I looked up from where I sat behind a table while waiting for people to buy my book, When Cobras Laugh. On those occasions you rarely get the hundreds of people, or even the dozens, you imagine will come. Either as a prayer or a complaint (most likely the latter) I muttered, "Please, somebody come."
A silhouetted figure materialized against the light pouring in through the doorway. Appearing as straight as a parking meter, but much taller, the profile moved two steps into the room and stopped. It stood for a moment, wavered a bit, then stepped sideways to sit in a chair. I could not see facial features. Was I looking at a black ghost?
I thought, That looks like Hugh, and only a moment later the ghost spoke, "I’ve walked all the way here. Now you can come to me."
Ah, that voice. Now I knew Hugh, my friend of bygone years, had come to get his copy of the book. He had a special interest in it, because I had relied on him to give me advice on developing one of its key characters, a commercial artist who became a missionary. After returning from the war, Hugh worked as a commercial artist right up to his retirement and beyond. In the early 1980s he had developed covers for technical reports I published.
At 87 years of age, Hugh had only half joked about not wanting to come further, but he did rise and joined us at the table. Following introductions, he filled me in on his current circumstances. He could no longer drive due the macular degeneration that restricted his vision, but he still enjoyed billiards. About then, my co-author, Dr. Don Ranney, commented on the image of a Halifax bomber on Hugh’s cap and so touched on a part of Hugh’s life that had become his defining experience. During the war he had flown Halifax bombers, towing gliders laden with troops into enemy territory. All of us have defining experiences that mark us for the rest of our lives.
Almost instantly Don and Hugh connected, two old warriors with experiences to share.
While Hugh wears the image of the Lancaster on his cap, Don wears on his lapel the insignia of the British Special Air Service. His experiences as a medic with that elite fighting group became the experience that early defined his life. He had joined the unit while studying surgery in England. From there he went to India to do reconstructive surgery on hands deformed by leprosy.
But he doesn’t wear a medical or leprosy badge. He returned to Canada and took a teaching position with the University of Waterloo where he founded the School of Anatomy. But he doesn’t wear symbols of his university life either. His stint with the SSF marked him for life.
I watched the two of them comparing notes and asked myself, what defining experience have I had? Can I identify the point in my life about which everything rotates? Growing up on that forsaken farm in Alberta? Living in a single-parent family on the edge of poverty? Dropping out of school early? Climbing a little way up a corporate ladder? None of those things. Certainly the nearly five years in South Africa became the most important, life-changing experience of my life.
Have you ever taken time to examine your own life in an attempt to identify the factor that most shaped you? It might help you to understand where you are today and why, for better or worse, you have become the person you are.