For someone who at times in his life quite literally did not have two nickels to rub together I have been to an incredible number of places. When someone mentions places as far apart as Beaumont and Bangkok, Layton and London, Portland and Paris, Tempe and Tripoli, Venice and Vacaville, or even New Bedford, New Delhi, or New London they aren’t just names to me. They are places I know, and perhaps even love.
But you know what, Johnny?
Take away the people and they’re just so much wood, concrete, steel and paint.
Sure, Aviano, Italy, sited at the foot of the Julian Alps, is one of the most beautiful towns on this planet, but you know what I remember best about Aviano? A little Italian storekeeper whose real name I don’t remember anymore. I knew it back in 1971, but it’s gone now. I’m fairly sure it was Dante because his nickname was Danno, but I can’t be sure.
So what’s to remember about a short, balding shopkeeper in a little town hidden in the mountains 80 miles north of Venice?
How about a smile? One that said everything I needed to know.
Back when it happened, everyone I told about what I did in Aviano said I was nuts, that I had been conned, made a fool of.
What had I done?
The day before I left Aviano, I wandered into a little curio shop looking for a present for Lolly, my beloved wife.
And I found one.
Boy, did I ever!
That little shop was a gold mine! I found at least a dozen things I wanted to buy for Lolly: A beautiful one-to-three reproduction of the Venus de Milo. A half dozen or eight smaller marble statues — all so beautiful I could not decide which ones to leave behind. A magnificent globe bar, something I knew Lolly had always wanted. Other things I wanted her to have.
But I was going back by air and had been dumb enough to wait until the evening before I was supposed to fly out. It was obvious that I could not take more than one of the smaller statues with me on board the aircraft, and there was no time to arrange for the rest to be shipped by military mail — if it was even possible.
I liked Danno’s broad smile and was moaning to him about my problem when he said, “No problem. I ship whole thing for you.”
So we came to an agreement on price plus shipping, I paid him, and back to RAF Upper-Heyford in England I flew.
And as soon as I mentioned what I had done, the carping began. “You trusted the guy? A foreigner? You paid him in advance? You dummy! You’ll never see your money or the stuff you bought.”
Didn’t matter that I told them Danno had struck me as one of the most open, honest — and happy — people I had ever met.
But three weeks later, there it was, a crate shipped by land and sea all the way from Italy to England, beautifully packed, and with everything in it, just as promised. I’m sitting looking at the Venus right now. We still have it, and all the other things too. The only thing better than watching Lolly’s face as she and I unpacked each piece is the great feeling I get when I think back to what it’s like dealing with someone like Danno.
Not everyone is a Danno though. There are people I have met, people everywhere, who truly fit the expression, “His own worst enemy.” They spend their lives destroying any chance of happiness.
Try this — and really try it now. No faking!
Frown. A deep frown, not just a little one. A big one.
Feels lousy, right? Remember that.
Now smile. C’mon, a big one!
Feels good, doesn’t it, Johnny? What does that tell you?
There was a guard in the British Museum whose face I can still see today, 41 years later. If ever there was a grouchy face that was it. And an unhappy one.
I was standing in the Egyptian wing of the British Museum talking with a friend. The floor was terrazzo. I’d been in there for about four hours and my feet were tired. As we talked I leaned an elbow on what I thought was a counter as I caught a glimpse of it out of one corner of my eye. First thing I knew a hand swept my elbow off the thing it was on, which turned out to be a large ancient scarab carved of stone. My first reaction when I saw what a boo-boo I had made was to turn and apologize for being careless.
But then I saw that face, that ugly, angry face. And I watched its owner as he walked around the room hating his job.
Yes, that guard hated me, the other people in the room, his job, the British Museum, and probably the whole world. If he made it past 50 without dying of a peptic ulcer, a massive stroke, or a heart attack I’ll eat your shorts.
Try that frown again. Think of feeling like that eight hours a day, every day of your working life. You’d be killing yourself!
And then there was one quiet evening back in New London, Connecticut, back when I was a pre-teen. I still think back to that evening now and then, and every time I do I feel good.
It was a chilly January evening and I was sitting in the living room, nestled down in a wing-backed chair reading “Betty Zane,” a Zane Grey novel I had gotten for Christmas.
Pop Johnson, my stepfather, came into the room for something. He stopped, looked at me, and said, “You’re a good kid.”
That’s all. Not 10 minutes of praise. Just four words.
I still remember them. Think about that.
There’s another time I remember too.
While in high school I worked nights in a bakery. All I was supposed to do — my whole job — was make the doughnuts, about 30 dozen cake doughnuts and maybe three dozen or so raised doughnuts.
Trouble is, I’m a fast worker, maybe because I don’t talk when I work, I work.
So I started getting done early and going over to help the two bakers with whatever they were doing. One night I was learning to make rolls. I had a big pile of dough and was rolling out rolls and putting them in baking pans.
The head baker, an old crab who never smiled, came over to me and said, “Hey, kid! God gave you two hands! Use two hands! Do two rolls at once!”
Can you guess how many times I got done early after that?
Some people were born to be happy. Others were just born.