Photo Credit: stevendepolo via Flickr
Photo Credit: stevendepolo via Flickr

It is so nice to be back from vacation. It was such a relaxing and soothing time to be with my family and friends. It reminded me of a story that I once read on “Let Us” of another person that was on their vacation and learned an incredible life lesson from a total stranger. This story should make us think how important it is to help and encourage other people who might be less fortunate than us when we have the opportunity to do so.


A Cold Can of Soup

“Do you mind..?”

An elderly fellow silently appeared next to me. I noticed the odor, the soiled clothes he wore, and to be completely honest, I wondered how I could possibly explain not being able to spare any of my dwindling vacation funds. He nodded towards the empty space on my bench and from his hesitant manner I could tell that most people just told him to go away. I couldn’t do such a thing, so I moved my things and shifted over.

That was the summer after my first year of teaching. After working in office cubicle-world for several years, I changed careers to pursue this lifelong interest. I took full advantage of my first summer off by driving across the country. A friend offered a place to stay while in California and I gladly accepted. During my journey I made it a point to experience all that I could, having little time constraints to limit me. And yet, after all I’d seen and done, there was one more thing I needed in order to make this trip complete; and I’d almost resolved in my mind as the summer neared its end that this wasn’t to be experienced.

While exploring the coast near my friend’s apartment, I discovered an old park bench at the edge of a bluff. There was a rusted sign nearby. It read, “Seal Retreat. Established (a date and something else I couldn’t read because of rust).” This place had been forgotten, hidden away between a gentle wall of tall grass and shrubbery and the edge of a bluff. I sat here for several hours with only my thoughts and my journal. That is, until this person appeared next to me.

Out of the corner of my eye, I watched him arrange his bags in a very particular manner. Occasionally the wind would change direction and I found myself fighting to breathe because his odor was so strong. He had an occasional deep, scratchy cough that shook his entire body.

I watched him open a can of chicken noodle soup. Then, from one of his several bags, he pulled out a plate, a spoon, a knife, a half-loaf of bread and a couple dabs of butter offered free in restaurants. He cut a slice of bread and offered it to me. I shook my head. “No thanks.”

He then very meticulously buttered this bread. Not one tiny space was left uncovered. His motions were very deliberate, as if he was preparing to savor every morsel. He didn’t eat immediately, but instead carefully set down the plate of remaining bread and butter along with the knife between us next to the soup. Then he sat back like a king to enjoy his meal.

After several bites, pausing in a very ritualistic manner between each one, he broke the silence between us. After hearing nothing but the wind and sea for many minutes, his words startled me. “That’s my Charlie.” A mischievous seal sneaked up on an older seal sunning on a rock and knocked it into the crashing waves. “Named him after Charlie Chaplin. First person I thought of when I saw the jokester down there.” He spoke to me, long pauses between each sentence, but continued watching the seals. I politely smiled, acknowledging his words. “He’s hiding now. He’ll come up when the coast is clear.”

My bench-mate cut another slice of bread and buttered it just as carefully as before. He took another few bites of soup and sat back to finish off the bread. Eventually, he asked, “So, where’re you from?”

I found myself allowing the same amount of time between sentences as he. I thought about my response a bit, ‘Where did I grow up?’ or ‘Where did I arrive here from?’ I chose the latter question since St. Louis rarely sparks conversation. “The East Coast – near Boston.”

Another bite of bread and spoon of soup, “The East Coast?” He turned to look at me. “What happened? Take a wrong turn?”

Humor! My fragrant visitor with impeccable table manners just made a funny. I smiled at him, realizing this is the first time we actually looked at each other, really looked at each other, in the eye. “No wrong turn. I’m on vacation.” Through the wrinkles, the dirt, and the unkempt gray beard, his eyes had a youthful sparkle. I figured I could also joke in return. “I just started teaching and since I have the summer off, I decided to seek out a wise man rumored to frequent West Coast seal retreats.”

He chuckled. “Ah, yes.” He folded his hands over his stomach. “How can I help you, my son?”

We smiled at each other. For the first time in quite a while, I felt like talking to someone, really having a worthwhile conversation. I had gotten used to traveling alone, just me, my thoughts, and my journal. But now, I began to tell him about teaching and also detailed several experiences I had during my travels. He listened attentively, asking a question here and there.

We drifted into a moment of silence, smiling again as our thoughts went their own ways. He finished the soup and cut one more slice of bread. I asked, curious but unsure if he wanted to talk, “Where are you from? What experiences have you had?”

He looked at me without speaking and I could see the thoughts on his face. Did I sincerely want him to share a part of himself with me? I could tell that he was used to people ignoring him, abusing him, treating him like he were less than human. But after a hesitant pause, and while allowing that questioning eye to remain as my silent interrogator, he spoke, cautiously at first, then with vigor. His voice was scratchy and deep. His words came in a dramatic way with an occasional pause as though to emphasize a point.

“I could see my father’s belt straight on when he brought us here to California. I didn’t know anything about the depression or how poor we were until I was on my way to fight in the war. Someone told me that people picking stuff from the trees don’t have any money. Anyhow…” He stared out into the ocean as his words dropped away into silence. I guessed that maybe he were reminded of something he hadn’t thought about in a long time.

I looked at him, then out over the ocean as he did. With his several bags and his many layers of clothing, it was difficult for me to imagine him with a home and a normal life. But to hear him speak so fluently and with humor, I couldn’t understand him having to live on the street praying for a meal. I wanted him to continue, so I prodded, “What is it? What are you remembering?”

He seemed surprised that I was interested in him. He took a napkin from his pocket and neatly wiped a drop of soup from his beard. “Oh, I was just remembering how young I was.” With that same napkin folded differently, he thoroughly cleaned his spoon. As he moved on to cleaning the knife, he looked down towards the seals and continued. “I remember how I was so filled with life and patriotism. I got all energized and riled up by the words being shouted at me; the screams of a madman trying to take over the world. I wanted so badly to help save our country, to help save mankind.” He paused a bit, then allowed a sad grin to show through his grimy beard. “But I was also thinking about how healthy I was then, and how I thought my dreams of seeing the world were coming true.”

After a moment of silence, he continued the conversation with an odd mixture of eloquence and occasional bad grammar. He explained the area’s history; how great sand dunes were bulldozed away to create a beach just north of here and why the seal retreat was built below us. How Hollywood celebrities moved in acting like they discovered this town. He shared stories of the war, of his childhood, of meeting a few people of influence. He even had names for the seals that played below us. He knew how old they were, whose baby was whose. The mischievous one, Charlie, was his favorite since, as he put it, “That seal acts just like me when I was growing up. That seal,” pausing to look at me directly, then down to the ground, “keeps me young, helps me stay alive.”

He didn’t talk in detail about some things. His wife and family were mentioned, but then he quickly changed the subject. He also mentioned getting wounded, again followed by a subject change.

We sat together for maybe two hours. As the sun reached up and painted the clouds and sky in oranges and reds, he noticed something. “Young man, this must be your lucky day.” He waited for me to look at him. “It’s not often I see the dolphins play.” I wasn’t sure what he meant at first, but then he tilted his head and nodded out towards the ocean with a grin. I couldn’t believe my eyes. There they were, twenty or thirty of them dancing across the ocean.

Luckily my new friend had an eye for such things, because I would have never spotted them. Their color matched the water. The larger waves blocked our view of them. And they were maybe a hundred yards away. I walked to the edge of the bluff to get a closer look. It was like a show: a long line of dolphins leaping out of the water in pairs across the horizon. I took in a deep breath and smiled a huge thank you, one of those smiles that just happens to you. I imagined that their dance was just for us, and that somehow they knew just how much I had wanted to see them.

I stood there mesmerized. Although I had wanted to swim with or maybe just see a dolphin or two so very badly, I’d resolved that it wasn’t going to happen on this trip. But here I was, having an experience that made my cross-country travels perfectly complete. All I could think of was how lucky I was to be here to see this.

Finally, after watching the dolphins disappear in the distance, my new friend said, “Even though I’ve seen them so many times, I still get excited when they come along.” With this thought and with the sky darkening into purples and blues, the space became ours as we shared a long, silent moment.

That was the last night of my Pacific Coast visit. As much as I didn’t want to leave, I had to meet my host for dinner, and I was already late. So, I thanked him for his company and for a wonderful conversation, then I reluctantly walked away.

After trudging a few minutes towards town, I realized that I had to go back. I had to talk to him just a little bit more, to offer him something, anything. I don’t know exactly what I was going to do. Maybe I just wanted to share with him how much our time together impacted me.

But when I got back, he was already gone. Even today, I can feel the emptiness I felt then as I searched and found no trace of him.

That evening, as I sat at a table with a $25 plate of hot food in front of me, I felt guilt reaching into my chest and yanking at my heart. What other things should I have done, should I have said? Why didn’t I tell him how special he was? And the biggest ache…

Why did I leave him there with only cold soup from a can?