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20 years

Carl was a quiet man. He didn't talk much. He would always greet you with a big smile and a firm handshake. Even after living in our neighborhood for over 50 years, no one could really say they knew him very well. Before his retirement, he took the bus to work each morning. The lone sight of him walking down the street often worried us. He had a slight limp from a bullet wound received in World War II.

Watching him, we worried that although he had survived WWII, he may not make it through our changing uptown neighborhood with its ever-increasing violence, gangs, and drug activity.

When Carl saw the flyer at our local church asking for volunteers for caring for the gardens behind the minister's residence, he responded in his characteristically-unassuming manner. Without fanfare, he just signed up.

Carl was well into his 87th year when the very thing we had always feared finally happened. He was just finishing his watering for the day when three gang members approached him. Ignoring their attempt to intimidate him, he simply asked, "Would you like a drink from the hose?"

The tallest and toughest-looking of the three said, "Yeah, sure," with a malevolent little smile.

As Carl offered the hose to him, the other two grabbed Carl's arm, throwing him down. As the hose snaked crazily over the ground, dousing everything in its way, Carl's assailants stole his retirement watch and his wallet and then fled. Although the minister had witnessed the attack from his window, he couldn't get there fast enough to stop it. Carl tried to get himself up, but he been thrown down on his bad leg. He lay there trying to gather himself as the minister came running to help him.

"Carl," he kept asking as he helped Carl to his feed: "Are you okay? Are you hurt?"

Carl just passed a hand over his brow and sighed, shaking his head. "Just some punk kids. I hope they'll wise up someday."

His wet clothes clung to his slight frame as he bent to pick up the hose. He adjusted the nozzle again and started to water the garden. Confused, and a little concerned, the minister asked: "Carl, what are you doing?"

"I've got to finish my watering," he replied calmly. "It's been very dry lately."

Satisfying himself that Carl really was all right, the minister could only marvel. Carl was a man from a different time and place.

A few weeks later the three returned. Just as before, their threat was challenged. Carl again offered them a drink from his hose. This time they didn't rob him. They wrenched the hose from his hand and drenched him from head to foot with icy water. When they had finished their humiliation of him, they sauntered off down the street, throwing cat calls and curses, falling over one another laughing at the hilarity of what they had just done. Carl just watched them. Then he turned toward the warmth giving sun, picked up his hose, and went on with his watering.

The summer was quickly fading into fall, Carl was doing some tilling when he was startled by the sudden approach of someone behind him. He stumbled and fell into some evergreen branches. As he struggled to regain his footing, he turned to see the tall leader of his summer tormentors reaching down for him. He braced himself for the expected attack. "Don't worry, old man," his former assailant said, "I'm not gonna hurt you this time."

The young man spoke softly, still offering the tattooed and scarred hand to Carl. As he helped Carl get up, the man pulled a crumpled paper bag from his pocket and handed it to Carl.

"What's this?" Carl asked.

"It's your stuff," the man explained. "It's your stuff back. Even the money in your wallet."

"I don't understand," Carl said. "Why would you help me now?" The man shifted his feet, seeming embarrassed and ill at ease. "I learned something from you," he said. "I ran with that gang and hurt people like you. We picked you because you were old and we knew we could do it. But every time we came and did something to you, instead of yelling and fighting back, you tried to give us a drink. You didn't hate us for hating you. You kept showing love against our hate."

He stopped for a moment. "I couldn't sleep after we stole your stuff. So, here it is back." He paused for another awkward moment, not knowing what more there was to say. "That bag's my way of saying thanks for straightening me out, I guess." And, with that, he walked off down the street.

Carl looked down at the sack in his hands and gingerly opened it. He took out his retirement watch and put it back on his wrist. Opening his wallet, he checked for his wedding photo. He gazed for a moment at the young bride who still smiled back at him from all those years ago.

Carl died one cold day shortly after Christmas that year.

Many people attended his funeral in spite of the bad weather. In particular, the minister noticed a tall young man that he didn't know sitting quietly back in a distant corner of the cburch. The minister spoke of Carl's garden as a lesson in life. In a voice made thick with unshed tears, he said: "Do your best and make your garden as beautiful as you can. We will never forget Carl and his garden."

The following spring, another flyer went up. It read: "Person needed to care for Carl's garden."

The flyer went unnoticed by the busy parishioners until one day when a knock was heard on the minister's office door. Opening the door, the minister saw a pair of scarred and tattooed hands holding the flyer. "I believe this is my job, if you'll have me," the young man said. The minister recognized him as the same young man who beat Carl and stole his watch and wallet. And, he recalled, Carl told him he was the same man who returned the stolen watch and wallet to Carl. He knew that Carl's kindness had turned this man's life around. As the minister handed him the keys to garden shed, he said: "Yes, go take care of Carl's garden and honor him."

The man went to work and, over the next several years, he tended the flowers and vegetables just as Carl had done. During that time, he went to college, got married and became a prominent member of the community. One day the man approached the new minister of the church and told him that he could no longer care for the garden. He explained with a shy but happy smile: "My wife just had a baby boy last night, and she's bringing him home on Saturday."

"Well, congratulations!" the minister said as he was handed the garden shed keys. "That's wonderful! What's the baby's name?"

"Carl," he replied.

 

 

Just Say No
Copyright 2009 Jon Christian Ryter.
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