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Being A Good Man

-- “Tell me I’ve led a good life. Tell me I’m a good man.” From Saving Private Ryan

I grew up in a small town in the United States of America, on a simple piece of ground that was replicated in thousands of towns across this great union.

We had a neighborhood.

We had dogs that weren’t leashed, gardens that were open to all of the local kids who wanted to steal a red tomato for a snack, and streets that accommodated maybe 10 or 12 passersby a day.

That street was a hockey arena in winter, a baseball field in summer and a football field in fall. We all had the skinned knees to prove it.

There were block parties on that hallowed ground, and we didn’t “register” them with City Hall. But chances were good some of the people from City Hall were there.

We were Polish, Italian, Irish, German and more. But really, we were just Americans.

Our parents held honest jobs in factories, schools, and government. Some moms worked, but most were home, working harder than they would have if they’d had a paying job.

In the summer, lawnmowers buzzed through the air on Saturday mornings and high-pitched whistles cut through the collective hum as neighbors waved and spoke their sign language; the giant “come on” wave meaning, “When you’re done, come over for a lemonade.”

The old-timers sat on the porch, enjoying the shade and wiping their brows. They told stories of “the old country”--places where it was hotter or rainier or had better soil for growing or children that had better manners.

It was always amusing to watch them snicker at a toddler who’d skinned a knee or dropped an ice cream cone, crying like the world had come to an end. Their laugh nestled in the knowledge that it might have seemed like a tragedy at the moment, but would soon be OK. It’ll eventually make the kid stronger.

When a set of like-aged kids finished high school, there was usually one big graduation party instead of 10 little ones. And these were as much family reunions as they were anything else.

I especially recall one June wedding where the morning rested at about 75 degrees and stayed that way all day. One of the local girls, Kathy, was to be married that day and the simple “love of life” energy was in the neighborhood air and people couldn’t resist cutting the lawn and fussing with the garden on such a beautiful morning.

In the front yard of Kathy’s house, the cars used for the wedding procession were being decorated and, as the day approached noon, everyone just seemed to congregate in that yard.

Kathy’s dad couldn’t resist tapping into the wedding supplies, and soon men were drinking beer and smoking cigars and moms were bringing over big sandwiches. Suddenly, the groom realized the wedding was just a few hours away.

Everyone scurried home, showered, put on their Sunday best and drove two miles up the street to the church.

The reception was held in the hall right behind the church and was simply a continuation of what had been happening all morning. The band was given an extra $50 and they played until 3 a.m.

The simple general feeling of good will rode that summer breeze that whole weekend, and I just recall such “lightness” in everyone’s soul. It was just seemingly what God intended man to do when he breathed life into his lungs.

After awhile, most of the neighborhood grew up and out and the parents of that era became the old-timers and their children saw each other in the driveways now and then during holidays, waved to each other as the grandchildren would pile out of the cars to go see Grandma and Grandpa.

Yesterday, we buried one of the men, Ned, who was instrumental in making that piece of heaven what it was. After two years of hard-fought resistance, leukemia got the upper hand and took him down.

It was a stirring military funeral that included a gun salute, “Taps,” and the presentation of the flag to his widow.

The day dawned much like that wedding day 25 years ago, and as I stood among the hundred or so familiar faces that came to the cemetery, my heart was enriched and I felt nothing but gratitude to have known this very good man.

Kathy, that summer day bride, and her husband were there, with her father by them in a wheelchair, one leg amputated from diabetes; her mother standing behind him.

My mom, now widowed 16 years, on my left arm, my wife on my right.

Ned’s sons with firmly tight jaws, his daughter with a quivering lip; their children handsomely dressed and properly respectful, each of them tucking notes and photos into the coffin, eyes red with tears and hearts broken.

And as I sadly gazed at them, I thought of the old-timers smiling at the skinned knees of the little ones so many years ago. My heart grew lighter seeing the symmetry of it all.

In short, it is right that they cry. The loss should hurt and the pain will endure for awhile. And that pain will build character and evoke the great stories of the past that their children will one day share. All because their grandfather was a good husband, a good teacher, a good father--quite simply, a good man.

As Yahoo and MSN find the daily dirt to scoop onto their home page, we sometimes find it hard to remember what a “good man” looks and sounds like. I grew up surrounded by them and consider myself to be extremely blessed.

Rest easy, Ned. You’ve nothing to worry about as you pass through to the next place. They’ve been holding your spot for years.

-- “I think for any American who had the great and priceless privilege of being raised in a small town, there remain always with him nostalgic memories of those days. And the older he grows the more he senses what he owed to the simple honesty, the neighborliness, the integrity that he saw all around him, in those days, and took for granted, and that he learns to appreciate only as he grows older and dwells more in other places of the earth.” -- Dwight Eisenhower

Ron Ciancutti is the Purchasing Manager for Cleveland Metroparks. He is not on Facebook, but he can be reached at rdc@clevelandmetroparks.com.

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