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Just a nudge

An asteroid hitting Earth would result in devastation, I’ve read. Such a crash would obliterate the asteroid and could send surviving humans back to the Stone Age. But if we could deflect that asteroid, if we could get to it soon enough, early enough to give it a nudge; trouble could be avoided.Reading an article in a magazine and thinking about asteroids smacking into Earth – and getting to them early enough to give them a nudge in a safer direction – reminded me of a young man I’d hauled years ago on the short bus. Bart wasn’t on the short bus because he needed help with his schoolwork; Bart was there because of his attitude. Disrespectful toward everything and everyone, I’d seen him in action. Bart was a behavior problem and had to attend a special school.It wasn’t working. The best efforts of earnest teachers and the taxpaying public were no help. Attempts at helping simply bounced off the impenetrable force field of Bart’s sullen attitude. The attitude was always with him, a shadowy companion that hung like a pall over him and me as we rode home in silence in the afternoon. Every afternoon, as he (my only passenger) got on the little bus, I’d ask him about his day. Did he learn anything new today? And every day it was the same – a grunt or some negative comment and silence.One day, things got better. The negative comment turned into whole sentences of negativity!”The teachers don’t care; they just go through the motions because they have to. They don’t give a damn,” Bart said.Good! Sentences, though negative, invite conversation. Sentences beat the heck out of a grunt. On that 40-minute ride every afternoon we’d talk, or not. I let him lead the conversation. Turns out he had a bad home life, a desperate home life. No male role model and no positive reinforcement for anything he’d done well. He talked to me and eventually confided in me, maybe because he knew I didn’t have to talk to him at all if I didn’t want to. Just drive him home safely from “behavior school,” that’s all I really had to do. Unlike the teachers, I didn’t have to “pretend that I cared.” And so we talked.”What are women like?” he asked. Yikes! I told him I’m still figuring that one out myself. I rambled a bit and told him no matter what the current styles, all women appreciate good personal hygiene and kindness. I told him that if a woman asks if you’d like a breath mint, she’s not really asking a question. We laughed together and so it went. Day after day that 40-minute ride seemed to get shorter and shorter as we talked about humanity, cars, jobs, things he’d learned at school and what the deeper meaning of things might be – anything under the sun that an 18-year-old young man might ask a father.One day, months into our daily visits, Bart asked me what it meant to be a man and have a family. Whoa! That’s a large question for a 40-minute bus ride. I don’t remember all I’d said to him years ago, but I remember saying that mom gets a lot of credit, and she deserves it. When mom brings out a dinner she’s worked hard to create, we ooh and ahh. But who bought the dinner and the plate it sits on and the dining table and the roof over everyone’s head? Who keeps the lights on without so much as a flicker? Dad does, mostly. In today’s world, dads don’t get much credit, which makes what they do all the more honorable.”You see, Bart,” I told him, “A man, a dad, is steady. It’s easy to be a hero if you’re in the spotlight shooting a basket from mid-court or playing in a band. But how do you do when no one is watching? How do you do day in and day out for years upon years when no one is handing out awards, but you know that your family depends on you and your steady hand? When life is unfair and your job gets you down and you get up in the mornings and go because people depend on you. To be steady and dependable, and one day even a little bit wise, is having a backbone. This is some of what it means to be a man and a dad.” He was silent, chewing on that one. I let him off and said, “See you in the morning. Seven thirty. Remember to eat something before school.”Toward the end of that year, I knew Bart would graduate, and I paused to think of the end of our good conversations. All kids are filled with good conversations, but it’s rare that the situation is one-on-one.With summer approaching, Bart told me he needed a job. He needed work to be able to afford a car, to escape a tough situation at home and get into life. He’d done what we’d talked about. He’d applied at a large Falcon market after modifying his tough guy appearance, but they weren’t hiring. I gave one last bit of advice: “Do what I did when I was your age. Stop by the market every week on the same day at around the same time with the appearance of someone ready to go to work. The place must have a hundred employees. They’ll have an opening soon enough and they’ll hire you. Just keep stopping in.”That school year ended, and more than a year had passed. One day, I was at loose ends and was grazing on free samples in the market. A magazine caught my eye, and while munching on purloined cookies I read about asteroids and destruction and how the asteroid just needed a nudge early enough and everything would turn out all right. From behind me came a voice: “Mr. Preble!”Acck – I’m busted! A store employee had caught me with one too many sample cookies and he knew my name! I turned around sheepishly and saw a familiar face that took a moment to place. “Bart!” I said, “Well, look at you!” There stood a clean-cut young man looking sharp and capable.”I did just what you’d said, Mr. Preble. I came in every week, and they hired me. And guess what? I’ve been promoted.”I shook his hand and put my other hand on his shoulder and told him in surprise and happiness that I was proud of him. “Well, it’s not the last job you’ll ever have, but it’s a good start!””If it wasn’t for you, Mr. Preble, I wouldn’t be here,” he said. The words had weight. “Here” didn’t mean at the market, “here” meant here in life.”Well, give yourself some credit,” I told him. “And another thing, Bart. You’re doing the things that men do now. I am proud of you. And you know what? Mr. Preble is my father. Call me Tom.”Tom Preblelvranch@att.net719-749-0549

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