My 15-year-old daughter didn’t seem very enthusiastic when I called home recently and delivered the news that I had found the person who I wanted her to marry someday.
“Yeah, okay,” she said, nearly stifling a yawn. “Put mom on the phone.”
I was as excited as all get-out when I came across 15-year-old “Ben.” (Actually, I never did catch the his real name, but I’ll call him that because he was wearing a Pittsburgh Steelers shirt when I met him in the dining car of an Amtrak train and because of his admiration for the team’s quarterback.)
I met Ben while travelling to the Chemical Coaters Association International conference in Oregon via the Amtrak train from Michigan, after spending time at the National Association for Surface Finishing show in Chicago.
With Oregon seemingly across the universe from my home, my wife and I decided to spend two days on the Amtrak and see what the land really looks like when you aren’t 30,000 feet above it. I hadn’t ridden on an Amtrak train in three decades, and my wife had never done so, so we booked a two-seat sleeper car and enjoyed the ride through Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana and Idaho, and eventually into Seattle, Wash., where we disembarked and drove down to Mt. Hood in Oregon for the CCAI meetings.
It was somewhere in North Dakota that we went to the dining car for our nightly meal and sat next to Ben and his grandfather, a 70-ish-looking fella. I gave Ben heck about his Steelers, who have won five Super Bowls while my beloved Bungles have nil.
“Six,” he corrected me with a smirk, then he lifted his Steelers shirt to show me his Pink Floyd concert tee. From that point, my admiration for this young man began to blossom. The conversation segued into Lynyrd Skynyrd, Tom Petty and the Allman Brothers, my mind absorbed by the intelligent observations flowing from Ben’s 15-year-old brain.
My wife injected reality into the conversation by asking about Ben and his grandfather’s trip, information that made me decide I wanted Ben to be my son-in-law someday.
He explained that his grandfather and grandmother had talked about travelling west for years, visiting the Rockies, going to California, seeing the Pacific Ocean … things we all have on our bucket lists, I guess. But Ben had mentioned his grandmother in the past tense.
“They had talked about coming out west for so many years,” he said, turning to look at his grandpa. “But we lost her last year. It just never got done.”
It was suddenly quiet. I knew what was going through his grandfather's mind: Someday we’ll go there; someday we’ll see that. It just didn’t happen.
So Ben and his grandfather planned the trip from their home in Indiana aboard the Amtrak Empire Builder, to Glacier National Park in Montana for three days, to San Francisco for a few more days and then back home to Evansville.
“Fisherman’s Wharf,” his grandfather said. “I can’t wait to see that.”
Perhaps Ben’s grandmother sat him down before she took her last breath and asked her grandson to go on this cross-country adventure with a man 60 years his senior. Maybe it was suggested by Ben’s father or mother. Maybe Ben decided on his own to make his grandpa’s dream come true; we don’t question people’s genorosity or their humanity.
Whatever the inspiration, Ben spending much of the summer before his sophomore year riding the rails with his grandfather is a testament to his character, which will get him far in life.
Ben said he played on his school football team and that summer workouts and practices had already begun.
“I probably won’t play this year,” he said. “But this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, right Grandpa?”
With that, the man turned and smiled at his grandson, nodding in affirmation without moving his lips. But it didn’t need to be said. The love and respect the boy had for his elder was palpitating; the care and tenderness he showed on this voyage could have been measured in metric tons.
If I could only be so lucky, I thought, to have someone caring for me in my last years as much as Ben cares about his grandfather.
My wife and I finished our meals and left to go back to our cabin. Ben and his grandfather had about an hour before they detrained at Glacier National Park, and so they were going to wait it out in the dining car. I wished them well, shook their hands and walked away. The 40 minutes I spent with Ben and his grandpa was up there with a few other milestones I consider to be the Top 10 moments in my life.
Heroes come in odd shapes, sizes and circumstances. This one I named Ben.