Orphan Survival Stories Index |
"O beautiful, for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain," sang the old man underneath the railroad overpass.
"Can I stand by your fire and get warm?" I asked him.
"Sure, kid," he replied, while stretching out his arm.
Once again, I had run away from the orphanage. This time for being slapped across the face, because I refused to drink my warm powdered milk.
"Shouldn't you be in school?" asked the old man.
I just stood warming my hands against the 55-gallon drum. I did not say a word.
"For purple mountain majesties, above the fruited plain," he sang again.
"What's a ‘fruited plane?’ I asked and moved my hand in the air as though it were an airplane.
"Fruited plains, my boy; they are the flatlands of America where all the crops are grown, like corn and wheat."
"I ain't never seen nothing like that before."
"You will one day. America is a very beautiful and wonderful country," he continued.
"How did you get to see all of America?"
“I was in the Navy."
“Was you in the war too?" I questioned.
"My brothers and I were at Pearl Harbor," he said in a broken voice.
"Do they stay under this bridge with you too?"
"I’m afraid not, son. They were both killed in the Japanese attack."
"AMERICA! AMERICA! God shed his grace on thee and crown thy good with brotherhood, from sea to shining sea," he sang. "I love that song!"
I stood there not having the slightest idea what he was singing or talking about.
"You know, kid. This world is full of two types of people. There are the ‘takers’ and then there are the ‘givers.’ Which are you?" he asked while raising his eyebrows.
"I don't know."
"Come on, boy. Let's go earn something to eat."
He slapped me gently on the back. Then he picked up his backpack and threw it over his shoulder. We began walking down the side of the road.
"You pick up papers and I'll look for coca cola bottles," he instructed.
Hour after hour, we walked beside the road talking and laughing with each other. By six o'clock that evening, we must have walked ten miles picking up papers and searching for bottles.
"Bottles are getting a little heavy. Let's cash them in and head back to camp and eat," he stated.
On the way back, we walked into a little roadside store where we traded in the bottles for 56 cents. The old man bought a package of hot dogs, a can of pork-n-beans and a can of dog food.
"We ain't going to eat no dog food are we?" I asked.
"You'll see," said the old man laughing aloud.
Just before we got back to the freeway bridge, we stopped in at a gas station. We walked into the washroom and started to wash our hands and face.
"Okay, you two deadbeats, get your butts out of here!" yelled the gas station owner as he pushed the door open with his foot.
The old man said not a word. He just dried his face and then walked outside and waited on me.
"And, don't come back here."
Then the man spit some chewing tobacco that landed on the shoe of the old man.
"We didn't mean to inconvenience anyone," he told the station owner.
"Just get out of here!"
We took our day’s work and headed back to camp. When we arrived, the old man opened the can of beans and the dog food with his knife. Then he raked the dog food out over by the bushes, and rinsed the can with the water from his canteen. He cut up the hot dogs into little pieces and then mixed them into the beans and divided them between us.
"What's that dog food for?"
"Something will come along that's hungry," he told me.
"You have to eat with the sharp lid kid, so don't cut your tongue.”
"Why did we have to pick up all those papers and trash?" I asked while we ate.
"It's like I told you this morning, kid. There are ‘takers’ in this life and then there are ‘givers.’ Most people that I know are ‘takers.’ Today, we gave a little and we took a little."
He was smiling from ear to ear.
"America! America! God shed his grace on thee, and crown thy good with brotherhood, from sea to shining sea," he sang again.
"Are you going to be a ‘taker’ or are you going to be a ‘giver’ when you grown up?" he asked softly.
"I'm going to be a ‘giver.’
"I know you are, boy," he said smiling at me again.
Later that evening, the police came and took the two of us to the Duval County Jail for loitering. I never saw him again after that. However, I can tell you this: I have never forgotten meeting my first role model.