Not the Sum of Your Past…

““When you settle for less than what you were created for, you have given up on life because you have given up on yourself.”

Charlie Newman

In the summer of 1978, I had moved to Owensboro Kentucky to take a job after having injured myself at Indiana University and losing my athletic scholarship. It was a difficult move for me, still walking with a cane due to a severely atrophied hamstring from my injury. I had been athletic and could now no longer define myself that way. I felt weak, and my limp made me appear fragile and pathetic.

When you no longer can identify yourself by something you do or did, like athletics, you come face to face with the question of who you really are. When we use something we do as a vehicle to define us, we are actually giving it power over us. If we do well, then we are successful but when we do poorly or (worst of all) FAIL at something, then we are losers, failures…the list of adjectives can be endless.This is until we discover that there is a power separate from anything we do that gives us mastery over any and every circumstance. This was exemplified for me by a man I met in Owensboro named Charlie Newman[1].

In the first month I had lived in Owensboro, I kept to myself pretty much. My nights out at 21 years old didn’t include going to bars or any kind of night life. I was depressed, sitting in a motel room that the company I worked for had rented for me until I could find a place to live; a little Motel 6 on the outskirts of town. After moving to an apartment,I still found no real friends or companions to hang out with for months.

I went shopping,cleaned my apartment and went to work day in and day out. After three months, the job didn’t work out, and I began working the night shift; 11 pm until 7 am at a Sunoco gas station near my home. Every night, I would pump gas and scrub the garage bays with detergent and a stiff broom. When winter came; the blizzard of 78’, I would dutifully trudge through the thigh high snow to the Sunoco station to work, going out in howling wind and snow to fill cars with gas, change flat tires and clean dirty mechanics bays.

I still limped but without my cane, and on not a few occasions, I even had some teens drive by and yell out, “Hey gimp!”. I had given up on personal appearance, letting my hair grow, not caring about personal hygiene…I believed I was washed up and this season of snow, dirty tires and smelly gasoline just punctuated the sentence of my life that read, “You are a loser!” It was a time in my life that I had believed that God had given up on me too.

On a particularly cold, snowy night, into the Sunoco station walked Charlie Newman. He was an older man, with a look in his eye that indicated a wisdom hidden beneath his exterior. He was dressed in an impeccable double breasted suit, with shining blue eyes, white hair and a beautiful silk and cashmere overcoat. “Excuse me young man” he announced, “but I believe you may be able to help me.” I said, “Yes sir, how may I be of help? Do you need me to change a tire or fill your car with gas?” I hadn’t seen a vehicle pull into the station. “No,” Charlie continued, “I would like to know if you would allow me to say something to you?”

Without waiting for a response he continued, “I have passed by this station every night for two months, and see you here working every night and I wanted to say to you that you could help me by making me to understand what it is that keeps you going through the snow and ice, doing a job that nobody takes much notice of?”

I was way past being offended by anything. His commentary about my job was exactly what I felt about it. I was cautious however, thinking this guy was a nut job and figured if he went for the cash drawer, I could belt him with a tire iron. There was one thing however that kept me interested in Charlie. Although he dressed like a Wall Street executive, even had a manicure… his face was horribly disfigured.Charlie was a burn victim.

His left cheek looked melted with a missing left ear and his neck was graft upon graft of scarred flesh. No hair grew on this side of his head, just scars and mutilation. The right side of his face was untouched, revealing he had been a very handsome man before his accident. I stuttered a rather disjointed response to his question. “Well, I guess I just need a job and can’t quit until I find another one.”

Charlie smiled gently, with very kind eyes and extended his hand to shake mine. “That is a good response, but it isn’t what keeps you motivated” he said. “Deep down inside you really believe you can make a difference in the world…I can see it!” Then he announced, “My name is Charles Newman, but my friends call me Charlie and I hope you’ll be my friend!”  I smiled back and said something awkward like, “Thanks for stopping in, stay warm and have a nice night”, expecting him to leave. But Charlie wasn’t finished.

“Young man, what is your name?” he asked. “Doug…Pacheco” I replied, not really wanting to give too much information to this stranger. “Doug, is it okay if I call you Doug…I stopped because after observing you for these two months I have come to a particular conclusion about you that I would like to share with you. Would that be alright?”

Okay, I was freaked out now. This dude was stalking me for the past two months and I looked out the corner of my eye to ascertain the exact location of the previously mentioned tire iron. I was confident that the Police were going to stop in as they usually did every night so I felt reasonably confident, although completed creeped out by this guy. 

“Ok”…I said slowly, “go ahead”. There was nothing in his demeanor that lacked confidence or embarrassment by his appearance. He had a silk scarf around his neck with a stitched label which read; “Geoffrey Beane” and a watch that, if I am not mistaken was a Rolex.“Doug,” he continued, “I have observed that you are better than the job you have, and for whatever reason you have landed here.” Now I thought, “Oh brother, this guy is going to ask me if I want to join Amway!” I chuckled to myself because in my depressed condition, I figured this was going to be my lot in life…every multi-tiered marketing persons “mark” from here on out.

I wanted to tell him I had been an All American gymnast, that I had received a full scholarship to a Big 10 University. I wanted to tell him a lot of my accomplishments, but the words couldn’t come out of my mouth. I wasn’t any of those things anymore…even the memory of them was too harsh to remember, so I just remained silent.

He asked about why I limped, he even was audacious enough, after I told him how my injury had occurred, to use the term, “your disability”. Now I DID feel like a gimp. I had a “disability”…thanks a lot!  But he was not apologetic. Charlie explained he knew all about disabilities. He smiled again, with the same kind smile and told me, “There are far too many people who judge you by your outward abilities, or in my case outward disabilities.” “but”, he continued, “if you believe for one second that you are less than anyone else, then THAT is the greatest disability of all.” He shook my hand again and after thanking me for my time he disappeared into the night. I mumbled some meager thanks, and went out into the bay to begin cleaning it. It was not the last I was to see of Charlie Newman.

For the next few months Charlie came by every morning around 3 am. He would bring me coffee, or hot chocolate, sit in the grimy vinyl chair in the gas station and talk to me. He explained how his car exploded in flames as his wife and he were hit on the interstate by a truck. How his wife was driving and was killed, and how he crawled out of the car still on fire…his 25 surgeries and numerous skin grafts.

Charlie was in depression for 10 years, became an alcoholic, tried to commit suicide three times and laughed at how bad he was at killing himself. “the only thing sadder than a person who kills himself is a person who tries to kill himself but stinks at it!” he said. “One day” Charlie told me, “I realized I was still the same man I had always been…my reflection in the mirror was different, but the person behind my eyeballs was still the same guy.” He said, “It was that day I said, I will no longer define who I am by what has happened in my past, but by who I am inside.” He began a company and worked hard at it. It was a new type of business that developed artificial limbs for war veterans and accident victims using titanium and new technologies.

He became wealthy from the business, but said he wanted more. He wanted to help people realize their potential. Charlie had become a Christian shortly after his last suicide attempt. “God wouldn’t let me go down without fighting for me” Charlie would say. “He was more stubborn than I was…and a lot more stubborn than you Doug.” 

Now I had never felt that I had given up on life, but old Charlie said, “When you settle for less than what you were created for, you have given up on life because you have given up on yourself.”

On the last day I saw Charlie, he stopped in for his routine cup of hot chocolate, sat in the dirty vinyl chair and looked at me. He said, “Doug, I am going to be moving on, and won’t be able to come by anymore…business is moving me to another city up north.” “However”, he said, “I want to tell you something and you need to let this hit your gizzard…” “You are here on earth to inspire others…to tell them things to encourage their hearts. You have a good heart, a good soul, and no gas station can contain everything that God has placed inside of you.”

He stood up to leave and shook my hand and said, “I know this because I have been encouraged by hearing your hopes and dreams over these past few months.” “I see people from many tribes and nations someday sitting and reading and listening to your words.” Finally, as he turned to leave he said, “I will be looking for your book someday my friend.” And with that, Charlie Newman walked out of my life forever. I got therapy for my leg, became a missionary to South America for 4 years, and have moved across the country in various jobs throughout my life. But I have never forgotten that we are not our past…we are never the sum of “what we do”,we are separate from those things. Who we are is far more valuable than what we do.

And so, Charlie, wherever you are, my book is coming soon. It is the story of remarkable events in an unremarkable life…and the lives of those I have known, including you…a man who taught me that the greatest disability was believing I had one and who changed my life on a snowy winter in 1978.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s