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Archive for January, 2013

By E. P. Ned Burke

He wasn’t physically attractive. But, inside, he was beautiful.

His name was Harry Davenport. I know because he showed me his birth certificate. And why and when he showed it to me is the basis for this little tale.

It was the hot and rainy summer of 1972. Hurricane Agnes turned the placid Susquehanna River in northeastern Pennsylvania into a raging monster that flooded the entire Wyoming Valley. The city of Wilkes Barre sank beneath 30 feet of water. More than 24,000 homes were damaged and it was weeks before the 14 trillion gallons of unwanted water finally receded.

As soon as the National Guard helped to clean things up, the politicians and other VIPs arrived in their clean suits and shiny cars. They all promised to “share the pain” of the victims. In reality, however, most fled soon after the TV crews left.

But it was my job as a reporter to endure their pontifical speeches, take notes, and write my story. I finally sought solace away from the hypocrisy to a nearby park bench. My youthful idealism was quickly turning into a newsman’s cynicism. I began to wonder if there was one unpretentious, honest man left in the human race.

That was when I met Harry.

He was sitting near the end of the bench. He looked like what we would call today a “street person.” He wore a large, tattered coat with several sweaters beneath it. His pants were baggy and caked with mud.

He looked so weary and sad that I offered to get him a cup of coffee from the nearby Red Cross stand. He seemed surprised at my gesture, but, nevertheless, accepted the offer. After giving him the coffee, I returned to my notes. Then I heard him speak.

“Nice day, taint it?”

I found the old man’s words unwelcome, interrupting my train of thought. I was facing a deadline. I needed solitude.

However his sad, toothless smile beckoned me to share a few moments with him. He told me his name was Harry. He said he had been on his own for a very long time. When I asked just how long, he didn’t answer.

I went back to my notes and he interrupted again, asking what I was writing. I said something about the hypocrisy of politicians. He wasn’t ashamed to ask me what the word “hypocrite” meant. He nodded when I told him and said he had run into “dem kind” over the years. I was sure that he had. Yet, he didn’t seem bitter about it.

“Dem’s folks jes like youse and me,” he said. “Dey’s jes tryin’ to be somethin’ dey ain’t.” He paused and added, “Shucks, I’d like to be somebody else too  . . .  I guess.” Then he fell silent again and looked away.

As we sat side-by-side, an unpretentious old man and this young reporter full of himself, it occurred to me that perhaps not every politician was hypocritical, nor did every newsman have to be cynical. Maybe, just maybe, there was hope for the integrity of man in this mixed-up world after all.

“I tink it’s my birthday today,” Harry said, interrupting my thoughts again. Then he dug deep into his layers of clothing and withdrew an old, crumpled document and showed it to me.

I could see it was a birth certificate. “Harry Davenport?” I said.

Harry smiled weakly and pointed a dirty thumb to his chest. “Yep, dat’s me.”

I glanced at the date of birth and told him it was indeed his birthday that day. “Happy birthday, Harry,” I said, and shook his withered hand.

He appeared embarrassed and withdrew his hand sheepishly and looked away. I felt uncomfortable myself and decided it was time to go and interview a few politicians. But as I got up to leave, I felt Harry’s hand tugging at my sleeve.

I looked down and saw that his eyes were moist. His large-veined hand shook as he pointed a crooked finger to the date on the old document.

“How old am I?” he asked, fighting back tears.

Like I said, Harry was beautiful.

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