I believe in wisdom… no matter where it comes from or how long it takes to realize.
The wind ripped round the corner in frigid gusts that had sailed off the gray waves of nearby Lake Michigan. I leaned back against the dirty wall of Grant’s Five and Dime, waiting for the number seven bus to take me up Washington Street hill and nearer to home. It was my fifteenth year, in the days when the activity and commerce of a city happened at its’ center and not the far-flung reaches of suburban sprawl and cookie cutter strip malls. I stood alone and pulled my coat tighter around myself when a touch on my shoulder turned me to the face of an old man. How old, I couldn’t tell because through the eyes of adolescence any adult seems old. The stale wine I smelled on his breath made me want to walk away, but something caused me to stay. That decision altered the course of my life.
“You are not like the others,” the man spoke, his lips sputtering as he coughed the cough of a lifetime smoker. I must have looked at him with suspicion for he repeated, “You are not like the others,” this time clear, with warmth and sincerity as he gestured toward a group of teens near the corner. “You are like me,” he continued and handed over a note. I unfolded the sheet of lined paper and saw in jumbled ballpoint script the words: Blessed are the Peacemakers. At the bottom of the page was signed, The Black Sheep.
“Who is the Black Sheep?” I asked and the old man smiled. He touched a tobacco stained finger to my chest and said, “You are… and I am.” I looked again at the paper, making sure I had read correctly. When I raised my gaze the man was ambling away. I wanted to call out but didn’t know what to say, so I said nothing. It was two years later that I found myself on the streets of Chicago at the ’68 Democratic Convention.
Looking back now it was only a brief encounter in a long-gone era, but to this day and for reasons I cannot fathom, I still carry that note in my wallet. The paper is torn and brittle and the words have all but disappeared but I cannot bring myself let it go. Maybe it’s my own faded youth I cling to, maybe it’s the memory of an unjust war and my part in it, or maybe it was the wisdom I saw in a pair of yellowed and rheumy eyes but didn’t understand until years later. I’m sure the man is now long since dead and Grant’s Five and Dime is a little-used parking garage, but one thing is certain… I will never forget that cold December day and the man I know only as The Black Sheep. Blessed are the Peacemakers… blessed are those who inspire them.
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