Friday, May 18, 2007

The Kindness of Strangers

I took the kids shopping for groceries the other evening at the local Waldo’s store, which is a feat I don’t normally undertake. Any parent could tell you that taking children to any store, for any reason, is like taking on a suicide mission. It’s something nobody wants to do because Real Life isn’t like the movie The Bridge On the River Kwai. But because I couldn’t go during school hours and because there was absolutely nothing to eat in the house and just as William Holden had to blow up the bridge, I had to go to the grocery store.

Typical to my kids, they were shouting, arguing, and jumping all around and that was just in the car on the way to the store. Once our feet hit terra firma, my son commandeered the cart and proceeded to crash it into the Exit door as he tried to enter Waldo’s. Once corrected he nearly ran over a little old lady, two kids, and a dog as he steered toward the Entrance in his haphazard way. Fortunately for us (and them) we made it in unscathed and, upon doing so, he announced, “Now, let’s see…what’s on my list?”

“Your list?” I asked, surprised.
“Yup! I have a list in my head.” That was news to me.

The children immediately began their scavenger hunt, tossing items like chips, candies, and sugar cereal into the cart. General Mom stepped up and brought the troops to attention, “One item per recruit!” I barked.

“Aw, Mom!” they moaned. “Can’t we get more than one thing?”
“I have three things on my list!” says son, disappointed.
“No, just one,” I said firmly. I had to stand my ground.

We commenced shopping and because each child had already selected their one item (from the first aisle), they were bored with shopping and began running to and fro, singing, tussling over who was going to bring which item to the cart, and generally just being themselves: two out-of-control maniacs. (Can’t you tell how patient I am?)

When we rounded the corner of the second aisle – the aisle filled with gadgets and other child-enticers – they ran amok in ecstasy, picking things up, drooling and begging me to buy them. General Mom was close to losing it. The troops were going A.W.O.L. in a bad way. I issued commands in rapid-fire succession, “Company, halt! Forward, march!” They tried to follow orders, putting the coveted extra items back on the shelves, moving their over-excited feet to my chant of “Hut, two, three, four!” but the temptation was too much. They kept breaking formation to pick up another item, and then another, and another, all the while begging and pleading. Fifteen minutes had passed, the General was sinking into a Swirling Vortex of Confusion, and we still had two and a half isles to go when a man in Army casuals stepped up to attention.

“Permission to speak, General Mom,” he requested.
I eyed the stranger warily, then sighed. “Permission granted, soldier,” I said. “At ease.”
“If you would allow me, Ma’am-Sir, I have something that will calm the troops.”
Even though my head was throbbing, I was intrigued. We had been sidetracked on our mission and were close to losing The Battle of The Waldo. A diversion might be the saving grace and as nothing could hurt at this point, I acquiesced, “Fire away,” I sighed.

In the meantime, the kids were running in circles around me, passerby were having difficulty navigating past, we were receiving those “looks” from most everyone, and you know what kind of looks I’m talking about. The situation was embarrassing, to say the least.

The man opened his shoulder pack and extracted something long and skinny and rubbery. He stretched it back and forth rapidly between his hands as he said, “Hey, kids, look at this,” and placed one end of it to his lips. The kids rallied to attention and watched with wide eyes and gaping mouths as the soldier blew up a black balloon.

Once inflated, he knotted the end and twisted it into shape, producing a mighty sword. He turned to my son and said, “Do you promise to use this sword only for good? To defend the universe against the powers of evil? And not to hit your sister or anyone else with it?”
My son nodded, dumbfounded.

He extended his hand, and just as my son grabbed for it, he bopped him on the head, “You promise?”

“Yes!” he shouted overenthusiastically, “I promise!” It was almost too much to take for his six-year-old self.

All the while, my daughter, who had ceased running in place, was watching the transpirations, eyes wide and mouth agape. The man rummaged in his pack again, producing a pink balloon. We watched, amused, as he proceeded to inflate it and twist it into shape, producing a princess wand.

“You,” he said, handing it to her, “have my permission to hit your brother as many times as you’d like with it.”

“Really?” she asked (it was way too good to be true), and just as she was reaching for her prize the Soldier added, “I was just kidding!” Then she knew it was too good to be true, and being the trooper she is, my daughter shouldered her disappointment, and sacrificing her desires for the greater cause, accepted her trophy.

And General Mom, what did she do? Well, I just stood there flabbergasted and amused and pleased, looking on.

“You deserve a commendation, Soldier,” I said.

The Soldier replied, “It was the least I could do General Ma’am-Sir to save your mission.”

“Thank you.”

“Think nothing of it.”

That day, thanks to the kindness of a stranger, the Battle of the Waldo was a success. The Soldier faded into the distance with his shopping cart and I finished my shopping in peace because the kids were happily busy with their new prizes. It wasn’t until I was checking out and exiting the store that I noticed the Kind Stranger once again, this time fashioning another sword for another wide-eyed and open-mouthed boy whose joy was apparent by the bliss written across his face.

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