Tending to Someone Else’s Needs

It was 8:15.  As is usual on some Mondays, I was running late for work.  In spite of this, I felt the need to stop at a neighborhood store on with my way to get some juice and snacks for work. In fact, this innocent detour resulted in an especially heartwarming memory for me.

After parking and heading towards the entrance, I noticed an elderly couple standing outside the door.  It seemed odd to me that they were just standing there by themselves dressed as they were, especially at this time of the morning. Yet, I got the impression that both were waiting for something or someone.

The old man appeared to be in his mid-80’s.  He wore a shabby looking, two-piece brown suit. The coat hung loosely on his stooped-over, bony frame, which made him look like a kid wearing his father’s old clothes.  An off-white shirt frayed around the collar and a faded brown paisley print tie added a quaint touch of distinction to his sad but neat appearance.  Well-worn brown shoes in need of a good polish completed his outfit.  Though the morning’s heat was bearable so far, I doubted that this old man’s attire would be comfortable for him with the expected temperature rise. I knew he would be sweating at least by nine.  On his head, he had long strands of thinning white hair, which he parted on the left side of his head.  From that part, he combed one-half of his hair down to the left side of his head and the rest he combed neatly over the top of his head to the right side.  Irregular brown age spots dotted the heavily wrinkled skin on his face.  He had unusually large ears, which hung clumsily like pink saucers on each side of his head.  His horn-rimmed glasses, thick as the bottom of Coke bottles, magnified his obviously weak eyes to the size of quarters.  His right arm hung limply at his side. With his left hand, which trembled from some ailment, he gripped his worn, scratched wooden cane with such intensity that it emphasized his bony hands and blue vein lines poking through his thin pale skin.

Truthfully, this old gentleman reminded me of my grandfather, Charles Benjamin Metz, who the family respectfully and fondly called “Papa.”  This old man resembled Papa in only one respect:  age.  In contrast, ‘Papa’ paid particular attention to himself and his clothes. Always.  Standing regally at 6’3,”  Papa dressed to the nines well into his 70’s.  On Sundays when he got ready for church, he left behind a light bouquet of his favorite cologne, Old Spice, whenever he walked by.  Like a soldier in a formation, he stood ramrod straight in his natty outfit starting with a starched white shirt with a stiff boned collar. His perfectly fitting pin-striped suits always bore a neatly folded white handkerchief, which peeked out of his suit’s left lapel pocket. He never left the house without his gold cuff links and his gold tie clip.  His fancy gold fob watch, which stayed hidden in his right front pant pocket, was attached to a gold chain connected to his belt loop. Highly shined wing-tipped leather shoes and a jaunty fedora completed his meticulous ensemble.  I was proud to have seen that old man that morning, for he had awakened my precious memories of Papa’s meticulousness.

The old woman bore a full head of thick white hair with frizzy curls.  She had more than her share of brown age spots too.  Overly large glasses rimmed in thick white plastic hugged her face, which was also covered with deep wrinkles.  Her light-blue dress consisted of a background awash in tiny delicate white daisies.  Bulky tan support hose encased her meaty legs as she leaned heavily for dear life on a sturdy white wooden cane to help her keep her balance.  A tan purse with straps, which she gripped like a vise under one arm, did not match any of the colors in her dress nor her off-white, thick-soled shoes.  I thought of my Grandma Ida Metz who we lovingly called “Mama.”  She never left the house unless everything she wore matched, to include her jewelry and an ever-present jaunty hat, which she wore askew over her thick wavy hair. Sometimes wearing a hat with a delicate veil which hung halfway down her face, Mama was the epitome of elegance and style in her day.

Smiling to myself as I reflected on Mama and Papa, I entered the store and did not give the old couple another thought as wonderful memories of my grandparents and their particular fashion sense lingered with me.

After paying for my items and as I was leaving the store, I noticed the old woman in my peripheral vision to my left. I turned to face her as she hobbled in my direction.  She stuck out her cane in front me as she spoke to me in German.  I became a bit annoyed, not so much that her interruption would extend my lateness, but because I did not have a solid enough grasp of the German language so that I could understand what she wanted from me.  I could have easily feigned ignorance and walk away, but I thought, ‘one day, this could be me asking a stranger for help.’  I felt that she needed something from me. To this day, I am not sure why she stopped me.

I was sure that other shoppers had visited the store and had left before me.  But for some reason, she waited and stopped me at that particular moment on my way out of the store.  Noticing the confused look on my face, I gave her a  shoulder shrug, which indicated my incomprehension of what she had said to me.  But she pressed on and pointed to my car with her cane.  That is when I understood that she needed a ride.

After she turned and spoke briefly to the old man to bid him goodbye, I helped her over to my car, opened the front passenger door, and helped her into the seat.  I waited as she found and fumbled with the seat belt to safely strap herself in.   After I got in my car and started to drive away, she started speaking to me again in German as if I would understand her perfectly.  I didn’t, but other than that shoulder shrug I gave her earlier, I revealed no further sign of my language shortcoming.  The most I could make out initially was that she wanted to go to the ‘Sparkasse,’ the German name for local credit unions.

The Hochspeyer Sparkasse was a short distance in the opposite direction from where I worked, but being late is being late and I thought a few more minutes would not make a big difference, especially when it came to helping out this elderly lady.  Besides, I tend to work late into the afternoons to make up my time of being late.

Whenever I experience difficulty trying to converse in German, I always break out my ‘save-face’ question, “Sprechen Sie ein bisschen Englisch?” (Do you speak a little English?)  This question normally encouraged most Germans I have met to use some English no matter the level of their ability.  Coupled with my passable ability to speak some German, I manage to get through conversations with a good level of understanding.  But I hesitated to use this usual opening query of mine because it would be of no use.  I knew that this little old lady spoke absolutely no English.

As she continued talking to me like an old friend, I forced myself to listen intently and managed to pick up and understand some of what she was saying to me.  In a delicate, scratchy voice filled with fondness, she spoke of “eine Schwarze Dame aus Belize,” (A Black lady from Belize.)  “Sie war sehr schoen und sehr, sehr nett,” (She was very beautiful and very, very nice.)

My own vanity led me to believe that she was comparing me to the beautiful, dark-skinned woman from Belize who left a lasting impression on her in some special way. That much I understood perfectly.  While keeping a careful eye on the road, I glanced briefly at her as she smiled and gestured with one frail hand for emphasis while continuing to share her memories of this special friend of hers from Belize. I also nodded and smiled to let her know that I was interested in listening to her share this information with me.

Arriving at the street for the Sparkasse, I drove around the corner and stopped in front to drop her off.  I started to unbuckle my seat belt to get out and help her out of my car, but she gently touched my arm, signaling for me to stay put, meaning that she could get out on her own.  I was impressed by her independence. After unbuckling the seat belt, she opened the car door.  Straining a bit but taking her time, she positioned her cane securely on the curve to lift herself up to a standing position.  I smiled and felt proud of her accomplishing that simple movement on her own in spite of her obvious frailty and accompanying age-related disabilities.

Once out of my car and standing firmly on the curb, she tucked her cane underneath one arm to free both hands to open her purse.  In a kind gesture, she offered me a few Euros for what she thought was my trouble to get her to the Sparkasse.  Naturally, I wouldn’t take any money from her for something that didn’t cost me anything.  I politely declined but her generosity touched me for something I wanted to do, which had cost me only a few minutes of my time.  Smiling, she bid me goodbye with, “Auf wiedersehen” (Goodbye) before she gently closed my car door.

I waited as she slowly mounted the first step with a little difficulty.  She stopped on the first step, turned around and waved at me, which I took as my signal that she would be all right making it to the top of the stairs and into the Sparkasse.  I smiled and waved back before finally driving away.

My thoughts then fell to the old man.  I had to pass the same store to get to work.  As I did, I looked over at the store’s entrance and noticed that he was gone. I hoped that someone had taken care of his needs, too, whatever they might have been.

I drove to work deep in thought about my chance encounter with the old woman.  I imagined that should I live long enough to step into that little old lady’s shoes one day, I hope that someone will take the time to tend to my needs too.  I believe that God puts angels in our paths to test our compassion on our journey through this life.  I also believe that we all face the option to commit that ‘random act of kindness.’  Undeniably, I smiled as I felt guilty as charged for the rest of the day.

 

 

 

Forgiveness

An Original Poem for a friend.

God smiled on me as He always does when I let Him set me free.

A rift turned a friend to foe. Hard to contain Pain welling up inside me.

Evil thoughts engulfed me.  Heart laden with hurt and animosity

Yet compassion waited oh so patiently.

Searched the heavens for my relief. Found it!

Inside me all the time!

Shook off the cold veil of indifference.

Healing words, tender tears.

An embrace re-sealed the bond of friendship.

Fortified by mutual forgiveness.

My heart beat lighter, with childlike contentment of

Sitting on my mother’s lap, snuggling deep

In her ample breasts as she rocked me to sleep.

Resting in forgiveness, I am free again,

Knowing that God has cuddled my soul.

Welcome Home, Soldiers! (E)

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Recently, I visited Baumholder, Germany, for generations respectfully nicknamed “The Rock” because of its location in rugged mountains. The Rock is also home to units belonging to one of the Army’s most decorated units: The 1st Armored Division. On the two-lane highway leading to Baumholder from the autobahn, I noticed an odd sign posted on the guard rail to my right. The sign read, “Getting warmer.” Puzzled, I had no clue as to what those words meant until I saw another sign a short distance ahead. In the middle of a vast grassy field lay an enormous rolled bale of hay. A large white cloth draped over it read, “Welcome home, SSG Santiago.” These two signs were only small indicators of what lay ahead.

Approaching the gate to enter the post, I admired more homemade signs, particularly the patriotic ones in red, white, and blue paint, which welcomed home the battle-weary troops who had recently returned from Iraq.  Once I drove on the post, I marveled at sturdy trees standing at attention, proudly boasting streaming yellow ribbons and plump yellow bows fastened sporadically around their trunks. I was amazed at the various-sized yellow bows visible as far as my eyes could see. Several fences and sides of buildings held more hand-painted signs, which the troops could not have possibly missed as they rolled on to post that day. I was proud of that.

Wanting to do a little shopping, I headed over to the Post Exchange (PX) parking lot. After parking, I stood in a line leading to the ATM right next to the PX. In line ahead of me stood two soldiers in Battle Dress Uniforms and three in civilian clothes. I could tell the ones in civilian clothes were also soldiers as I unintentionally overheard bits and pieces of their conversations about being back home from Iraq and the things they had done already or planned to do.   I was happy for them.

These young soldiers, looking barely out of their teens, bore deeply tanned skin as if they had spent too much time lazing in the sun on some beautiful tropical beach. But, Iraq was no day at anyone’s beach. I felt sad about that.

As I neared the ATM, the post speakers came to life with the familiar crisp bugler‘s notes, which signaled “Retreat” to lower the flag and end the duty day. Seemingly, a reverent hush fell over the area, proof that this traditional ceremony had taken on a new meaning, especially to these young men with internal battle scars no one will ever see. Those soldiers in uniform in line ahead of me snapped around sharply to face the source of the music. I also turned to witness a moving panoramic view of the parking lot, which revealed even more pride and patriotism. Soldiers in either Battle Dress Uniforms or desert camouflage uniforms readied themselves to pay their respect to our flag. On the road in front of the PX, drivers stopped their cars and stepped out onto the street, ready to do the right thing to the flag too. Nearby, I noticed a young toddler of about two standing next to her dad in his uniform, proudly looking up at him and probably wondering what she should do.

She connected her tiny fingers with his left hand and stared straight ahead just as her dad did as he prepared to salute with his right hand. That touched me.

As an Army Retiree, I stood at attention and placed my hand over my heart as the bugler continued this time-honored ditty. The color guard slowly lowered the flag. Everyone that I could see stood still, some with a salute, others with their hands over their hearts, honoring the flag as it descended into the soldiers’ waiting hands. When Retreat ended, drivers stepped back in their cars and awakened their engines to continue their journeys. The soldiers and others resumed their pace through the parking lot to their intended destinations.

Finished with my shopping, I headed towards the exit gate, but at the last minute, I decided to ride down the street near the theater to view more of what welcomed the soldiers on the day they returned.

The fence surrounding the track behind the theater held even more signs: “We love you, 1-6 INF (infantry); You are our heroes, 2-6 INF (infantry); Welcome home, 1-45,” and so on.” More yellow bows and ribbons on a chain-link fence filled spaces between the signs. Near the fence stood a group of fresh-faced young men with that unmistakable ‘Iraqi’ tan. As I drove by slowly, I noticed their camaraderie as they talked and laughed among themselves. One quickly puffed repeatedly and nervously on a cigarette. Others punctuated their conversations with animated hand gestures and brotherly hugs. Even from my car, I sensed their lingering uneasiness and discomfort from the war, yet they seemed relieved to be back on “The Rock.” I was happy for them too.

As I turned towards the traffic circle to take the road leading off the post, I saw a lone soldier, clad in his gray and black physical training (PT) uniform, jogging along the sidewalk. As he approached the cross walk ahead of me, I stopped to let him pass so that he would not break his stride. That is when it all came together for me. My heart filled with both pride and sorrow. I felt profoundly proud of these young men who served so bravely and had returned safely to enjoy this extremely well-deserved heroes’ welcome home. A deep sadness overwhelmed me as my thoughts turned to the young soldiers who never made it back. With my heart full, I could not hold back the tears welling up in my eyes. Unashamed, I cried hard for them as I drove down the lonely, tree-lined road leading to the highway. So I say to each of the soldiers stationed on the “The Rock” and to all our soldiers who have returned safely from the war in Iraq:

GOD BLESS YOU AND I SALUTE YOU FOR A SUPERB JOB EXTREMELY WELL DONE!

 

Hannelore: The Strong Spirit of an Angel in Mourning

A few years ago, Hannelore, my dear friend and coworker, lost her father during a most inopportune time.  The country was in the midst of the Fasching season, a time of revelry, celebration, and carnival madness. Yet this was no time for her to partake in such festivities. She was in deep mourning.  I had planned a New Orleans Mardi Gras-style party for my coworkers before this unfortunate event happened to her.  To this day, I remain amazed at her incredible inner strength in the brief yet sweet respite she took from her sadness and grief. 

Although the loss of her dear father had taken an obvious toll on her normally lively spirit, she came to work afterwards and functioned sufficiently, trying to hide her sorrow internally.  But I could see through her brave front. She withdrew, smiling less, laughing less, interacting with others in a much more reserved manner, all the things that are opposite of what makes her such an endearing, charming friend and coworker.

Having lost both my parents, I readily empathized with her.  So, I felt I needed a method to help gently steer her towards a path to recovery.  Luckily in the early stages of planning the celebration at work, I thought of using the party as my strategy by asking her to attend.  I expected her to decline to enjoy this occasion with us, but I had to try.  Though I invited everyone to participate, I was hesitant about pushing this wild carnival revelry on her at this particular time.  I had nothing to lose and much to gain. As a friend, I only wanted to briefly take her mind away from her sadness.

Excited about the party taking shape for Fat Tuesday, which was the next day, I sent out blanket email reminders to everyone.  But my thoughts rested on Hannelore and her grief. Though she received the email too, I headed to her office to personally invite her.  As I stood in the doorway of her office, I noticed that she sat hunched over her desk, working methodically on some paperwork, which seemed to hold little interest to  her.  I could see that her heart was heavy and that she was shrouded underneath a blanket of mourning.  Hesitant to interrupt her, I slowly approached her, “Hi, are you gonna come to the party tomorrow?”  With sadness in her eyes, she looked up and replied, “Unfortunately no, I don’t think so, not now.”  Although I respected her wishes, I couldn’t and wouldn’t let it go at that.  Something made me stay in place to gently push her a bit more to attend. I thought the office party would put her on a road to healing, if only for a brief period of time. I pressed on with, “Well, you know that the traditional colors of Mardi Gras are purple, green and gold.  Could you at least wear one of those colors to kind of help us celebrate Fasching tomorrow”?  Not looking up at me, she replied softly, “OK, I can do that.”  I beamed inside at this minor yet major breakthrough for me.  I continued with, “Great!  And please come get something to eat, OK?  We will have lots of all kinds of food.”  Still without looking up at me, I saw that she smiled slightly and nodded in agreement.  No more words were necessary.  I left it at that.

The day of the party arrived, but my thoughts centered on her as I prepared for the day’s activities.  Before I started to help decorate, I ran to her office, just to see if I could finally persuade her to attend the party rather than to see if she had worn one of the special colors for that day.  As I entered her office, I was pleasantly surprised to see that she had on a pretty purple tunic.  I smiled at that bit of success.  I walked up to her desk and complimented her on her top.  She smiled slightly, got up from her chair and spun around to proudly model it and to show the gold frog emblazoned on the front.  I told her how cute it was and we both laughed at that.  I was so happy for her that she felt lifted enough to take part in our celebration in some small way by wearing one of the Fasching colors.  Before leaving her office, I reminded her again to come later to get something to eat because we had so much food for the day.

With the decorating completed, some of the ladies and I set up the other planned activities for this first-ever Mardi Gras party luncheon.  We had games to play and songs to sing. I shared information about the history of Mardi Gras in New Orleans and the traditions still practiced there after hundreds of years.  Many coworkers showed up with colorful costumes, crazy hats, face masks or with their faces painted.  As the party hostess, I donned my mask to complete the rest of my crazy homemade costume.  After explaining more of the New Orleans traditions to the group, the time came for the awarding of prizes for the best costume.

I started the traditional Mardi Gras music and directed everyone to dance the Second Line, a traditional sassy Mardi Gras strut.  I lead the dance line into the conference room to view the Mardi Gras slide presentation I created, the party favors and traditional symbolic Mardi Gras items lining the large conference room table.  I kept my eye on the group to make sure that everyone was having a good time as I partied along with them to the funky music.  It was good to see that everyone was deep into the carnival Fasching spirit and I was so proud of that. 

But something, or should I say, someone caught my eye.  It was my dear friend, Hannelore.  She had on a colorful mask of feathers and a wig of long hair, which reached her waist.  A jaunty black western-style hat sat askew on her wig and completed her Mardi Gras outfit.  “Wow!” I thought, “This is nothing short of a small miracle.” 

Though I mingled with the crowd to ensure everyone was having a good time, I kept my eye on Hannelore and was pleased to see that she joined in the celebration in full force as well.  She sampled the various foods, she chatted with the other coworkers in costumes and she even joined in singing one of the traditional Mardi Gras songs.  I smiled at her courage and felt intensely proud of her for letting go for a while.

Now I don’t take any credit for Hannelore’s decision to set aside her grief that day, even if it was just for a short while.  Hard as I know it is to lose a loved one, I know that we eventually have to let them go.  I felt honored to have been part of Hannelore’s healing process in this small way.  And I can say with pride and admiration, that within a few weeks, she returned to her usual, smiling, charming self.  And as many of her coworkers noticed, I was glad to see her return too.

Janos, The Color of Friendship

Racism is alive and well these days, seeming to flourish with the slew of heinous hate crimes inflicted upon its innocent victims. Research has proven that racists are made, not born and that human beings enter this world with an inherent sense of fair play. Sadly, seeds of intolerance take root and sprout cancerous weeds, which nurture hateful beliefs and encourage deviant behaviors, All of these encourage mistreatment based on differences–real or imagined. Though not always in violent forms, racism also surfaces through individuals in positions of power who channel their evil traits via subtle, cowardly acts in the workplace.

Historically, countless courageous souls have paid the price of the ultimate sacrifice in pursuit of freedom, justice, and equality for all. Although progress is evident, the current spate of hate crimes and violence has made me skeptical about races gaining any future ground to equality.

As a retired Army Veteran and former civil service employee, my personal experiences with racism and discrimination in the Army and the obvious injustices that friends and colleagues shared with me continued to solidify my cynicism.  But a single encounter and bonding with a Hungarian child in a foreign country broke through my wall of skepticism and helped to restore my faith in the human race. Through the eyes of this precious child, I discovered that there is still hope.

While serving as an Equal Opportunity Advisor (EOA) for V Corps, United States Army, Europe (USAREUR) in Heidelberg, Germany, I deployed to Taszar, Hungary, in 1997 as the EOA for OPERATION Joint Endeavor. Taszar was once a Soviet airfield during the Cold War. In December 1995, it became the primary staging post for peacekeeping forces in the Balkans. My first week proved to be extremely stressful and discouraging as setting up shop was my first major task. The antiquated buildings revealed years of neglect.  Faded white-wash paint did little to cover the exterior’s embedded mold and mildew. I did my best to organize my work area in a building on a former training site. My cramped office, with cracked tan tiles barely covering the cement floors, was hardly bigger than a jail cell with no windows. The gas-fueled heaters resembled a contraption from an old1950’s space movie. The storage area behind my office was previously a shower area for the Russian and Hungarian troops from the Cold War era. The exposed, calcium-laden pipes and faucets coupled with stagnant water, which had probably settled into rusty pipes beneath the shower floor, made the air reek. No amount of air freshener could crack through that stench. Signs still in the Hungarian language hung on the creaky wooden door, which had outgrown its frame. This was my office, and I had to make do.

As word spread of my presence and availability, soldiers, consisting of active duty and Reservists, contacted me for assistance via email, but most often they took the time to pay me a personal visit for counseling. I listened intently to a myriad of racial, discrimination or leadership issues, which belied the Army’s message touting equal opportunity for all. I was amazed and appalled at the number of internal EO and leadership issues, which commanders left unchecked. I wondered how the Army could conduct operations in a former war zone and preach détente to the Bosnians and Serbs when all was not well on its own home front.

My hands remained full in taking care of the soldiers and in meeting challenges head on. Digging in my trench, I wrote weekly reports to my commander, not cutting any corners or diluting my information. I conferred with officers representing the USAREUR Judge Advocate General’s and Inspector General’s Offices. I remember the joy of working side by side with those officers who possessed the highest standard of integrity and dedication to our joint missions. I set up training sessions, and traveled to Sarajevo, Bosnia, to visit and talk with military personnel who had no EO outlet. I loved my job of interacting with the soldiers, counseling them about their issues or just being an avenue for them to vent. I felt a good sense of accomplishment when I saw that the soldiers always left my office seemingly in better mental shape than they came in. Often I felt like a psychiatrist without a degree to practice. At times after listening to so many problems, I became overloaded internally, but the soldiers’ difficulties far outweighed my own concerns about me. To maintain a slight distance ahead of the considerably increasing workload, I adhered to a self-imposed schedule of arriving to my tiny office at about 0800 every morning, seven days a week. To accommodate the soldiers’ long erratic shifts, most days I worked 10 hours or more with ease. I usually headed for my barracks after my body and mind screamed ‘enough already!’

Usually when Sundays rolled around, I thought of the most peaceful place to be to alleviate my week’s worth of stress: the makeshift chapel in an office building a short distance away.

Instead of attending services, I always chose to retreat to my office. I possessed a dedication to a dangerous fault. But, one memorable Sunday would prove to be no ordinary one. Rather it would hold an unusual gift of encouragement. Just before services, friends who had sensed my somber mood earlier in the week stopped by to invite me to services. Their gentle prodding wore me down, so I tagged along with them. Even after the chaplain’s uplifting sermon, my spirits remained low. Before dismissal, the chaplain announced that he had a morale trip scheduled for that afternoon to the local orphanage in Kaposvar. The orphanage housed children of various Slavic ethnicities, but in my depressing state of mind and dismal disposition, I didn’t want to be around anyone, let alone orphaned kids. I felt I had nothing to contribute to them when I so badly needed uplifting myself. Declining the invitation, I headed back to my office for more solitude and to delve into the work that seemed to have no end.

Before their trip to the orphanage, my friends stopped again by to try to convince me to go, countering my hesitation with unwavering persistence. They promised me that it would do me some good to get away from my work for a while. Clearly outnumbered and out of excuses, I agreed to go. I loved all those guys for dragging me out of my office. Two Hungarian translators accompanied us.

The trip there took about 20 minutes. The driver parked in front of a dilapidated, two-story building surrounded by an imposing seven-foot high, black wrought iron fence. Faded, peeling pink paint hung from the aged wood strips around the entire building. Sun-bleached newspaper filled in the gaps left by several missing window panes. The only smile I could muster was brought on by the resemblance of this building to the Munsters’ creepy abode at 1313 Mockingbird Lane. I thought to myself, what could I offer these kids who had to live under these conditions?’ As the group headed toward the building’s gate, I reluctantly followed, unsure of my purpose there. A caseworker appeared at the entrance door and escorted us through the building, which cast a somber mood with its dark-brown tiled floor and maroon walls, no pastel colors anywhere in sight. She led us to another door, which opened to reveal the playground. Some playground! The area, though clean, resembled those located in abandoned stateside housing projects.

Entertainment for the kids consisted of a swing set with rusty chains, an off-center merry-go-round and a dented slide centered in a sand pit. All the equipment had seen much better days. The basketball court consisted of uneven cement squares and jagged cracks, through which weeds grew. Rusted hoops hung lopsided on the backboards as if they would fall off with a well-aimed dunk.

As if the sight of the playground was not enough to dampen my spirit, I learned that the kids spoke no English. I knew that my lack of Hungarian would put me at a communication disadvantage. Without giving me any instructions, my friends stuffed handfuls of hard candies in my field jacket pocket then headed out to certain areas of the playground to await the kids.

The sound of a creaky door caused me to turn toward the building. I noticed that a caseworker had opened a door of the orphanage. Kids of all ages, sizes, and ethnicities streamed out. Their demeanors varied. A few seemed withdrawn and kept to themselves. Others who had made friends with military personnel from previous visits ran to the familiar faces they knew. Being new, I chose to observe the activity from a distance, waiting and watching, trying to determine what I would do. From a far corner of the yard, a few kids had gathered and stared at me curiously, arousing an uncomfortable feeling, which took me back to my first day at a new school.

Sensing my apprehension, a small crowd of the kids inched closer, suspiciously eyeing me as if I were newly captured prey. I smiled but quickly took it back when none returned my opening gesture. “Now what?” While whispering to each other, a few of the children pointed at me, which indicated that I was the topic of their discussion. Since I could not understand their language, I got frustrated and wanted to leave, but could not. Not just yet. I felt that God had put me there for a reason yet unknown to me.

Looking toward the playground, I focused my attention on the soldiers at play with the other kids. After exchanging friendly hugs with the children, the soldiers handed out candy to the eager takers. From this cue, I remembered the candy in my pocket. I reached in and pulled out a handful of assorted sweets. A hush fell over my “observation group” as they eyed the colorful wrappers. Suddenly, they all bum-rushed me with their hands thrust out for their share of my sugary treats. I stood up to dole it all out, making sure each child got at least one piece. Some begged for more, but I ran out. Turning my pockets inside out, I felt the deep disappointment in their faces when I showed them that I had no more to give them.

Tired of standing, I moved over to a worn, wooden bench behind me. Not letting me escape that easily, my new little friends followed me closely, watching and waiting for me to do something else other than sit. They chatted amongst themselves again, and the language barrier increased my frustration.

Out of the group, I noticed one child in particular who was intently focused on me. He was about six or seven, with a scrawny frame, a mop of thick blonde hair and beautiful, intense gray eyes. (I found out later that his name was Janos). He wore an ill-fitting, faded-green shirt and brown pants which were much too short for his long, skinny legs. I believe that curiosity compelled this ‘self-appointed leader’ to step from the group of kids towards me. Boldly, he hopped up on the bench next to me and folded his legs into a comfortable squat. Oh, oh. He leaned in and began to scrutinize my face. I sat still, feeling that he was about to take me through some innocent childlike ritual.

The others watched intently as Janos started his evaluation process. He reached out and gently rubbed my face with the back of his hand. Withdrawing it, he checked it carefully to see if any of my color had rubbed off on his hand. It didn’t offend me, as I realized that this was only a child trying to satisfy his curiosity at our differences. Never experiencing anything like this in my life, I was immensely surprised that I was probably this child’s first encounter with a person with black skin. I remained still as he moved on to my hair, cut in a high-and-tight flat top. He reached out and patted it gently all around. After completing his test, he tilted his head and looked at me curiously, waiting for some kind of response. I turned my head towards him and smiled. He returned one–a signal that I had passed his litmus test.’ Contented with his the results,’ he hopped off the bench and grabbed my hand, leading me towards the old merry-go-round. He grabbed one of the rusty bars to start the spin. As it wobbled on its axis, he hopped on for a few trips around. He and I laughed and giggled at the noise it made.

I stood near this contraption and waited for Janos to finish his spin. He came over to me and grabbed my hand again, gripping it tighter as he began to speak to me in Hungarian. Since I could not converse with him, I resorted to the international gesture for “I don’t know”–I shrugged my shoulders. Taking this gesture to mean I was hard of hearing, he repeated his words but only louder, hoping that talking louder would make me get it and understand what he was trying to tell me. Again, I produced shrug. He looked down toward the sand, disappointed that he could not convey his feelings to me and reach me language-wise. I thought that whatever Janos expressed to me was important to him, so I called over one of the translators to help me understand what he wanted to tell me. She asked him in Hungarian to repeat what he had told me. For whatever reason, little Janos clammed up, not wanting to share with her what he reserved only for me. After several attempts to get Janos to reveal his thoughts, she apologized and left. I had no choice but to leave it at that.

Janos grabbed my hand again and led me towards the slide. He climbed the stairs and zipped down the shiny chute, landing hard in the sand at the bottom and laughing with each thud. I was afraid he would hurt himself, but I felt that he wanted to impress and entertain me. After he slid down for the umpteenth time, he ran to me and gave me a big hug. I hugged him back. I lifted him off the ground and swung him around in the air. His delightful laugher made my spirit soar. I realized that this child was expressing his acceptance, an unspoken language which I understood perfectly.

Little Janos, a young foreigner who did not speak English, showed me a sincere expression of true friendship. And that touched me beyond any words imaginable. Unfortunately, I could not explain to him in his language how much comfort and encouragement he had given to me that day.

Regrettably, it was time to leave. The other soldiers and l exchanged more hugs with the children and said our goodbyes. As we boarded the bus, I felt a cloak of sadness engulf the group of kids as they gathered at the front door to wave goodbye. Though Janos didn’t smile when I hugged him goodbye, I saw him wave, and I felt this gesture was meant only for me. I will probably never see that little ‘soldier’ again. I hope and pray that as he struggles through his situation and blossoms into manhood that he will maintain that childlike quality of fair play, a human quality, which has eluded far too many of us, regardless whatever category we find ourselves in. Clearly, that quality is to judge others by the content of their character and not by the color of their skin.

By now, Janos should be in his early twenties. As the strong little character I remember, I believe he has succeeded in making it on his own. I am sure of where he is or how he is doing, but I believe in my heart that he made it.