Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything.
When Old Man Hubback pulled up to my grandfather’s grocery store it always caused quite a stir. Cars pulled over so people could take a gander. Dogs yelped themselves silly. And kids came running from every corner. The fact that the German immigrant looked like a homeless version of Santa Clause would have been enough to catch some people’s attention, but that wasn’t his drawing card. When Mr. Hubback traveled from his home a mile away to Noonan’s Grocery, he hooked up his horse to a hay wagon and clip-clopped his way down the lane. This took place in the early 50s, and that made him the last person in Bellingham to travel by means of a one-horse-power vehicle. That’s what caught everyone’s attention.
The boys who came running to catch a glimpse also had something else they wanted to witness. The stoic German would climb down from the wagon, walk through the front door of Granddad’s grocery store, walk straight to the counter, and slap down a dime. Without a word Grandpa would march to the back of the cooler and fetch an ice-cold bottle of Coke.
Hubback would grab the icy bottle in his massive hand, take it to the wall that sported the bottle opener, and pop off the lid. Then he’d whip the Coke bottle to his lips, tilt it and his head back, and in an act repeatedly attempted and failed by every boy in the room, Hubback would down the icy, burning liquid in three or four gulps—without so much as a single pause, belch, tear, or gasp for air. Then, to the cheering of little boys, Hubback would smack the empty bottle down on the counter, turn on the heel of his boot, and head back home. Most of the boys would remain behind and speak in reverent tones about the old man’s gift.
As the crowd dispersed, for me the encounter was far from over. When the old German climbed on his wagon, I’d often try to sneak onto the back where I would hide in a pile of loose hay. If he didn’t spot me, I’d get a free ride home on a horse-drawn wagon.
Hubback had a different plan. He didn’t like kids climbing on his wagon and he let them know by twisting on his perch and turning his bull whip on anyone who had the temerity to invade his space.
On this particular day as Hubback pulled away with me perched on the back of his wagon, I quickly slid under a pile of fresh-cut hay. I had made it onto the vehicle undetected. Eventually I ventured out far enough from underneath the hay to dangle my legs off the back and enjoy the slow clip-clopping as we meandered down the dirt road that led toward my home.
I should have known better than to expose myself, because it wasn’t long until a stray dog charged up the road, barking at the horse and Mr. Hubback turned to give the mongrel a taste of his whip. Seeing me sitting there on his precious wagon, unharmed and with a stupid grin on my face, Hubback immediately changed targets by re-cocking his arm to give me a sharp smack.
But then fate intervened. Before Mr. Hubback could whip me we both heard a strange shout emanating from somewhere up the road. In unison we turned our attention to the ruckus. It was Maxine, a middle-aged lady who lived nearby. Maxine not only marched to the beat of a different drummer, she marched to the beat of a wildly insane drummer. Whenever she walked up the road, she tilted forward as if struggling against a hurricane-force wind and would peer ahead until she saw another human being coming her way. Then, no matter the distance, Maxine would start shouting a garbled monologue that only she could understand.
Realizing that the chatter was just Maxine, Mr. Hubback smiled at me with a sardonic grin and raised his right arm to give me a thrashing. But I was saved once again. This time it was the sound of “Buggy Baker” bouncing down the bumpy road in her old war-surplus jeep. Ms. Baker had earned the appellation of “Buggy” because she was a high school biology teacher who loved bugs and acted, well, sort of buggy. For one, she drove an open jeep—not common for a woman in her fifties in the fifties. Two, she was always accompanied in her jeep by Billy, who was not only her best friend, but, as his name might suggest, was also a goat. On this day as Buggy bounced down the road in her jeep, so did Billy. The poor creature could hardly stay on his assigned perch on the back bench because Ms. Baker was driving far too fast for a road that was more pot hole than path.
As Mr. Hubback and I paused to watch, it became clear that Buggy’s intention was to pass the wagon at a dangerous clip.
Just as Buggy began to hurl past us, Maxine (still yammering) drew close enough to stand in the path of the careening jeep, so Buggy was forced to slam on the brakes to avoid a horrible disaster. As she stomped on the brake pedal, the jeep hit a huge pothole and nearly flipped bumper-over-steering-wheel. This convulsive action pitched poor Billy into the front passenger seat, legs splayed forward where he ended up sitting there in the distinctly human pose of someone riding shotgun.
The curiously embarrassed look on the goat’s face coupled with the fact that he appeared as if he were pretending to be a human being who was casually cruising the countryside was simply too funny for words. As I looked at Old Man Hubback and he looked at Maxine and Maxine looked at Buggy we all grinned widely. Then, in a moment of truce, Hubback sat down his whip, leaned back his head, and let out a howl that was half laugh, half choke. Buggy tittered, Maxine cackled, and I laughed until tears ran down my cheeks. After a full minute of laughter, Buggy shooed Billy to the back, carefully edged her jeep past the wagon, and pulled away. Maxine leaned precariously into the imaginary wind and strode off at full yammer. And, true to form, Hubback grabbed his whip and menacingly aimed it at me again.
That was the end of that. I leaped from Hubback’s wagon and hurried the rest of the way home. Ten minutes later I burst in the front door and excitedly told my mother the story of the shotgun goat and the bull whip. Mom laughed along with me until we were both forced to sit down on the couch to catch our breath.
Then as Mother gathered her composure she exclaimed, “Isn’t it wonderful!”
“Isn’t what wonderful?” I asked.
“Living in this neighborhood!” mother explained. “We have people from all walks of life and that makes this a perfect place to live.”
In my moment of near crisis, Mom chose to focus on the joys of diversity. She loved people of all shapes, looks, beliefs and sizes. She loved to chat with immigrants. When I grew old enough to study biology, Mom took me by Buggy’s enchanted home where I discovered a menagerie filled with mysterious creatures and shiny microscopes. Buggy in turn introduced me to the joy of scientifically exploring the swamp in her backyard.
“To each his own.” That had been Mom’s mantra. Long before the topic of diversity had become popular in HR departments worldwide, Mom knew the joy that came from meeting, associating with, and loving people of every ethnicity, lifestyle, and belief.
No matter the direction of the political winds, mom never broke stride. While it’s true I never actually heard Mother use the word “diversity,” it was what she cherished. When Mr. Hubback grew feeble, it was she who took him soup and sat with him. And when Mom returned to college at age forty to study speech therapy, it was Maxine she took on as her first benefactor.
Mom never changed. Forty-five years later, on the eve of her death, she generously gifted a family of Mexican immigrants several dolls that she had made by hand to adorn her Christmas tree. Mom had invited the new neighbors and their five children into her home for hot chocolate one evening, and when the kids had complimented her on the dolls, she gave them away without a second thought.
Later that night as mom settled into her over-stuffed chair for the very last time to knit wool hats for the children of Bosnia (we found a bag of twenty beautiful hats when we went through her things), I’m sure she smiled deeply as she imagined the joy she would bring to a people she had never met, but whom she had been dutifully studying in her encyclopedia.
“Bosnians!” She had said to me as she knitted hats one day the week before—The Encyclopedia Britannica lying open next to her. “Aren’t they a fascinating bunch!”
Mom made diversity a wonderful thing.