Talking to Strangers, Right at Home

You know that when I travel, I talk to strangers, and almost always enjoy the experience. T-t-S is a wonderful way to enhance travel. But you can meet strangers in your neighborhood, too, and this morning I did. MacKenzie and I were on our mid-morning stroll, and we came upon an older fellow with a cane, walking his dog, a handsome whippet. Not surprisingly, MacKenzie started to bark. The man smiled. I maneuvered Mac closer to the whippet for a little canine socializing, and some small talk with the man, who looked kindly (I am a big believer in Malcolm Gladwell’s concept of thin-slicing, the ability to size up people quickly, which is perhaps why I have such good luck with T-t-S).

Toward the end of a short exchange, I said “I notice a bit of an accent, where do you come from?” The man smiled and replied, “Germany, but a long time ago.” When? 1951. I anticipated some stories, and we yakked for more than half an hour.

Harry was born in 1930, near Dresden. He was drafted at age 15, and was manning a Nazi anti-aircraft gun on the edge of that city when the firebombing came. He survived. In the chaos thereafter, he and some young pals escaped and headed west (in the opposite direction of the advancing Red Army). The Yanks looked at the teenagers and sent them home.

Harry got out of East Germany three years later, and to America in 1950, where he was promptly drafted, spending more than two years fighting in Korea. Life got considerably better when he got back to the States, and he has had a good run in Illinois, New Mexico, and here. They moved to Dallas some years ago after his son’s wife died unexpectedly, to help out.

Harry and I chatted about Germany then and now, about reunification, about his father (who was a prisoner of war in Czechoslovakia until 1957), about his sons, and, with evident pride, about his grandson who just began at the U.S. Air Force Academy. He told me he had Parkinson’s Disease, but did not complain. People like Harry are too wise and too experienced to do that. And he said something that people born here do not ever say: “This country has been so good to us.”

It is such a joy, and such a privilege, to meet people like Harry. Take time to reach out, and you will likewise be enriched.

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