There’s something about a garage that makes guys feel comfortable. Perhaps, deep down in our primordial brains, it reminds us of the protection and safety of caves. All the light comes from one big opening, which we would invariably face to protect the things we love against bears and other aggressive animals. The walls are irregular – covered in shelves and the awkward things on them. The floor is dirt – well, dirty, without the need for regular sanitation. Nobody cares if you spill a beer on the floor, or get dirty fingerprints on the lawn chairs, or talk too loudly. The living room may be a woman’s sanctuary, but the garage is the man-cave – no teacups, doilies, or wine glasses allowed.
Of course, a garage is not a home without a drinking buddy, and KP was as entertaining as any. He was doing his best to ignore his injured finger, though I could tell the anesthetic was wearing off. I enjoyed his story about Candy’s brother, and admired Jake for turning his life around.
About an hour after going in, Jake came out of the house and walked towards his car. When he saw us relaxing in the garage, he came over and pulled up a chair.
“Candy is an amazing person," he said. "She had such a hard life as a child, and she’s become such a warm, loving person as an adult. She could have been another resentful, angry, addicted prostitute like our mother, and in fact, in her teens, she was, but she’s turned her life around to become exactly the opposite. You’ve got to admire that.”
“The Creator has placed many trials, tribulations, and obstacles in our lives, Jake, but once in a while, he sends an angel to lighten our burden.” I proffered, “That’s how I feel about Candy."
“Right," KP commented; “She’s like a gift from heaven.”
“You wouldn’t have said that 10 years ago. She was a bitter, angry teenager.”
“10 years ago, you weren’t driving a big Mercedes. You’ve come a long way too.”
“I was lucky, I had a Big Brother. We didn’t have a Big Sisters organization in town till years later, so Candy never benefited from a positive adult influence like I did.”
“I’d be interested in hearing about that, Jake.”
"Well, KP probably told you that I was pretty much lost as a kid. My father had deserted me and my mother didn’t have time for me. When I failed grade four, I convinced myself that the world was out to destroy me. I was overwhelmed by it. Our mother was never home so it seemed that I was the only one who cared about me. I felt all alone in the world – like a mountaintop pine tree in a raging snowstorm.
The second fourth grade teacher I had recognized that I was headed towards the dark side and recommended me to the Big Brothers organization. They sent a Big Brother to the school, and Bernt seemed like the kindest person I’d ever met. I agreed to be his Little Brother and my mother signed the forms. That’s when my life started to change.”
“Sounds like he had a positive influence on you.”
“Oh yah, but it wasn’t so much what he said – at least, not initially – it was the fact that I no longer felt like a lonely pine in a storm; I had a much bigger tree next to me shielding me from the elements. When a little kid is convinced that there is somebody else who really cares about him, his world changes. I felt much safer and less subject to catastrophe, so I became much less angry and defensive.
Whenever I felt the winds turning against me, I could talk to Bernt and he would straighten me out. He’d tell me things like, ‘The winds aren’t turning against you, Jake, they’re just turning and you happen to be in the way. If you take it personally, they’ll defeat you, but if you shrug your shoulders and believe that you can weather them, they’ll quit.’
I’d never heard things like that before and it changed my life.”
“You quit school at 16 Jake, didn’t he try to talk you out of that?” KP asked.
“Nope, we talked about it for a long time. He recognized that I had no academic interests and that I was itching to be independent. He presented all the possible choices I could make, but when it became clear to him that my priority was to get the hell out of my mother’s house, he agreed. He helped to get me the job at Firestone tires. A friend of his managed it.”
“It’s too bad that didn’t work out for you," I said.
“Here’s what my Big Brother said when I got fired: ‘I know you’ll be inclined to see this as a set-back, Jake, perhaps even another rejection like your father rejected you, but that’s wrong. This is the universe telling you that it has bigger plans for you.’
That was a life-changing lesson for me. Instead of becoming depressed, I became determined. With my Big Brother’s help and encouragement, I opened my own tire shop. And the rest, as they say, is history.”
“Do you ever miss finishing high school or getting a college education?”
“Bernt encouraged me to read and lent me many books, starting with Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha. That had a profound influence on me, which led to many discussions, which led to Bernt lending me other books and referring me to the library. Initially, books were an escape out of my life, but with time, they taught me how to deal with life. So no, I feel unschooled but not uneducated.”
“You don’t talk like someone who’s uneducated.”
“Despite what I just said, KP, I’m not sure education is the route to happiness. I vacationed in Guatemala last year and took a tour of some of the outlying villages. The people were poor and uneducated, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many smiles or heard so much laughter. Maybe ignorance really is bliss?"
“Is your Big Brother still around?” I asked.
“Oh yah, but he moved to Florida when he retired. He said he couldn’t take winters anymore. We stay in touch by phone though.
One time, I told him I owed him a lot. He responded, ‘No you don’t, you owe some other little kid a lot.’
That’s when I signed up to be a Big Brother, and I see my little guy making all the same mistakes I did. It’s such a pleasure to be able to help him. If all fatherless kids had a Big Brother, the whole world would improve.”
“Or at least a lot of neighborhoods. Without adult supervision, kids turn to older kids for guidance, and a lot of them are users and abusers leading gangs.”
“Right Montana, most of us can’t change the world, but we can improve our neighborhoods, and if all neighborhoods are improved, who knows, maybe things will get better with the world.”
“Well, the world of the kids who are helped will certainly improve, and that’s enough to make it worthwhile,” KP added.
“I’ll never forget the feelings of utter desolation, rejection, and alienation I felt when I failed grade four,” Jake said. That’s the feeling Edvard Munch must have felt when he painted ‘The Scream.’ If there’s a hell, that’s what it feels like. All a Big Brother has to do to rescue a kid from that agony is to be there for him, make him feel like he’s not alone, that there’s somebody else on his team. For a kid like that, that’s salvation.”
“Never thought of it that way,” KP reflected, “My old man wasn’t the nicest guy in the world, but at least he was there when I needed him. I never felt like I was deserted or totally alone.”
Jake said, “I was really tempted to drift back into that feeling when I got canned from Firestone. In fact, I wallowed in it during the first evening. It happened again when I had some setbacks in my first year of tire shop ownership. A devil on my shoulder tried to tell me that I would never make it, I didn’t have the skills; besides, I didn’t deserve it. I don’t know where this crap comes from, but when I told Bernt about it, he had a great response.
'Never give up Jake! You may go down, but if you do, go fighting. Then you'll have given it your best shot. If you give up to that little red bastard on your shoulder, he’ll never let you forget it. That’ll handicap you in your next venture. Everybody who succeeds has failed, often more than once. It’s just part of the dance of life.’
So, I did just that. I determined that if I go down, I’ll go down as a warrior, not as a prisoner. I was almost captured a few times, but I fought my way through, and now I own the biggest tire shop in town. Not bad for a grade four failure.”
“You’re a star Jake, and Bernt is an inspiration. When I get home, I’m signing up to be a Big Brother.”
And I did. I was a Big Brother for over 10 years.
Header image courtesy of Pexels.com/SplitShire.