31 Oct Mr. Angel Man
I have always known that lessons come from those you least expect. I have experienced it many times in my life so I was surprised how long it took me to catch on this time.
While visiting our nation’s Capital for a conference on family philanthropy and the many ways families work with community foundations, I took a very early morning walk. I passed by monuments of great meaning but this wasn’t a vacation trip and I had little time to spend absorbing it all. I walked down New York Ave. thinking of all the great people of history who walked or hoofed on horseback through the spokes of streets leading to the Capital.
On my way back to my venue, I stopped for a quick cup of coffee and my daily breakfast of oatmeal “to go.” At the condiment stand I grabbed some napkins and poured milk into my oatmeal container. I noticed a man standing there and I remember thinking he must be homeless as he carried numerous bags jam-packed with something, a lot of something. He filled up a pocket of one of the bags with napkins and then he looked up at me. I thought to myself, “ok he is going to ask me for money now.”
Those who know me would tell you that I am quick to give away a few dollars, sometimes much more, unconditionally and without a care of where the person with the cardboard sign spends it. If it helps him/her a little, that is enough for me. But this time I had no cash so it was going to have to be a credit card or a smart phone pay app, and the only thing I could do would be to offer to buy him something — if he asked. I was conflicted because I knew I had little time to get back into the extensive order line before my next conference sessions started.
At first, I avoided his gaze, I am embarrassed to admit. Then he said, “good morning!” I smiled and said, “good morning” almost under my breath as if not to engage with him. He said, “good morning, it is a beautiful morning!” I smiled. He then looked at me again as if to say something…. I was thinking “ok here it comes, he wants money, what do I do?”
He kind of looked like the eccentric character “Doc” from the Back to the Future movies. Then he opened his mouth to reveal a near toothless grin to say, “I am a veteran and I was only shot three times!”
To that I responded with the cliché, “wow, thank you, thank you for your service.” And I made my way through the faceless crowd to get outside to the only table that had an open seat. I pulled out my phone and started reading my hometown news online, cracked open the lid of my oatmeal and sipped my latte. And then there he came – he was outside with his packs and bags, and approached me again. He never asked me for money, instead he asked if he could sit with me, but there were no seats and I couldn’t even respond quick enough when at that same moment a seat became available at the table next to mine.
It was then that I noticed the veteran’s nose was running down his face and the snot was getting ready to tangle with his beard. So, I did what I would have done for anyone, I offered him one of my napkins and told him his nose was running. Now that was pretty presumptuous of me but I am that friend who TELLS you when you have lipstick on your teeth. I guess I would want someone to do the same for me. Or maybe it is the “mom” in me.
My new coffee shop friend sat down facing me. I saw that he had a boxed meal, one from the coffee shop that had boiled eggs, cheese, and fruit. I remember feeling happy that it was a healthy menu and thinking what a good choice he made!
I could smell him from where he sat upwind and I watched little yellow crumbles of the boiled egg yolk find its way to his beard as he talked to me. He told me again that he was a veteran and he was only shot three times. He laughed and said, “but I only remembered the first one!” We laughed together at that.
He went on to tell me he was here visiting his brother. I asked if his brother lived in nearby. He said, “he’s on the wall.” It took me a second, then my heart jumped to my throat realizing it was the Vietnam Wall he was referring to.
He went on to explain that his brother was a pilot of some kind of special war aircraft, I cannot remember which. At this point it was hard to hear much of what he said as I tried to figure all of this out. He said his brother was killed and did I want to know why? I asked, “sure, why?” He said that he went back in to save someone that was left behind.
I drew upon more cliché and thanked him for his sacrifice and that his brother is a hero. He interrupted my euphemism and said, “no, he would just tell you he was doing his job.”
He proudly told me that he himself served as a Marine and when I said, “whoa, Marines are TOUGH guys.” To that he proudly held up his arms like Rocky Balboa after a win in the ring.
Bigger lump in throat.
Then he looked at me and said, “what do you do?” At this point I could barely speak and welled up with tears that I tried to hide from him.
I sat there for what felt like 2 minutes which was probably 30 seconds and answered him, “I work for a Foundation in Florida.” It was all I could say because it all seemed so insignificant at that very moment. He then asked what that meant. I told him that we work to improve our community and the quality of life of everyone who lives there.
He thought that was pretty neat.
There I was in a city of monuments and traffic and construction and sirens, in the midst of busy business people rushing off to work sitting with a man who humanized my morning and my whole Washington experience.
I said good-bye, he wished me a good day and I did the same and I vowed to myself to speak to the rest of stone-faced passersby I would see that day, and say a special “good morning.” I will be thinking of this gentleman who was shot three times over the next few weeks and especially on Veteran’s Day.
About the Southwest Florida Community Foundation
The Southwest Florida Community Foundation, founded in 1976, cultivates regional change for the common good through collective leadership, social innovation and philanthropy to address the evolving community needs in Lee, Collier, Charlotte, Hendry and Glades counties. The Foundation partners with individuals, families and corporations who have created over 400 philanthropic funds. Thanks to them, last year the Foundation invested $5 million in grants and programs to the community. With assets of $111 million, the Community Foundation has provided more than $69 million in grants and scholarships to the communities it serves since inception. The Foundation is the backbone organization for the regional FutureMakers Coalition and Lee County’s Sustainability Plan. Based in Fort Myers, the Foundation has satellite offices located in Sanibel Island, LaBelle (Hendry County), and downtown Fort Myers. For more information, visit www.FloridaCommunity.com or call 239-274-5900.