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A Life to Di For
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Thousands of Americans travel about the country everyday, entrusting their prized possessions to the baggage handlers of the world; every step of the way hearing horror stories about lost and damaged bags. And of course, every airport gift shop has a rack of suitcase locks and anti-theft devices... their contract says they MUST sell these items.

Perhaps it’s my youth, or maybe over the years I’ve watched too much television, but when I travel I have certain expectations. The skycap will put your bags on the wrong plane if you are rude and out of dollar bills. If you have a tight connection your flight will land late and the connecting flight will depart early, their clocks are always set a little fast! And when you are sure you just barely got on the plane in time they will make you sit on the tarmac for HOURS while some technical issue is sorted out, or they put that last bit of baggage on the plane, and still your suitcase can’t be found when you land! These are the things that Murphy’s law dictates, and that the airlines somehow always follow when you are already in a bad mood.

But on those rare occasions when you have time to relax while travelling, when your connection has that extra 5 minutes, you’d be amazed the people you’ll see. Look around the airports and you’ll see family reunions as relatives come off the plane, and sad good-byes as loved ones depart for too long away from home. You’ll see children eager to see Mom or Dad again, or sad to say Good-bye to Grandma and Grandpa. And you’ll see the person like me, who’s travelling by myself on company business, from one meeting to another, or hopefully back home for some much needed R & R.

In February I came through Dallas, and I had those extra five minutes. I chose to board the plane and get comfortable for a three hour nap, otherwise known as the flight to California. After years of travel I looked out the window and watched as the suitcases were tossed from the baggage cart to the conveyor belt that brought them up to the plane. At first there was nothing too unusual, just me hoping to see one of these three guys manhandle my heavy duffel bag onto the conveyor belt.

But one guy caught my attention. This fifty-something black man who looked like he belonged in the living room watching the TV with us and telling jokes, not working hard in the Texas weather, was directing the baggage loading. Something shiny caught his attention and he made the other two stop for a moment. On the top shelf of the luggage cart were a few coins. He collected them in an old wrinkled newspaper and the three went back to loading the plane. Suddenly more coins appeared on the shelf. And he collected every last one of them, as the other two looked at him with the look we’ve all practiced too many times that says without words, "what on earth are you doing old man?"

Yet he didn’t notice. Those coins were all he saw, and as many as he collected more appeared. Then the flow increased and they were falling down to the lower shelf, and he tried to get all those as well. And even when I could see no suitcases in the cart the coins kept appearing. Finally coins spilled through the cracks in the cart and went down to the tarmac, and he got down on his hands and knees and collected every last penny. Penny. That’s right, most of the coins were shiny copper pennies. I saw some silver amid the mix, but mostly I saw pennies, and still he gathered every last coin.

Perhaps I’m too skeptical, but I wondered how much money he thought he had just made off some poor passenger, and I wished we still lived in the old days where he would have returned those coins without a second thought. The fact that it couldn’t have been more than $10 worth of coins wasn’t the issue. Honesty, that is what I was wishing for...

I watched as he checked every square inch of both shelves on the cart, and then he crawled around underneath until he was sure there wasn’t a single loose penny left. And he gathered up his wrinkled newspaper full of coins, and signaled the cart driver that he could leave at will... and he walked away. The old man and the coins disappeared under the plane and were gone.

My heart sank, welcome to the good old U S of A in the nineteen nineties! But then the stewardess came on the public address system and announced that a large collection of coins had fallen out of one of the suitcases as it was being loaded on board and the ground support crew could not find where they had fallen from in order to return them. If the passenger who believed the coins, mostly pennies, to be theirs could please identify themselves to the man walking down the aisle their money would be returned. And the man from the tarmac began to slowly walk down the aisle, the wadded newspaper of coins held out before him, and he gently spoke as he made his way, "I just couldn’t tell where they came from. I surely want to return these right quick so you fine folks can be on your way home. I’m sorry for the inconvenience, but we gathered all that we saw..." and on he went out of earshot to the back of the plane.

Some days it is hard to be proud of the country in which I live... but as I sat on the tarmac in Dallas last February waiting to see that man come back down the aisle empty handed I was VERY proud. When he returned to the front of the aircraft no one had claimed the money he had so painstakingly collected... no one lied to this man and his coins.

Honesty, that is what I wished for... and sitting on a tarmac in Dallas that is what everyone on that plane got, and gave back to each other, and the honest old man, in return!

(C) Copyright, 1997


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