THE plane was one of those fat ones with big aisles, so there was room to stop when I saw him. I wasn't surprised to see him on a flight from New York to Chicago; there were lots of businessmen there, and that is what he is. ("Mildred, I saw Jim F. at the corner today." I remember Dad saying once, "He just got back from China. I guess they want to learn how to make his kind of bakery oven. He also said that two of his children are in Second City theater now.")
Jim F. is an industrialist from a small city in Illinois; his father was also an industrialist. His dad built the biggest house on our street, and Jim F. bought a Victorian edifice a few houses away from our home. It is the kind of street where people take walks along the broad avenue, under the big trees, coming out of (or just looking at) those big houses.
As a child, I had seen Jim F. when I took walks. He knew who I was, and I knew who he was, but I had never spoken to him. People on broad streets with big houses often know about each other, even if they have never spoken.
I decided to stop when I saw him on the plane. I stopped and said, "Mr. F." He looked up from his magazine, and it did not surprise me that I was, at first, unrecognized; I had been away at school for years, and as I said, we had never spoken. "I am Bruce Sylvester." Then I saw a look of recognition. "Well, hi Bruce. How are you?"
How was I? Fine, I could have said and asked how he was and then gone on to my seat. But I didn't. I told the truth.
"Well, I guess we are both going to Joliet. But I'm going there to lock myself away for the next three weeks. I have to decide whether to go back to seminary next year or to interview for work at banks around the country. That's how I am. Mom and Dad are going away so I can be alone. You may hear me from your place banging my head on the walls trying to make up my mind. This is really a difficult time for me."
Then I was embarrassed. I didn't really know this person. I had interrupted his reading. He was probably tired from a business trip, and here I was dumping this stuff on him. What could he say?
At first, nothing. What came first was the fact that as I was saying what I said, he had, without my noticing it, put his hand on my right forearm.
And when I was done, he looked at me with those big, sad Irish eyes and waited to hear if there was more I needed to say. There wasn't.
Then he said, "I know. I love someone who has struggled with a religious vocation. I know, Bruce. Don't give up."
I knew he knew. I was grateful that he had listened and that someone could sense what it might be like to choose between becoming a pastor or banker, that it wasn't as simple as serving God or mammon but, rather, choosing the right path at a crucial fork in the road of the only life that I have.
He held my arm as he said those words. These few words and that simple gesture helped me get stabilized for the deeply personal and life-shaping decisions toward which I was flying. I never banged my head on the walls over the next few weeks, but I did think of that moment, that encounter, many times. And I felt less alone.
A few years later when I was serving a church near my childhood home, Jim F. Jr., his son who was with the Second City theater in Chicago, died suddenly.
"No," said my dad when I told him the news, "No, it can't be. We were just talking two days ago down at the corner about his children, about that boy."
But it was true, and even though the visitation was hours away and there were demands upon me from those I had spent far more time with than Jim F., I got in the car and drove those hours.
The place was packed, and I got in line to do whatever I would do and say whatever I could manage to say.
I saw familiar faces from my childhood all around me; some were from that avenue of big houses, and others had drifted across the screen of my summers at the country club.
I went down the line of the family and finally got to Jim F. I put my hand on his forearm and said, "I don't know how it is, Mr. F. I just don't know. But I came to tell you I am very sorry."
He looked at me again with those big, sad Irish eyes and quietly held my hand, longer than I expected. "Thank you so much, Bruce, thank you for coming here," he said. That was the second time we had ever spoken.
In that same era in my life, I decided to take a train from Chicago to New York City. At first I wondered if the little girl across the aisle would keep us awake all night. Near Cleveland, it started to get dark. She was restless. She ran up and down the aisle chasing her brother. Her mom had given up trying to quiet them somewhere around South Bend, Indiana.
My seat was next to her mom's. Naomi (I learned her name later) came over to her mom and brought her Etch A Sketch. She showed it to me. Then she started erasing the drawing on it and making a game of tick-tack-toe.
In a few minutes her mom stood up, looked at me, said, "Every man for herself," and she crossed the aisle and sat in Naomi's seat. Naomi took her mom's seat next to mine. And we talked.
I had never met her before, but I said what people say, "Well, how are you tonight?" hoping that she would say, "Tired. Will you get me a pillow?" But she didn't.
She took my question seriously and started talking, a lot. She said things so well, giving thoughtful words to feelings in her nine-year-old world with its problems and crises.
I recall especially one thing she said. She told me about a French teacher at her school in Montreal. She said, "I have learned many things from him." I asked, "Like what?" She said that he had taken the time to listen and that when he listened to her she could begin to learn. And I knew what she meant.
Around midnight, Naomi went to sleep. I could not sleep, and I spent the night watching the lights of towns pass by - watching Naomi, and thinking about what it is to be heard, and how much help has come not only from those with whom I have had many conversations but from those who were there, maybe just once or twice in a lifetime, to listen to me.