Thursday, June 13, 2013

One Moment in Time

One Moment in Time

A special lady in my life posed a “what if” question of me the other day.  The question being: If you could relive any one day of your life, which would it be and why?  An interesting question to say the least.  If one has lived long enough, it’s a question they have answered, or at least tried to, more than once.  It’s the kind of question that makes one think and to look back at their life, as one does in a rear-view mirror, for that one pivotal moment that changed everything.  Or it could be that one special day or moment that brought them the greatest joy.  The possible moments for most individuals are endless.  Fell in love.  A wedding day.  The birth of a child.  Your first car.  Going off to college.  The list of special moments could fill a book.  There is no right or wrong answers.  Whatever one comes up with for an answer is unique to that individual.  No one would (or should) place a value judgment on your “special” day or experience; unless you committed a heinous crime, of course.

For some, that special moment could have manifested itself in some monumental way – surviving a plane crash, almost drowning, finding yourself in the middle of a burning building, the death of a child, a sibling, a spouse, a parent.  For others, it could be something as simple as holding a baby in your arms for the first time, bringing home a puppy, watching a rainbow form and fade in the glistening sunlight, your first crush.

Regardless of what it is, it’s a moment generally tucked away in our minds until something, or someone, brings it back to life … and we smile at its recollection.

So I pause to ask myself, ‘What is my defining moment?’ Or do I even have a defining moment?  If you’re my age, you have a lot of life to look back on.  The answer, quite naturally, would come a lot easier for those that are still teens or in their early twenties.  Ah, to be that age again.  So, never one to back down from a reasonable challenge … I pondered … and pondered some more.  And then it came to me.  It is not a “moment in time” that I would necessarily need to relive, as it was a defining moment in who I was to become.  The exact day (as in actual date) is unknown to me.  The date, however, is unimportant; it’s the actual moment, the personal experience that the above question begs to answer.

It was in the winter of 1963.  I was aboard a Naval aircraft carrier.  We were being escorted into Hong Kong harbor by tugboats in the darkness of the early evening.  It was chilly.  As was the custom when pulling into any port, we enlisted personnel were lined up, side by side, along the outer perimeters of the flight deck in our dress blues, hands clasped behind our backs.  Standing alongside of me was what we call a “lifer,” – an enlisted man with 26 years of service behind him.  This was to be his final cruise before retiring from the service.  He, like me, worked in the Personnel Department.  He was not only my mentor, but my closest friend.  When I came aboard ship for the first time as an eighteen year-old, he immediately took me under his wings.  Being unsure of myself and undergoing a new and unknown environment, I was grateful for his reaching out to me.

As we slowly made our way into port, I could clearly see a vast array of tall buildings dotting the landscape – a combination of office buildings, hotels and apartments.  With the blessings of an almost full moon, I could see the distinct outline of a mountain ridge rising up and behind the various buildings.

And then came the moment of enlightenment.  Glancing to the left of the city I could make out what appeared to be hundreds, if not thousands, of flickering lights of some sort dotting the mountainside.  None of which appeared to be coming from any building, but the mountain itself.  Turning my head slightly to the right, I asked my mentor what the flickering lights were all about.

Without a slightest turn of his head, he answered, “Those lights you see in the hillside are basically nothing more than what we would call campfires.  Hong Kong, like anywhere else, has their share of poor.  The poorest of the poor have dug what we would call caves into the side of the mountain.  That is where they, both individuals and families, sleep at night.  That is their home.  The campfires, set just outside of the caves, are the only means available to them for fending off the cold winter nights.  Tomorrow, when there is adequate sunlight, you will see another class of the poorest … those who live and fish for their existence aboard sampans.  They cover the harbor by the thousands.”

As an eighteen year-old know-it-all who grew up in a middle-class environment, I was shocked by what he had just shared with me.  I had no idea that people actually lived like this in other parts of the world.  It would be some years later before I would learn that millions of people in my own country lived in abject poverty – much the way the people living in Hong Kong did back in 1963.

As we continued to inch our way into the harbor, my eyes and thoughts remained on the flickering campfires.  And then it happened … the emotions I never knew I had kicked in and the tears began to roll from my eyes.  At first slowly … and then in a torrent.  My mentor, breaking protocol, reached over and placed his left hand on my shoulder.  Without looking my way, he said, “Son, I reacted the same way as you when I first entered this harbor some twenty odd years ago.  It’s okay.  Just remember that what you’ve seen this evening and vow, in your own way, to right the wrongs of life.  You already have far more benefits in this life then these people will ever have.  Your personal goals are probably college, marriage, children, and a house with a fence around it.  Their goal, on a daily basis, is, ‘where will my next meal come from; or will I even have a next meal.’  So keep in mind, always, that no matter how little you think you have, no matter the obstacles you may face in life’s journey, these people will have 100 times less benefits than you.  They are fighting daily for their very existence.  Something you and I never give a thought to.  Or at least I hope we never have to.”

His words went a long way in consoling me … but still the tears flowed.  If nothing else, I grew up that dark, chilly evening in Hong Kong.  I have the campfires, the caves, and the people living in them to thank.  It was that “moment” in which I finally came to realize that there are other human beings in this world besides me -- not only other beings, but people in far dire straits than I would ever encounter in my lifetime.  Oh, like most people, I have encountered my fair share of problems, for which I most likely blamed my God for having inflicted them upon me.  But those problems, like all the others before them, quickly passed.

Anymore, when I am faced with what appears to be insurmountable obstacles, I think back to those campfires, either consciously or unconsciously.  I’ve come to realize, and accept, the fact that I am not exactly what one would refer to as a “macho man.”  I have a tendency to openly shed tears while reading a sad part in a novel, watching a tear-jerking movie, or reading about a real-life event of something heroic.  It’s just me.  Don’t ask me why.  I can’t explain it other than taking someone on a “memory tour” that took place in the winter of 1963.  This one moment in time was life defining for this 18 year-old kid.