I’ve got a cousin who routinely tells people to “Hug your people.” In her 30s, she’s already buried a child and a husband. The message? You just never know when it will end.
Brett, a friend I graduated high school with, died last week. A banker in Oklahoma City, he planned to retire next month. We weren’t especially close or anything, but it’s been nagging at me that he worked his entire life, only to be taken too soon. Did he get to enjoy enough of what he’d worked so hard for?
I flashed back to another friend, Jim. A great guy who told me the first time I met him in the early ‘90s that life was too short to deal with negative people and he refused to do it. “Yeah. Good luck with that,” I thought to myself.
But I learned Jim was right, about that and many other things.
Jim was a little older than I was when we got to know each other, a career Air Force guy, and someone that seemed to know exactly what his place in the world was. Not only that, he knew what his next step was. And the one after that. And the one after that. And being a military officer, he was naturally suspicious of “media types” like me.
Still, through the program we were in, he just seemed like someone I wanted to know and that I could learn from. During the year of that program, we developed a friendship that benefitted us both, I believe. He taught me about goals and putting them in writing, something about organization and planning and consciously avoiding negative people. Jim seemed like he really didn’t have a care in the world, despite a heavy load of professional responsibility. He was just that organized and sure of himself. He told me one of the goals he made as a young man was to own a ‘63 split window Corvette. I got to ride in it once. It felt like a rattle-trap to me (still very cool, however) but to Jim it was a symbol of a goal achieved.
I think I taught him that you can learn the most from people that aren’t in your sphere, and that everyone outside your “universe” isn’t the enemy. And we both learned that most problems could be figured out if you were willing to just sit down, talk a little, listen a lot, and try to find what could work for both of you.
Jim also taught me that life is short and you need to seize unique opportunities when they present themselves.
As part of that program we were in, we were selected to attend a national conference in Orlando. While there, soaking in all the knowledge we could from an incredible agenda of talented presenters, he sidled up to me at an after-hours reception to tell me that, due to his “day job”, he could get us in to see a shuttle launch the next morning. We’d have to leave Orlando at 5:30 a.m., drive over an hour, deal with security and a bus transport, then return. I knew we’d miss at least three-fourths of a day at the conference, something I was truly committed to making the most of.
First, I told him “I only recognize one 5:30 each day and that one’s not it.” Second, what about our responsibilities and why we were there?
Jim pointed out that this was such a rare opportunity, we needed to take it, the folks that had sent us would understand, and that we might learn something entirely different from our excursion.
Before dawn the next morning, we were off to Cape Canaveral.
The experience was incredible. I learned later that particular launch was the first one to go up as scheduled in years. I hadn’t even considered it might get delayed. Such is the mindset of someone who lives in a world driven by deadlines, completing one, then racing to the next. It was also the one that put the first ever African-American woman in space. Mae Jemison was on that Endeavor crew, and we were seated just a few yards from where her and other astronaut families were watching.
The sensation at launch was something I’ll never forget. Though we were, I think, two miles away, you felt the launch in your chest. The engine roar produced a rattle that felt like when you were a kid and put playing cards on the spokes of your bike when you rode. You could feel that rattle.
Then, it was over. We got back on the visitors’ bus, back to the rental car, back to Orlando, and proceeded with our responsibilities.
Jim died about 20 years ago. Far too young. But I know he made the most of his years on this planet.
I hope Brett managed to do the same.
Hug your people.
David Stringer is the publisher of The Lawton Constitution, a past-president of the Oklahoma Press Association and a media professional for over 40 years, more than half of that in Oklahoma. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.