Ever Ask What Made You, You?

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Good question, isn’t it? What made you, you?

It is no doubt true that we inherit traits through our genes which are a large part of who we are, but I can’t help feeling that a lot of what makes us uniquely us comes through experiences strewn by chance across life’s path. It certainly has been true for me. If I had not been granted the privilege of seeing more than my share of the world, I’d be a very different person. And I suspect I would be a far less worthy one.

Mind you, I don’t think I turned out special in any way, but I’ve learned things I wouldn’t have learned if life hadn’t granted me the chance to travel. On top of that I’ve been lucky enough to live a long life. I was bound to learn something, wasn’t I? 

It didn’t have to be that way. I started my life in February of 1932, and I could have ended it that same July had I not been lucky, a fact I have lived with all my life. 

What happened to me wasn’t anything particularly sensational. It was no more than what happens when kids are being kids. My brother Charlie, God bless him, was about four. We lived on Jersey Street on Staten Island — a tough neighborhood. Charlie had a scrap with a slightly older kid who was five and gave him a black eye. 

The “older” kid, seeing me happily asleep in my baby carriage on the front porch a few days later, came across the street with revenge in mind and a heavy wooden cooking spoon in hand. He then proceeded to try beating my brains out with it, but never got to properly finish the job because the front door opened, Mom stepped out to check on me, saw the kid, and me, and the blood, and let out a shriek like the noon whistle at Bethlehem Steel. 

Then came some doctor stuff and a slow but steady recovery, all of which I do not remember. I don’t know how close it was, but Mom always talked about it in a way that made me think I might not have had a first birthday, and she was not given to exaggeration.

What happened to the kid? Life was not as legalistic back in those days as it is now. He was not hauled off and stashed in some kind of kids’ prison. It was the stupid act of a stupid kid, and it was treated as such. I’m glad of that. Mom used to tell me, though, that to avoid Charlie, the kid always crossed the street when he passed our house. He didn’t have to do it very long. Daddy moved us to a new neighborhood, which was probably a good idea.

Why did I tell you all that? It’s one reason I’ve always been thoughtful and reflective. When your mother tells you that you almost didn’t make it through your first year, it gives you a reason to think about how much our todays shape our tomorrows.

Know what I mean, Johnny? No Monday, no Tuesday.

Think about yourself. Would you be what you are today if you hadn’t had that one special teacher? What about that friend you had? What if your family had pulled up stakes and moved to another state? What about your high school days? Would you be the same person if you had gone to school somewhere else?

How about that first job you had? Were you the same when you left it, as you were when you started it? Is there something you learned there that you’ve never forgotten? How about that time on the freeway? That movie you saw when you were a teen? That thing that happened to a friend while you were away? That little tidbit you overheard when no one knew the “kid” was listening; the secret you’ve never shared with another living soul? That something you saw when you happened to be somewhere you weren’t supposed to be?

Experience changes us — a lot. And sometimes for the better.

Suppose, for example, you happened to be parked in front of a privately operated state prison and you saw someone carrying supplies inside. Suppose you just happened to glance over at a box being carried out of a refrigerated truck and you saw this label on it: Chicken Parts: NOT FOR HUMAN CONSUMPTION.

Would that make you think, Johnny? Would you ever again be quite the same? Would it change the way you think about prisons? Are you asking yourself right now if that could be a true story?

I will never forget the time I was talking to someone in Karachi, Pakistan, when he suddenly stopped talking and fell flat on his face. He was one of the men who worked for me. He looked and sounded as normal as the rest of them, but he suddenly slowed down and stopped talking in the middle of a sentence, his eyes rolled up, and down he went — flat on his face at my feet.

The men came over, picked him up, and carried him into the shade of a truck. They looked fairly calm about the whole thing, though they were obviously concerned. When I asked them what had happened they said, “Typhoid fever, Sahib.” They said that someone keeling over like that was a not an uncommon sight over there. 

The man lived. He was back on duty in a few weeks, and seemed none the worse for his experience. But when the men carried him off that day they told me his chances of living were not great. Did that make me think? Did I suddenly have a great deal more respect for all those “annoying” shots I took every 90 days? Do you suppose I had a better appreciation of having been born over here instead of over there? Who wouldn’t after all?

One day when I was 15, I was enjoying a happy, carefree day off at New London’s Ocean Beach, a magnificent mile-wide commercial beach where I worked every summer during my high school years. I was swimming from the First Raft to the Second Raft. I was with a friend. The distance wasn’t far — perhaps 20 feet — and we were in no rush, but as we swam we entered an icy current running just below the surface. 

It was nothing new. I had dealt with it many times before. But this time was different. Without warning a cramp started in my right leg and ran up my right side. By the time I was able to call out to my friend and tell him I was in trouble, the cramp had passed across to my left leg. A few minutes later I “woke up” as I was being half walked, half carried from rowboat to shore by the lifeguard. There stood a pretty teen girl crying her eyes out. I had never had the slightest idea that she cared whether I was dead or alive, but I knew it at that moment, and it was true.

Life is filled with chances to learn, things we ignore at our risk. I learned something that day. And no, it didn’t happen, but only because it was the end of the season, her folks were out-of-towners, I failed to get her address, and they never came back.

Right up to the day my Air Guard outfit was called up I was still trying to find out where she lived. What if I had found her?

There’s a lot more to this. Let’s talk again next week.

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