for a fight.

We were at the mall with a few family members, just soaking up the festive holiday decorations and doing some people-watching.

“Hey, Ma’am! Do you want to help our veterans this Christmas?” I heard.

Looking up I saw six tables occupying the primo spot in the mall decorated with American flags and photos of military veterans.

“Ma’am?” He rattled a collection bucket and thrust it toward me.

Quickly sizing him up I knew that this was a questionable charity event. Seeing the non-Army-issue camouflage T-shirt and the fake dog tags dangling around his neck that looked like they had tumbled out of a gumball machine, my heart started beating a little bit faster. Army mothers abhor stolen valor.

Yeah, I thought. I’ll take you one on one.

Reaching out my hand, I grasped his hand firmly, and we locked eyes.

“Hi, my name is Linda Craig.”

“Hi, Miss Linda. My name is Sarge.”

“Are you a veteran, Sarge?”

“Yes, Mam! I done served in three wars. My mama was afraid I’d never make it home, but I sure did! Would you like to help a veteran, Mam?”

“I might. Can you tell me about what you’re doing here, Sarge?”

“Well, like I started to tell you. We’re getting donations to help our veterans.”

Leaning in a little closer I asked, “And what do you do for the Veterans?”

Quickly he rattled off, “Well, Ol’ Sarge knows a lot of veterans are homeless. In fact, I was even homeless once. We have shelters for veterans so they don’t have to sleep on the street.” He shoved the bucket towards me again but I didn’t flinch.

Sarge continued, “Yeah, we feed ’em, we find jobs for them. All that stuff.”

“So, Sarge. That sounds like a great service. Does that help veterans right here in my community?’

“Yes, ma’am.”

He stirred change around in the pot with two fingers and looked from me to the bucket.

“Where are these shelters?”

“Why are you asking Ol Sarge so many questions?”

“Well, Sarge. You see it’s my personal policy to find out where my money goes when I donate to any charity.”

“I done told you where it goes.”

I decided to feint back a little.

“Do you have any literature about your charity?” I asked.

Sarge shuffled his feet a little to the left and stuck his hand into a box under the table. He brought out a wrinkled trifold piece of paper. Shoving it across the countertop he left me standing at the corner table. He backed away and started warming up his Army carney act at another table.

Looking around I saw three other military-looking carnies shaking plastic buckets of money at passing shoppers. Clink, clink. “Our soldiers thank you.”, “Thank you for your patriotism, sir.” Clink, clink. A father handed a child a dollar bill and explained to his child why he was giving the money away. “God bless you, sir.”

Looking back down at the brochure I saw a cheap cut-and-paste layout with vague explanations and no local phone number, confirming my suspicions. This was a cheap traveling show, hiring grifters up and down the coast of Florida to panhandle for an out-of-state charity.

I sidled over to where Ol Sarge was standing with his bucket and said, “I have a question?”

“What do you want now?”

Sarge glared at me and looked like he wanted me to disappear. He balled up his fists at his side and looked me dead in the eye.

“Who do you work for?” I asked.

There was fire starting to burn in those eyes of his. I had to give old Sarge some credit though.

For somebody probably just making minimum wage, and whatever he could snatch from an unwatched bucket, he was still hanging in there.

“I give you that there piece of paper. Read it, it says.”

“It shows a picture of bunk beds and says it’s a shelter for veterans in my town.”

“That’s right.”

“Well, where is it? I actually work with homeless veterans and this is a resource I’ve never used.This could be very useful for us.”

He dropped his poker face for half a second. I pivoted.

“Sarge, where were you stationed and what was your MOS?” That was the old one-two punch that left him slack jawed.

Trying to stay in it he said, “If you like the military, put a twenty in here for Old Sarge or go on about your business.”

“Well, Sarge, here’s what I think I’d rather do. I’m going to pull my cell phone out of my pocket and call my son who is home on leave from the Army. He’s quite the soldier, three tours of Iraq, you know. He can bring some of his buddies over here in a few minutes and you can all talk about the war together.”

I smiled as sweetly as a Southern Belle.

That was a hard punch to the gut.

Sarge flailed his arms around, pointed at me and screamed, “You had better make sure he brings a gun! He’d better be bringin’ a gun!”

“Security!” I yelled.

“Are you threatening me? Are you threatening my son? Security!!” I demanded.

The rent-a-cops never responded. They just disappeared into the Victoria’s Secret or the Zales jewelry store when they heard yelling and the word ‘gun’.

I stomped my feet, held my ground and yelled, “I want Security here right now!”
Family members were trying to drag me away by the arm. But I wasn’t done schooling old Sarge.

I took his picture with my cell phone. Flashing it at him I said, “My first friend on speed dial is the Chief of Police. The second is the local newspaper photographer. Her son is in the Marines. And my son just texted that he’s on his way. In five minutes you are going to be making lots of new friends, Sarge. And I am going to just stand here and film it.”

By now my own family had turned away from the bout, pretending to be window shopping. But it was a true TKO. They shouldn’t have looked away.

Ol’ Sarge hit the ground running. The last I saw of him he was crashing through a throng of chairs at the food court. In four minutes his other three cronies were running through the mall with their buckets clanking full of money in one hand like naughty trick or treaters on Halloween fleeing a toilet paper party.

Do I know the Chief of Police? Well, no. But sometimes a fake is as effective as a good punch.

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