By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
Not always what it seems
Placeholder Image

He seemed to be just another odd, eccentric old man, really. Almost every Friday, as sunset neared, the codger wearing an old, sun-bleached military cap would walk out on a long pier at Key Biscayne, Florida, carrying a full bucket of shrimp. As the sun began to settle, the man known to locals as "Old Ed" would be joined by dozens of seagulls. "Old Ed" tossed shrimp to the birds, softly speaking over and again the words, "thank you."

After the bucket was empty, "Old Ed" would tarry to watch the sun settle at the end of day. Invariably a gull would land on his old military cap, which the old man took as his sign to go home. He would shuffle back down the pier, still muttering "thank you" to the few gulls which scuttled along with him.

Yeah, the local fishermen on that Key Biscayne pier thought "Old Ed" to be an odd one. He was maybe one fry short of a Happy Meal, maybe just starting to go senile.

But things are not always what they seem...

As I grow older I find it interesting that it's not hard to remember exact dates of remarkable happenings in my life, whilst specific dates of relatively ordinary things are gone with the wind. And so I remember Labor Day weekend, 2006, for I was able to garner a press pass and be in attendance at Bobby Dodd Stadium for a great football game between Notre Dame and Georgia Tech, won by the Irish.

And I remember that on the elevator ride up to the press box a youthful female sports reporter remarked to me, in her exuberance, that she hoped she would meet somebody famous.

Just a while later the Georgia Tech folks opened the buffet for the media, and I watched that same youthful reporter cut off an older, gray-haired man as she darted in to fill her plate. The man was moving slowly, and in her quest to meet someone famous, the reporter was in too much of a hurry to even say "excuse me."

Things are just not always what they seem...

The older guy and I made eye contact, and I asked him if he had a moment. He glanced at the girl who'd cut him off from the buffet line and nodded. And so I had a chance to tell Dan Reeves how much I appreciated his life's service to his native state as a great high school player from Americus and as a standout at Georgia Tech. I told him I admired his NFL work in Dallas and Denver, and for taking the Falcons to the Super Bowl. And I closed my 30 seconds with the famous man the youthful reporter had overlooked as just a slow-moving old guy by telling him I hoped that he was doing well after his heart surgeries and that he'd have many more days to spend with his grandchildren.

And I'll always remember Dan Reeves shaking my hand, firmly, and looking me straight in the eye as he thanked me for what I'd shared with him, in the buffet line, in the press box, at Georgia Tech, on a Labor Day holiday weekend in 2006.

Things are not always what they seem, you see.

After the game was over that evening I managed to steal a few moments alone, totaling about 15 seconds, with Notre Dame's head coach Charlie Weiss.

I'd brought along a pre-addressed, stamped envelope which I slipped him, as I told him of a dear friend who was in dire physical condition nearing death - a Notre Dame graduate who'd spent his life teaching and coaching in parochial schools of Michigan. And I asked the coach to please send my buddy, Fred Jamroz, a note - if he could find the time.

"I'll get him something," Weiss said, even as the entourage of attendants hustled him through the exit. The door started to swing closed, but just then a meaty hand pried it open, and Charlie Weiss looked around the door jamb straight into my eyes and said, earnestly, "I'll get him something."

Weiss was a big name coach, still fresh from the NFL, with Super Bowl rings too numerous to wear. He didn't have to give me the time of day, let alone grant a favor to a stranger.

But things are not always what they seem...

The next week an autographed picture of Charlie Weiss and his get-well wish arrived at the Jamroz house. Just how much it meant for my friend is hard to say, but it was displayed near Fred's casket when I visited with his family the next April.

Thirty-one years ago my wife and I decided to make Covington our home. Back then, the entire corner of the block on Odum Street between Pace and Elm, where now sits the new Newton County Administration Building, was a parking lot. The old administration annex, now razed, had been a supermarket prior to our arrival here, so I'm told.

But in 1977, on the southeastern corner of that block, resided the Newton County Farmers' Market. The produce was fresh, but what folks mainly came by for was to talk politics with any commissioner who happened along near the Annex Building, and to visit, convivially, with old-time county residents.

We'd just moved here and I met W. K. Lunsford there one day when I bought some tomatoes off the tailgate of his vintage Chevy pickup. "Mr. W. K." wore a jungle safari hat in those days, and I figured him to be just a regular old farmer from these parts, trying to make a buck selling vegetables.

But things are not always what they seem...

Over time I learned that "Mr. W. K." was a pilot who flew a B-24 Consolidated Liberator bomber over Europe in World War II. Those gleaming aluminum ships looked huge back then, but their skin was paper-thin and couldn't stop German anti-aircraft fire very well. And every time one of the behemoths went down, so did a crew of 10 American boys.

And even though my daddy-in-law, Troy Drummond, himself a World War II Navy veteran, provided us with plenty of fresh vegetables from his garden out at Jackson Lake, every once in a while I'd go buy some tomatoes from "Mr. W. K." I'm sure he probably thought I was just a guy, shopping for fresh veggies.

But things are not always what they seem...

Folks who remember the Korean War can recall when Atlanta's historic railroad Terminal Station was demolished, replaced by an office/hotel complex called "The Omni," which has itself since been demolished and replaced by the Philips Center.

I remember attending a Cotton States Classic basketball series in the old Omni, standing in a long line at a refreshment stand. Another line opened, and many customers scurried to get quicker service. Several of them glanced back to see how many folks they'd managed to beat into the new line, apparently quite satisfied that they'd won some sort of contest.

But things are not always what they seem...

Two older men in front of me had not skedaddled, you see, and I seized the opportunity to sidle up to them. Instead of rushing headlong for a chance to retrieve a soft drink, I was able to meet, converse and swap stories with Atlanta Braves pitcher Phil Niekro and Atlanta newscaster John Pruitt.

A long time ago, in what seems now another universe, I grew up in rural eastern Georgia. Just down the road from my hometown of Greensboro, a young lady was raised in neighboring Crawfordville. We never met back then, but as fate would have it, she later married one of my dearest and closest friends. When first they met and started dating, I visited with my "second daddy," coach Fred Shaver, and met this lady. She and I discovered, 10 seconds after meeting, that for all practical purposes we already knew each other intimately - she calls me her adopted brother, and I call her my adopted sister.

And that brings me back to that odd duck I mentioned in the first paragraph today, "Old Ed." That's because just last week my "Sis," Gayle Shaver, told me about the Key Biscayne codger who fed shrimp to seagulls while saying "thank you."

It turns out that "Old Ed" was, actually, an American hero named Eddie Rickenbacker. "Old Ed" was a Medal of Honor recipient in World War I, the "Ace of Aces" of the famed 94th "Hat-in-the-Ring" Squadron, who went on to fame as a race car driver at Indianapolis and was the founder of Eastern Air Lines.

What a lot of folks don't know is that in the early days of World War II, when things were going badly for America, Rickenbacker was asked to fly into dangerous territory in the Pacific on a secret mission. His B-17 crashed, and he spent 24 days adrift at sea with virtually no provisions. One day, when things were at their bleakest, as the men lay exhausted in their raft, a seagull alighted on Rickenbacker's military cap. He seized the bird, and cut it up equally for his men to eat, and to use for fish bait. And so it was that the seagull provided sustenance for Rickenbacker's survival.

Yeah, the locals on that pier at Key Biscayne thought "Old Ed" to be an odd old man, to be sure. There he came, almost every Friday, shuffling out to feed shrimp to his seagulls, and muttering "thank you" even as one would land on that worn-out, old, sun-bleached military cap.

But things, you see, are not always what they seem...

Nat Harwell is a Newton County resident whose column appears Sundays in The Covington News.