Friday, May 20, 2011

It’s nice to be remembered fondly!

I was crazy that day when I offered this little kid a job doing a man’s work!
by Charlie Leck

Sometimes you feel so damned proud that you just puff out your chest and buttons start popping. You laugh some and your eyes tear up too. As you might expect, at my age it’s happened a lot.

A wonderful email came from Afghanistan today – from a young man who is doing his 10th year in the military.

“The Air Force has been good to me in many different ways,” he wrote. “It’s helped me grow up as a man even more. I have seen and experienced places I never imagined possible. Made some very close friends.”

Oh, my! It was so good to hear from him. Anne and I have worried about him over the years. We knew he was serving in Iraq for some time and then in Afghanistan. We had no local contacts for him anymore, so we couldn’t check on his safety.

We met him back in 1994. We had taken horses to a parade at the request of one of our dearest friends. She wanted us to provide a carriage and horses for the mayor of Minneapolis, Sharon Sayles Belton, for the Juneteenth Parade. (Well, if you don’t know what that is you’d better google it and find out!)

It wasn’t a usual kind of outing for us or our horses. We had to go into crowded part of the city where there was little parking and where our security and safety wouldn’t be as comfortable as the usual fancy horseshows to which we went. We parked on a side straight, a block or two away from parade route. We drew lots of attention with our big, gleaming horsevan and trailer. Children came out of their yards to close around us and to see what was going on.

One of the kids was a very young, but strong-looking African-American boy – and he was just a boy. He had a kind looking face and huge smile. He wanted to know if we could use some help. One of my worries was that something would happen to the van and trailer and the items inside it while we were off doing the parade. I explained the situation to him and winked at him, wondering if he could arrange some protection.

He nodded at me in an understanding way and I knew it would be done. I put him to work cleaning out the carriage we were to use for the parade. I showed him how to clean it up and make it shine. He went to work. The June sun was hot. His grandpa, with whom this young fellow lived, came out of his yard to see what was going on. When he saw his grandson working away and when he saw how hot it was, he sent the boy scurrying home to get a big bucket of water for the horses. He remembers the occasion better than I do.

“When I came,” he wrote, “I remember you tasting the water first, before you’d let the horses drink (which impressed grandfather very much). Somehow, through all of that I must have impressed you because you offered me a job. Lil’ ole skinny me.”

Yes, I remember. I remember wondering how a kid too young to drive would ever figure out how to get out to our farm in the country to go to work for us – especially from a neighborhood that was pretty much segregated and gripped with poverty. It was a safe offer on my part and a nice gesture; however, it was not realistically a job offer.

Yet, but come hell or high water, he showed up again and again, day after day and lifted heavy bales of hay out of the field and threw them up on the hay wagon and then helped us empty them into the hot, hot hay barn. He mucked out many a horse stall and never complained. The broad smile he must have been born with never left his face. His white teeth glistened in his dark face and big pearls of sweat sparkled on his forehead.

“Charlie, I’m not sure if I ever told you this but that day you offered me a job and the years working with you changed my life! For real. I will always appreciate what you did for me and what you were willing to do for me.”

He was such a boy then. He had no business working so hard, but he loved it. He had to start out so early in the morning to get here. He could only get a bus to within about 10 miles of our place, but I was so impressed that he was willing to make the effort that I would drive to the last stop on the bus line to pick him up every morning and bring him to the farm. At the end of the day I’d take him back to that spot and he’d take the long bus ride back into the city (and I’m betting he was smiling all the way).

One evening our work took us way past the time for the last bus. A storm was approaching and we had beautiful hay bales in the field. They had to be loaded on racks, and then unloaded into the barn, and then the racks needed to be taken back to the fields for reloading. The work went on long after dark and long after the last bus left for the city, but we finished before the rain came and that put a big smile on my wife’s face.

We told our young worker that he’d need to spend the night, but that we had plenty of room. We showed him where to shower and got him something from one of our boys for him to sleep in. We cooked up some good beef steaks and sat on a screened porch and watched the rain pass through. When it cleared, the evening had that fresh washed smell you often get in the countryside. It would be a good night for sleep. We put our young friend in the guest room and opened the windows so he could experience the clean, fresh air of the evening.

I know we slept well and we thought he would too; but in the morning we inquired about his sleep. It wasn’t good he told us. There were too many strange, unknown noises – the hooting and screeching of owls, the occasional howls of the coyotes off in the distance, and chattering of the raccoons that came out in the dark of night. He’d heard our burrow bellowing out his loud hee-haw and so too the sound of the horses galloping in the darkness. A cacophony of bird chirping and singing greeted him when the sun began to rise.

“Didn’t sleep,” he told us. It was all too frightening for him. His tired face convinced us it was true. He had missed the whaling of sirens in the city and the screeching of cars rounding the corner outside his house. He didn’t like night in the country.

We’ve laughed about that so many times when we’ve laid in bed listening to the wonderful sounds of the country.

“I just can’t say enough of how much I appreciate you trusting me and letting me work on your farm. Not many people have done what you have done for me. I’m forever in your debt. I really don’t care what you say either.”

He has a daughter now. He calls her Hayleigh Jo. She’s seven and lives in South Carolina, waiting for her dad to come home from Afghanistan.

“She just graduated from second grade with all A’s and B’s. I’m so very proud of her!”

Well, I want to meet Hayleigh Jo some day and tell her what a wonderful dad she has. I’ll tell her, too, that he’s afraid of the dark – at least the darkness out here in the countryside.


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