"There are people...slipping through the cracks...we need to be aware of them..."
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It was the day after Independence Day in 1965, and my folks, uncle, aunt, and I were all at San Francisco International Airport.
This was the first year that my folks (who both worked at Delco-Remy, which was a division of General Motors) had a block of four whole weeks off in the summer. For as long as I could remember, we had gone on three-week vacations.
We had spent the first week in San Francisco, staying with Uncle Finley and Aunt Marce. This had been followed by two weeks in Hawaii. Then, a final week back with my aunt and uncle.
We had always traveled by car before, so this was also the first (and only) year where we got to all of our destinations by plane.
Now, we were heading back to Indiana by way of Chicago (as the airport in Indianapolis didn't support jet travel at that time), and Uncle Finley and Aunt Marce were there to see us off.
We had a good hour's wait before boarding time. Some kids around my age and I got into a conversation about the kinds of things kids talk about (the latest pop idols, our families, etc.).
We were far too engrossed in our conversation to pay much attention to the tattered, old man shuffling along near-by.
Then, Daddy came up to me and asked me if I had my autograph book handy.
Of course, I did!!!
What young person WOULDN'T have an autograph book ready during this time when The British Invasion was in full-swing!?!
Aunt Marce had thought that Herman's Hermits would be in town sometime during our stay--which I was so thrilled to hear about when she told me this the day after we'd arrived that I was bouncing off the walls.
She'd later found out that they wouldn't be arriving until fall.
Oh well! Autograph books were still good for collecting the words and signatures of both old and new friends and loved ones.
In fact, I had my autograph book very handy at the time that Daddy approached me, because I was about to have my new friends to sign it.
He led me over to this fragile-looking man who had let his five o'clock shadow progress towards the afternoon of the following day. The man seemed very shy and unassuming.
This must be someone Daddy felt sorry for and wanted me to make him feel important, so I asked him if he would like to sign my autograph book.
"Do you have a pen?" he asked me in a quiet voice.
I told him that he could use the pen that a very special man had given to me when my folks and I were in Hawaii.
This pen was so beautiful-looking that I knew it would make this down-and-out man feel very important to be using it.
He wrote something in a hurry.
When I looked at it, it looked like a scribble--leading me to think that this person was no rocket scientist (or anywhere close to being one).
Even so, I thanked him and told him how happy I was that he had signed my autograph book--to which he nodded shyly and continued walking down the corridor.
Suddenly, I felt very blessed!
Here I was having fun with some new friends while surrounded by family members. In a few hours, I would be at home telling my grandparents, Uncle Jim, and my cousins about what a wonderful time I'd had on our family vacation.
And here was this poor, shy, old man--who, obviously, didn't have a very high IQ--spending his days shuffling through a large airport and lonely-in-a-crowd.
I was glad that I'd made such a fuss over him when he scribbled in my autograph book and hoped that the experience brightened his day at least a little.
"Do you know who just signed your autograph book?" Daddy asked me.
"Some old bum, I guess, " I replied. Was there anything else I should have found out about him? If so, he was gone before I could ask him.
As it turned out, the guy was indeed old (at least, old to someone about to go into the seventh grade in less than two months) and shy, but he was far from being a poor and lonely bum with a low IQ.
The stubble on his chin was a beard in the process of being grown, and he was there at the airport to pick up his wife who was flying back home after performing in Indiana. As for his clothes, he simply liked dressing for comfort when he wasn't working.
He had three young children (two boys and a girl) whom he'd let go on ahead of him to meet their mother, because it made them feel grown-up (the boys were probably around six and eight, and the little girl was about four).
Soon, the kids and their mother came towards me down the corridor. She was a total Mommy-type who was holding hands with all of her kids at once: her eldest holding one hand, and her two youngest sharing the other.
By now, I knew their identities, so I asked the woman if she would like to sign my autograph book.
She gave me a big, warm smile and apologized, "I'm sorry, honey, but I can't right now. I have a handful. In fact, I have TWO handsful." She looked over at her two youngest, and her voice took on a baby-talk tone when she cooed to them, "Two handsful! Yeaaaaah!"
Soon, the entire family was reunited, and they made their way out to their car. The wife got in the back seat with the two little ones, and the oldest child got in the front passenger seat. The husband drove.
A dozen years later, this woman would be back in Indiana to entertain at the Beef & Boards Dinner Theatre. At the time I went there, she hadn't arrived, but I wrote her a little note reminding of where and when we first met and caught her up a little on what I was doing. I included my address, too, and received a wonderful letter from her a few days later.
That fall, her husband passed away--he was probably 25 years her senior, give or take. The family had always loved Christmas and celebrated it in a big way, so I received a Christmas card from them that also included a tribute to the husband and father.
This hadn't been the first time that I'd reached out to someone who seemed tattered and alone and it wouldn't be my last.
There are people out there slipping through the cracks, and we need to be aware of them and make a difference in their lives. It doesn't have to always be a cash donation--though those things are also definitely needed! Just a friendly smile in their direction that lets them know that you're happy to share the planet with them might be just what it takes to turn a life around!
It isn't too likely that the fragile bit of humanity you're reaching out to will turn out to be some celebrity--Bing Crosby, in my case!--but he/she will be a very important person 100% of the time!