BEDFORD, Pennsylvania -- The first time I saw Ryan Decker a few weeks ago, he was standing on the corner of the Lincoln Highway and South Richard Street holding an oversized homemade sign that read, "BEEF JERKY COSTS TOO MUCH." I thought to myself, "You know, he's not wrong."
His next sign was along the berm of U.S. 30, a four-lane highway. It read, "STOP DRIVING SLOW IN THE PASSING LANE." Once again, not wrong, and funny. A few days later, he was standing in front of the local Weiss supermarket with a sign that read, "YOUR MASK GOES OVER YOUR NOSE TOO."
On Tuesday, he was in the center of this Bedford County town, at first sharing ice cream with his dog, Bubba, on a bench in front of Bedford Candies and then, this time, around the corner on South Richard Street, feeding himself what looked like a bowl of healthy veggies. There is no sign this time; he doesn't need one. Decker is as joyful and as funny as his signs.
And it is all for a purpose.
Thirty-two-year-old Decker, a nearby Everett native, is an Air Force veteran who served six years as a survival equipment specialist. He says it is all about spreading a little humor and fun. "I'm really disappointed with the way people are these days," he said. "You can't have differing opinions and not set aside your differences and actually talk about them. So, I decided to make light of everything that was happening in a way that would make people be able to laugh."
The striking young man is wearing cutoff jeans, a pink shirt with birdhouses, a bandana and cowboy boots, and is sporting a mullet, an eclectic combination that somehow works with his warm personality. Several locals pass, offering robust hellos and how-you-doings.
Decker was on a bench with Bubba outside of Last Line, the veteran's charity he started last year dedicated to helping the area's servicemen and servicewomen suffering from PTSD, something Decker himself has struggled with. "I have fought those demons," he said. "At one point, I was on suicide watch at the VA, so I wanted to help those who need that relief from the stress and anxiety and depression."
"When you leave the military," he said, "you go from a common purpose and being part of something bigger than your own lives. When you come back, our society doesn't always adhere to those values, and you feel isolated, lost."
The Last Line apparel he sells in the storefront goes toward building tiny homes at which veterans and their families can stay on his family's 250-acre farm in Fulton County.
But it is his signs and his social media posts with which he gets to spread his joy and hopefully inspire aspiration in his fellow man. "I just decided to do life my own way," he said. "And people really responded to the signs the way I wanted them to, with laughter, and maybe rethink how we treat each other."
A brief scroll through his Last Line Facebook page shows a variety of funny videos he created poking fun at himself and at society. The video encouraging people to purchase his "Mullet Nation" T-shirt to raise money for his charity is bawdy and hilarious. The video addressing his photo of a dead deer on the side of the road and his sign that reads "COVID RELATED DEATH" caused exactly the opposite response he was striving for. His head-on address of that is worth the two minutes.
There are a lot of categories that Decker could fall into if you were the lazy type who places people in silos and judges them. His Pennsylvania twang, cowboy boots and antics tell you one thing; his military service tells another; his initial post-military private-sector life successfully selling luxury cars in a big city tells yet a different story.
"My failures, my mistakes, my setbacks along the way have led me to this place," he said. "You cannot appreciate true happiness or find comfort in the small things if you have not had lows. I thought I was supposed to be happy every day. Society tells us we are entitled to it. Well, that just led to substance abuse for me because I kept chasing that happiness that I thought every day was supposed to be."
"To be content, you have to have failed or have had a bad day along the way, or else you don't have an experience or situation or a direction to pull yourself out of," he said.
There are characters that cross our paths every day. They are not perfect. They don't even try to be. But folks like Decker do try to make this world a better place. His approach is joyful, imperfect, edgy, and comes from all of the good and bad he has to encounter in his young life.
He wears his achievement and failures on his sleeve, not as a badge of honor but as a person who keeps trying to figure out this world and how he can maybe make it a better place.
One sign at a time.
Salena Zito is a CNN political analyst, and a staff reporter and columnist for the Washington Examiner. She reaches the Everyman and Everywoman through shoe-leather journalism, traveling from Main Street to the beltway and all places in between.