Aside from the merciful end of a crazy presidential campaign, what earns your thanks this year?
Intending no slight to family, friends, Noah Syndergaard (Thor!), or the honest guy who hit the mailbox with his truck and then knocked on our door to take the blame, I am raising hosannas for brisk morning walks along the water, modern technology and a fellow in a red cap called Ken.
Traveling the same three-mile route every day, I spot a familiar crew of stalwarts — the lady who once had a dog named Mozart, the cheery fellow who carries a notebook to jot down his thoughts, the handsome, athletic dude who, well into middle age, runs by in a breeze.
Among the most steadfast is a fit and friendly gent about my size and approximate vintage, sporting a perfectly trimmed white beard. On gorgeous days, he stops briefly to say hello, turning palms in praise toward a brilliant sky, as if to say aloud, “What more could we ask?”
For years, the chap and I have been trading weather updates like Weather Channel field correspondents.
“Another beauty today,” he might say.
“Same, tomorrow,” I’ll reply.
“Rain on Friday,” he reports. “Stay dry.”
Until recently, I didn’t know the man’s name. Then there was an unrelated but crucial development: defenses collapsed and I bought a smartphone. Hooray, said the kids and grandkids. We think you’ll enjoy the 21st century.
Walking with my new phone tucked in a fanny pack, I listen to news through two little white plugs instead of the big, yellow, AM/FM workshop earmuffs that made me look oddly extraterrestrial.
The transformation evidently was so remarkable that even my anonymous bearded pal felt moved to comment as he came upon me one morning.
“You finally got one!” he said, nodding approval.
I paused and told him, yes, couldn’t hold out any longer. Thing is great. Streaming! Podcasts! Wow! I told him I was a former newspaper reporter seriously addicted to deadline developments and political discussion. He mentioned a favorite app or two.
Up close, I noticed a winged parachute insignia on the man’s familiar red cap — one I’d seen when writing about veterans through the years.
“Airborne?” I asked.
“Didn’t go. Hit every deferment — college student, husband, father.”
I told him that I’d written about Vietnam vets and was always moved by their stories — bravery amid chaos. I told him that even now I think of the guys who went, and those, like me, who lucked out. I told him that for what it was worth, I honor them all — the ones who came back and the more than 58,000 who were lost. Terrible number, I said — 58,000.
We stood for a few seconds, without words.
The man in the cap reached out his hand.
“Ken,” he said.
I mentioned my name. We shook and parted. Ken waved.
And that was it, my 2016 give-thanks moment. No big deal, right? Two men, about the same age, with different stories, memories of another time, casual encounter. But, for me, the meeting lingers, a reminder of the sacrifices of some, the baffling randomness of life, a chance to say, if only briefly, what often has been thought.
Ken and I have spoken since. Great guy. Believes in the power of conversation. Regrets that people have trouble discussing differences. He even asked me how I was voting — the radioactive question most of us ducked before the election. I told him. He told me.
Then he was off again, along the waterfront.
“Great day,” he said, opening both hands, smiling toward the heavens.
“Another one on tap,” I replied.
We smiled, pumped our fists.
Weather growing colder, walkers on the waterside route are bundling up. Ken has a red jacket. Mine is green. They could have come from the same outdoorsy mail-order house.
“Look at us,” I said. “Holiday twins.”
Ken laughed. “Cool,” he said, picking up the pace.
We still had a couple miles to go and, let’s hope, a few more tomorrow.