Last week was a bit of a milestone for me. The Gulf State Park Pier was reopened after almost five years of rebuilding since the devastation of Hurricane Ivan. During that period of time, I also wrote and released The Noticer, a book that begins its story under that very pier.
With Polly and Adam sick and battling the mysterious illness that I brought home from some nameless air passenger days before, Austin and I set out from home to attend the opening of the pier. We arrived in the parking lot and immediately began exchanging greetings with people I had not seen in years . . . some since my pier days.
Local mayors, state senators—even Bob Riley, the Governor of Alabama, was there. And tons of press. This pier, at 1,520 feet, is by far the longest ever built anywhere on the gulf coast. It is a beautiful engineering feat being counted upon to aid the tourist industry in this area. It is big news for the state and the entire gulf coast.
As we walked up the ramp to the first level, I received more than a few winks and funny greetings from those who were there for the opening and recognized the irony of my presence. More than 150 members of the press corps were gathered in the pavilion surrounded by several hundred more bystanders.
As the ceremony began, several of us spoke about the old structure and what it had meant to the area. I explained how I had come to use “the underneath” part of the pier as much as everyone else used the “on top”. I also noted wryly that though the new structure was larger, it was not nearly as comfortable underneath as the pier I had experienced years earlier. The new pier has a wooden top instead of a concrete slab. Rainwater dripping through the slats will render the space unlivable for anyone with the same idea.
After the spoken words were completed, the crowd clapped and the cameras flashed as the ribbon was cut to officially reopen the Gulf State Park Pier. Who held the scissors? The governor and the guy who slept under the pier 27 years ago! What a thrill! Governor Riley shook hands and talked with Austin for a bit and told the assembled crowd that he was currently reading The Noticer. Wow!
Later, we walked all the way out to the end and watched the action and applauded as one guy hauled in a 40-pound King Mackerel. Flounder, bluefish, and Spanish were coming over the rail as Austin could hardly contain his excitement. John Giannini was there catching fish. He and I huddled and were so excited we giggled like little kids!
John was a kid on the pier when I was a kid on the pier. We fished side by side for years as the older men patiently taught us methods and manners. Sportsmanship was enforced by these old “salts” who molded us into great fishermen and good citizens. Through the years, I watched John grow into a successful businessman. I was very aware that his life, too, had been shaped by the pier. He now owns J&M Tackle, a beautiful retail establishment in Orange Beach that does a thriving catalog business all over the world.
Driving home, Austin asked about the folks who had commented about my sleeping under the pier. He wanted to know if I had been bothered by the teasing . . . “No buddy,” I explained. “They are proud of me and what I managed to endure and eventually accomplish. The people around here own a large part of our success because they encouraged me and helped me during that time. So, in a way, any success I manage to achieve today is their success, too. Even The Noticer . . . that is their book, too!”
After a pause, I added, “You know, Austin, when we go in J&M and buy rods or bait or snacks, that is a way we honor and encourage our friend, Mr. John. I watched him as a little kid learning to fish like you and Adam do now. Then, as a young man, our community watched as he made good choices and built a business that came from his love of fishing. So we are all proud of him, too. And we all feel a part of his success.”
That afternoon, I sat alone in my office and listed several people whose lives had become something I was proud to have invested in. More importantly perhaps, I identified a couple or three people really struggling right now to whom I needed to give a book or encourage in some way. And I have since done that.
This exercise added a sense of fulfillment and directed purpose to my life at that very moment.
So right now: Write down the name of a person whose life you feel proud of their success . . . you feel a part of that success in a way because you prayed faithfully or encouraged or helped in some way . . .
Second . . . Who, within the scope of your world (and you may not even know their name) could you encourage with conversation, work, a book, a smile, a sandwich, or a pat on the back? When will you do it?
I think back upon the thousands of people who have reason to claim success every time I release a book or appear on television. Most names I do not even remember. But the conversations, soft drinks, clothes, company, direction, extra food, loving discipline, jobs, forgiveness, free tackle, compassion, socks, saltine crackers, trust, smiles, and a hundred and one other things I could list have all piled up in my heart. These things and words and deeds make me very grateful that you folks saw some value in me during the past 27 years.
A bitter young man does not crawl out from under a pier by himself.