April 19, 2007

A tale of two moments...

Just after returning to Dayton, Ohio after my release from the Marine Corps I took out a room in the downtown Y.M.C.A. in order to stretch my monies as far as possible while I job hunted and prepared to renter civilian life. It was a harsh December and bitter cold. I remember spending a good part of each day curled up in a chair in the lounge reading and drinking coffee. Sometimes I would enjoy a game of chess with one of the old men that never seemed to leave the confines of the quiet sanctuary.

It wasn’t long before a particular gentleman and I became friends because of a mutual respect for the level of competition we shared. The games we played against each other were spirited battles and closely contested until the very last move. As we whiled away the hours we talked about our days and shared the stories of our lives.

The old man was sixty-four years old and had suffered a heart attack that left the left side of his body partially paralyzed. He had little use of his left hand and he walked with a slight drag of his left leg. He moved slowly and precariously. As physically handicapped as he was he still possessed a keen mind and was a good conversationalist.

Up until the heart attack he taught high school mathematics. He’d had a good life and what he still believed was a good wife even though she left him after the stroke. (Actually, she left him after he lost his teaching job because of the stroke.) He was a good soul and he was staying at the Y.M.C.A. until he turned sixty-five and his social security kicked in bringing in a more substantial income than his disability checks provided.

It became a regular routine that he and I would walk down Monument, cross the Main Street Bridge and shop at a little store called Russ’s Market. He would usually pick up small luxury items like hot chocolate mix, marshmallows and popcorn. Upon returning to the Y.M.C.A. he’d use the hot plate in his room to prepare a couple of mugs of hot chocolate and a big pot of popcorn which we would then carry down to the lounge and share with those who gathered to play chess.

One particular day it was so cold and a major storm was forecast to bring a significant amount of snowfall to our city. The old man wanted to go to the store before the snow moved in but I just did not want to go out in the freezing cold. I told him that I would go with him the next day and went back to reading in my room. For the next few days the weather did indeed turn nasty and it still stands as one of the worse snows Dayton, Ohio has ever suffered.

After the storm broke I tried to check in on the old man and see if he still wanted to go to the store. For several days I did not see him in the lounge and when I knocked upon the door of his room there was no answer. I was a bit concerned at this point and I went to the front desk to see if they knew if anything about his whereabouts. The desk clerk handed me the morning paper and pointed to a column on the front page.

My heart broke as I read how my friend had been picked up by a group of boys while crossing the Main Street Bridge, taken out to a wooded area, robbed and then beaten to death. He was found half buried in the snow by a young couple out for a walk after the storm had passed. It was one of the worst moments of my entire life. I blamed myself for months afterwards even though everyone assured me it was not my fault. I still feel a sense of responsibility after all these years.

Story Two

My two buddies and I were heading back inside the bar when a hand reached out from the line of those waiting to get inside and grabbed my arm. When I turned around a girl was crying and looking at a rather beefy guy standing next to her.

“That’s him, that’s the guy I’ve been telling you about.”

I didn’t have a clue who the girl was and I wasn’t sure what to do. My two buddies had stopped and the bouncer who knew me pretty well was watching the situation carefully in case something bad broke out. The guy beside her smiled and reached out his hand.

“I’d like to thank you for everything you’ve done for my wife.”

As I shook his hand I tried frantically to remember who this girl was but for the life of me memory just would not come.

“Why don’t you join us at our table and we’ll talk?”

Once we were seated the girl and her husband introduced themselves. She apologized for the tears and began to explain herself. It turned out that we had attended high school together. She was a lonely girl without friends and hated her life and the experience she was having in junior high. No one ever noticed her and no one ever paid her any attention. She never got invited to dances or any of the other school functions that she so desperately wanted to be a part of.

As she told her story I still didn’t have a clue who she was. Then she started talking about this wild hippie kid who was always surrounded by a group of laughing happy followers. She told everyone how every time he saw her he grabbed her hand and invited her to participate in whatever adventure was underway. She talked about what it meant to her to be made a part of something and how she developed friendships through the people he introduced her to. She talked about how it had changed her life.

Eventually she went to the powder room with several of the other girls and her husband leaned in close and started to talk to me.

“She was so lonely and hurt in high school. She was depressed and beginning to consider suicide when you came into her life. If you hadn’t done what you did for her I may never have met her. I will never be able to thank you enough.”

To this day I still have no idea who that girl was. It simply is a matter of how I am around people. Whenever I see a person sitting alone by themselves I try to reach out and invite them to be a part of whatever is going on at the moment. To me, the more of us there are having a good time, the happier I am as an individual. I just like bringing people together for a good time.

These two events have taught me one very important life lesson. We can not prevent events like the one that just happened on the campus of Virginia Tech by legislation, new laws concerning gun control or increased security forces. These efforts, although well intentioned simply do not address the real cause of the violent explosions by individuals like Cho Seung-Hui. By the time they make their move against us it is only a matter of how many they harm before they are gunned down by either police or campus security forces.

If we truly wish to stop the shootings that seem to be plaguing our neighborhoods, work environments and school systems the best place to start is with ourselves. Each and every day all of us encounter the weird individual. Whether it is the old lady with the cats, the guy with the scowl or the badly dressed secretary in the next cubicle we ignore these injured folks and oftentimes avoid them entirely. They long to be a part of our activities and to participate in the fellowship we share while they sit in crowded cafeterias eating their lunches alone.

Reach out to these people. Offer them friendship and watch the look that comes into their eyes. You can turn a potential shooter into a real human being. Love truly heals a heart and soothes the soul. I know a lot of us don’t believe in that much any more, but I do and I know from personal experience what reaching out can do. It can save not only the aggrieved one’s life but potentially the lives of those he would have struck out at in anger and lonely alienation.

Look around yourself today, how many lonely hurt people do you see sitting by themselves wishing for nothing more than one single friend? Even if you can't manage the courage to walk over and introduce yourself, please acknowledge their existence with a cheerful smile. It could make all the difference.


Blogger Dirk_Star said...

What he did was wrong and evil.

Still, he was one of us and we ignored his pain until he lashed out and forced it upon us.

My heart aches for "everyone" involved.

We live in sad times and all of us are suffering...

If we do not rediscover our shared humanity and heal our collective soul I fear what will befall us.

April 19, 2007 3:52 AM  
Blogger Craig D said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

April 19, 2007 6:54 AM  
Blogger Em said...

Two powerful moments in your life. Thanks for sharing. I certainly understand your grief over the first and your joy over the second. We just never know how our actions in a moment may impact others. Or how they may impact our own life at some future time. But we surely should learn the lesson to seize the day. Reach out to others. Be open to people and connections.

April 19, 2007 7:47 AM  
Blogger Thomas said...

I think his pain was noticed, but there is nothing in place to effectively help with pain like that.

I see it a lot as a jr high teacher and luckily we have processes in place to help.

Intervention is a must. I really wonder what his family saw or knew. Not necessarily blaming them, but there tends to be signs.


April 19, 2007 8:42 AM  
Blogger Wizened Wizard said...

The first story was a sad one, and I'm not sure how you could ever get beyond some measure of "if only I had..." - even though you are not to blame.

Uh, by the way... this "old man" of 64 was just about two years older than a certain wizard I know...

The second story is good because the advice is so right. There are plenty of directions to point blame, but the positive action of genuinely caring about and including others is such an easy thing to do. There are no losers. If we can collectively grieve the Virginia Tech loss, we ought to be able to collectively embrace our fellow man.

Thanks, Dirk.

April 19, 2007 2:17 PM  
Blogger Danielle said...

I have been so pressed for time sweets that I have become the dreaded lurker in your midst. Good stuff here and I will come back when time allows and throw in my two cents.

Be well and rub the lady's feet with warm oil I am sure she needs it!!!!

April 19, 2007 5:34 PM  
Blogger SQT said...

I'm sorry you feel guilt from what happened in the first story. You are not responsible for what those boys did however. But I would feel the same way.

It is a gift though to know how you positively affected someone else's life. It's amazing to see how much a little gesture can mean. That's a lesson for us all.

April 19, 2007 5:56 PM  
Blogger Robin said...

Incredible post. Tears in my eyes. Thank you.

April 19, 2007 8:12 PM  
Blogger Bardouble29 said...

Dirk, thank you for sharing those stories. A few days ago I made a comment on another blog, that if we make a difference in even one persons life, then we have made a difference...

April 19, 2007 10:00 PM  
Blogger Pepper said...

Good post.

Early intervention was needed but it didn't happen. The video portrays him not as he was but was a staged performance that didn't need to aired. He was a loner and who didn't "mingle." Totally unlike the video. There are too many victims, too many tragedies, and way to much media. It is time to stop and allow people to mourn with dignity and respect.

I am just concerned with all the media attention who is going to be the next to try to beat record? I told my daughter today to be careful and to be aware.

Such a sad world.

April 19, 2007 10:55 PM  
Blogger Craig D said...

Hey, Dirkenheimer!

I dropped my link 'cause I took down the post I had written. I felt kinda conflicted about taking the media bait. (Though, in my own way, I thought I made an interesting point.)

I may yet restore the post if'n you think it's worthwhile. I still appreciated what you wrote here!

April 20, 2007 12:20 PM  
Blogger Kati said...

Although it sounds like the shooter in the V-tech massacre had been subject to attempts at befriending, and had rebuffed them all, I couldn't agree more. At my library we have a lot of sullen looking teens dressed in black & chains, sometimes acting like putzes, but it never hurts to wish somebody a good afternoon. Some of my coworkers insist on calling these kids jerks. They can be, but so can anybody else, including those coworkers. That doesn't stop me from wishing them a good day, or saying hello. After all, sullen teen or not, they're still human. And they know that when I DO ask them to stop swearing, or stop shaking the trees (we've got 4 live fig-trees in our lobby), or tone their voices down that I'm not singling them out from spite. I get more respect and more smiles from them than a lot of my coworkers do, simply because I'm willing to treat them as human as I am. And I also recall that 12 years ago I was dressed in black, wearing black eyeliner & lipstick, and a sullen expression, and reading gothy lit.

Sooooo many hurt feelings could be avoided if we simply look at the humanity of those around us, and you're wise to remind us of that, again.

I only wish that it had made a difference in the case of Cho Seung-Hui. Unfortunately he seems to have suffered not only an angry outlook, but a real medical paranoia that didn't allow him to see that not everybody was out to get him. It's a very sad situation all around.

April 20, 2007 2:25 PM  
Blogger Lizard Princess said...

Thank you for reminding me that we all are truly in this together.
"Practice random kindness" takes just that- practice! I don't think any of us could ever claim to have it perfected.

April 20, 2007 2:30 PM  
Blogger notfearingchange said...

Absolutely lovely....lovely.

April 20, 2007 5:21 PM  
Blogger sarala said...

Beautiful writing. Good job even when you are not being funny.

April 29, 2007 11:30 AM  
Blogger TutleyMutley said...

OOO you're going to be suuuch a good dad.

May 10, 2007 4:59 PM  

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