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A Fragrant Candle, and a Pair of Million Dollar Arms

Wrigley Field - 1945
Last week, despite temperatures in the high 90s, Natalie and I decided to reduce our collection of clutter by hosting a garage sale. Saturday morning sales had slowed to a crawl, and we agreed to start packing up the remaining clothes, roller blades, and glassware for donation. That's when an old, rusty, Chevy Suburban pulled up and parked at the end of our driveway. A very large, old man with a pronounced limp walked slowly towards the garage. At one point, the man tripped and I was afraid that he was going to fall face-first into our front yard. The handle on his cane was shiny and smooth from years of use. My wife closed her iPad case and went inside to fill her water bottle and check on our dogs. Likewise, I closed my iPad case and greeted our lone customer of the hour.

"Good morning. Is there anything in particular that you 're looking for today?", I asked.
(Most of the older gentlemen seem to be shopping for hand tools or yard gnomes.)

In a low, weathered, voice reminiscent of Sam Elliot, "No, just passing time. How much for this candle?"

"I am not sure, I think that my wife is asking two dollars for it.", I said.

He held the large, brown candle with a  muscular grip, he took a whiff of it's aroma. "Mmmm, apple and cinnamon, my wife's favorite.", he sighed sounding a lot like Chief in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest". "Ahh, Juicy-Fruit."

He was wearing an old, faded, bluish-gray, Chicago Cubs baseball cap. I am admitting that I am a fan of vintage sports wear. "I really like your Cubs hat. As a fellow long-suffering Cubs fan, I will let you have that fine-smelling candle for a buck.", I said, wanting his lid more than his money.

"I'll take it.", he said with a smile.

He crooked his cane under his arm and fished a dollar from the pocket of his jeans. He was about 6' 2" tall. Although a bit wobbly, he still had a sturdy build for an old man. I silently guessed that he was in his early eighties. My Cubs comment released a flood of "hot stove" baseball conversation. Trade proposals, farm system critiques, and future free-agent pitchers, certified that we would have a world series champion on the North Side by the end of the following season. "Wait 'til next year."

It turns out Tom was a retired mason. His profound limp was the result of a large piece of concrete falling on him while he was deployed in World War II Germany. He was a teenager, and an engineer in the army. His responsibilities included the demolition of bridges, roads, and overpasses behind enemy lines. He blamed Harry Truman for the loss of his left leg in early 1944. He earned a Bronze Star, but as he spoke, I realized that he had lost a lot more than just his lower leg.

Tom lost his wife to leukemia in 2006, shortly after Peyton Manning defeated Devon Hester and the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XLI. Tom said his wife of sixty years kept him busy with lots of household chores, but now he was admittedly bored and lonely. He had also outlived his two sons, one which was killed in Vietnam. After a long pause, and not quite sure of what to say, I told Tom that he was welcome to come over and watch a Cubs game, or talk baseball with us anytime. It was nearly lunch time and we offered Tom a cold beverage and something to eat. He declined, "I've got to be getting on home."

Home for Tom, I later found out, was about ten miles away. Tom, it appears, spends sunny mornings driving around, stopping at garage sales to pay some pocket change for someone else's clutter, and seemingly, to share his stories. On this hot, humid morning, he had just paid me a dollar to sit on a plastic lawn chair and engage in some friendly conversation. I felt guilty - I should have paid him for his time, his service, and his knowledge. I should have offered him a better chair.

I walked Tom to his car, carrying his candle, and thinking our interesting conversation was ending, and that I was never going to see him again. We shook hands and wished each other well. I had a feeling that I was in the presence of greatness, but I couldn't pinpoint exactly why. What was to become of Tom and his amazing tale?

That's when Tom pulled a baseball from the floor of his car. He motioned me to back up into the yard and then proceeded to throw a frozen rope that smacked my hands chest high - and right down the middle. Tom was a "south paw" in the Cubs farm system prior to getting drafted into the army. To hear him tell the story, he was destined to be a starter in the "bigs". He opened his wallet and showed me an old, tattered, black and white photo of three young men wearing baseball uniforms, Tom was in the middle. His catcher, he noted, was on his left.

I said, "But Tom, you just threw that fastball with your right hand."

That's right, Tom could throw equally well with either hand. He showed me a variety of ways in which he would grip the baseball; two seam fastball, four-seamer, and a three finger circle change. He said that on a good day, when in his prime, he could throw in the low 90s with either hand. But, he rarely needed to because he had four ways of throwing a change-up, including a palm ball. He said that great pitching is all about timing and location, and he referenced my favorite former Cub, Greg Maddux.

Tom was getting ready to climb into his car. He asked what I was doing on the iPad. I told him that I was reading some blogs and sharing a few of them on Twitter. After a short, healthy debate about education and the merits of the Internet, I told Tom that he had a great story, and actually many great stories. How great would it be for him to share his stories in a blog? He said that he wasn't a confident writer and wasn't very good with the computer. I brushed his excuses aside, "Tom, it doesn't matter. You have great stories to share, and being retired, you have time to learn and write. You are a great story teller - please share your stories before they are lost forever."

Tom thought about what I had said, and then promised that he would give writing a try following his upcoming army reunion trip to Georgia. I hope that Tom takes me up on my offer to help him get started with his blog. Teaching has it's foundation in story-telling. Everyone has stories to share, they may not all be as interesting as some of Tom's, but we all have stories nonetheless. Blogging and digital portfolios offer learners of any age opportunities to create and share a digital archive of their thoughts and experiences. My parents have photo albums, scrapbooks, and 8mm films that document our personal and family history.

"Pictures and scrapbooks can yellow and fade, but digital stories, records, and reflections can live and grow indefinitely."

How are you documenting and sharing the story of your life?

By the way, I can't really endorse garage sales as viable money making endeavors, but sitting in the driveway with the garage door open, the radio playing, some bottled water on ice, and neighbors stopping by to swap stories...priceless! I hope to see Tom's rusty, old Suburban pulling in our driveway someday soon. I could sure use some help with my circle change.

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Kim Bolz-Andolshek said…
Love this Bob! Thanks for sharing. Everyday we walk around next to people with amazing tales to's wonderful you took time to listen. Let me know if he starts writing, I would love to follow!
G. Allen Powell said…
Great story Bob. This is an eye opener for me. My students have trouble formulating thoughts. This might help them.
Robert Schuetz said…
Thank you Kim and Allen for your comments. I realized what a fantastic teachable / learnable conversation we experienced and I just had to document and share it. I would like to see our older generation get more involved in educating younger learners - they have so much to offer. It would be a win-win arrangement.
JenMarie said…
thanks for such a great story, Bob. My mom has a similar way of getting people to open up and it's amazing the things she learns about people (and she remembers all of it to tell me later, haha)
Robert Schuetz said…
Thank you JenMarie. I can't profess to any special skill with this. I think the key for educators is to find some common interest with their students - and then the reciprocal learning can begin! I appreciate that you took time to read this post and share a comment - thanks again.

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