My wife and kids are out of town this weekend and the weather outside on Saturday was gorgeous, so it was clearly time for a road trip . Before heading down the road I, of course, had to fill up the car with . . . oil. So I went to Albertson’s, surely everyone’s choice for auto supplies.
For me it actually was an obvious choice because it was the only place I could get two quarts of oil, a soda (that’s “pop” for you Canadians) and $20. I needed the cash because I was heading to Fat Smitty’s, a hamburger joint on the road up to Port Angeles. Fat Smitty’s turned out to be closed, but that’s no reason to derail this story with sidetrips. Those come later.
Back in Albertson’s as I was walking along the back aisle an old man, an old and short man to be exact, stopped me with the biggest smile and reached out and touched my arm. He was talking to me like I was his old buddy, calling me “Slim,” and I played along. He had the kind of baseball hat on with the mesh back that’s popular with old people and gangstas. He told me he wouldn’t call me “slim” if I didn’t call him “shorty.” We laughed. (Inwardly I laughed because I may not be anything close to slim, but he really is short.)
So the guy decided to tell me a joke. He said these two brothers, age 4 and 6, think that maybe it’s time they start cussing. So their mother asks them what they want for breakfast. At this point I can’t tell you what the rest of the joke was, for obvious reasons. In case it isn’t so obvious to you, I can’t tell you the rest of it because I couldn’t understand the rest of it. He spoke so fast I couldn’t hear a word, except I think there were a couple of swear words. Come to think of it that may be another reason not to tell you the rest.
I laughed like crazy anyway, as much at the situation as at the joke. Actually it should be pretty obvious that I was laughing more at the situation than at the joke, because as I stated earlier I still don’t know how the joke ends.
As I walked out of the store I realized how great I felt, and I owed a lot of it to the short, old guy (The weather and the impending road trip were factors too).
It reminded me of something I’ve been reading in the book Tuesdays with Morrie, by Mitch Albom, a sportswriter. In the book Albom begins regular visits with his favorite professor from college, which was back when Albom believed he was going to make a living playing the piano (silly college kids). By the time of the visits Albom was an insanely busy and successful sports guy. Morrie Schwartz, with whom Albom was sharing his Tuesdays, was dying of Lou Gehrig’s disease, a detail that causes me to stray even further from the main point.
Lou Gehrig was a first baseman for the New York Yankees when Babe Ruth was on the team. Gehrig, had he been playing in another era, probably would have been as revered as any player ever. But he had to play in Ruth’s shadow. He put up big numbers in his 17-year-career, was an All-Star seven times and played in 2,130 consecutive games, which earned him the nickname “Iron Horse.” His streak was a record for about 60 years until Cal Ripken broke it a few years back.
What stopped his consecutive games streak was the onset of Lou Gehrig’s disease. (Personally I think his parents were jerks for naming him after a disease. If your last name was “Cancer” would you name your kid “Terminal” or “Pancreatic?”) Anyway Gehrig had a huge impact, in part because he was rumored to be a really good guy. They did a movie based on his life and put Gary Cooper in the starring role. Gehrig’s the one who said “Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.” Trust me, it sounds a lot better when there’s lots of echoing.
But I’ve got a way to derail this subject even further. The guy who replaced Gehrig at first base was Babe Dahlgren. He had a decent career in his own right. He played for 12 seasons and made the All-Star team himself in 1943. But if you ask baseball fans who had the biggest impact on the world, Gehrig or Dahlgren, the overwhelming answer would be Gehrig. But Dahlgren had a bigger impact on me.
When I was 12 years old I was playing Little League baseball and for the first few games I was really, really bad at hitting, which was something that I had been really good at the year before. Babe Dahlgren had a batting cage nearby and taught hitting. So my dad paid for the lessons from Dahlgren, who worked with me and helped turn my season around. I made the All-Star team. Dahlgren died in 1996 and I’m pretty sure he didn’t die from Babe Dahlgren’s disease. It would have been a bummer if he would have died from Gehrig’s.
I don’t say that because of the irony of dying from the disease named after the legend you replaced at first base. I say it because it’s a pretty tough way to go, which is clear in Albom’s book about Morrie Schwartz.
Albom had been living a life of ambition. Schwartz was more into enjoying life long before he was diagnosed with his last illness. He was always emotional, a real people person. As he was dying that trait became even more pronounced, and he helped soften a guy (Albom) who was way too much into work and ambition. He spent much of his past few months sharing his thoughts about life and dying, had a few appearances on Nightline, and of course there’s the book I’ve been mentioning. His thoughts on work and money struck me.
“Why do you think it’s so important for me to hear other people’s problems? Don’t I have enough pain and suffering of my own?
“Of course I do. But giving to other people is what makes me feel alive. Not my car or my house. Not what I look like in the mirror. When I give my time, when I can make someone smile after they were feeling sad, it’s as close to healthy as I ever feel.”
The man in the store told me a joke and helped me feel alive, even loved. I hope he felt served too. Babe Dahlgren watched me hit and fixed a few mechanics. The result was he restored my own confidence to do something that had been easy and then became hard. There’s money, there are awards, there are things to inflate my ego.
If there are no friends, none of it means much.
Ecclesiastes 4:8-10. – “There is one alone, and there is not a second; yea, he hath neither child nor brother: yet is there no end of all his labour; neither is his eye satisfied with riches; neither saith he, For whom do I labour, and bereave my soul of good? This is also vanity, yea, it is a sore travail.
“Two are better than one; because they have a good reward for their labour.
“For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow: but woe to him that is alone when he falleth; for he hath not another to help him up.”
Lou Gehrig’s Farewell Speech, July 4, 1939, “Lou Gehrig Day” at Yankee Stadium
“Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about a bad break I got. Yet today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth. I have been in ballparks for 17 years and I have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans.
“Look at these grand men. Which of you wouldn’t consider it the highlight of his career just to associate with them for even one day? Sure I’m lucky. Who wouldn’t have considered it an honor to have known Jacob Ruppert? Also, the builder of baseball’s greatest empire, Ed Barrows? To have spent six years with that wonderful little fellow, Miller Huggins? Then to have spent the next nine years with that outstanding leader, that smart student of psychology, the best manager in baseball today, Joe McCarthy? Sure, I’m lucky.
“When the New York Giants, a team you would give your right arm to beat and vice versa, sends you a gift, that’s something. When everybody down to the groundskeeper and those boys in white coats remember you with trophies, that’s something.
“When you have a father and mother work all their lives so that you can have an education and build your body, it’s a blessing. When you have a wife who has been a tower of strength and shown more courage than you dreamed existed, that’s the finest I know. So I close in saying that I might have had a bad break, but I have an awful lot to live for.”