Meet Leland Duff. He is 85 years old and he’s standing in front of the smoldering remains of his house. Buying a watermelon from him was the most important money I’ve spent all year.
I just returned from a road trip. I was gone just under 2 weeks and I put over 1,200 miles on my car. The road was calling to me. I’ve been trying to get a couple work things off the ground, none of which are showing signs of an immediate paycheck. I realized I could either sit at home and obsess about the status of my bank account, or I could actually take advantage of my new found free time. I headed first to Hot Springs, Arkansas. Last year when I was on the road for 5 months, I was taken in by a 73 year old Curandera and embraced by a community of people in Hot Springs. I hoped visiting them, soaking in the thermal waters, hiking and mining for crystals would nourish my soul and help kick start an optimistic spin on the status of my life. It did. So did Eureka Springs, where I rented a cottage in the Ozarks for a few days. The road is a wise one, and she has taught me many things. I have missed the wisdom of the road. So when I started my road trip I was left wondering what lessons of the road I would bring home with me. Little did I know that the most profound wisdom would come from two elderly men.
I met Leroy on my third day in Hot Springs. I pulled into a gas station at the same time as a beat up rusty red pickup truck. As I walked into the convenience mart I noticed an elderly man get out of the truck and slowly make his way towards the store. By that time I already had a Sprite and a banana in my hand and was standing at the register. The man, Leroy, walked in and cut in line ahead of me. My first reaction was annoyance, but then I figured he was old so I wouldn’t raise a fuss about him budding in front of me.
“I’ll buy $10 of gas and her Sprite and banana,” he said pointing at me. I gushed my gratitude as we walked outside together. I asked him why he did this for me.
“I was married to the love of my life for 48 years. She died last year. I didn’t know how to live without her,” he said. “But then I realized that if I keep doing nice things for people, I feel happy.”
I was still thinking about Leroy the next week when I was driving towards Texas through Oklahoma. I was hit with a muscle spasm in my left mid-back, which was so bad that I knew I needed to stop immediately and stretch. The only thing around was a fruit stand, so I pulled in. A frail elderly man sat in a folding chair, quietly hunched over looking at his wrinkled hands which were folded in his lap. A calico cat was on the ground next to him and some burning trash was smoldering in the nearby field behind him.
He stood up and shuffled over to me as I picked out some fruit. I noticed that the cat followed him and stood by his side. I bought a box of peaches and then asked him if I could walk Yoda in the field. He didn’t mind, so I grabbed Yoda’s leash and let him out of the car. That’s when the cat started hissing and arched her back. She walked wide circles around the old man, with her eyes never leaving Yoda during our walk. After I put Yoda back in Princess Leia the Prius, and just before I hopped in to drive away,
I said to the man, “You have yourself a guard cat.”
He responded, saying, “This cat saved my life 2 nights ago.” It turns out that the smoldering trash was actually the smoking remains of his cottage. His name is Leland Duff and he is 85 years old.
Leland had been sound asleep when a stray cat, the calico, jumped in through an open window and landed on his chest. He woke up to find the roof on fire. His house, and all his belongings, burned to the ground. The cat hasn’t left his side since. His landlord, the owner of the fruit stand, brought him a one-room trailer to live in with a yellow toilet outside that faces the highway. He told me that if he sells enough fruit the landlord told him that he will rebuild the cottage for him to live in. I immediately bought a watermelon. Then, with tears in my eyes, I told him how sorry I was for his loss.
He looked at me with a toothless, crooked smile and said, “I’m an old man and I’ve been through a lot in my long life.” He continued with, “What I’ve learned is that bad stuff happens….and then it gits better.”
As I drove away, I realized that the purpose of my road trip was to meet these two men. They have taught me my most recent lessons of the road:
Do nice things for people, and you’ll feel happy.
Bad stuff happens…and then it “gits” better.
**Visit Leland’s fruit stand in Oklahoma on Highway 69S between Stringtown and Atoka. Be sure to buy lots of fruit to help fund his new home.