You never know.
Small gestures of the past may resurface one day and bring gratitude when you least expect it.
Library booktalks have brought me through five states, from Knoxville, Tennessee to Key West, Florida, and hundreds of meeting rooms and auditoriums. As they say in show biz — it’s my schtick, a fun gig that has paid off in more ways than one.
On occasion, I will spot a face in the audience from an early era of my life, an old police crony, a high school chum, an old girl friend, a former adversary, or some obscure soul upon whom I made a mark and never knew it. Last year, a long lost relative showed up at an Asheville library, one who I had never met.
Clearwater, Florida. 2004. The crowd was disappointingly small. As folks ambled in, they were surprised to see an older curly-haired fellow playing gypsy songs on a violin as he wandered around the room. “Are we in the wrong place?” a woman asked of the host.
“Oh, no. That’s the author. Have a seat,” replied the librarian.
The audience was attentive and lively as I embarked on my dissertation. One fellow sitting in the front row seemed intense, taciturn. He never took his eyes off me. In his forties, he reminded me of movie actor, John Malkovich, balding, eyebrows arched, lips pursed.
After more than an hour, the man raised his hand. “Mr. Frank. My father was Lee Paris. Do you remember him?” Oh oh. Thoughts scrambled into high gear. Who is this guy? Did I arrest his father? Was this a set-up, or some angry adversary here to exact revenge or humiliation? Lee Paris? The name was familiar, but I couldn’t place the face. So, I lied, “Yeah. Sure.”
“Can I speak with you after the talk?” he asked.
“Yes.” What does this guy want?
The man waited patiently as I signed books at the table. Then he approached with an extended hand. That was a relief. “You changed my life,” he said.
“Don’t you remember? My father owned a bar on Collins Avenue, some 30 or 40 years ago.”
Then it struck me. Of course, Lee Paris, a small, stocky, gentle man who shot a wicked game of billiards. Always complaining about bad business, wishing for legalized gambling in the state which would never come. A good man.
The fellow could see the confusion in my eyes.
“Excuse me?” Then I asked, “You say I changed your life? How?”
His eyes were deep and sincere. “When I was seventeen, I was going nowhere. My life was drugs, getting into trouble, no direction. My dad called you and asked if you would come and talk to me.”
“I don’t remember that,” I replied.
“You came. I’ll never forget it. You scared the heck out of me and left an impression I’ll never forget. You let me know where I was heading unless I changed my ways, and that I better do something, even if it meant joining the service. Being a cop and all, you knew what you were talking about. So I joined the navy, and it straightened my life from certain disaster.”
I was stunned. “I remember your mom and dad, but I don’t remember that.”
“Doesn’t matter, ” he said, eyes welling. “Your appearance here was advertised and I just wanted to come and thank you.” With that, came a gentle bear hug transferring the warmth of his feelings to me. I turned my head as tears started to flow from my own eyes.
“Thank you,” I said. ” I wish I could remember.”
Off duty or on, police officers are often called upon in the troubled lives of friends, neighbors and acquaintances, to intervene, or offer advice, consolation, or counsel a troubled kid. It is the unofficial part of the job. Most cops don’t give it a second thought.
As I drove across Interstate 4 that afternoon, my mind swarmed, wondering about those had made a difference in my life, yet I never took the time to say thanks.
Sergeant Paul Rosenthal came to mind first. A tall, bulky man, shot multiple times in World War II, he had become a career cop running the extraditions desk in Warrants Bureau. He not only showed me the ropes, he had been there for me when I was shot, and again when I suffered the loss of my mother, both times above and beyond the call of duty.
So I made a special journey to Miami to have lunch with the crusty old retiree. It had been more than 40 years. Walking laboriously with a cane, he asked why I arranged this rendezvous, out of the blue. I told him about my encounter with Lee Paris’ son. It had taught me an important lesson. “I learned that there are some people in this world I still owe a debt of gratitude, and never said thanks. And you’re one of them.” The old sarge welled up with tears, and I felt good. He felt good. We hugged. We smiled.
Good deeds, however small, will come back around when they are least expected. But it’s also a reminder that time runs short, and we need to thank all those who have cared, loved, sacrificed and stood up for us when we needed them the most… while we still can.
You just never know.