Not al­ways what it seems

The Covington News - - Opinion -

He seemed to be just an­other odd, ec­cen­tric old man, re­ally. Al­most ev­ery Fri­day, as sun­set neared, the codger wear­ing an old, sun­bleached mil­i­tary cap would walk out on a long pier at Key Bis­cayne, Florida, car­ry­ing a full bucket of shrimp. As the sun be­gan to settle, the man known to lo­cals as “Old Ed” would be joined by dozens of seag­ulls. “Old Ed” tossed shrimp to the birds, softly speak­ing over and again the words, “thank you.”

Af­ter the bucket was empty, “Old Ed” would tarry to watch the sun settle at the end of day. In­vari­ably a gull would land on his old mil­i­tary cap, which the old man took as his sign to go home. He would shuf­fle back down the pier, still mut­ter­ing “thank you” to the few gulls which scut­tled along with him.

Yeah, the lo­cal fish­er­men on that Key Bis­cayne pier thought “Old Ed” to be an odd one. He was maybe one fry short of a Happy Meal, maybe just start­ing to go se­nile. But things are not al­ways what they seem…

As I grow older I find it in­ter­est­ing that it’s not hard to re­mem­ber ex­act dates of re­mark­able hap­pen­ings in my life, whilst spe­cific dates of rel­a­tively or­di­nary things are gone with the wind. And so I re­mem­ber La­bor Day week­end, 2006, for I was able to gar­ner a press pass and be in at­ten­dance at Bobby Dodd Sta­dium for a great foot­ball game be­tween Notre Dame and Ge­or­gia Tech, won by the Ir­ish.

And I re­mem­ber that on the el­e­va­tor ride up to the press box a youth­ful fe­male sports re­porter re­marked to me, in her ex­u­ber­ance, that she hoped she would meet some­body fa­mous.

Just a while later the Ge­or­gia Tech folks opened the buf­fet for the me­dia, and I watched that same youth­ful re­porter cut off an older, gray-haired man as she darted in to fill her plate. The man was mov­ing slowly, and in her quest to meet some­one fa­mous, the re­porter was in too much of a hurry to even say “ex­cuse me.”

Things are just not al­ways what they seem… The older guy and I made eye con­tact, and I asked him if he had a mo­ment. He glanced at the girl who’d cut him off from the buf­fet line and nod­ded. And so I had a chance to tell Dan Reeves how much I ap­pre­ci­ated his life’s ser­vice to his na­tive state as a great high school player from Amer­i­cus and as a stand­out at Ge­or­gia Tech. I told him I ad­mired his NFL work in Dal­las and Den­ver, and for tak­ing the Fal­cons to the Su­per Bowl. And I closed my 30 sec­onds with the fa­mous man the youth­ful re­porter had over­looked as just a slow-mov­ing old guy by telling him I hoped that he was do­ing well af­ter his heart surg­eries and that he’d have many more days to spend with his grand­chil­dren.

And I’ll al­ways re­mem­ber Dan Reeves shak­ing my hand, firmly, and look­ing me straight in the eye as he thanked me for what I’d shared with him, in the buf­fet line, in the press box, at Ge­or­gia Tech, on a La­bor Day hol­i­day week­end in 2006.

Things are not al­ways what they seem, you see. Af­ter the game was over that evening I man­aged to steal a few mo­ments alone, to­tal­ing about 15 sec­onds, with Notre Dame’s head coach Char­lie Weiss.

I’d brought along a pread­dressed, stamped en­ve­lope which I slipped him, as I told him of a dear friend who was in dire phys­i­cal con­di­tion near­ing death — a Notre Dame grad­u­ate who’d spent his life teach­ing and coach­ing in parochial schools of Michi­gan. And I asked the coach to please send my buddy, Fred Jam­roz, a note — if he could find the time.

“I’ll get him some­thing,” Weiss said, even as the en­tourage of at­ten­dants hus­tled him through the exit. The door started to swing closed, but just then a meaty hand pried it open, and Char­lie Weiss looked around the door jamb straight into my eyes and said, earnestly, “I’ll get him some­thing.”

Weiss was a big name coach, still fresh from the NFL, with Su­per Bowl rings too nu­mer­ous to wear. He didn’t have to give me the time of day, let alone grant a fa­vor to a stranger.

But things are not al­ways what they seem…

The next week an au­to­graphed pic­ture of Char­lie Weiss and his get-well wish ar­rived at the Jam­roz house. Just how much it meant for my friend is hard to say, but it was dis­played near Fred’s cas­ket when I vis­ited with his fam­ily the next April.

Thirty-one years ago my wife and I de­cided to make Cov­ing­ton our home. Back then, the en­tire cor­ner of the block on Odum Street be­tween Pace and Elm, where now sits the new New­ton County Ad­min­is­tra­tion Build­ing, was a park­ing lot. The old ad­min­is­tra­tion an­nex, now razed, had been a su­per­mar­ket prior to our ar­rival here, so I’m told.

But in 1977, on the south­east­ern cor­ner of that block, resided the New­ton County Farm­ers’ Mar­ket. The pro­duce was fresh, but what folks mainly came by for was to talk pol­i­tics with any com­mis­sioner who hap­pened along near the An­nex Build­ing, and to visit, con­vivially, with old-time county res­i­dents.

We’d just moved here and I met W. K. Lunsford there one day when I bought some toma­toes off the tail­gate of his vin­tage Chevy pickup. “Mr. W. K.” wore a jun­gle sa­fari hat in those days, and I fig­ured him to be just a reg­u­lar old farmer from th­ese parts, try­ing to make a buck sell­ing veg­eta­bles.

But things are not al­ways what they seem…

Over time I learned that “Mr. W. K.” was a pilot who flew a B-24 Con­sol­i­dated Lib­er­a­tor bomber over Europe in World War II. Those gleam­ing aluminum ships looked huge back then, but their skin was pa­per-thin and couldn’t stop Ger­man anti-air­craft fire very well. And ev­ery time one of the be­he­moths went down, so did a crew of 10 Amer­i­can boys.

And even though my dad­dyin-law, Troy Drum­mond, him­self a World War II Navy vet­eran, pro­vided us with plenty of fresh veg­eta­bles from his gar­den out at Jack­son Lake, ev­ery once in a while I’d go buy some toma­toes from “Mr. W. K.” I’m sure he prob­a­bly thought I was just a guy, shop­ping for fresh veg­gies.

But things are not al­ways what they seem…

Folks who re­mem­ber the Korean War can re­call when At­lanta’s his­toric rail­road Ter­mi­nal Sta­tion was de­mol­ished, re­placed by an of­fice/ho­tel com­plex called “The Omni,” which has it­self since been de­mol­ished and re­placed by the Philips Cen­ter.

I re­mem­ber at­tend­ing a Cot­ton States Clas­sic bas­ket­ball se­ries in the old Omni, stand­ing in a long line at a re­fresh­ment stand. An­other line opened, and many cus­tomers scur­ried to get quicker ser­vice. Sev­eral of them glanced back to see how many folks they’d man­aged to beat into the new line, ap­par­ently quite sat­is­fied that they’d won some sort of con­test.

But things are not al­ways what they seem…

Two older men in front of me had not skedad­dled, you see, and I seized the op­por­tu­nity to si­dle up to them. In­stead of rush­ing head­long for a chance to re­trieve a soft drink, I was able to meet, con­verse and swap sto­ries with At­lanta Braves pitcher Phil Niekro and At­lanta news­caster John Pruitt.

A long time ago, in what seems now an­other uni­verse, I grew up in rural east­ern Ge­or­gia. Just down the road from my home­town of Greens­boro, a young lady was raised in neigh­bor­ing Craw­fordville. We never met back then, but as fate would have it, she later mar­ried one of my dear­est and clos­est friends. When first they met and started dat­ing, I vis­ited with my “sec­ond daddy,” coach Fred Shaver, and met this lady. She and I dis­cov­ered, 10 sec­onds af­ter meet­ing, that for all prac­ti­cal pur­poses we al­ready knew each other in­ti­mately — she calls me her adopted brother, and I call her my adopted sis­ter.

And that brings me back to that odd duck I men­tioned in the first para­graph to­day, “Old Ed.” That’s be­cause just last week my “Sis,” Gayle Shaver, told me about the Key Bis­cayne codger who fed shrimp to seag­ulls while say­ing “thank you.”

It turns out that “Old Ed” was, ac­tu­ally, an Amer­i­can hero named Ed­die Rick­en­backer. “Old Ed” was a Medal of Honor re­cip­i­ent in World War I, the “Ace of Aces” of the famed 94th “Hat-in-theR­ing” Squadron, who went on to fame as a race car driver at In­di­anapo­lis and was the founder of East­ern Air Lines.

What a lot of folks don’t know is that in the early days of World War II, when things were go­ing badly for Amer­ica, Rick­en­backer was asked to fly into dan­ger­ous ter­ri­tory in the Pa­cific on a se­cret mis­sion. His B-17 crashed, and he spent 24 days adrift at sea with vir­tu­ally no pro­vi­sions. One day, when things were at their bleak­est, as the men lay ex­hausted in their raft, a seag­ull alighted on Rick­en­backer’s mil­i­tary cap. He seized the bird, and cut it up equally for his men to eat, and to use for fish bait. And so it was that the seag­ull pro­vided sus­te­nance for Rick­en­backer’s sur­vival.

Yeah, the lo­cals on that pier at Key Bis­cayne thought “Old Ed” to be an odd old man, to be sure. There he came, al­most ev­ery Fri­day, shuf­fling out to feed shrimp to his seag­ulls, and mut­ter­ing “thank you” even as one would land on that worn-out, old, sun-bleached mil­i­tary cap.

But things, you see, are not al­ways what they seem…

Nat Har­well

Colum­nist

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