11 November 2009

Not At All Remarkable

We all have certain trailmarkers and persons in our lives whom we celebrate--or should celebrate. One such man in my life was my grandfather, James E. Martin. The "E" was for Ebenezer and you just don't find many men with that name in the modern age. This is apropos of only one thing, grandfather Martin was a man of a different age and with values which seem to have been lost by all too many of us.

I was a young, barefoot, burr-haired tad down in Southern Illinois when I would hear him exhort me and my cousins with things such as, "If you're going to take a day's pay from a man, you owe him a day's work". Or, "Damn it! If it ain't yours, keep your hands off of it".

Now back then a day's work might mean square-baling wheat straw behind a mule drawn baler and flatbed wagon from sun-up to sun-down in the blistering August heat and crushing humidity of what passes for late summer in that patch of black earth known as Little Eygpt for maybe 10-15 cents an hour--if you were lucky. And, keeping your hands off something that didn't belong to you meant that you leave another man's tools alone, they were the key to his livlihood.

Last week I thought of my grandfather while I was on a week-long voyage of reconciliation and discovery to my birthplace in Alton, Illinois. I was standing in line to place my order at the St. Louis Bread Company outlet on Homer Adams Parkway. If you're not familiar, it is one of those modern chrome and bright light places offering soup, sandwiches, cute food, designer breads and pasteries...there are places just like it, under different names, all the country. They are part of the new age...I don't think my grandfather would have been all that comfortable with the concept.

OK, now we come upon the crux of this tale. The guy in front of me placed his order, paid from his pocket and took his receipt and dropped to the floor right in front of me a folded one-hundred dollar bill. And then he turned to walk away and wait for his order--he didn't notice his loss.

I nudged him and pointed down at the bill on the floor and said, "You might need that before the day is out."

Embarrassed but grateful he bent down and retrieved his money and was effusively thanking me while several women in the line were commenting with how wonderful I was for calling his attention to it.

I exclaimed that I didn't think it was really all that remarkable and that it seemed to me the only logical thing to do. This set them off in a new spasm of how wonderful and upstanding I was and how it must be my Marine training (I was wearing my Marine Corps jacket) or the fact that midwesterners are so much more neighborly than other places.

I smiled and said, "Maybe, but Ma'am, ahm frum Texas".

Despite my demurrals, the guy insisted on paying my tab while I argued that I had done nothing noteworthy to earn his generosity. Finally, just to shut them all up, I accepted.

Afterall, grandfather Martin taught me all those years ago that if it wasn't mine, I should keep my mitts off of it. So, I don't think it was a bit remarkable to help that guy recover his money...and think it's a shame that we've reached a point where people are surprised by such behavior and find it remarkable.

Thanks, grandpa!