There are moments and events that change our lives – just one moment, and all is different. In troubled times, it is worth remembering what lucky is.
Roughly 40 years ago, I took a summer job at a YMCA in Maine to help pay for college. As the YMCA was in a coastal area near a lake, I had two duties – teaching swim lessons to the children of lobstermen and teaching canoeing to the same group on that lake. That summer, I learned what lucky is.
Unlike my college schedule, I had to get up early – around 0600 – to squeeze in a run, part of the daily routine. I had to manage a gaggle of squirming kids, most of whom did not want to learn swimming but had parents that insisted they learn since many would inherit the family business.
Making matters worse, they had little use for canoeing, never mind the inconvenience of traveling to and from a lake, lugging canoes, swatting at the summer’s thick crop of mosquitoes. Nor did I, since all of that was labor far removed from my easy studies, place of peace, college social life.
As the summer progressed, my days stayed unchanged, got rather boring. Each morning, after my run, shower, readiness for the day, I would say hello to rotating employees behind the front desk and pass an older gentleman who – at that time – was about 60, near my current age.
This gentleman was always cheerful, inexplicably upbeat, gingerly performing duties of every sort, self-propelled. He could be found sweeping and mopping floors, restocking staples, hand towels, to toilet paper. I might see him cleaning the pool, setting up long tables and chairs, tinkering on machinery needing repairs. He said very little, just smiled and nodded, as did I, filled with youthful unknowing.
That was a sticky summer, and my room had no air conditioner. It was a busy summer, kids coming and going, tourists jostling downtown, pay modest, no friends around, no car, just feet to transport me. While I felt fortunate to have the job and my surroundings were homey, my adolescent nature was lonely.
Self-pity is a useless thing, and I knew it – but it creeps on you slowly, like the tide. You must remember how to swim, and sometimes there needs to be someone nearby to show you why. As often happens, what we need suddenly appears; no good reason but a voice, influence, or person allays our fears.
Toward summer’s end, I realized an oversight. Every day, although conversation was easy with the front desk, I had never stopped to chat with the fellow who – seeming much older – was always contentedly, smilingly sweeping, mopping, setting things up, taking them down, making all things work.
So, one day, I stopped. He was happy to see me, stopped himself. What I did not realize until that day was that his hearing was nearly gone, one ear nothing, other just enough to manage. For the first time, I noticed he moved one legless easily.
Not sure how to begin, I felt a need to thank him, say hello, maybe pass the time enough to let him know he counted, as if – in my young ignorance – I could lift his days when really he had lifted mine, all summer.
One thing led to another, and – with his unjudging nature – we came to the topic of his youth, now 40 years behind him. I would conjure a question, yell it in his good ear, and he would smile, think, speak.
How exactly we ended on his hearing, I am again not sure, but there it was. And that is why – I think – I was meant to stop that day, why his presence played such a role, and why someone slowed me down.
“The war?” I repeated.
He nodded, explained. Omaha Beach, June 6, 1944, he was one of 36 men in a Higgins Boat, what they called an LCVP or Landing Craft Vehicle Personnel. As they approached the beach, a German shell hit their landing craft, threw him ashore.
He lost his hearing, never regained it.
That story was sobering. I listened intently, emotions running the gamut, empathy to sympathy, admiration to the stunned realization that this was one of those men who had landed, already than 40 years prior, on those nightmarish beaches of Normandy – and Omaha was the worst.
For a moment, my mind lingered, mystified by how someone who had lived without hearing for two-thirds of his life, who must have missed the magic of music, easy conversation, family banter, and all that goes with those – could be so happy.
As if reading my mind, he spoke. “They were all killed, every one of them, except for me. I was lucky, I was the lucky one.”
And if he was lucky, so clear in his good fortune, what was I? Short moments change a life – just one moment, and all is different.