The tall soldier in the dark green, medal-emblazoned Canadian Forces uniform was nothing if not polite.
Approaching the grey-haired man seated in the circle of wicker chairs to one side of Laura’s Coffee On The Corner at White Rock’s Five Corners last week, he offered a respectful, “Mind if I join you, sir?”
The older man turned to look at the newcomer – and froze, while the other occupants of the coffee shop collectively held their breath.
After what seemed like a minute – but was probably only a few seconds – he finally spoke.
“What the hell?” he said, his face a study in affable bemusement.
White Rock’s Wayne Foulds was face-to-face with his son, Jay – also known as Sgt. J.T. Foulds of the Engineers, lately returned from his fourth tour of duty in Afghanistan – for the first time in close to 22 years.
Moments later, he was all smiles as he stood to welcome his son and the pair embraced. Camera flashes went off, and customers and staff broke into spontaneous applause. Everyone had been waiting for close to an hour for the surprise – cooked up by Jay and coffee shop owner Laura Cornale.
“Wayne’s a regular here,” she explained. “Whenever he gets emails or letters from his son – like over Christmastime – he comes here to read them.”
Knowing the popular restaurant is one of Wayne’s regular haunts, Jay – who had flown in from Ottawa for a couple of days without Wayne’s knowledge – set up the “chance” meeting for the late morning of March 14, a time Wayne would be expected to drop by.
Also in on the surprise were Jay’s nephew, Alex – Wayne’s grandson – who clinched the arrival by calling grandpa from his cell pretending to be stuck for a ride, plus Wayne’s longtime sailing buddy, Graham Coutts, and Graham’s daughter, Savannah Paine.
And, by the time Wayne’s arrival was imminent, everybody else in Laura’s was in on it, too, enlisted to the cause by Jay’s dry humour and the friendly ease of a section commander used to giving orders: “Okay actors – nobody give it away.”
The lanky combat engineer retired to a back corridor moments before Wayne walked in the door. He waited while Alex greeted his granddad and Coutts and Paine gave their fictitious excuses for being there – before judging the time was right to put in his appearance.
“How’s that for a stealth attack?” he asked his dad, after the first shock had passed.
“At least you’ve grown up a little since I saw you last,” countered the grinning Wayne, who later admitted he was completely surprised.
“My jaw must have hit the floor,” he said. “I didn’t clue in at all.”
“It’s not my first time at the rodeo,” commented Jay, noting he surprised his twin sister the same way several years ago at her company boardroom in Calgary.
There are many reasons why a father and son can be separated for so many years – most of them their own business.
“We weren’t the closest of families,” is the way Jay summed it up.
During the last decade of his military career, the potential of a reunion became even more limited because he was assigned to duty all over the world – including Bosnia, Macedonia, Kabul and Kandahar – but that didn’t stop the two from becoming frequent correspondents.
Anyone who talks to Wayne knows how proud he is of his son and how much he treasures his letters and photos.
And on this day he was enjoying a rare and very different privilege – being able to sit back in fatherly pride as others gathered around Jay’s laptop to watch the video clips of life on the front lines, and ask about the impressive row of service medals on his dress uniform, including the most recent – and rare – honour, a Commander In Chief’s citation for his unit.
Jay explained that as a member of the military fraternity traditionally known as the Sappers, he leads his men in finding, clearing – and, whenever possible, safely exploding – I.E.D.s (improvised explosive devices).
“Finding the IEDs is not as much fun as some people may think,” he said. “But blowing them up is.”
Tours of duty are usually six months, he said, but the last one, which ended in October, had been eight months. A seasoned veteran, Jay was in command of men who – with one exception – had never been in combat zones.
“Our basic mandate is to assist our troops in living, moving and fighting on the battlefield,” he said.
That’s easier said than done, when they’re up against an enemy skilled at making bombs from chemical fertilizers and sniping from cover – targeting section leaders, like himself, in particular.
A grim reminder of events a world away from a coffee shop in White Rock, maybe – but Wayne was clearly relishing every moment of catching up with a son he’s known largely at great distance.
And Paine could judge from their friend’s broad grin and flushed face what a red-letter day it was for him.
“Wayne’s a pretty happy guy most of the time,” she said. “Now he’s triple-happy.”