I hadn't thought about Sam for years. He was a minor figure in my childhood who made a lasting impression on me because of his sensitivity to kids. When I started thinking about Sam, I began to remember other adults who briefly figured in my childhood for similar reasons. All were unassuming, humble and kind, and they were celebrities in my mind. Below is my recent newspaper column and Troy Media post.
"Sam, Sam the grader man" made a splash in the movie of my life
You don’t need to win an Academy Award to make a splash in the movie of someone’s life.
I was reminded of this when I read Sam’s obituary in my local paper. Sam worked in the village where I grew up and where I settled after a stint in the big city. While I quickly came to respect Sam for the precision and efficiency with which he did his job when I became a village homeowner and taxpayer, I remember him most vividly from my childhood days.
As children, we knew Sam as “Sam, Sam the grader man”, a nickname that expressed our universal liking for the man with whom most of us had never even spoken. We called Sam “the grader man” because he operated the grater, which in those days, doubled as the snowplow.
A terrifying machine
The grader was a noisy, brute of a machine, and for some of us little kids trudging to and from school on a snowy winter’s day, the grader would have been terrifying except for Sam. After a heavy snowfall, when I heard the grader at the end of my street in the morning, I would pray that “Sam, the grader man” would be on duty that day.
When I saw Sam at the controls, I always breathed a bit easier because Sam would pull the grader with its massive and frightening blade over to the side, and pause to let us pass. If for some reason he could not do this, he would slow down, make eye contact with us, and give us a little wave as if to say, “Don’t be afraid, don’t worry. I see you.” Sam’s wave allayed our fears of the adult world and reassured us that our little lives mattered.
Sam was not the only grown up who made a splash as a minor actor in the movie of my childhood. Two women, each of whom left an impression on me spiritually, readily come to mind.
Two memorable women
One was my first grade catechism teacher. Class was held in her home after school, and while I remember only one lesson from that year, on Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden, I will always remember the teacher’s warmth, gentleness and kindness; her very person conveyed the idea that while our mistakes might get us kicked out of the garden, love would take us back there.
The other woman sponsored a sodality for teenage girls. We prayed around the chrome and arborite kitchen table in her home, and we discussed church teaching and moral-ethical issues. More than any specific topic, I remember our sponsor’s non-judgmental and loving approach that challenged us to expand our viewpoints, improve our relationships and nurture our souls.
The people who deserve admiration are right in front of us
In the movie of my life, Sam and these two women were like actors who make memorable cameo appearances, appearing in a scene or two before exiting the stage. In the eyes of the viewing audience, they wouldn’t qualify for an Academy nomination let alone an Oscar, but to my childhood eyes, Sam and these women were celebrities. Their quiet, unassuming ways made a deep impression on me. They walked humbly and acted kindly and in doing so, each of them graced my childhood in their own unique fashion.
Often, as a society, we obsess over the rich and famous; yet, it is unlikely that the celebrities we fawn over will positively influence us personally in a meaningful or permanent way. More often than not, the people who touch our lives and are most deserving of our admiration are right in front of us; they are the Sams of our life, and our movie would be less without them.
The film of my life will never be “Best Picture” material. I’m hoping, though, that if I live well enough, somewhere within my daily and ordinary existence, there will be an Oscar winning performance, one small scene where I will be somebody's "Sam."
Postscript: I received an email from a reader who knew Sam, and attended his retirement party. She recollected that one of the speaker's referred to Sam as "the greater man", a fitting tribute, in my mind, to the "grader man" who made an impact on us.