He was scruffy, smelly and scary-looking and he was approaching our four children.
My wife and I held our breath as he reached into his back pocket.
We were at a Dairy Queen across the street from one of those adult superstores that are as prevalent in Missouri as Husker memorabilia stores are in Nebraska. We had stopped to give the kids a special treat for not asking “are we there yet?” on the seven-hour trip to my parents’ house for our annual Christmas gathering. (Yes, bribery was involved.)
As we waited in line to get our ice cream, the kids noticed one of those coin vortex games, the kind placed in many fast food restaurants to entertain children and raise money for worthy causes. In this case, it was the Children’s Miracle Network.
Naturally, our children pleaded, “Mom, can we have some pennies, PLEASE!”
My wife looked at me and said, “Daddy, do you have any coins?” I shook my head and said, “No.”
While I truly didn’t have any change, the real reason I said “no” was because I didn’t want anything else to slow our progress toward my parents’ house and freedom from the confined space of a minivan loaded with gifts and children with small bladders.
They didn’t scream or throw a fit, but their disappoint was evident, as always. I think I have become immune to their heads hanging low when we tell them “no,” since we have to say it about a thousand times a day, usually for good reason.
A man behind us in line overheard this exchange. He was wearing a Harley-Davidson leather jacket and a black beanie emblazoned with a skull. He hadn’t shaved in at least a week and I don’t think it was because he was trying to grow a beard. He smelled like damp cigarettes and his hands were rough and dirty.
We had barely noticed him behind us in line until he reached into his back pocket. He pulled out his wallet, which was attached by a long silver chain to his front pocket, and grabbed four dollar bills.
“Here,” he said to the kids.
My wife turned red with embarrassment and stared at me as if to say, “What do we do?” Based on his appearance, it was likely that he could not afford to part with four dollars as easily as we could. I looked back at her, dumbfounded, and shrugged. “No, that’s not necessary,” my wife finally said.
“Take it,” he told the kids.
The three youngest grabbed their prizes without a second thought. Our oldest, though, hesitated. Maybe she understood more about the situation. Maybe she knew we had plenty of money to give them for the coin vortex but hadn’t for some good reason.
“Go on,” the man insisted to our oldest. “The other ones got one, you should get one, too.”
She looked at me as if to ask, “Are you sure it’s OK, Dad?”
“Go ahead,” I said with a reassuring pat on her back.
We ushered the kids up to the counter and asked the cashier for some change. As we waited for our ice cream, the kids gleefully poured quarters into the coin vortex and watched as they wound their way to the bottom and, eventually, into the hands of truly needy children.
Our kids probably will not remember this bit of kindness from a complete stranger, but we will. It taught us that we can spare a few moments and a few coins to provide a little bit of happiness to our kids.
It also reminded us that sometimes Santa is dressed in black leather and has a scruffy beard.
Have you gotten a timely reminder from a stranger, or picked up a parenting lesson on the playground? Feel free to share.
Al Watts is the President of Daddyshome, Inc. – The National At-Home Dad Network and an at-home dad of four children living in west Omaha. Read him Wednesdays on momaha.com