We Each Owe Others A Great Deal

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I have read, and believe, that we all start out with a set of traits we can’t change very much. Just as people are born tall or short, blond or brunette, blue-eyed or brown, some are born calm or combative, glad or gloomy, cold or caring, agile or awkward.

I’ve seen that with my own eyes: People who shine from the inside out. People so filled with life they make you tired just watching them. People overflowing with joy. Even a few here and there who couldn’t crack a smile if you gave them a sledgehammer.

As true as that may be, Johnny, who can doubt that as we accumulate, not just years, but experience, we slowly evolve from what we were as children to what we become as adults. Sometimes we only find ourselves after decades have rolled by, changing so much over time that we are quite different when the day at last arrives to turn down the heat and switch off the light for the long sleep. 

Why is that? Why do we change? And why so much sometimes? I maintain that it happens because we learn, not from life, but from each other — and occasionally just in the nick of time. Every one of us can look back to a day we never expected to see, one where fate reached out and knocked us off our pins with the merest flick of a finger. The world began to tilt. Steeper. Steeper. We began to slide wide-eyed and helpless into we knew not what. And then ...

A hand reached out and set us upright again. We walked away a new person, a wiser one, perhaps a better one and perhaps not, but at least still alive and ready for something more. All because of someone who strayed into our lives, often only for a few days.

As life rolls by we seem at times to learn something new every day. It’s as though we were empty shells, as if yesterday we knew nothing. In almost every case where that happens we can look back with the 20-20 hindsight of age and see someone standing at that junction in our lives.

Who are those someones?

Usually just ordinary people who happened to be in the right place at the right time, but sometimes, rarely, that one special someone. In my life it was, of course, my beloved wife, Loretta. Without her I would be nothing.

But there were others, so many of them that if I make it upstairs I am going to have a lot of people to thank.

Mom, of course, who taught me that caring and giving know no bounds. Pop Johnson, my stepfather, who taught me that oaks grow strong because they stand against the storm and grow into the light of truth. My three older brothers, who each had a lesson to share, and shared it freely and early. And so many others.

The kids and adults in my 1940s neighborhood in New York City, who taught me that the term American covers many homelands, languages, religions, peoples, races, and customs bound together into a single people with one firm belief: Anyone worthy of the name American is ready to fight and die to keep that name alive.

The teens in the circulation department of the New London Day, who cared about just two things: Getting the job done, and getting it done right.

That, I suspect was a lesson that started me off right.

Bob Archibald, who showed up in our high school sophomore class one day, looking a bit older than the rest of us — which he was, having dropped out three years earlier, joined the Army, been to Europe, and come back, bringing with him the wisdom of those three years and an often-shared opinion that having a high school education was not a bad idea, which I presume he passed on to his coworkers at IBM after he graduated from college a few years later and married our pretty high school valedictorian.

Kenny Foulois, the assistant baker on the night shift at the bakery, who I followed out the door one night after the head man sucker-punched him, but who went back to work the next day and never bothered to call me and tell me, thereby teaching me that adults are not necessarily as honest as kids in their dealings. 

All of the 198 guys in the Air National Guard outfit I joined, which was called up during Korea and sent to Iceland, guys I lived with for three years and who proved that barracks life, even during a long, dark winter spent in a small Quonset hut, is still great as long as you are with people who know how to get along. 

Morris Fishman, the Jewish manager of the store where I worked who taught me that being Jewish means having a sense of humor limited only by the length of the day.

Randy Moss, who not only was the best man I ever put through basic, but also the best friend I ever had in Japan and Okinawa, and still is right now. He taught me back when he was a trainee that when you think something can’t be done you have only to get the right man for the job to prove yourself wrong.

Hasan Asghar Kazmi, my Muslim assistant in Karachi, who taught me that sometimes the only reason one man is the boss and another the assistant is because life is not necessarily arranged so that the best man for the job is the one running the show.

Greta, the aged mother of a friend I made in Wiesbaden, Germany, who was like the grandmother I never knew, and who showed me a little about the way my own mother learned the simple, peasant ways I have made my own all my life.

Even today, I am taught by people, most of whom I have never met and will probably never meet. The lesson I learn from them is simple: People are the words they speak and write. Pat, Dan, Bernice, Bob, Fred, Roy, Tim, Kim, Ruby, Paul, John, Terri, Jim, Paul, Don, David, Ed, Charlene, and so many others.

And especially you, Mike, wherever you are.

With a lineup like that encouraging you even when you step up to the plate and hit an easy out, how can you lose?

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