Empty Sacks

Benjamin Franklin once said, “It is hard for an empty sack to stand upright.”

Heed the wise words of Benjamin Franklin.

Indeed, the development of personal character, the honing of ability and competence, takes years of growing through gains and losses.

It includes sleepless nights, thankless labor, moments where quitting is not just considered but almost endorsed by the circumstances.

There are also moments of great elation and the inevitable disappointment when such mindless glee cannot be sustained and the often mundane momentum of regular life reminds you to get back in line and start pummeling away at the next challenge.

The need to not let your highs get too high or your lows get too low permeates every class of people, including the privileged few who have had lives blessed by wealth or good fortune.

There is no escaping the inevitability of conflict in your life. But how many are wise enough to learn from it instead of making the same mistakes over and over?

I’ve seen both; profiles of people whose sacks were filled to the top and some who stood lifeless and empty in the corner.

Some I knew by name, others I simply took in and they left an indelible mark in my heart and soul.

You never know where a person who can teach a good lesson may turn up though, I have learned that it is critical to stay aware and open to all.

As Burt Lancaster says to Kevin Costner in “Field of Dreams” -- “We just don’t recognize life’s most significant moments while they’re happening. Back then, I thought, ‘Well, there will be other days.’ I didn’t realize that that was the only day.”

I encourage everyone to open their eyes now and begin to notice, just in case the next lesson is the only day you can get that particular tutorial.

In my first year of college, I got a 6 a.m. job at the campus radio station reading news, sports scores and weather into the battered microphone at WBGU in Bowling Green, Ohio.

I reported to the building (which was three floors of classrooms with a studio at the top) at 5 a.m. to rip and read the most current stories off the AP Wire, and I’ll never forget my first week there. I reported there on day one, and a janitor met me at the door. I didn’t think anybody was up at this hour but me.

“You the new guy?” he asked.

“Yes, sir,” I said.

He looked at me quizzically and motioned for me to follow upstairs. He keyed into the studio and showed me around and went to leave. I thanked him and asked how he took his coffee.

“Why would you want to know that?” he asked.

I said that tomorrow I would bring both of us a fresh cup.

“You’re what,” he asked, “18 years old?”

I nodded.

“And you call me sir and want to bring me a cup of coffee?” he continued.

I shrugged.

He walked away.

Around 8:45 a.m., the regular shift gang walked in. I read the news at 9 and descended the stairs into the morning sun, and at the bottom of the stairs was the janitor. He motioned to me and I followed him down another flight to the basement.

There, laid out on his desk, was breakfast for two. He gestured for me to sit and said, “Never knew a student who couldn’t use a good meal.”

I sat down to one of the best egg, bacon and cheese sandwiches I ever digested in my life and listened to this man openly and willingly tell me his life story.

He’d been a farmer his whole life, as had his father and grandfather. He and his wife were born and raised in Bowling Green, Ohio, and he had three adult sons. The farming chores were too much for him now, so he had “retired” to this janitor job to keep some income and get health benefits from the university.

He was disheartened by the kids he often met and their sloppy way of life, and my respect for him had taken him by surprise.

When we finished eating, he walked me over to the wall behind the boiler and showed me the charts he had made up to cycle the chores akin to the building. He rotated floors for scrubbing and buffing, and broke down the bathroom maintenance so that it was timed with the hours that kids were in class and bathrooms were empty.

He scheduled window cleaning and lawn cutting with the other maintenance divisions so that they occurred on the days when classes were minimal or unscheduled.

The building ran like a well-oiled machine. There were always paper towels in the bathrooms, never litter on the floors, always well-illuminated rooms, never burnt-out bulbs.

He took great pride in his work. It came from years of useful back labor, family habits and a self-inflicted protocol about life that didn’t even consider laziness.

I learned from him that all jobs should be done with pride, no matter how mundane and unnoticed they may be to others. Because doing a job well elicits pride, and this fellow was loaded with it.

On that first day, as we stood looking at each other at the door, I’d have never believed this man was about to provide me with a boiler plate for a quality life. But I can’t even begin to tell you how often I hearken back to his steady example, his “full sack” of character and poise.

Conversely, I have seen lessons from the other side as well.

As a very young man of 16, I’d been given the task of umpiring Little League games for the local Recreation Department. The other umpires were all college guys five to eight years my senior, but I was considered mature for my age and they decided, “Ronnie can handle it.”

One evening after umpiring three day games, I called a third strike that was borderline and, in fact, if I could have taken it back, I would have. It was a little low and when the crowd moaned, I felt they were justified. It was a game ender and the last game of the evening, and I simply muffed it.

Both sides began to pack up and I was putting away the bases when I was suddenly aware of someone coming at me with quite a head of steam. I stood and took the full chest-to-chest blow of a 40-plus adult man, a disgruntled parent who happened to be the father of the kid that had just struck out.

I stumbled backward and looked up, bewildered. There, at second base, under the lights for everyone to see, I got berated and screamed at for my incorrect call. The vein sticking out of this man’s forehead was so thick I could have towed my car with it. I thought he would burst, and I considered retaliating, but he outweighed and outsized me times two and was at least 25 years older than me.

He grumbled off as the whole field and parking lot had watched the spectacle he created and my tolerance in response.

The next morning, a Sunday, I watched he and his family file into the pew right in front of my family at church. He suddenly noticed me behind him and the back of his neck turned bright red.

I hadn’t told my father what had happened, but he was right there next to me and you could see this guy was overwrought by the situation. As the Catholic service went on, the congregation was instructed to greet each other for the “sign of peace” and he refused to turn around. I finally tapped him on the shoulder and he still refused to turn around.

For years that followed that bombastic evening, I saw that man a hundred times and he never once acknowledged me. Gas stations, church, at the ball field; he’d become a victim of his own indecency and it was virtually eating him alive.

Seems paybacks can really be a bear.

It wasn’t more than 10 years ago I was in town to see my mother and the snow was coming down like a ticker tape parade. At a stop light near her home, I saw an older man, all hunched over and walking into the wind, and I drove to the side of the road and offered a ride.

The man came to the window smiling, but his face went white when he saw who I was.  It was none other than my old baseball friend. Are you ready for this?  He turned back to the snow and started walking without so much as a word.

I watched him hobble up the street all bent over, his empty sack twisting in the wind, unable to hold him up.

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