A thought on Easter….


Two days ago I had to run up to an old school machine shop that we use in the heart of industrial Jacksonville. The place has been there for 50 years, and in that time the neighborhood has gone to hell, but the family has stayed. Many people who live in gated communities with strict property owners associations think a long lawn or a car parked outside means things are bad. I am speaking of really bad here, burned out cars sitting on the street, several people per block who are either on powerful drugs, mentally ill or both, and  endless boarded up houses with squatters living in them.  When NYC was the murder capital of North America in the 1970s, my teenage friends and I thought it was a great playground; In the early 1980s when Newark was still burned out from the ’67 riots we used to hang out there for the illegal street racing. In the same years I worked in East Orange, a city that barely remained functional. I know what bad looks like, and this is the setting on Beaver Street in Jacksonville.

Yet when you get to the machine shop, everything is different. It does have an 8′ chain link fence topped with razor ribbon and all the windows have long since been bricked up, but the lot actually has trimmed grass and an orderly look about it. Going inside gives the feeling of being inside a very industrialized cave. When you walk back outside you get the same feeling of leaving a movie theater and walking outside, not expecting to find a sunny afternoon.

In the parking lot with a rake or a broom is a thin, quiet man in his 50s. He is polite, and always offers to help carry your parts and tells you that locking your truck isn’t needed, he will keep an eye on it. You will never find a man like this at an ISO-9001 compliant company or a corporate facility, his existence here is solely due to the kindness of the family run business.

Given a minute this man will carefully explain that the shop owner has entrusted him with the job of watchman, and provided him with a small motor home, feeds him lunch (and has him take as much as he needs for dinner) and buys him a pack of cigarettes every other day. He also can take all the scrap metal to the recycler next door and keep the money. This man is too healthy to be a drinker or a drug person. He has a very kind way about him. I am embarrassed to say this, but first I thought he was mentally handicapped, but after a minute I realized that he is just polite and a good listener, and has been freed of the illusion of self-importance that infects almost everyone you met this week.

Leaving the shop on Thursday, I was in a big hurry to beat the traffic and get back to our CC#25 prep work. I had 10 things on my mind, and I was behind schedule on the day. Walking back to my truck the man approached me to say something. My first thought was I really don’t have time to speak with him today, but I find it very difficult to be short with someone so kind. He wanted to speak with me because he had seen our dog Scoob E when we had driven down here before. He asked if I had a minute to see something.

He walked me around to the far side of the building where there was a little pen made of scrap metal. In it were two small white dogs. They were overjoyed to see him. In a city where everything is filthy, they were very clean. They had shade, water and food. He wanted to show me his dogs. In the presence of this simple man, my day kind of seemed a giant self-made exercise in stress. Walking around the building I had thought “I can spend a few minutes to be kind to this person.” As I sat down on a milk crate, I realized that this is the exact same thought that this man has with every single person, every day. The distinction being, in my case I thought I was doing some charity, and in his he is living as a genuine human being.

I sat there for 15 minutes while this man told me of growing up in Tullahoma, Tenn. He told me about how the shop owner took him in and found a place for him. He spoke of how he found the dogs in a cardboard box. It was sunny out, but we are still sitting in a scrapyard in an inner city with sirens and smells, noise, trash and barbed wire around us.  During these few minutes, this man used the phrase “I am really thankful for..” at least 10 times. Every time he said it, he looked me right in the eyes. He really wanted me to know that he meant it.

As he spoke and petted the dogs, I thought that it was ironic that in a week I would be standing at Sun ‘N Fun for my 25th consecutive year. I will meet many friends there old and new. But with them will come the third of the people at the show, the ones who are just a single sentence away from telling you how terrible life is these days. The people who tell you that life in America is ending, flying is going to become illegal, everything costs too much, the government this and the government that. They will have this litany of complaints on the sunniest days at the best airshows in really good company. Although they live in the greatest place, enjoy tremendous freedom, have very small threat to their existence, 1/3 of the people at Sun ‘N Fun will have a reason to blame someone else for their unwillingness to pursue their own happiness.

The poorest of these people will have ten thousand times more money than the man in Jacksonville. The thinnest of them will have never have gone three days without food. The one with the most modest camper will have a better place to stay in the campground than the man in Jacksonville has to live in every day. Any one of the people who will complain have an infinitely more comfortable life, but not a better one. Everything the complainers have is poisoned because they are thankful for none of it.

Every single person who is reading this in America has the infinite good luck, totally unearned, to be born here instead of in the 50% of the world that lives under a police state. Things are not perfect, but there is outstanding opportunity for those who will take it. It is utterly ridiculous to have the most blessed of people stand at a great setting like an airshow and have them spend their hours their complaining that they just can’t do anything to pursue happiness anymore.

I am not suggesting that we should all be happy with the way things are. There are many things today that no one should be complacent about. A friend recently said “cynicism allows complacency but knowledge demands action.” I really believe this, but first and foremost, I have a long list of things I am thankful for, and one of them is having a man of humble circumstances but very large spirit decide that I was worth 15 minutes of his time. -ww

the mail:

From Anthony Liberatore:

“Fantastic posting William. In a blessing of spending Easter with some friends in their home, the Dad Ted and I discussed are girls, their pursuits, and their futures. He mentioned their activities they engage in now and in the future especially if they are broad with give them perspective. This meeting with this humble gent and this article adds to my perspective and blessings. Well done Sir, My best to you and Grace on this Easter Day. Anthony”

From Sprint builder Joe Goldman:

“William have you read the book of editorials called “For two cents plain” This is about, and I forget the gentleman’s name, his writings in the Carolina Israelite. I think it was in the early sixties. You would find a kinship in the writings. Musings like why I never send back dinner when the waitress brings peas instead of the ordered string beans. See you on the 12th. Joe”

From builder Jackson Ordean:

No one ever flew higher than those on the wings of Love. You got it! Happy Easter, and Thanks! {;^)”

From builder Dan Branstrom:

“Thanks for your powerful words”

From Zenith 750 builder Blaine Schwartz:

“William, Your message is right on the point, as usual. We all have so many things to be thankful for. The very fact we can think about building and flying airplanes is evidence our daily lives have been blessed to the point that our cups runneth over. You mention those who can’t seem to find happiness; we should all view the cup as half full instead of half empty. Thank you for you thought-provoking expression.”

From Builder Bruce Culver:

“You see, William, this is why I make it a point to read everything you write, whether it’s strictly about airplanes and engines or not. This is the sort of deeply meaningful philosophy we don’t get in most places in popular culture, but this kind but poor man exemplifies the best of the human condition. And you’re in good company: Rabbi Harold Kushner, perhaps best known for his book, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People”, is quoted, “I used to admire people who are intelligent; now I admire people who are kind.” Intelligence is a gift; kindness is a virtue. The gift is nice, but the virtue is priceless. And for the record, that watchman may not have much in material things, but he is far richer than most in spirit. He does indeed have much to be thankful for…..”

Builder Jon Ross writes:

“William, I fully agree with you. Having traveled the world I am constantly reminded of how lucky I am to have been born here in America. As I get older, I have taken notice of many things that in my younger years I was way too rushed to notice. Happiness comes in the most simplest of things; for me it is good time with friends, making a beautiful weld or some other type of craftmanship. I enjoy your observations as you wax philosophical; perhaps this is because I share many of the same observations as you do.”

KR2/Corvair builder/pilot Steve Makish writes:

“William, very good post. I also knew men like the person you vividly describe. I was in Detroit during the 1967 riots and last year at my Fathers funeral I saw nothing has taken place of the destruction of 1967. The old man I knew was in his eighties when I was a kid and he was the only one around with a chain saw and would cut our winter wood for us. He lived in a tar paper shack and drove an old Hudson “terraplane” He had many truisms but the one that sticks in my mind was “do you understand all you know about it?”  Warmest regards your friend,   Steve. “

Builder Allen Oliver writes:

“William: FYI: The book “For Two Cents Plain” that Joe Goldman referred to is by Harry Golden (1902-1981).
Good luck at SnF. Regards.”

   http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harry_Golden–  ww)

Piet builder Harold Bickford writes:

“Hi William, Printed out the numbering system list and added to the manual; that is the best way to say thanks to you and Grace for your work (aside from actually building up the engine).

The Easter comments were appreciated. There is so much to be thankful for rather than complaining about things often out of our direct control. I also think too many folks just don’t get involved in things bigger than they are so it becomes really easy to miss the people and opportunities that come our way daily. Off to the shop…..Harold”

Tim Gibbs, Kansas 750 Builder writes:

William, what an amazing story on your encounter with that man at the machine shop. As I read how you thought you could “spend a few minutes to be kind to this person”, I realized that people like this do us more good than we do them. This man truly understands the idea that problems and troubles are inevitable, but misery is optional. Thank you for sharing, I must admit I enjoy reading your insightful stories as much as I do reading about Corvairs! Have a safe trip.


Zenith 601XL builder/flyer Dr. Gary Ray writes:

“William, you and Grace are from a small part of humanity that I am lucky to know.”

Zenith 650 builder Becky Shipman writes:

“William,I very much like stories like this. The truly important people in my life always have time – although the people who are considered important generally don’t have time for anyone.

This story reminds me of a man I knew in my youth – “Uncle” Elwin. No relative, but he was everyone’s uncle. He started out farming (in Maine – not very lucrative). In the summers he ran a small group of cottages on the Maine coast by day, and was a maintenance man in the local sardine cannery by night. In the winters he and his wife took a trailer to Florida and picked fruit – a migrant worker from Maine. I knew him because my parents rented a cottage from him every summer of my life. On dump day, uncle would put the trash in the back of his ’47 Chevy pickup, put his two dogs in the cab, and several of us kids would jump in the back with the garbage. We’d go to the dump, and help him unload, and then he’d help us scrounge for material to make a go-kart or whatever. On the way back something would generally fall off the pickup – it was showing its age.

Sometimes people would just treat him like he was stupid. One day he was digging holes and putting birch trees in the ground that had been cut off the stump, and someone said to him “You know, those will never grow like that.” And Uncle rubbed his chin, looked at the tree, and then looked at the person, and said “Ayuh, you know I think you’re right”. And went on with putting them in the ground. They were there to support some kind of pea vine, but Uncle didn’t feel the need to bother pointing that out.

People would come by while he was in the kitchen, cat in his lap, dogs at his feet, smoking a pipe in his rocker, and they’d tell him the water didn’t work in their cottage. ”Ayuh” was all he’d say. The person would go away frustrated, and uncle would sit and rock, and about half an hour later he’d get up, and go fix it. He wouldn’t go fix it until he figured out what was wrong, but lots of people felt he was just lazy.

Maine grows blueberries, and they are picked by migrant workers during the summer, who lived in tar paper shacks in the blueberry barrens. In his later years, Uncle had some land on a river near there, and when he drove through he would leave some food from his garden at the shacks. When he passed away, he willed his land to the local native american tribe “It was theirs to start with”.

Anyway, your story reminded me of Uncle Elwin, and a number of really important people I met during my life who were never in Who’s Who. Thanks for reminding me about what’s important. Becky”

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