An “Oakley” in my life

In memory of my friend Ted Szczepanski who passed away this week 105 years young. Ted was one of the “Oakleys” in my life (the ability to influence others in a positive way with your standing and experience). God bless you Ted Szczepanski for the example you set and the stories you told for those who now follow in your footsteps. As I wrote in my third book I believe God purposely puts people in your path to ground your thinking and help you reset your navigation. Ted, we now pick up the responsibility to share our stories and be the person in their path to enrich their lives. Rest in peace.

Excerpt from my book “I Need to Change my Plants”    Oak trees live for a long time. Throughout history people connected this longevity to wisdom and sought the shade of oak trees when making important decisions. Gatherings would take place below its branches and disputes settled. Perceived  wisdom exuded from the tree would help them resolve disputes fairly. And because the oak species is one of the last to shed its leaves in fall and winter, ancient cultures would view this as a sign of determined, dogged, steadfast will and determination.

I decide to seek out more Oakleys in my life. To harvest wisdom. I didn’t need to know all the answers….. I just needed the right answers. 

Thomas Jefferson once said that while he was an old man, he was yet a young gardener, with still so much to learn. There are gardens to grow, seeds to sow, trees to plant and relationships to nurture. As we do this we reflect like Jefferson on the finiteness of our own lifespan. If we can balance inevitable change with well grounded unshakeable virtues and beliefs, we temper some of the sadness of time wasted and opportunities squandered. We make a difference. It’s called gaining wisdom from your experience and cultivating it for the good of others. It’s growing purpose and relevance. It’s becoming an Oakley. Alexander Hamilton said it best in the Broadway musical Hamilton: “Legacy. What is a legacy? It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see.”

Theodore Szczepanski is 104 years old. He’s a lot like my friend Oakley, the 100 plus year old weathered oak that I talk to on my path, only Ted’s more talkative. With Oakley I’ll admit I do most of the talking. Both have been through a lot and have stood the test of time. Both are weathered and wise.  Both have a purpose on this earth. I am thankful both are in my path.  

Oakley. adjective. The ability to influence others in a positive way with your standing and experience.

You ask Ted a question and it ignites a thought which turns into a story. Ted will start a story which starts another story path which has a background story for perspective until he playfully taps his forehead and can’t remember “where he was going with this”. Ted will do that as you sit on the edge of your seat trying to draw the details from him. He apologizes saying it never used to happen to him until he “got old”. I have other very seasoned friends who do the same. I’m convinced I’ll be like that, I’m already doing it. Abandoning the initial thought, we then begin a quizzical journey down another road. That’s the beauty. Ted is just like those aging majestic trees in fall….they become more colorful as the season ages. Some trees are more colorful making the most of the seasons they are given. Consider one of my all time favorite trees Juneberry. Native to North America It goes by a lot of names like Amelanchier, serviceberry, shadberry, sarvis, sarvisberry, snowy mespilus, chuckley pear, and Saskatoon to name a few. It makes the most of every season given to it. Gorgeous white blooms in spring, delicious nutritious edible berries in June, fabulous fall color then they rest as a deciduous tree in winter. Seems like a good life for a tree. If you haven’t talked to a tree you should try it. It’s therapeutic. They are good listeners. If you haven’t spent time with some centenarians in your path you should try that too. The oracles of these “Oakleys” can ground your thinking and help you reset your navigation.

A friend of mine who has a 106 year old Grandma shares with me her theory on longevity. When asked what the secret was to a long happy life she simply replied with two words. A total of 5 letters. “Do you.” Brilliant. Be yourself and follow your path. 

A Sagacious Centenarian

Ted leans back in his chair and collects his thoughts. He insists the reason he is here today after close to 38,000 days on earth is that he lived a healthy life and didn’t pick up bad habits at a young age. 

He mentions it a couple times causing me to ask, “why does that stick out in your mind Ted?” 

“I guess it’s because no one ever encouraged me to try, I wasn’t enticed to take up the habit even though at a game of cards everyone was smoking.” He taps the side of his head with a finger to illustrate he instinctively knew it wasn’t the right course for him even then. He was following his own path and “Someone was looking over me,” says Ted. 

You see, with Ted first and foremost when listening to the hesternal thoughts from this centenarian, he is convinced that there is someone looking over us. That someone is placed in your path at just the right time to steer you back on course. When you “Do you” everyone needs a little well time course adjustment.

“God?” I ask Ted. 

He nods his head. Holding out his hands he creates imaginary paths with his fingers. He takes one finger and quisitively watches a finger veer off course from the other 9. He then says someone is there to set him straight, demonstrating by drawing his hands together in a prayerful position. 

“You see at the right moment someone is there in your path,” says Ted nodding. 

I question Ted just like the imaginary friend in my mind, Quercus, who stops to ask questions of the big old oak tree on our path. 

The next time I visit Ted it’s two fingers in the shape of a V. Similar to what people would call the peace sign or victory sign. He watches as he uses his free hand and traces a path up one finger and part way says, “whoops wrong way!” and backtracks to head up the other finger. 

Whenever life gets difficult, a decision is to be made or things suddenly veer off course, someone is placed in your path. Someone to help redirect your course. Someone to help you discover answers. A presence I thought. Just like the big old oak tree on my path that listens to me talk. 

“Some people are going to question your theory Ted” I say to him.

“Oh, you don’t have to see the people placed in your path,” Ted says. “That’s your choice. But they are there for everyone. The signs are everywhere. Your job is to choose to see them.”

“Between every two pine trees there is a door leading to a new way of life.” -John Muir

Ted tells me his story. Ted was a POW for a period of time during World War II. He was captured in the area of Ukange and Bertrange France, two communities split by the Moselle river and less than an hour’s drive west of the German border. As the Germans overran the area the Allies were trapped and hid in the basements of  homes. The intransigent Germans flushed those hiding in the area by moving house to house with tanks and flattening the abode. Ted and his 10 or so comrades hid and survived in a basement for a couple days and had a decision to make. Their current position was not sustainable. Do they under the cover of darkness break for the meadow of grasses behind the home and run for cover in the woods beyond the field? Or do they surrender? They opted to surrender during daylight knowing if found out at night they would be unconditionally shot. If they surrendered before sunset with hands up they would be prisoners but their odds of surviving were better. 

As they emerged from the basement with hands up the bewildered and flabbergasted Germans stood with mouths open in amazement. Where did these guys come from? I laugh as Ted reenacts the looks on the faces of the soldiers.

“Do you think they showed you some measure of compassion as humans?” I asked Ted.

“After their shock I suppose so,” says Ted. 

Emerging from the basement and in the light of day “we could see we had collectively made the right decision. The meadow and the woods edge were covered by machine gun nests for anyone who might opt for our considered option of a night time run. We would have never made it. I wouldn’t be sitting here today.” 

They were sent to a prison. That was followed by a second prison. Most of the POWs were used as labor for road construction repair. Europe by that time was war torn and roads had to be fixed. It was hard work with little nutrition as the daily menu as POW’s was a couple of small pieces of bread a day. That’s where Ted’s theory kicks in, the “someone in your path” theory. 

One of the guys in his group of POWs, a person in Ted’s path and friend at that moment, had an idea. Have the sergeant ask the Germans if they could be put on farm duty instead of road duty. Miraculously it worked and Ted believes it saved him. They went to work on a farm where there was food. Sure they had to steal some of it. Sure they had to work hard. They stole food from the pigs. They ate potatoes intended for the pigs. They survived. I pose the question to Ted, “what if” your friend the POW had not been there in the right place at the right time to plant the seed that they work on a farm for their captors? Ted shrugs his shoulders. What if? 

When I sit with my grandson Max to watch one of his favorite cartoons ‘The Stinky and Dirty Show’ the main characters, a garbage truck and a backhoe, are best friends. They work together to solve problems around their town and when faced with a challenge ask the question, “What if?” They try several times combining a child’s enthusiasm with persistence and creativity each time asking “what if” before they finally fix the dilemma. Two simple words that are powerful. What if? And if we pursue “what if” what’s the worst that could happen? 

That’s the great thing about hanging around a 2 year old. An age of discovery. Everything is new. The theory states that time passes faster when we are in a set routine, when we aren’t learning anything new, when we stay stuck in a life pattern. In addition as we get older our frame of reference is larger. So time flies. The key to making time slow down is to have new experiences. Everything is new to a youngster. That is why time slows down in their presence.  

And then it was over. Ted described to me how all of a sudden in May of 1945 one day the Germans were no longer there. They were gone. They simply walked away, it was over. As suddenly as it began it ended as they stand in a field with rakes recognizing the Nazi’s had disappeared. Nowhere to be seen. New journeys would be ahead leading to a long life where now at the age of 104 we sit together talking. And in his journey, just like the comrade with the POW farm labor idea, people had been placed in his path to set the road straight. Now I’m in his path providentially placed?

Tinder, Spark, Breeze. Sometimes the right person is in the right spot at the right time. And through a providential combination of design and a dash of luck you’re back on your way and wiser to boot. It’s almost as though life requires you to adjust your cadence. The tinder is your mind and heart. The spark is provided by the person in your path. The breeze of new thought fans the flames of your passions moving forward. 

Some are just trying to navigate the path. Others are seeking something better, the quest for the ideal. I think about how many are in a quest for the ideal in their lives. The dirty little secret is we really  don’t want to achieve the ideal. The mystery and the pursuit IS the reward of our journey. We learn more from our mistakes and failures than our successes. We just have to own them.

Wisdom is knowing the right thing to do and doing it at the right time to get the desired result.

If controlling people are on one side of life’s pendulum and passive victims on the other then life should be somewhere in the adventurous middle. If we aren’t befuddled our journey has not yet begun. But that’s the fascinating reality. The adventure isn’t on the extreme ends. It’s in the middle, your chosen path. You have to own your narrative and then share it to love your neighbor as yourself. Well that in some cases is a difficult if not impossible goal if you’re honest with your human frailties. Maybe we’ll start with you being the one who is in the path of someone and nudges their directional compass. One step at a time. Maybe you won’t even realize you did it. If Ted’s theory is correct, a higher being, a higher purpose, put you in the right place at the right time for someone else. And if you’re not willing to own your story then shame owns you, discredits you. If you don’t own your story mistakes and all then an element of shame owns you. Makes you a passive victim. You never saw the person or opportunity set in your path. Maybe because you wanted total control. Maybe you wanted to be a passive victim. The adventure is in the mystery and pursuit along the path of life. And it  happens in the middle….your path.

Everyone has a narrative. It’s up to you to interpret it. That’s why telling stories is so important. There is enough conflict, animosity and struggle between opposing sides or beliefs in this world. People pick a side, entrench and a stalemate struggle ensues. Many times over the course of history we have seen that struggle result in disaster. When people share stories however it draws us closer with the realization we have emotions and thoughts in common. We all have more in common than we think. Stories can break a log jam and make us more human. 

It’s just like the fungi on a log on the path. You can be that person in someone’s path. Be a bright spot in a dark place. Many fungi have bioluminescent tendencies and stand out in the dark of the woods. Not only “fun-guys” they have radiant personalities. Not “mushroom” for improvement there! The analogy for me when I walk through a hollow and see their luminescence is how “fun-guys” can light up a dark place just by their presence. Nature always teaches us a lesson. If a hollow is a depressed or low area, then we need more “fun-guys” that deliver the bioluminescence.

In the spring of 2020 I could no longer visit with Ted Szczepanski. Due to lock down and stay at home orders  a worldwide pandemic was particularly hard on nursing home residents. What I feared came to pass when his son messaged me that Dad was sick and getting tested. He tested positive for Covid-19. But Ted beat Covid-19 at the age of 104. Add it to accomplishments in his journey along the path.

World War II veteran, 95th Division Infantry

Prisoner of war for 6 months in France

Father of 3 kids

Devoted husband to Mary who met the suffering of multiple sclerosis with a positive attitude.

Successful Businessman (with his brother Harry)

Beat pneumonia 3 times over the age of 100

Battled Covid-19 diagnosis at the age of 104 and beat it.

Ted taught me the journey is never a straight line. It moves forward from side to side in a zigzag motion. Your attitude and recognition of others along the path can take some of the zig out of your zag and some zag out of your zig. Proceed in faith with a positive attitude. 


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