…about 45 years ago, breaking my shoelace, and getting a great Zen lesson from my step-dad. John Wesley Welton was a basic, one-layer guy. No frills, no hidden meanings. He said what he meant and meant what he said. He married my Mom when I was fourteen and displaced me as “Man of the Family.” We rarely talked, and this remembrance moment is true to form.
He never asked me about my thoughts, and our “conversations” were mostly sound bites, uttered at me to determine their value and to grasp all their nuances in the fewest possible words. His response to “How are you doing?” was always, “Another Beautiful Day in Californay" (yes, pronounced with a nay at the end, and unfortunately most likely responsible for my infamous blog and same question response of “Another Day in Paradise”). Another of his favorites was, “A Little War is Good for Business, but a Big War is Great for Business.” This was a quick summary of his opinion of Roosevelt’s economic plan. His other great sound bite was “Just do the best you can with what you’ve got"...oddly, a play on Roosevelt’s classic: “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”
I was seventeen, it was 1965, and I was frustrated. I didn’t like being only seventeen, dependent, no money, living in Rancho Cordova, thinking I was way smarter than practically all adults in my world (after all, I had just read Kafka and Melville) , and anxious to get started building the story of my life. I was getting ready for a date and was running late, and I rushed into the family room to get the family car keys from my step-dad. John had been a Chief Warrant Officer in the U.S. Navy. From someone who had to live with one of those guys, he was the officer-in-charge, who inspected your bunk and uniform and denied you shore leave if everything wasn’t perfect. John gave me a one second glance, said “Your shoelace is untied” and went back to reading the paper.
In my increasing frustration, I yanked on my laces to tie the bow, a lace snapped, and I succeeded in punching myself in the face as hard as person can from that bent-over position. Uttering the favorite expletive of most 17-year old boys, I ripped off my wingtip and threw it against the wall.
John never looked up from the paper, but said: "Don’t replace just the broken one, change both of them or you will regret it. Shoe laces are in my Dopp Kit in my closet.”
Determined to not speak, I silently got the laces, ripped out the old ones, and started the laborious process of re-lacing my shoes. Without putting the paper down, John said: “I broke my shoelaces when I was seventeen, too. It was Sunday, December 7, 1941.”
I stopped messing with my shoes and sat down. My step-dad NEVER talked about being in the war. All I knew was that he was at Pearl Harbor on that infamous date in history, but he would never talk about it.
He continued: “I was seventeen, hated my life and wanted to do something big. I used a fake ID and joined the Navy to get into the Great War. I was stationed at Pearl Harbor and had the world by the tail. My two buddies and I were going to the mess hall that morning and I broke a shoelace getting dressed. I hated being late and they were giving me a hard time. My friend told me: ‘Don’t replace just the broken one, change both of them or you will regret it.’ As I was replacing the laces, one of my buddies yelled: ‘Look at this, some fool has his plane all painted up like a Jap Zero and is buzzing the airfield. He is really going to get his ass in a sling for this.’ Those were the last words he ever said, because the Zero was real and a spray of bullets cut them both down right there in the doorway, plus a bunch of other guys walking to the mess hall. If my shoelace hadn’t broken, I’d be dead with the rest of them and wouldn’t be here now. Sometimes, things that seem like a bad thing at the time, turn out not to be so bad after all.”
That was it. No more discussion. He had nothing more to say, so I snagged the car keys and because the date was more important and I was seventeen, the Zen was lost on me at the time. However, the older I get and the more experiences I have, the stronger that moment gets in my memory.
Here I am, 45 years later, and now I really “get it."
I have since experienced a lot of “Broken Shoelaces”...like losing a job and finding a better one as a result...like losing a relationship and finding a better one as a result...and like getting Cancer and having a better “finish” to my life as a result. “Sometimes, things that seem like a bad thing at the time turn out not to be so bad after all.”
By the way, I was really late for the date. It didn’t work out, and she liked my friend better, anyway.