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You Want Fries With That?

 

                Several weeks ago, I was in Waco with the rest of the cast of The Elephant Man for regional UIL one-act play competition.  We were spending the night at the La Quinta motel, a lovely establishment if I ever saw one.

                At about 10:00 the first night, my roommate (who attributes his appetite- which is, amazingly enough, larger than mine- to having lived in New Orleans) decided to go over to Denny’s.  Having nothing else to do, I went along.  The requisite adult of the room jokingly warned us not to say or do anything that might start a fight.

                Rather than take a booth, we sat at the counter.  He ordered a burger and I, with my stomach hiding in humbled shame in the face of his monstrous eating habits, asked for a root beer float.  I proceeded to ask my standard question:

                “So, how’s life?”

                Eventually, we got around to the situation in Kosovo.  Don’t ask how it came up; I don’t know.  But pretty soon, I was on my soapbox (I carry one with me for just such an emergency), giving my views to just about the entire restaurant.  I think everyone was giving me at least half an ear.

                Suddenly, a man who was paying at the register (a mere four feet from my seat) interrupted my impromptu lecture.  He was a fairly large, stocky man with a square jaw and broad shoulders.  He seemed confrontational.

                “Excuse me, but have you ever been in the military?”

                My friend’s eyes went wide for an instant.  Conversation in the room stopped; in retrospect, I’m surprised the cashier didn’t hide behind the counter.

                Then, the man smiled.

                “Go on, talk some more- you mind if I sit down?”

                My mouth worked silently until my heart began beating again.  The man sat down, and we began to talk.  We eventually discovered that, although we disagreed on some points, we agreed about the big picture- but the outcome of the debate is hardly what matters.

                What was most important is what the man told us just before he left.  He said that he was glad to have the chance to talk to two teenagers who had an idea of what was going on in the world- too many don’t, he speculated.  He thanked us for being aware and advised that we continue to ask questions about our surroundings.  Then, he was gone.

                He was right, of course.  The most important thing that any person can know is what is happening in his environment.  Without that knowledge, it can be too easy to make the wrong decisions in life- one of the stranger’s lamentations was that he did not go to college before entering the military; he wished that he had had something to fall back on when he got out.  If he had not jumped in blindly as he did, he might have made a better choice.  His advice, which basically boils down to “stay in school” and “check out the news every so often,” bears greater weight than most standard cliches, as it came from personal experience.

Watching the news on TV, listening to AM radio every now and then, reading the newspaper- simply paying attention in school- can make all the difference in the world.  This is definitely something I plan to remember for a long time to come.

                So I say thanks to that man in the Denny’s; he spoke with true wisdom.  I hope that my inexact words can have the same effect on someone- can compel people to learn about their world, and, in doing so, about themselves.  Now, if I may be excused, I have a root beer float to finish off.

 

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Copyright ©1999 Adam Rutledge