Ever Ask What Made You, You? Part Ii

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Last week we talked about how much pure chance affects what we learn as we pass through life. I find it a fascinating subject, perhaps because I discovered early in life that I am a person who is able to change. I can believe something one day, and believe it very strongly, but if I stumble across something that tells me I’m wrong, I can reverse field as sweet as you please.

Is that good? Maybe. I’ll be honest with you; it worried me for a long time. One day over in England, for example, one of the other men in our field training detachment said, “I don’t get it, Garrett. You’re a conservative one day and a liberal the next.”

“I’m neither one,” I told him. “I’m an eclectic.”

It was true. I am an eclectic. An eclectic is someone who looks at each thing that comes along and makes up his mind about it based on logic and fairness, but even so, that comment made me think. I wondered if I was perhaps a bit too flexible.

What did I decide? Take a guess. Couldn’t make up my mind.  

Anyway, you tell me. Suppose you’ve been brought up with an attitude toward something. You have never for one minute doubted it was the “right” attitude. Then one day chance puts something in front of you that makes you think. What do you believe? What you are seeing with your own eyes, or what you’ve been taught? After all, what you are seeing is only one man’s experience, but what you’ve been told may be the combined wisdom of multitudes.

My Air National Guard outfit landed in Iceland in November 1952. We climbed aboard buses, traveled 15 miles past things we had never seen before to Keflavik Air Base and poured into our quarters, very curious about all the strange sights we’d seen.

Some of the men had gone ahead on an “advanced party.” We were a radar outfit and their task was to get the radar operating, our headquarters set up, and our quarters ready. The rest of us arrived to operating radar sets; heated quarters, warm beds, and 15 men we looked upon as experts on Iceland and Icelandics.

Let me quote: “Dumb-adze Mojaks know nothing. Bunch of big, tall apes with blond hair, blue eyes, and brush haircuts. Did you see those racks of drying fish on the way up here? That’s all they eat, nothin’ but dried fish — except when they’re eating fried fish, baked fish, fish chowder, or fish a la mode. Don’t try speaking their lingo either. No use. I don’t think they even understand what they’re saying half the time.”

That became, and remained, the prevailing opinion of most of the men in my outfit during the entire year we were there. Mine too at first, but then something happened. I visited Reykjavik, the capital, and saw several things that made me wonder.

It was bitter cold the December day I went into town, and one thing that made me curious were some huge greenhouses I saw along the way. I could not imagine how they could afford to heat them, or what they grew in them. Another thing that puzzled me was the fact that the road into town was deep with snow in places, but the roads in the city were dry and clear. A third thing was the low prices in the restaurants and the movie theater I went to, along with the cozy heat in both of them.

When I got back to the base I went to the library. An hour or so in a book taught me the truth. Iceland is a volcanic island. There are always one or two active volcanoes. That’s why it’s called “The Land of Fire and Ice.” Making use of all that volcanic activity, the Icelandics drill down to hot springs and pump hot water into their towns, heating not only homes and businesses, but streets too. They grow their vegetables in large greenhouses heated the same way. And that’s not all. I took a stroll into Keflavik, the town nearest the Air Base, found a naturally heated indoor swimming pool, and discovered that they use geothermal energy to generate cheap electricity. How about that, Johnny?

I could tell you more, but I think you get the point. You tell me. Who were the “dummies?” The Icelandics, who had made a life on a barren, empty, arctic island? Or the men who dismissed them as stupid because they didn’t bother to learn about them?

Or take Abdul, a man I met in Pakistan. Abdul was the jack-of-all-trades for our office in the embassy. If it needed to be done, either in the office or out at the airfield, Abdul did it. I do not know how old Abdul was, but I am going to guess that he was about 50 or so. He was a Dravidian, a member of the dark-skinned original inhabitants of India who were driven all the way to the tip of the Indian subcontinent by successive waves of conquerors.

Most people looking at Abdul, with his quiet voice, his shy manner, and his humble ways would not have given him a second thought. Nor did I, until one day when I happened to drive him home because we had been working late at the airfield. He invited me to come in for a minute. I hesitated, thinking it was late and I would be disturbing his family if he had one, but I always accepted invitations overseas because I knew that people judged our nation by the way we acted. It was one of the best decisions of my life. I saw a side of life I had never seen before, one that enriched my life then, and has been a model for me over the past seven years as I have struggled to care for my beloved wife.

I stepped into Abdul’s tiny little house, hardly half the size of a small living room in an average American home. He introduced me to his aging wife, but at first I missed something. I smiled and said hello by the dim glow of a kerosene lamp as she smiled and waved me toward a chair in the combination kitchen and sitting room, her face barely visible in the gloom. It was a nice smile, but as I moved toward a chair I saw that she was still looking at the place where I had been standing when I said hello.

Realizing with a start that she was blind, I spent the next hour getting an education. I watched the almost miraculous way a blind woman lighted a kerosene stove, waved a hand across the flames to test their height, made tea, served it along with some tiny, freshly baked sweet cakes, and sat there talking with Abdul and me as though taking care of a house and husband in the dark world of the blind was the most ordinary thing in the world.

The next day I told Abdul I was very proud of him and his wife because I could see how much in love they were, and how hard they worked to take care of each other.

He smiled that shy smile of his. “Allah teaches us love, Sahib, and how to care for those who need us.”

Yes, He does. Call Him what you will, He teaches us.

All we have to do is be willing to learn.

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