Thursday, March 31, 2011
When I was about five years old I met a man whom I would come to know, yet not know, for many years.
He was a "yard man", or maintenance man, at the Jefferson elementary school, across the street from where I lived.
I met the yard man one summer morning as I walked along the outside border of the school fence, looking for pop bottles to redeem for pennies, which was my source for candy money. I pulled an old beat up red wagon to haul my bottle booty and plodded along the fence line. I guess, at that age, I thought the fence was to keep kids in, not keep people out....and I suppose back in those days of sweet innocence, that was true.
With eyes cast downward and focusing on potential treasure I didn't see the green-coveralled yard man as he came along behind me, hoe in hand, as he chopped down the summer weeds growing along the fence line.
"What ya doing there, little guy?", the loud booming voice startling me and causing me to drop the wagon handle and spin around in fright. The yard man, his face beet-red from his summer labors, had such a big smile and earnest manner, that my fear quickly faded. "What cha doin?", he asked again.
"I'm collecting bottles to sell", I said. I reached into my pocket and retrieved a clump of pennies and said "I already have this much from the bottles I found yesterday!".
The yard man laughed, looked at the bottles in my wagon, then laughed again. "Why, you're quite the Money Bags!", he said and laughed again. He made me feel good and his good cheer was infectious. After that first morning of introduction, my morning hunt for pop bottles that summer was always greeted with a boisterous "hello Money Bags" whenever the yard man was about. Soon I began to wear my "Money Bags" title like a badge of honor; first, because it was the first praise I remember receiving from someone outside the family and second, because I now possessed a "uniqueness", an identity, to hang on to.
Happily, the yard man and I ran into each other frequently over the coming years. He grew older, as did I. Because my family and I moved frequently around the town in those days, the moves coinciding with where we could afford to rent, my schools changed frequently also. The yard man moved around to different schools as well; sometimes I thought he was following me because, eventually, I would encounter the yard man, hoe or rake in hand, and he'd remember me! "Hello, Money Bags!", he would yell out across the school yard.
I figured he would eventually forget me, as I moved, or grew and changed in appearance.
Finally I entered high school and didn't see the yard man around any longer. Football and girls and harvest dances crowded out the memories of my old friend, the yard man.
At last graduation day came. On a warm summer night we seniors filed on the field of the football stadium and moved toward the folding chairs being placed for us in front of the speaker dais. As I found my chair, I sat down, then glanced up where the last row of chairs was being set up by the school's maintenance crew. Just then, I saw an old familiar face looking back at me. His face was lined with age but the smile was the same as he looked back at me and quietly said "Congratulations, Moneybags".
I was the first one in my large extended family to have graduated from high school. I was very proud of the achievement. Having the yard man's remembrance of me made it even more special.
Several years ago I returned to my hometown to visit my mother. As I always do, I scanned the hometown newspaper to learn the latest developments in my little town. As I read along my eyes stopped to rest upon a familiar name in the obituaries; my yard man had passed on.
Months later I contemplated the odds of my being home, and reading the local paper, in the very week that my yard man passed on. It was as if one of my life's "cheerleaders" was there to bid me farewell, and good wishes, one last time.
May his kindness be remembered in heaven. Somewhere, deep in my heart, is a little five-year old boy saying thank you, and remembering you fondly.