A Wise Old Man

I went ice skating recently. I’m not a particularly good ice skater. This was only my third time doing it. What kind of surprises me about it, though, is how bad some people are. I don’t mean to insult anybody by saying this, but I’ve never understood what is hard about ice skating. Even the first time I tried it, I didn’t have much difficulty. Sure I was falling a bit, and losing control, but I understood the basic motions required to propel myself forward. In all fairness, I had done quite a bit of rollerblading before I ever went ice skating, and the act of skating is similar whether on ice or on asphalt. Even then, though, I never remember having trouble ”rollerblading”. I watched other people do it, and then emulated the body motions I saw, and everything else was natural.

In all honesty, on this occasion I legitimately fell like two or three times, and lost control quite a few times. So, like I said, I’m not particularly good, just not as bad as those that fell more than three times. In any case, I decided to poke fun at my friend Keith, who was having trouble with skating and balance. So I pretended to fall while he was watching me. And by ”falling” you must picture the most obvious ”fake fall” that you possibly can. In slow motion I waved my hands in the air as if I had lost control, then reached my hands down to the ice, sliding on my hands and feet for a foot or two, and then casually rolled the rest of my body onto the ice. Had you seen the fall, you’d know I was just being a jerk. I did this three times, and on the third one I did it right in front of him. He crashed into my fallen corpse, my fault of course, and went down himself. I felt a little bad for causing him to fall.

So we have a good laugh. I apologize for being a jerk to him, and we’re about to get up when some dude, that neither of us knows, skates up to us. This guy had a concerned look on his face, like you might see on a mother that just watched her son discover a bee sting for the first time. He asks me, “Are you okay?” I realized then, in that moment, that he hadn’t seen me fall. He only saw the ”aftermath” of it. Possibly he saw Keith tripping over me. As far as his perception was concerned I had potentially been seriously injured. I say ”I” because he didn’t really express any concern towards Keith. That’s why I think he saw Keith trip over me, and his fall had appeared harmless. By the time I stood up I kind of realized that there was pretty much no way to explain that it was all a joke. Had I said, “Yeah, dude, we were just joking around.” He would have thought I was saying that so I wouldn’t look as incompetent as he had ”perceived” I was. So I didn’t say anything, and thanked him for his concern.

When I was in middle school I’d walk home with some of the other kids that lived in the same neighborhood as me. Sometimes it was with these kids that were a year my junior, Kevin and Michael. Usually I’d take a direct route to get home, sticking with the sidewalks and roads. There was also service road that ran the length of an irrigation canal on the edge of my neighborhood. It ran right behind Michael’s house, so it wasn’t too inconvenient to walk down it, cut into Michael’s backyard, and go home from there. So this was a route frequently used when walking home with Michael.

As boys do, we found ourselves playing around the canal. Skipping rocks was our chosen activity of the day. Catching crawdads was also a common activity to do in the canal. I didn’t do much crawdad fishing myself. They looked too much like bugs, and that kind of grossed me out. Since Michael lived next to the canal he’d catch and eat them all the time. I didn’t even know such a creature existed until I was in middles school. I only ever remember picking one up once. I digress, though. We were skipping rocks. When it comes to skipping rocks it’s only natural to have different goals such as getting the most skips, getting the furthest bounce, or the longest distance before the skipping ends, getting the biggest rock to skip, and so on. We were competing for about ten minutes when a man approached us.

He was an older man. I can’t say exactly how old, because when I was thirteen my perception of age was much different from what it is now. He had gray hair and was bearded. He wore a trail hat and other attire that yearned for the call of the wild. A flannel shirt comes to memory. I don’t know where the man had come from. From the west side of the canal, I figured, since my neighborhood was on the east side, and I thought I would have recognized anyone from there. As we stared in awe at this man of age and experience, we stopped our rock skipping and sat down with our legs crossed. The man knelt in front of us.

“I want to tell you young men a story,” he said. It was a compliment that he called us young men. He was a warm man. A friendly man. He had a certain look of sadness though. “When I was about your age,” he continued, “I had a .22 rifle, and I thought it would be fun to shoot some ducks.” He paused just for a brief moment, looking at each of us one by one. It was important that we were all listening. “So I did.” He took his hat off and held it to his chest. Looking up to the sky he said, “I’ve regretted that my whole life.” We all nodded. Our mouths opening just a little. He stood up. “I just don’t want you boys…” he’d called us boys, not young men, “…to do anything that you’d regret.” We sat there in silence. He walked away, and disappeared off into the wilderness of our neighborhood.

We couldn’t speak for a few minutes. How can you speak after a man of age and experience imparts his wisdom on you. You have to wait for him to disappear. You have to ponder on what he’s said. You’re also a young boy, so eventually something has to be said. “Well, that was pretty weird,” Kevin said. Michael and I agreed. We stood up scratching our heads.

”Quack,” we looked around, ”quack, quack, quack.” We saw it. There were some ducks on the other side of the canal. Swimming around under some tree branches that hung low over the canal. We looked amongst each other and understood. Everything had come full circle. We hadn’t even been skipping stones in that direction. ”Perception.”

I hadn’t read ”To Kill a Mockingbird” at that time, but in retrospect I can’t help but wonder if that old man walked away feeling like Atticus Finch. He’d just had his ”it’s-a-sin-to-kill-a-mockingbird” moment. In a way, he’d redeemed himself of his sins by preventing other boys from doing the same. He went home feeling good about himself. I kind of laugh about it to myself now. I wonder if I should though. In a lot of ways perception matters. Unless some actual bad comes from it, does an incorrect perception even matter? I don’t know for sure. I’m not an old man of wisdom yet. As far as that man was concerned, he was a wise old man. We kids had a good laugh about it. Really it was positive feelings all around, and no animals were harmed, so I think everybody won.