Lessons from a Florida Turnpike

I think that it should be obvious by now that a recurring theme of my essays is that insight/wisdom/perspective often occur in moments where we least expect it. While I have written about those moments occurring in a customs line, a car ride with my grandmother, (and a museum in Paris,) I recently had another occur at a rest area on a Florida turnpike.

After a busy morning of customer meetings, I dropped a colleague off at the Orlando airport and began a drive across the state, working my way to West Palm Beach. I was on the phone non-stop, moving from one conference call to another and I found myself in mid-afternoon, having not eaten lunch, and needing a break. I was making good time so instead of the typical drive-thru stop, I decided to go into the McDonald’s to take a break for a few minutes and eat my lunch inside the rest stop. Blackberry in hand, I sat down to eat and catch up on emails.

The restaurant was pretty empty being mid-afternoon, but after a few minutes a grandfather arrived with a handful of grandkids (both boys and girls, maybe 4-7 years old) in tow to buy them an afternoon treat. A collection of ice cream cones and milk shakes arrived and the kids sat down in the booth next to me to devour their sweet treats. My attention was so focused on the kids that I totally missed the middle aged couple that came in to the restaurant, with the man (husband?) heading to the bathroom and the woman (wife?) heading to the counter to order. No one missed the following scene. The woman had the bag of food in her hand as the fellow came out of the bathroom and asked some sort of terse question. Without a reply, she handed over the bag. Upon looking inside, the man shouted “You are so stupid, you never get it right!” and proceeded to smash the bag of newly bought food into trash bin and stomp out of the McDonald’s. The woman looked up to and saw all of us, Grandpa, the grand kids and me, all silently watching her. She shrugged her shoulders, looked into the garbage can, hung her head and walked out of the restaurant.

I thought to myself that the guy was “a total A@#hole” and went back to my blackberry. Grandpa took better action. The kids were still silent from the outburst and he asked them whether they had all seen what that man had just done. All nodded yes. He spoke to the little girls and said to never, never let any man treat them the way that man just treated that woman. He said that too many women put up with too much from “small, mean spirited men” and that it would be better to be alone that to put up with “that nonsense.” He then looked at the boys and asked whether any of them thought the guy was cool or strong. They all shook their heads no. The grandpa finished his “lesson” with a great line when he said “Kids, I’ve lived 71 years and for me, mean never equals good!”

Quietly, the kids finished their treats, threw away their trash and started heading out. The grandpa corralled the kids out to their minivan, and headed off down the turnpike. I sat at my little plastic table and thought completely about my two kids, Bryson and Marie, and how much I wished they had been sitting with that grandpa, and how much I need to find a way to pass that lesson along to them.

While I will certainly use this essay as a way to share the lesson with them, I wanted to share it broadly on two counts. First and most importantly, the grandpa was right, “mean never equals good!” What a simple and clear truth that all of us should remember more consistently. Secondly, what I had intended to be a 15 minute afternoon stop on a Florida turnpike turned out to be a moment of learning and inspiration. Once again, in improbable spots, amazing things continue to occur!