Of all my many travels and adventures around the globe, people often ask me which is the greatest, of which did I learn my most crucial lesson about life. I don’t even have to think about it; it wasn’t along the Amazon River, or while canoeing across the Yukon Territory or solo-sailing the Caribbean. It wasn’t parachuting out of airplanes into Panama or Korea or chasing commie guerrillas in Latin America. The lesson that has guided my life ever since was attained from a nameless bureaucratic employee in the hills of eastern Oklahoma when I was twelve years old.
My dad could neither read nor write; Mom quit school in the eighth grade. The family consisting of my parents, two younger brothers and myself was so poor that poverty was a step up. We lived in a dirt-floored former chicken house, an old barn, and shacks as we toiled in cotton fields and bean patches.
But we were proud people. Unlike today with its “entitlement mentality” when people clamor for charity, demand that the successful give to those who for various reasons rather be wards of an all-encompassing, paternal state, my lean, hard-working dad would have been humiliated to have to accept assistance from others or from the state.
One year, however, when I was twelve, the family was so hard up that Dad sent me with a gunny sack to the county barn to sign up for what he called “gimpy groceries.” You know, government surplus commodities. Beans, cheese, dried milk. . . Dad was too proud to go himself.
I was always a scrappy little kid handy with my fists and taking guff from nothing walking on earth. During the process of queuing to receive free groceries, one of the employees grabbed me and pushed me back into line. I was immediately ready for a dustup. It didn’t matter that the guy was forty years old and outweighed me by more than a hundred pounds.
He looked at me and sneered the single phrase that most influenced the rest of my life.
“Boy, if the government feeds you, it’ll do what it damn well pleases.”