I packed up my once a year winter coat as I got ready to leave the cold New Jersey weather and headed into Newark Airport to join the long winding line for security. Despite my ‘Premier’ status – which can only reasonably be explained by obstinance or being a glutton for punishment, the line appeared ridiculously long.
The man behind me was incredulous that this could be Premier. Despite the sign above his head confirming exactly that, he asked the agent whether this was the Premier line and pleaded his case to get to a faster line, being tight on time. The employee gave no ground and told him he’d have to wait. Uncharacteristically, I happened to have plenty of time so offered him the spot ahead of me, suggesting that perhaps others would do the same. This being New Jersey, he looked at me with a sort of half-smile and said, ‘Thanks, but one person really won’t make a difference.’ At that point, I insisted that he move ahead of me since I knew from the story I’d heard the night before that this simply wasn’t true.
I’d been having dinner with my mom who lives in a retirement community. Her new neighbor, a kind, jovial and engaging 80-something widower, joined us for dinner. He beamed with pride talking about his four grandchildren and two sons, one an engineer and one in healthcare. And his wife of 42 years who went from, when they were first married ‘not even knowing how to cook a burger’ to being something of an accomplished chef. He worked for a precursor of a company merged many times since for – it seems impossible to believe these days – 37 years. He keeps at least three of his female friends (ratios being what they are after 80…) laughing and entertained most nights and is a regular at the community ping pong table.
His Hungarian-scented English made me wonder how his journey to becoming an American had come to be, so I asked, why America? He took a long drink of water and, eyebrows raised, began to share.
Both of his parents owned their own businesses outside of Budapest and he was brought up Christian. This was the mid-1950s with Communism on the rise so religious leanings and capitalism were no-nos that prevented him from being accepted to secondary school. Through an eventual loophole he managed to complete high school but by the time he was 21 his uncle was jailed for being part of the wrong party. So at 21 he decided to leave the country – and his family, as they all agreed there was no future there for him. Off he went to Austria where he worked for a few months and met two friends, who all decided to move to Switzerland. They’d packed one bag for all three of their belongings, and as the bus was packed up with travelers, his friends’ names had been called but his hadn’t. Upon checking with the man in charge, he learned there were 21 names on the list but only 20 seats on the bus. They boarded alphabetically. And his name starts with Z.
So off went his friends, his belongings, and his sense of a future to a country where he wasn’t headed. What must have seemed a heartbreaking setback forced him to figure out a Plan B. Which was to come to the US just a few months later, despite not knowing a word of English.
To see the pride of the life he created and how fully he’s living it is inspiring. It’s also a reminder that life, perhaps, happens for us rather than to us. And clearly it’s a reminder that just one person can in fact make all the difference in the world.