It was in the late 70’s down in the Yacht Club of Cape Coral Florida when I had my defining moment. That one moment in time that helps shape a huge part of who you are for the rest of your life. The memory is as vivid as it is true.
The heat was like no other. As a young guy from northern Wisconsin, the August Florida heat was something that took a bit of getting used to. Seventeen years old, a wicked bowl cut, and some snazzy short shorts, I made my way down to the local racquet ball court to sharpen my skills.
It was so different then, I mean so different. The Cape was so small; you could practically walk everywhere.
I remember taking my usual route to the court. I’d pass Mr. Schneider’s house, then a few more down was Mrs. Tomlinson who always invited our family over for her “world famous” meatballs. Just thinking about them makes me hungry.
But then there was Dennis’s house. We met the first day my family moved down here, and I remember he just had this look in his eye. That sort of, twinkle, that a special type of person has. I knew right away we’d make a great pair of friends.
But Dennis wasn’t like any of my other friends. He wasn’t considered normal, and often was made fun of. See, Dennis was mentally challenged, and I don’t know exactly what his diagnosis was, but it didn’t matter, I just knew we were going to hit it off.
By the time I passed Mrs. Tomlinson’s house, I already had a good portion of sweat worked up on the back of my shirt. It would bead up on my brow, then slowly drip and burn my eyes, and I remember muttering, “Please, God, just a little breeze would be nice. Come on!”
That’s when Dennis came running up to me. He was practically falling down his parent’s front porch steps he was in such a hurry. It was a nice house, Key West style, on the corner.
“Kevin, you’ve got to see what I got” he yelled as he reached for his pockets.
“Oh man” I thought, “what could it possibly be now?”
Proudly, Dennis held up two brand new walkie talkies that his parents had just gotten him. I remember the sun beating down on us, and the sun reflecting off the bright silver metal on them. At this point, my cotton shirt was stuck to my back.
“Can you believe it, Kevin?” he said with his eyes big and wide.
Dennis was practically tripping over his words he was so excited. “These are so cool! Here, here, watch this!”
He took the two walkie talkies, put them face to face, waited a moment, and then clicked both buttons.
“SQUAAAAAAAAK” howled the two little devices. It was so high pitched, my ears were ringing.
“Isn’t that so cool, Kevin? Isn’t it?” he said, wide eyed, waiting for my approval of the new toy.
“I’ve never seen anything like that Dennis, you’re so lucky you got those!”. I always made sure to make him feel good about his newest fixation of the day.
I invited Dennis to continue my walk with me down to the courts so I could have an audience member as I practiced my backhand swing against the tall grey concrete wall.
I took my first swing. A little left. I adjusted my grip and had laser focus on my next shot.
“SQUAAAAAAAAK” I heard coming from the side of the court. I smirked to myself, along with a little head shake. It was good to see Dennis so happy.
As I continued hitting the ball against the wall, the sun never stopped beating on me. I felt myself getting hotter, more sweat burning my eyes, the complete lack of wind. Not being one to quit, I convinced myself going home into the air conditioning wasn’t an option. I had to perfect my backhand shot.
That’s when it happened. That’s when my defining moment took place.
It was sudden.
“Hey Dennis, whatcha got there, loser?” I heard another voice say.
“Looks like the dweeb got some new presents from mommy and daddy!” taunted another.
“Um” hesitated Dennis, “a couple of new walkie talkies”. His eyes began to swell with tears, “get away from me!”
It happened so fast, but in my memory, it seems like it took an eternity. I watched the two neighborhood bullies, David and Mark, standing there in front of Dennis as he sat helpless on the observer’s bench.
Before I could say or do anything, David reached over, grabbed both walkie talkies, and ripped the antennas off about 6 inches from Dennis’s face.
Another bead of sweat in my eyes. The sound of Cicada insects buzzing was almost deafening. The sun’s rays were directly in my eyes as I watched tears roll down Dennis’s face. So hot. My shirt stuck to my body, the sweat marks on Mark and David’s backs, a dog panting as it walks past with its owner.
A second later, I found myself only inches from where David and Mark were standing as they were turning around to see what was coming towards them. I had never sprinted so fast.
The heat. The heat was something else. I remember it feeling like my insides were boiling, like I was about to erupt like a volcano. More sweat in my eyes, the Cicadas were buzzing louder, the dog looking like it was about to pass out.
It was too much. Watching the tears come down Dennis’s face, the two small cylindrical antennas rolling away on the ground. Within a fraction of time, I had thrusted both Mark and David into the chain link fence. The backs of their heads mashed into the diamond shaped metal, a look of fear and surprise in their eyes. The potential energy building in the metal of the fence was building as their bodies were falling farther and farther into the fence.
Suddenly, the fence spit them back out, like a Bass spits a lure, and they flew through the air.
David and Mark’s faces buried in the hardened clay surface, I yelled, “If I ever see you around Dennis again, you’re gonna have an even worse thing coming!”
Looking back, I can’t help but think I could’ve done a bit better on my threat.
Just inches from Mark’s face, I retrieved the two antennas from the ground where blood had started to trickle from his nose.
The walk home was quiet. Dennis walked with his head down, his two broken walkie talkies in his hands. I’ve never seen someone look so sad.
But then something happened.
As we approached his house, he turned and looked at me, wiping a leftover tear from under his eye.
“Kevin”, he sniffed. “What you did back there means the world to me. I get picked on a lot, and it’s nice to know someone actually cares about those who are helpless.”
Of course I’m paraphrasing because the memory is distant, but what is crystal clear is how I felt in that moment.
See, it wasn’t about me fending off or hurting a couple of bullies to protect Dennis. It was how, at that moment, Dennis changed my outlook on life. Seeing someone as kind and gentle as Dennis sitting there, tears in his eyes, holding his broken prized possession was enough to be anyone’s defining moment.
40 years later, his story still reminds me to protect and look out for those who are helpless or being taken advantage of. You see, selfishly, the satisfaction of taking those who are beaten down, helpless, or at the end of their rope with any aspect of their life, and making everything ok again, is the greatest feeling on earth.
Remembering the look on Dennis’s face as he stood there thanking me for what I had done on his parent’s front steps has stuck with me, and will, forever.
In my business life, it’s almost indescribable how many clients we come across that remind me of Dennis. A lot of times, they’re literally in tears, like Dennis was. They either got scammed by a bad property management company, or their investment was completely neglected and not properly taken care of. For many of these people, this is their whole retirement plan, and to watch them suffer from bad experiences drives me insane.
But, like my story with Dennis, nothing makes me happier than helping people. Nothing.