Author’s note: The following column is based on a true story and uses language that many readers will find offensive.
Sam was born just after the First World War, which meant that he would be old enough to serve in the Second World War. He did so bravely and had many stories to share when he returned.
The old veteran loved to tell about the time he was in a bombed-out café and approached a wounded enemy while firing (and missing) with all seven rounds in his 45 auto. After he finished him off with his knife he tossed that 45 into a pile of rubble cursing it for never shooting the way he told it to.
But there were other stories he would never tell. Like the time he was leading his men across a narrow bridge not knowing they would soon be ambushed. When the enemy opened fire they shot back as they headed backwards on the bridge. Sam held the gun in one hand as he tried to reach down and grab his wounded men. He could see the terror in their eyes as they plunged towards their deaths in the water down below.
No one would hear that story until after Sam died. His wife talked about how he woke up years later screaming in the night, sweating, and pounding his fists right through the thin bedroom wall. The long minutes seemed like hours before he realized he was awake and safe at home from the war.
But Sam loved his job at Joanie’s Café – a place owned by his sister and named after his only niece. He was so good with the customers that he built up the business far beyond what his sister had ever expected. In fact, business was so good that he eventually bought it from her. Sam never worked anywhere else.But the civil rights movement came to the small Southern town a few years after he bought the place. Sam knew that he would have to be prepared so he bought a .357 magnum. When the first set of young black men came in to be seated at the counter Sam showed them his new gun. “Ain’t no God damned nigger eating here today. You boys understand?” Looking down the barrel of the gun, they had little choice but to understand.
And so Sam’s place stayed segregated and no one really thought much about it. The ugly and violent segregationist rhetoric was, unfortunately, a very commonplace thing in that day and time.
Years later, Sam was sitting in his chair enjoying a smoke when it hit him. He had a massive heart attack that would send him to the hospital for immediate surgery. According to his wife, he died three times that night before the doctors finally brought him out of it.
When the drugs began to wear off, he opened his eyes and all was hazy. He saw three figures moving slowly about the room or so it seemed. He looked up and saw a bright light. After he noticed that the three figures were dressed in white and that one of them had black skin he said out loud “Oh, Lord, God damn it. No one told me there would be black angels in heaven.”
She would visit his bedside every day until he was ready to go home. Since it was a small town she must have known about the .357 behind the counter. But she went to visit his home anyway. And when he opened the door she stood smiling with a warm meal she had cooked just for Sam and his wife.
He was smiling as he opened the door and asked her to come in.
Extending forgiveness to someone who has done us wrong (see “Live and How to Live it, Part VII") seems at first to be life’s hardest task. But it is really no more difficult than throwing a person out of our house after realizing he has been living there for years without paying rent.
But if we want to do more than remove a heavy burden from our souls we must do more than forgive. We must extend active charity to the person who does not deserve it. Then we may transform the other person, not just ourselves. In every case, the formula manages to dissolve even the most hardened of sensibilities.
Those who do not follow both of these pieces of advice will probably never experience true happiness.