> 2015 > May
“I tried to live my life the best that I could.
I hope that was enough. I hope, at least in your eyes,
I’ve earned what all of you have done for me.”
––James Ryan (Saving Private Ryan)
In a sense, we’ve all had our lives “saved” at one point or another. Somewhere along the way family, friends, teachers — and sometimes perfect strangers — have done things that deserved our awe, drew from us a deep sense of humility, and changed us.
In the same way an elderly Private Ryan stood above the grave of Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) and wondered whether the goodness of his life had been worth Miller’s sacrifice, so we all should stand and ask whether we are worthy of all that has been done for us.
As we each serve in our roles in the Nevada Legislature, whether for one term or for many, we stand on “the shoulders of others who have come before us,” as Speaker Hambrick has said.
Mindful of this, I’d like to share some remembrances and — in what’s turned into a Friday tradition here in Soup to Nuts — turn back to a page from Tahoe Boy to tell a story about a poor black man who helped “rescue” me from my white world.
“For a time in the 1980s, I served as Director for Project Volunteer in the Cabrini Green Housing Projects in Chicago, distributing mountains of excess government cheese. Marie Antoinette may or may not have ever uttered ‘let them eat cake,’ but whichever Washington bureaucrat came up with the idea of handing out processed American cheese in order to combat poverty was just as clueless. (But that’s another story.)
I had as volunteers a number of white suburban kids whose eyes were opened to a world they’d never seen before, working in one of America’s roughest neighborhoods. Wanting to give them a different experience than inner-city Chicago’s, I took a handful of them who’d all come from middle-class families and dropped them off alone for a day and a night in rural Illinois farming towns. Telling them to see what serendipity had in store, I knew we’d all have plenty to talk about when we got back together. And we did.
In my own chosen town, I came across a crippled old black man lying in a pile of bricks at the base of a dilapidated base of a Civil War Era building. Barely able to walk, his shiny black skin looked like bright chipped coal. And on top of his weary head was the most beautiful white hair I’d ever seen.
This African-American remnant of the prejudices of the previous century scratched out his living by cleaning the mortar off old bricks and selling them to a local builder for three cents a brick. I worked the day beside him in his pile. Beaten down by life’s hardships, he barely uttered a word. But at the end of the day, he understood my need for a place to stay. When the work was done, he invited me to stay with him at his back-alley shack. Entering, it smelled of mildew and empty pork and beans cans. At the moment I stepped into his place on the wrong side of the tracks, it felt like I was entering a living saint’s temple.
This not long-for-this-world gentleman’s generosity trumped any act of kindness ever done for me. Dinner out of an open can tasted better than a previous banquet at the Waldorf. Trying to fall asleep on his smelly old couch, it reeked like an old friend (the carpet I’d once slept in huddling against the cold in late August in Sault St. Marie, Michigan).
Melancholy thoughts turned into tearful happiness as the old man’s snoring kept me up most of the night. I realized for the first time ever what Christ meant when he taught, ‘Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’
Should I ever be so lucky as to meet Mr. Jefferson again, I’m sure he’ll be walking upright, guiding me along the path of those ‘streets of gold’ to the palace where he no doubt now resides.”
Mr. Jefferson’s life, and his act of kindness, helped make me who I am. Private Ryan’s experiences — including the recognition of the priceless sacrifices of others — made him into the person he became.
We would all do well to pause to remember and value the people who have entered our lives and changed them for the better. Let us honor those who have gone before us by doing our duty in the Legislature.
Let us endeavor to earn what has been done for us.