February 3, 2011

The Gray Fedora

I first remember seeing him in the mid to late ‘60’s as he shuffled carefully down the hallways of school. He was an odd looking man that moved slowly because of an obvious debilitation. His right arm was withered and useless and was drawn up to his side. It twitched and shook uncontrollably and constantly. The fingers on that hand were bent and shaped at an odd angle as if they all had been broken at the same time and healed in that twisted, mangled manner. His walk wasn’t necessarily a limp, but when he took a step, he would drag his right leg up to complete his slow and troubled stride. At ten years old, to me, he was a giant of a man and thank God I came to know him, because at first glance, he was scary and intimidating.

There are many things that I remember of the man. He always had a smile on his face and he spoke with a very slow, slurred and thick Texas brogue. He wore the big, cumbersome glasses that were in style in the ‘60’s and those brown, matching uniformed shirts and pants that he wore cinched high above his waist. But what I remember the most and what became the icon of the man in my memory was the gray fedora that was always perched carefully on his head.

He kept the brim straight and level and that old hat was stained and dirty from years of work and wear. On a hot Texas day, he would push it back to wipe away the sweat and it would reveal the white on his upper forehead that likely hadn’t seen a ray of sunshine in forty years. He would shuffle down the hallway at school carefully guiding the same janitor’s cart that he had pushed for generations before. And he always took the time to say hi to each and every child and call out their name, without exception.

On the outside he looked like a weak and sickly man and those that didn’t know him, rarely acknowledged his presence. Heartless kids would mock him and make fun of his unfortunate situation. But once you came to know this kind and gentle being, you looked past all the disfiguring traits his old body had. And the reason you looked past them is because, well, he did too. Not once in my entire school career did I ever notice him show a sign of weakness or pity for himself. He didn’t have time for that, he was busy making friends and changing lives.

Although my given name was Stephan and everyone had called me Steve from birth, he began calling me “Stevie”. It never bothered me but I always wondered why he called me by that name. I came to realize many years later that his purpose in life was to ensure his “kids” felt special. To him, each child in that school was his, and special and he went out of his way to ensure they knew it when he crossed their paths. My entire life I was called Steve, but he called me Stevie and yes, that made me feel very special.

I always took the time to say hi and acknowledge his presence, because there was something in him that drew you his way. It was almost magnetic. It may have been his kindness or the fact that he really and truly cared about you and what was going on in your life. He asked me once what I was going to do with my life after school and at that age, I had no idea. His response was brilliant and timeless as he simply told me to just do whatever I did with passion and pride. No matter what it was, just own it, be proud of it and give it everything I had.

Another trait I would learn of over the years was his incredible and accurate memory. I graduated from high school in 1976 and had been gone from home for many years and had come back to town on leave. I was walking the downtown square when out of the door of the barber shop, I recognized the bent and gray-haired man I had not seen in many years. He slowly shuffled outside, closed the door gently behind him and as he turned toward me to make his way down the sidewalk, a big, broad grin came over his face as he excitedly called out, “Stevie”! His right arm began to twitch violently up and down as it always did when he became excited. If one had witnessed this for the first time, they might think that he was going into some sort of seizure. In a sense he was, because in happy moments like this, he was overcome with joy and happiness to see another one of his “kids”. Even after all of the years that had passed and the hundreds of other kids he had met and befriended, he not only remembered me, he remembered me by the special name he bestowed on me nearly twenty years earlier.

We spoke for nearly fifteen minutes on that day and he asked how my mom, my brothers and my little sister were doing and how my career was going with the Navy. That question took me aback, because I never told him that I had joined the Navy. How he knew that I had joined the Navy always puzzled me. He either heard chatter in school about my career choice, or he took the time to find out. Somehow I think it was the latter because he honestly, truly and passionately cared for all of the kids in the school system. I should have known the answer, considering who it was I was speaking with.

That hot, muggy, August day, was the last time I ever saw him and I remember those few moments like they were just yesterday. He served the community and the school in my home town faithfully for the rest of his life. He was loved and admired by all who met and came to know him and I’ll go to my grave believing he never had an enemy or a cross word with anyone. His heart was grand and giving and to know the man was to know a true earth-bound angel.

In an earlier blog this year, I said I wasn’t going to spend my year trying to keep useless resolutions, because just like most everyone else, I would probably end up breaking them anyway. I wanted to spend 2011 thanking people that made a difference in my life and he was certainly one of those that did. He showed me nothing but kindness and that’s something that I believe the entire world could use an overdose of. For the kindness you showed, the smiles you passed along and the passion you showed for your “kids”, I thank you sir. I pray that I become half the man that you were.

The older I get the more I remember of him… his smile, his heart and his grand presence. But the one thing I will always remember and that will define him forever, is that old, gray fedora. It sat on his head like a crown and that was more than fitting, because in my eyes, Emmet Batton was a king among ordinary men.