Friday, August 17, 2007

A GENTLEMAN'S INTROSPECTION


A recent incident has been haunting me. As I have previously reported, I spent last weekend at the U.S. Naval Academy visiting my son, Brendan. It was the first time that I had gotten to see him in some seven weeks and I was, to say the least, anxious to see him. I couldn't wait to get my first glimpse of him in his Navy whites, marching, following orders, etc. I was, to say the least, focused and intent upon seeing him.

My first chance to see him in uniform came last Friday. A noon formation was planned, in which all 1,200 freshmen midshipmen were to be lined up in formation. After the formation, they would be free to come away from the academy with their parents for several hours.

The noon formation took place in Tecumseh Court. There was precious little seating available. Metal bleachers were available to accommodate approximately 250 people. The vast majority of the crowd would be forced to stand.

Knowing the situation, and having been tipped off as to the general area where Brendan would be, I arrived about an hour early. I quickly secured a great spot in the bleachers where I was sure to get a good view of my son. The bleachers quickly filled up. The temperature was approaching 100 degrees at the time.

As I sat there, I struck up a conversation with another dad who was sitting in front of me. His name was Rich. He was from New York City, and his son was also a freshman (a "plebe") at the academy. Rich seemed like a really cool guy--someone with whom I could imagine sitting down with to share an ale on future visits to Annapolis. In fact, we agreed to do so should we have an opportunity over the next four years. He told me that he had graduated from high school in 1977, making him about three years older than I am.

As the noon hour approached, the bleachers were literally packed with people. We were crammed in like proverbial sardines. There was a great air of anticipation as those of us in attendance waited to catch sight of our special plebes; the heat and close quarters were accepted as a price to be paid for the reward of having a good seat for the occasion.

I barely took notice as a woman in her seventies approached the bleachers. She walked right up to where we were sitting, and inquired as to whether there were any empty seats available. Clearly, there were not. I was so eager to see my son that I hardly noticed the woman. I barely glanced at her. My new friend Rich, however, quickly insisted that room could be made for the woman on his row. He got everyone there to scoot in to somehow create a seat for the woman. She was very thankful as she sat down.

A moment later, the woman's companion appeared. He was about 75 years old--just about the age of my own dad. As I watched the older man approach, I thought, "That's too bad; there's really no place for him to sit."

To my astonishment, Rich stood and insisted that the older man sit in his place. "It's OK," he said. "I've been sitting too much anyway." The older man tried to decline, but Rich insisted that he take the seat. Rich then sat on the floor of the bleachers--an uncomfortable spot that clearly would not have afforded him a very good view of his son in formation.

At that point, I realized that, no matter how crammed in we were, we simply had to make room for Rich on our row of seats. "Come on, sit here," I told him. He also tried to decline, but I insisted, and we were able to squeeze together so that everyone could fit in. Rich and I continued to talk, and had a great time pointing out our sons to one another once they appeared in the formation.

Since that day, I have been reflecting upon Rich's actions and my own inaction. Why didn't I immediately offer my seat to the older couple? Until Rich provided me with a profound demonstration of selflessness, I was blissfully unaware of their plight. How could I have been so wrapped up in my own concerns? How could I have been so thoughtless? I am embarrassed to tell you how self-centered I was on that day. Unlike Rich, I had only my own agenda in mind.

I paid the older couple little notice at first. After Rich gave up his seat to them, I realized how similar they were in age to my own parents. Had they been my parents, I wouldn't have thought twice about giving them my seat. Rich didn't know this couple, and yet he immediately showed concern and compassion for them.

When Rich took the seat next to me, I told him that he had done a really nice thing by giving up his seat for the older couple. He just shrugged and said, "Ah, I just didn't want to see them standing in this heat." It was as simple as that.

And so I learned a valuable lesson from my new friend from New York.

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