A Project Manager’s Game Plan for Dealing with Incurable Cancer
Segment Forty-Eight— Good Times with Sir Walter Riley and the Appalachian Service Project
The shed above holds some of my favorite earthly belongings. My snowblower. My extension ladder. My circular saw. It’s not a big shed, and even in the era of tiny homes, it wouldn’t serve as living accommodations.
Many of the skills I learned to build that shed were skills I learned on the Appalachian Service Project in high school. I learned them during a two-week summer foray (by school bus) into mountain Kentucky and to a completely different world. Our mission was to improve (and in some cases, rescue) peoples’ homes who couldn’t afford the upkeep and whose houses were in desperate need of love and attention. Front porches were ready to collapse. Roofs leaked. Rainwater ran uncontrolled along the foundations. As a teenager, you were given a new “specialty” and for a couple of days, that’s all you did. If you had virtually no skills, the first round was painting, both interior and exterior. For a couple of days, you’d push a broom. By the time my team got to Walter’s abode (read: seriously fatigued house), I was one of the roofers.
Other participants had already given Walter a name before we got there. He was not Walter Riley. He was Sir Walter Riley. (Spoken with a Kentucky hills accent, that comes across sounding like the 16th-century English adventurer and seaman). Walter Riley taught me an enormous amount about life in what many of us would consider poverty. Let me stress, however, Walter was not a poor man. Like anyone benefitting from the project’s efforts, Walter had virtually no money to speak of. His home was in unbelievable disrepair. Aside from his pig, his animals were not penned in, and had free reign of his corner of the forest.
One of the rules of working on the project was not to focus on the lack of means of any of those being served. Instead, everyone would strike up conversations about the “livestock” around the house and the yard. A friend of mine (we’ll call him Scott) would avoid his work by chatting about the variety of animals with Walter.
Scott was particularly enamored of the barnyard-type life. Hey Walter, he asked, You have a name for this pig?
Walter nodded. I call him “Pig,” he replied.
What about the cat, Walter? What do you call it? asked Scott.
I call it “Cat”, answered Walter.
Scott continued his line of questioning. The dog?
His name’s “Dog”, Walter responded.
By then Scott had become entranced by a bounding, tiny puppy that clearly was only a matter of days old. You got a name for this puppy, Walter? Is his name “Puppy?”
Haven’t gotten around to namin’ him yet, Walter offered.
Lesson Learned: You will, in your life, encounter those individuals who you believe are a few rungs below you on the intellectual or social ladders of life. You will be wrong. Walter was perfectly content with species-appropriate names for his pets, without the proclivity for using cute monikers for every living entity that entered his property. It was easy to assume that Walter was too far removed from society to understand that his animals could be named anything he wanted to name them. Bad assumption. He knew if anything ever happened to him, someone else would become responsible for their care and feeding. Since he rarely had human encounters, and his neighbors were few and far between up in the hills, he figured his naming conventions would work perfectly if someone tried to summon his dog, his pig or his cat. Pretty clever.
This discernment was not something you’d have expected out of Walter. Generally speaking, he didn’t provide a sense that he was looking deeply into the future. He seemed grounded in the present. He was positive, upbeat and grateful. As his roof was sealed, porch painted, floors repaired and stained, his gratitude was nearly boundless. Every day when we’re finish up, he’d admonish us that we didn’t have to come back tomorrow, as he was sure there were others who needed our help more. Each day, back at the local college dorm (where we were housed), people shared their latest Walter story. Every day, the teen crews would vie to be on the team going back to Sir Walter’s the next day.
There were reasons, on any normal day, why you would not want to go back into the hills to spend a day at Walter’s. There were bugs (specifically mosquitos) and the smell of the pig sty. If you’ve never been exposed to the aroma of a sty, you really haven’t lived in the country.
(Author’s note: When I lived in Frederick, Maryland, my wife and I watched it evolve/devolve from a town of 23,000 to a city of over 80,000. One local development of several hundred homes popped up next to one of the longest-standing local farms. The development was aptly named Old Farm. What was comical was watching the new residents in their first spring living next to the neighboring, surviving farm. They wrote letters to the editor and complained publicly and often about the horrible stench emanating from the farmland next door. The longer-lived residents found it amusing that they had never considered that an “old farm” came with a certain aroma).
Put the whole “Walter” package together and envision it. An aging hill dweller living in a broken-down shanty. The stench of a pig sty. Complete poverty.
Now, imagine a bunch of teenagers who considered it an honor to be one of those who got to go help at Walter’s place.
In that context, it doesn’t make much sense. But considering the laws of attraction, it makes perfect sense. The laws of attraction contend that if someone or something renders itself attractive, others will be attracted to it. Like attracts like. While you might think that means Walter would attract only more poverty or disrepair, the opposite is true. Walter counted himself blessed and fortunate. As a teen, did you want to be blessed and fortunate? Get on the team to work at Walter’s.
Lesson Learned: Being assigned to work that no one else wants doesn’t mean that it’s bad work. Overnights at a low-wattage radio station in a small Maine town? Wonderful! Washing dishes in a small-town diner? Excellent! About the only job I really didn’t love was being a bartender. Appreciate your job? People around you will see that and will be attracted to you. Hate your job? Expect to be a bit of a loner. Mike Rowe has made a career of extolling the virtues of “dirty jobs.” He’s a well-respected professional, and one of the few who can lay claim to scraping the muck off the bottom of an abandoned swimming pool. He’s popular. Why? Because he sees glory, virtue, and honor in virtually any job. My guess is that if you met him, you’d want to spend more time with him.
In my years in radio, I got to meet a host of celebrities. Who understood the laws of attraction? Mister Rogers. Michael Collins (astronaut). Marion Ross (actress). George Mitchell (Senate Majority Leader). They understood that if you believed they appreciated their job, your role in their job, and that together, you made the world a better place than they made it alone; you had arrived. They saw a common value that you brought to the table, even if you didn’t agree with them. I won’t drop the names of those individuals who clearly did NOT understand the laws of attraction, but their “stock” diminished in my eyes after we met. They were clearly self-absorbed and felt they were doing you a favor just by allowing you into their presence. Beware such behaviors. Repulsion is the natural opposite of attraction.
In every encounter and every communications event, we have the opportunity to attract or repulse. It starts from the very first moment. We enter those moments with the benefit of the doubt and the potential for positive intent. It’s up to us to keep those positives alive. Sir Walter figured that out a long time ago.
Up next? Happy Birthday to YOU!
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