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Observations: Called to a good life

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image Jon, Mitch and Al in a sports bar in South Dakota on April 27, 2012.

It's not about money.

By Mitch Traphagen

Al had a rough start. I met him in high school and he joined our teenage rock band as a guitarist. He was a smart kid with lots of energy and a sunny disposition. Until now, 30 years later, I would never have considered the words “sunny disposition” to describe him, but that’s what it was. Despite his struggles in life, he always had an underlying optimism about him. He had a lot of things about him. When our band played shows, he would often appear on stage wearing lots of chains and, sometimes, a big dog collar. Yes, I know that sounds somewhat frightening — but Al wasn’t frightening in the least. He was a good kid.

His home life wasn’t great. In fact, he really didn’t have a home. He spent a lot of time in my mom’s basement where we had commandeered several rooms for our drums, guitars and amplifiers. Before he graduated from high school, he somehow managed to find his own apartment. They were not generally the nicest places, but they served their purpose.

He barely graduated from high school — not because he struggled in classes, but because he struggled in life. It could not have been easy to be on his own at the age of 17. Along with the other members of the band, I eventually went off to college and put down the guitar. Al, being two years younger, knew he needed to do something; he knew that his course as it was would not lead to good things. After he graduated, he joined the Army — he was a smart kid.

It had been at least 28 years since I had seen Al. The last time, a friend and former bandmate and I met him in a fast food restaurant. Al was wearing chains and may well have been wearing a dog collar. As a joke, he caused a bit of a scene in the restaurant. We later kidded around that he got us kicked out of a fast food joint but, in all honesty, I can’t remember if that was truly the case.

Twenty-eight years later, I jumped into my friend and former bandmate’s car and we drove to the same city where we may have gotten kicked out of a fast food joint to once again meet up with Al. We initially made plans to meet at the same restaurant but in the end, settled on a nice sports bar with a better menu.

The adult Al is an amazing man. He left the army after his enlistment was up and moved on to other things, no doubt finding both success and failure along the way. He has a wife he loves, a job that provides him with a living, and two daughters, both now adults themselves. Al managed to put both of them through college.

“I decided a few years ago that it’s better to be poor and happy than to kill yourself for money,” he said. “It’s not about money.”

The “it” he was referring to is life. Such a simple statement, one that has been said a million times before, but Al personified it. Al is poor only from the eyes of the wealthy. I’m sure that he has never made a ton of money, but in addition to the major feat of successfully putting his daughters through college, he has a home and a Harley Davidson motorcycle with a payment book. He is playing the guitar again and is now with a popular regional band. They have been booked to play at a big club during the Sturgis, South Dakota motorcycle rally in August — that’s a pretty big deal. He is happy and he knows his priorities (“I would drop anything if one of my kids needed me,” he said — and that included the music he loves so much). The chains and dog collar are gone, but the youthful optimism is still in his eyes.

I had so many advantages in life, yet Al has attained a level of success that I sometimes feel I can only dream of. Perhaps it is true that life itself is the best and hardest lesson of all or, perhaps, Al is just someone special. I think it’s both.

Last week I wrote about whether or not everyone has a calling in life. Thank you to those who wrote; I am grateful. The wisdom that landed in my inbox was truly remarkable. Most everyone wrote to say that all people do indeed have a calling in life and I now agree — I was just wrong on my perspective of what constituted a calling. Being a “cable guy” is not Al’s calling in life. His calling is not what he does to earn a living, but it is his life and how he lives it. Al has achieved amazing things in his life and has found the most amazing things of all:  happiness and contentment. His calling was to give two daughters opportunities in life that he never had. His calling is his passion for his wife, his friends and his music. Everything else is what he needs to do to get by. It is really very simple but somehow, until I re-connected with him, I couldn’t see it.

Al, the smart kid, is now an even smarter adult. He found his calling and he showed it to me. I’m still trying to figure things out, but I now know that it is very simple. Life isn’t as complicated as many of us make it out to be and a calling isn’t tied to a number on a spreadsheet. There is so much more to life. It’s not about money.

There is one thing I already did know, but it is worth restating:  never judge a person by the dog collar they may wear. It might be the good kid with a rough start who ends up making a difference in the world. Al certainly made a difference in mine.

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