I met an impressive man once under a cloudy sky in New Orleans. He was humble, quiet, and unassuming, yet he was followed by a throng of people who attended to his every need. His intelligent eyes examined every person in his path as he walked the trail of post-Katrina destruction.
After his tour, he stopped at Belle Chasse Naval Air Station to thank the military service members who were mobilized to help bring some sense of order to the fear and confusion gripping that city. A veteran himself, he displayed a swelling heart of pride and admiration for all of the uniformed personnel he came in contact with. His eyes moistened as he listened to the story of a young airman who, in the midst of escaping the ravaging floodwaters in her neighborhood, had to tie her dead mother to a corner of her house so she could return after the waters receded to claim her body. He hugged her before turning to the next person.
He settled into an outdoor picnic area for lunch with some of the personnel there, but seating was limited. The rest of us had to stand back a distance and try to capture this event with low-resolution cell phone cameras that were standard fare in 2005. As he ate, he laughed heartily at a comment made by one soldier sitting across from him, patted the shoulder of another sitting next to him, and seemed genuinely interested in the conversation going on around him.
As he got up to leave, I noticed a cordoned-off path leading from the picnic tables to a building. I assumed this would be the path of egress for this gentleman, so I walked over to one side of it and waited to see if he would come by. He rose from his table, collected his trash, and took it to a bin himself. I remember being surprised he didn’t have someone take it for him, and I was struck again at the humility that seemed out of place for a man of his stature.
I guessed he would quickly pass by and on to the next thing on his undoubtedly tight schedule, so I readied my cell phone in the hopes of catching a picture of him passing by. By this time others had joined me and I was sort of pressed against the tight rope outlining his path. He didn’t seem to be in much of a hurry though, as he slowly made his way up the walkway, pausing to shake hands along the way. He wasn’t running for office, so this was not the typical sprint-paced grip-and-grin.
As he made his way toward my position, I tensed in the hopes that I would be favored with a handshake as well. He stopped a few feet from me to shake another hand, and as he turned to walk again, he stopped in front of me. His eyes regarded me for a second and I was frozen in place. He flashed me a grin that had served him well throughout life, extended his hand, and said, “George Bush. The older one. Thank you for your service, son.” I managed to stammer out a “thank you, Mr. President…” as he turned to walk away. Mine was the last hand he shook in that place.
I have always lived by one governing principle in regard to other people: I am never as impressed with anyone as they are with themselves. What I saw that day was a former U.S. president touring a ravaged city and loving on the people who suffered, as well as those who were there to help. I was not impressed that day with the office he once held. I was deeply impressed with the man that he is.
Frank Vaughn, award-winning columnist and aspiring author, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow/like Frank Vaughn on Facebook, @fnvaughn on Twitter and fnvaughn on Instagram.