By Ron Ciancutti
Joel was lying on the floor, watching the big color TV when he heard the sound of corn popping. When the kernels hit the metal lid of the pan, it sang out in those unmistakable ping-pong tones. There was nothing he loved more than a bowl of popcorn made the old-fashioned way. And his mom was so cool that she started making it for him without his even asking. She did a lot of nice things like that for everyone. She seemed to be their best friend. In the evening she asked people if they had had a nice day and in the morning if they had slept well. When Joel told her something, she—looking him straight in the eye—gave him her full attention. When he looked away, she reminded him to stay focused, to finish his story quickly, and never to lose eye contact. As a result, Joel was an exceptional orator. When he spoke, people were interested, and he didn’t crowd a bunch of unnecessary details into his speeches.
In retrospect, he learned to be a good listener, a good speaker, and even a good storyteller by watching and listening to his mom. He also knew the value of being kind and considerate; he never burned a bridge. He could make a new friend and keep contact with old friends simply by showing interest, remembering important details like someone’s favorite song, favorite food, or birth date.
His dad was also influential. A strong, silent man who listened carefully, he spoke with great economy. Joel watched his dad in exchanges with other men. Some babbled endlessly and Joel’s dad would simply nod, smile, and gesture but rarely spoke more than a few words at a time. This gave him a sort of “power” in Joel’s eyes, and Joel carried on this approach at school and among his friends.
Joel’s parents were told their son was “so mature” for only being a fourth grader, and Joel loved overhearing that. At school, his peers would say, “You’re kinda weird,” but that was OK. Joel knew that really meant he wasn’t like everyone else. Learning to handle criticism also aided his confidence.
Time passed and Joel grew rapidly, his maturity always ahead of his age. By the time he reached junior high school, he was elected for positions of authority in student council and various clubs and sports teams. He had a natural leadership quality that others seemed to recognize before he even spoke. Perhaps it was the way he carried himself. Even when he would get teased about it, he could always hear a level of envy in the teaser’s voice.
And so it went, and so it would continue to go. Joel surrounded himself with nice friends. He graduated from high school with a solid grade-point average and walked easily into and easily through college. He secured a nice job and a good reputation, advancing many times during his term, and when he retired, he was respected by many and missed by all.
Wise But Not Wealthy
David never knew his dad, but he “filled in” for him a lot, keeping his mom organized. When the toaster popped, he knew his twin sisters’ breakfast was ready. He set one Pop-Tart out for each and poured glasses of milk. He turned on the small black and white TV, found some cartoons, and pushed both girls’ chairs in so they could eat and watch TV until their mom woke up.
Next he walked into his mom’s bedroom and turned on the nightstand light so she could wake slowly. Facing her, he couldn’t smell any alcohol on her breath, so maybe she was sober this morning. He hoped so. It made everything easier—no yelling. She rose quietly and stretched in her bed. “Thank you, baby,” his mom whispered. Soon after, she patted each of the twins on the head as they continued to stare at the TV screen. As she poured her coffee, David tugged on his boots and located his backpack. God bless that kid for being so mature and willing to help. She didn’t ask if he’d completed his homework because she knew he had.
He slung the backpack over his shoulder, kissed his mom lightly, and slipped quietly through the door, being considerate of the other tenants in the apartment building who might still be sleeping. She heard him unlock his bicycle and walk it to the elevator. He had made the bike out of spare parts he found from rummaging through the refuse of the upscale neighborhoods just before daybreak. His mom hung her head; she had seen so much. She just looked at his picture on the desk and smiled, as if he were watching her. Next year things should get easier. There was always a next year.
Behind the bagel shop David saw a black garbage bag full of yesterday’s bagels sitting atop the stacked milk cartons. A weathered truck from the local Homeless Shelter pulled in, and a familiar face appeared. “Hey, David,” the driver said and handed him an empty paper bag as he opened the black bag. “Take your pick, son,” he said. David filled the bag and pedaled on with a grateful wave. Steering with one hand, he extracted the blueberry bagel for himself. He would bring the rest home to his mom and sisters. David got to school and locked his bike, but the back door wasn’t open yet, so he slumped down in darkness so the doorway blocked the cold wind. Pulling a flashlight and a tattered paperback book from the bag, he began to read. It was his third time through The Catcher in the Rye, and he loved the independent spirit of the main character, who seemed to give David confidence.
“Good morning, young man,” Mr. Collins, the school janitor, said as his keys jingled in the door. David smiled and rose to greet his friend, and they entered the warmth of the building. He shook the janitor’s hand as he had taught him. “Good morning to you as well, sir,” David said. “Are you reading that same book, David?” David grinned, “It’s my favorite.”
Collins led David down the hall and keyed into the computer room. He started the newest unit up, and David settled in. Collins checked his watch and unstrapped it from his wrist. “OK, David, I set the alarm on the watch, and when it goes off, you have 10 minutes before people start arriving. Ready?” David nodded. “OK, begin.”
The computer screen sprang to life, and David began taking Part 3 of a series of aptitude tests Mr. Collins had set up to keep David advancing past his already accelerated rate.
Mr. Collins had raised three children of his own many years ago. He had learned of David’s story by reading one of his progress reports that had been sitting on top of the garbage he emptied one day. Seeing that David was loaded with potential but had no guidance whatsoever, he sought him out and began to suggest reading materials for him. In no time at all, he had established a trust with the boy and was now teaching him at a pace that would secure academic scholarships when it came time for college.
Years passed and David was standing in the cafeteria line at the community college, pushing his tray down the counter mindlessly because he couldn’t take his eyes off of the Ayn Rand novel he was devouring at the moment.
“Three seventy-five,” Joel said as the cash register drawer came open. “I’m sorry, got lost in this book,” David said, digging through his pockets for the money. “No problem. Atlas Shrugged, huh?” said Joel. “I love that book—so many good points to remember.” David smiled and handed him four singles. “You a big reader?” David asked. Joel smiled, “I’m not ever without a book.”
David couldn’t resist. He pulled his tattered The Catcher in the Rye from his back pocket and held it up to Joel. Joel chuckled and reached in his back pocket, holding up a copy of The Grapes of Wrath. “Ha! Well, I’m all about Steinbeck,” he said, shaking his head. “Well, of course,” David teased.
And the two young men began a friendship right there. After finishing his shift, Joel sat at David’s table, and they began to discuss the classics. They talked of music and girls and futures and plans. And, oh, what plans they each had—reaching very high, setting the bar almost out of reach.
Joel was able to vouch for David, and he eventually got a job in the cafeteria, too. As the boys finished their two-year degrees, they became inseparable friends. And when they began to choose colleges to continue their pursuit of a bachelor’s degree, they considered going to the same school, but knew their interests were too diverse for that to happen. That fall, they said their goodbyes and went their separate ways.
They stayed in touch through email and letters over the years, but the momentum of life divided their time, and their contact was limited to a Christmas card now and then. Each of the boys eventually married, moved on, and had children, and although their visits home were less and less frequent, they both stayed in touch despite various obligations.
Joel consistently saw to his parents’ retirement years and sold their home when they moved into the assisted living quarters he had chosen for them. They were quietly happy and infinitely proud of their only son, who saw to every detail to ensure they were living well.
David had also accepted the responsibility for Mr. Collins, who lived, as a widower, in a nursing home as his children all had jobs out of the country and rarely were able to visit. After acknowledging David as Collins’ “fourth child,” the family remained financially responsible for their dad but were obliged and grateful to David, who seemingly wanted the job of spending time with Mr. Collins (whom David affectionately called “Pops”) right to the very end. He read to him every time he visited and made sure he had top-notch attention. His care was all based on the love he had established over the years for someone who had treated him so well. “I wouldn’t have even had a life without Pops,” he told everyone.
One day Mr. Collins passed on, and David held a small ceremony for him, attended by a few friends from the nursing home and a handful of considerate people from Collins’ old school. They took the first few rows of the funeral home. David said a few solemn words, turned to the casket, and knelt before it. People silently filed out behind him, and when David sensed the room was empty, he turned to find Joel in the back row, quietly awaiting his friend. Joel walked up to the casket and placed a copy of The Catcher in the Rye in the box next to Collins’ folded hands. David closed his eyes tightly and let the tears fall. “I guess all lives do matter. The trick is to improve lives other than your own and appreciate those that cleared the path for you.”
Joel smiled, “Was that from The Fountainhead?
“I think Dickens,” David shot back with a straight face. “Will you come with me to the cemetery? Maybe get some dinner after?”
“Can’t think of anything I’d rather do more than that, old friend,” Joel said as they walked into the shining sun.
Wishing everyone the happiest of New Year’s and hoping we take seriously the responsibilities we all share for each other. May our basic American values of home, hearth, family, and integrity continue to “right the ship” whenever the waters get challenging. Let us continue to be examples of the lessons learned from those who love us, and let us dispense those values wherever the need arises. Whether raised with privilege or challenge, advantage or disadvantage, in the end we are all just human vessels searching for answers, peace, harmony, and brotherhood. Embrace our commonality and support each other accordingly; it makes everything else so much easier.
Ron Ciancutti has worked in the parks and recreation industry since he was 16 years old, covering everything from maintenance, operations, engineering, surveying, park management, design, planning, recreation, and finance. He holds a B.S. in Business from Bowling Green State University and an M.B.A. from Baldwin Wallace University. He has held his current position as Director of Procurement since 1990. He is not on Facebook, but he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.