The Pick

old veteranThe first time I met The Pick was in the classroom where he taught me U.S. foreign policy in a masters program. He shuffled in, as bent as a question mark, bald, and clearly in his 80s. He wore a crumpled brown suit, carried a classic leather satchel and looked as though he had just walked out of a picture taken in the 1970s.

The Pick was Czech but perfectly fluent in English, a skill that still boggles my mind when I come across it. He took a simple approach to our lessons, no PowerPoint, just talking and a few diagrams drawn in chalk. Yet he was very clear, concise and reasonable, and we appreciated him greatly. However, he was not a pushover. He once laid into a few students for their poor grammar.

“There are some great speakers of English in this country, unfortunately none of them are in this room.” And as I approached to get my graded essay, he said, “Your English is fine, but there’s too much of it. Try not to get carried away on the wings of your own glorious enthusiasm.”

“Yes sir.”

When the school administration asked about him and his teaching style, they’d phrase their questions so that the underlying gist was surely this guy’s too old to be an effective teacher, right? At these times I’d tell them he was the best teacher we had. This usually ended the conversation.

The problem with The Pick is that he made me realize how dull my life was, because for a while there I was convinced it was an interesting one. I had done some cool stuff, lived abroad, gone to India, gone skydiving. I had even had bad things happen which were now good stories like getting punched in the nose, seeing a fin while swimming in the ocean, and meeting Sinbad. But The Pick dispelled this notion.

After forgetting to bring me a book he’d promised he said, “Well, we’ll just blame my head wound.”

“When were you wounded in the head?” I started scanning his head and wondering if I’d be able to handle a call to the Czech emergency services.

“Oh, a long time ago. In Dunkirk.”

This kicked off the story of The Pick’s life. He fought at the siege of Dunkirk in 1944 with the 1st Czechoslovak Armored Brigade. Then had a life rife with boring events, such as escaping communism on the Freedom Train, duping German border guards by dressing as a woman, and carrying a child for twenty miles inside the German borders. Boring.

After this drama ended, it was time to get educated. This meant a Master’s degree at the London School of Economics and a PhD from Oxford. Then he worked as a history professor and finally became the Czech Foreign Minister.

I have been thinking about The Pick this week because of how easily I can discount old people. An old man hobbles down the road in front of me and I might be annoyed, an old woman takes an hour to climb onto the tram and I glare at my watch. Sometimes I am grumble about the ability of the elderly to inconvenience. I seem to forget that these people were once young, did interesting things, had fun.

This is not the first time I have been fed a dish of (creamed) crow by old folks. When I worked at a Borders bookstore we were tortured daily by the inane requests of a grumpy old man named Dan. One day I was having lunch and he asked to join me, and as I had no ready excuse and my tray was too light to bludgeon him with, I complied. In the course of lunch I found out that he had been a foreign correspondent in Paris in the 1950s. A septuagenarian secretary at a garage where I worked irritated us with her slow brand of ditziness and yet we were blown away to find out she had been a model and actress in her younger days.

These thoughts sometimes come to me around Veterans Day, and that may be why The Pick has been in my head. Just a doddering old man who did such interesting things. He was a historian who lived history, who didn’t simply read about it in a library. So the next time I am being inconvenienced by an old man or woman I’ll try think about all the cool things they did when their bodies were young and they were the world’s leading men and women.

And then I will probably glare at my watch, because becoming more patient is a heck of a process.

  1. #1 by Jared on November 17, 2014 - 4:48 pm

    Dame, this is so true. I have the pleasure of knowing a little old man by the name of David Tuck. At first glance, he seems to be just that, a little old man, but once you engage him in conversation, all of that changes. I first met him when I was teaching 8th grade (an Anne Frank unit) and we were looking for speakers to tell us about WWII and the Holocaust. He came to us through the Jewish War Veterans and to say his speaking was an eye opening experience barely scratches the surface of what he taught me. He told us how he survived living as a 12 year old during the Holocaust and how he is short because the experience actually stunted his growth (apparently nearly starving to death and being used for slave labor has some ill-effects on the health of young people). I count myself among the lucky ones to have known him and I try to retell his story whenever appropriate so that we never forget about the horrors of our history and the tenacity of our senior citizens. Sometimes they are correct.. us young folk really do waste a good portion of our lives.

    • #2 by Damien Galeone on November 17, 2014 - 10:59 pm

      Jared – yes, I completely agree with that. We waste a lot of time and we also forget that these folks are very wise. We could do ourselves a service by listening to them rather than disregarding them.

  2. #3 by greg galeone on November 17, 2014 - 6:46 pm

    Excellent post Damo. As you know I have treated many elderly patients over the years and when still in possession of their cognizant skills they are truly wonderful to chat with and reminisce with about their lives. Some standout such as a Flamingo dancer on Broadway in the 1930s, a tailgunner who flew 27 missions over Nazi Germany, an ambassador in the Heile Selassie Etiopian government, a gentleman who when six years old watched his dad play poker with Charles Commiskey, the original owner of the White Sox. They were anything but boring. Dam I love your writing as any father would but when you put poignancy on paper like this I am also proud of you-nice post Damo.

    • #4 by Damien Galeone on November 17, 2014 - 10:57 pm

      Dad, this has got to be the best thing I have read all day. Thank you for that.

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