When I have some heavy decisions to make I often get in my car and drive. Sometimes I find myself on back country roads and at other times just in the right hand lane of the Turnpike or some Interstate doing only 65 or 70 mph. Where I drive is not important, what inspiration I get along the way is.
My life has been a full and satisfying experience but it is in its closing phase and I decided the other day to start “putting my affairs in order.” I had already decided to visit a friend in St. Augustine, so why not slow down the trip up I-95 and come up with a plan as to the disposition of all of the “stuff” my wife and I have accumulated?
I know what you’re thinking right now…just hire an attorney, draw up a will, maybe form a Trust or two, and forget about it. We’ve already done all of that but that still leaves a lot of “stuff” falling through the cracks as “personal possessions.”
Almost out of gas, I turned off just south of New Smyrna at exit #82 and noticed that the sign said CR 5A, Oak Hill, Scottsmoor. I didn’t know Florida had an Oak Hill or Scottsmoor. Evidently I wasn’t the only one, there was nothing at the Exit except a filling station and a decrypted old trailer park. What I assumed to be County Road 5A dead ends going west at the Interstate and looking east there’s nothing but miles and miles of empty road and piney woods.
At the pump and gassing up, I noticed a very unusual caravan of vehicles parked nearby. While I was trying to determine just what it was that I was looking at…
“Never seen anything quite like it, have you?” A slender, T-shirted, baggy panted, African-American man in knee-high black rubber boots had come out of nowhere and we were soon having a discussion about not only his very bazaar collection of conveyances but, ironically, also about my estate planning dilemma.
After introducing himself, I found out that not only did Henry Lomas own all of the vehicles I was looking at but that he and I had something in common. He too had, in his words, recently decided to consolidate his holdings and put his affairs in order. This was too good of a coincidence to pass up so I insisted, after gassing up, that Henry jump in the front seat of my car, let me pull over to the side in the parking area, buy him a soft drink, and let me pick his brain.
I started the dialog.
“Tell me Henry; before we get into any details, what got you started assembling your collection of wheels?”
Lowering his gaze and speaking almost in a whisper…
“I started with only a bicycle but as time went by I decided to forsake the traditional store houses of wealth, concentrate more on metals and collectables, and widen my horizons by traveling more. As you can see, I’ve accumulated a lot and I’ve had to make accommodations to protect my property as I transit from one destination to another. I realize that I’m not the wealthiest man in the world but I truly treasure what I have and try to add to it every day.”
Carrying the conversation to the next level and deciding to go along with the Lloyds of London level of verbiage , I asked him…
“Tell me Henry, I notice that most of your vehicles are covered with tarps or plastic covers. Is that to protect the paint jobs and chrome trim or is it to satisfy some provision in your insurance coverage?”
“No.” He responded… “Let’s cut the crap Jim. As you can probably tell by my sarcastic verbal autobiography, I’ve got a college background but I would prefer not to elaborate on the course my life has taken. It would serve no purpose and its trajectory should be tragically obvious. In reality, I’m not as bad off as it appears. I’ve got a PO Box in Titusville where I have a few government checks mailed to and, every now and then, my younger sister sends me a card or letter. She doesn’t know anything about my financial situation and that’s the way I like it. My big problem is emotional. I struggle to maintain my self-respect. I remember the pan-handlers on the streets that I used to look at with disdain and wonder how anyone could have so little pride as to let themselves stoop so low. The looks I get from passing cars on the highway don’t bother me, but patronizing gestures of charity in what few one-on-one encounters I have these days are, how can I say it, … challenging. As to the coverings, I just keep the things I’m carrying in the wagons covered to keep the rain and sun off. I’ve got some furniture that’s upholstered and I can’t let the aluminum beer cans I’ve accumulated fill up with water or I can’t sell um. I keep the bike covered too because I just have to push the whole thing along the side of the road now. The load has gotten too heavy and hard to pedal.”
Sensing a new-found closeness with this obviously intelligent but very humble man and realizing we had dropped all the Wall Street talk and pretense, I pressed on … I told Henry about boxes of old letters, my mother’s rare book collection, my grandfathers police whistle and uniform, a stamp collection, varsity letter sweaters, old vinyl records, and numerous scrapbooks. I told Henry about all of these and all the other junk we had stashed in corners of our home and various safe deposit boxes. While I was itemizing these accumulations, I was picturing in my mind just how many tarps and covers all of my “stuff” would need if I was ever forced to hit the road.
How long I bared my soul?…it was awhile…
…turning to my friend…
“I have to ask you one last thing Henry. What are you doing out here at the end of this road? We’re three or four miles from US 1 and the pavement ends here at I-95. You surely can’t go out on the highway with your bike and everything you’re carrying with you.”
Stoically looking at me…
“No, you’re right, I have to just turn around and go back to where I came from but there’s a lot of places in the woods off this road where I can spend the night without anybody calling the Sheriff on me. I carry enough rice, dry beans, and canned goods to make it for a few days and, like what you’ve told me about yourself, it gives me time to think about what I’ll end up doing with all this junk I’m carting around. I hate to think that I’ve spent my whole life accumulating so little that I can carry every bit of it along with me, and worst of all, asking myself–when I’m gone will anyone want any of it?”
We talked for another half hour or so and, realizing I had to get on up the road, I took a ten dollar bill out of my wallet and laid it on dashboard in front of Henry.
“I know you don’t want to take it but it would make me feel much better if you did. We’ll never see each other again, so just pretend it just showed up in your PO Box or flew out of the window of one of those automobiles that pass you on the highway.”
With a sad look of resignation, Henry took the bill off the dash and, turning to face me … “Okay, but only if you will let use the money for a special purpose I have in mind?”
After I nodded my head, he reached into the brown plastic fanny-pack he was wearing and took out what looked like a cigar, but ended up being only the metal cylinder that had once held one. He then fished out a ball-point pen and a folded-up sheet of yellow legal pad paper. As I watched, Henry tore the sheet of paper in half, rolled up one section with the $10 bill and, before replacing the cap, slid both into the small tube. With the money canister and ball-point in hand, he faced me, grind, then turned and opened the car door … “I’ll be right back”.
He had gone into the filling station and, after ten minutes or so, was back seated with me in the car. My supposition was that Henry was up to some benevolent mischief, but it wasn’t my place to ask and I did need to get on my way. I shook his hand, gave the little nod that acknowledges “see you never again” and watched as he walked over to his rig and started pushing his wagon train of covered treasures back out to the road.
Three days later, I was back home and unpacking my car. Why, I’m not sure, but I couldn’t get Henry out of my mind. Even though my trip back to where I had come from was much longer and my life’s accumulated carts of junk more scattered and worth much more than Henry’s; there wasn’t any difference in our situations. Deep down inside I knew I would never forget the sight of him leaving or what he had taught me that day. and, let’s face it, we were both just trying to put our affairs in order.
I had grabbed my duffel bag and the little cooler out of the trunk and was checking for anything I might have left in the console or around the front seat of the car when I saw it. The little cigar tube was tucked into, and barely visible between the seat cushion and back-rest on the passenger’s side. Taking out and opening the container, I slid out the yellow piece of paper and read the note …
Jim, I appreciate the thought. Hopefully you realize that, if the circumstances were reversed, I would do the same for you. As we discussed, my pride means as much to me as, I’m sure, yours means to you. That being the case, let’s pretend the circumstances are, indeed, already reversed and good luck with your affairs. … Henry
Setting the note aside and sliding my finger back into the cigar tube, they came out easily–both of them … there were two ten dollar bills.