A kind old man teaches a young boy a lesson that changes his life.
|By M Paul Burress
Well! I mumbled to myself, this is sure a change, as we carried our belongings into the three dark rooms that was now becoming our home. “Hey!” I said, there are only two windows in this whole house, but no one seemed interested in returning an answer. My father wanted to have us closer to his job to cut back on expenses, so he rented this run down, two window, one door house, in the ‘Old City’ as his answer. It was near the rail yards in the city's ancient industrial area. I soon recovered from the move and started exploring around the neighborhood. I was beginning to think this might not be such bad a place after all when I discovered how much entertainment this neighborhood could provide. One source of entertainment, came from the customers who often over celebrated at the 'community refreshment establishment' only three doors away from our house, the clients who became too over-refreshed and couldn't stand up any more, were thrown out onto the side walk. And Gosh! What could beat the wild goings on at the neighbors house next door, she was selling 'something', either by the drink or by the bottle. Poppa said this fiery red headed woman sold an unregistered corn by product secretly made under the moonlight. Regularly a half a dozen or so Policemen would make surprise raids, searching her house and property looking for her hidden supply of unregistered corn by product, sometimes they were lucky and found it, when they did, they hauled it and her off to jail. Usually she was back at home in about two hours, and when she returned, she was back in business immediately; it was as if she had only been to the food market. She sold her ‘strange potion’ in recycled bottles and she offered me a job collecting them for her. She said she would pay me two cents for small bottles and whole nickel for a big one. Furthermore, she would buy all the bottles I could bring her. Therefore, at the age of eight I started my first paying job, searching the hidden places where men drank and discarded their empty bottles.
Daily, as I went about my new occupation, combing the alleys in persuit of bottles, I began to notice an old black man who seemed to pass by every day only about a block from my house, he was always pushing a big cart. I decided to observe him more closely, and soon discovered that he lived only a block north of us, on a short dead end street, along with four other colored families. Being a country boy, I found myself staring at this man, I mean, I had seen colored people before but only from distance, and this one was up close and the likes of which I had never seen before. He was so very black, and old, but his round face had hardly a wrinkle in it, his skin shined in the sun as though it was polished. In stark contrast to his glistening black face he had a full head of fuzzy snow white hair which seemed to me that he never had lost even one of them, He was stocky too, and looked very strong, every time he saw me looking at him he would smile back at me real big and wink. I noticed that his shoes had some holes cut to allow his little toes to escape and were run over on the sides from pushing the over loaded cart. His cart was kind of a self-made affair employing high sides and two very large wobbly spoke wheels. The old cart was worn and seemed unsteady under the weight. I think that cart may have been an old horse drawn buckboard wagon in days gone by, but now one-half of it had become a man-powered pushcart. It was amazing how much cardboard he could stack on that old cart and still move it. I was told he collected discarded boxes all over town during the day, and then pushed it clear across town to be weighed and sold.
One day as I was playing on the sidewalk, and I looked up and the wobbly wheeled cart was coming up our street, I was thinking, this is an unusual thing, he never comes up this way. The push cart all of a sudden stopped, and the old man backed his cart up against the curb right next to where I was standing. My sister and brothers came running, and stood by my side wanting to see this old man and his strange cart. With his eyes fixed on us, the man slowly reached through a hole in the side of the cart and brought out a roll of burlap sacks from which, almost like magic, he produced several ice cream sandwiches. Holding the ice cream out at arms length, he offered them to us. Happily, we took his gift for what it was; free ice cream on a hot day. For the rest of that summer and the next as well, his route brought him, and the free the ice cream through our neighborhood, and right past our house. The old man would often pat us on the head and he said to me and my two brothers “You will be fine men when you grow up” or to my sister “Honey you sure are going to make a good woman some day, a real good woman”.
He told us how he got the ice cream, he said he passed an ice cream factory on his way home and he asked if they would save the ice cream that had been rejected and give it to him. Most of our free ice cream had only a wrapper put on crooked as its fault.
We were not the only ones who shared this mans kindness and affection. I often looked up the hill to the street to where he lived, and I could see nervous black children pacing back and forth, watching and waiting for him while he shared his collected bounty with us. You could tell those kids up there were worried, fearing, as I certainly would have too, that he might give it all away, of course he never did. Waiting never is easy for the young, or for that matter, eighty five percent of adults either. Even at nine years old I began to think about what this kindly old man was doing, and it made me wonder what, exactly, he gained from doing it?. Now, without a doubt those black children up the street were more than able to eat all his ice cream by them selves, but yet for some reason he shared it with us white kids too. I reasoned out that there was not even one conceivable thing to gain by being nice so to us.So, I could only conclude that , the old man obviously cared for us too, but I wasn't able to grasp why. It would be years before I discovered the answer to that lingering question “WHY DO PEOPLE DO NICE THINGS WHEN THEY DON'T HAVE TOO?’ well, at least for now, I thought It will just have to go unanswered.
At the end of the second summer, we moved to a different part of the city, and I never saw the gentle old man again. Well, I can’t really say I never saw him again, because actually his face is enscribed permanently into my mind. I grew up around people with a racial bias, and when they made cruel remarks, or if I attempted to repeat a racial joke, immediately, I would see that old man’s face. With sad eyes, he would look at me and it seemed he dropped his head a little as if to say he was disappointed and hurt, and that would just kill me. I just could not do it. I understand now the answer to my question ‘Why he did it’. He did it because he just saw all children, as just children, and he loved them, not seeing color, just children, and his love was colorblind. His simple unqualified love won me over and I determined to be like him.
As a Minister, I find I am now at home among any race of people. I have been a Missionary abroad and at home for many years now. I often go to other nations to minister, and many of these nations are made up of races who in the past had been slaves. However, because of what the old man taught me, I can love them, and I love their children too. ……….. And "OH MY!," Sometimes my heart gets so full I can hardly stand it, .... because of how much they love me too!
I do have this one regret, it is that I never learned the old man's name, for in those days it was rude for children to ask an adult their name, and it plainly was not allowed. One day I will meet the kind and gentle old man again, and I will learn his new name, I want to embrace him and thank him for teaching me what love is, and showing me what it's for,
Not in word ….. But in deed.