A story not silenced. A silver-haired man in a white t-shirt and jeans was going through Atlanta airport’s TSA in a wheelchair. He had no legs and only one arm. I thought to myself, how does he get into the airplane seat? How does he get over the thin ramp into the plane with the wheelchair? He was traveling alone. Does an airport employee lift him up or would that be too much risk?
While collecting my bags from the belt, I watched as TSA patted him down, feeling around his waist, his leg stump, and drooping sleeve. When they were done with him, I handed him his bag embroidered with the words “Freedom Isn’t Free.”
“Where are you off to?” I asked.
He replied, “Branson, Missouri.”
I had lectured there and knew what kind of town it was; very touristy; a combination of Vegas and Orlando. “Oh, are you going as a tourist?” I asked with some doubt.
“No. I’m speaking at a Vet conference.” OK, now I knew I was speaking to a kindred spirit.
“I’m a speaker too! I speak about surviving stage IV oral cancer. I just spoke in Vegas and I’m off to Anaheim, but I’m taking a detour home to attend the funeral of my father-in-law. How many lectures do you give a year?”
“Wow – that’s a lot. You travel by yourself?”
“Sure do. I am blessed.” He said in his southern drawl. We walked, I mean traveled, toward the elevator chatting.
“How do you get into the airplane seat? Do they help you?”
“No. I can get around with the strength in my arm and torso.”
“So, I guess they have a ramp for your to get onto the speaking podiums?”
“Yes, but when they don’t, I don’t mind being picked up.”
“How much do you weigh?”
“135, but my chair weighs 220 lbs.”
“Heck, you would need one strong body builder to lift you in your chair!” We got into the elevator with a man, his wife and a baby stroller. “Thank you for talking to me,” he said. “You have asked some good questions. But I bet, you can’t guess what color my socks are.”
His serious face cracked a smile as I broke up in laughter. When we got off the elevator, I asked the father with the stroller if he would take our photo. He obliged happily.
“What is your name? I’m Eva.” We made our way toward the train.
“He pivoted around to reach into his “Freedom Isn’t Free” bag hanging from his handlebar. His white t-shirt was secured around him with a wide elastic band. His left pant leg fell to the floor. The train came and went. I waited as he shuffled past his bible, cell phone, pack of gum, until he felt the rubber banded pack of business cards. With his one hand, he patiently slid the top card from the tightly wound, slightly aged, rubber band, and handed it to me. It read, “Johnny T. (Tommy) Clack.” We got onto the train. “Nice to meet you Johnny.” He tucked his pant leg back under him.
“I go by Tommy.”
The name this man likes to be called should not be in parenthesis. Nothing about him is a parenthesis. I continued to read his card. “Captain US Army Retired, Combat Wounded/Vietnam May 29, 1969, Forward Observer, C/2/27 Infantry, 25th Infantry Division. Tommy, you are one impressive man. I’m touched by your attitude. What terminal are you going to?
“I’m going to A.”
“My life motto is on the card.”
We passed Terminal T. My stop was next. “Tommy, I’ll send you the photo. Here is a copy of my book. It was a honor to speak with you. And, about your presentation in Branson, break a leg!”
We both laughed and I got off the train, waving at him behind the window as the train quietly and quickly pulled away. I stopped to read his life motto: “Our lives are NOT determined by what happens to us but by how we react to it. A positive ATTITUDE causes a chain reaction of positive thoughts, events and outcomes. A positive ATTITUDE is a catalyst, a spark that creates extraordinary results.”
It’s an understatement to say that Tommy exuded a positive attitude. From the simple gesture of handing him his bag and starting a conversation, my life has been enhanced with a new perspective, a new light.