ValueSpeak - A Weekly Column by Joseph Walker


I’m sure Mom and Dad told me why they had to leave me alone for a week.  There must have been a good and compelling reason for it – a birth, a death, a wedding, a very generous slot machine in Vegas.  They weren’t the sort to take off and leave me, their youngest child, alone for no reason at all.

But I was 18 and a recent high school graduate, and I was feeling my oats.  I had a full time job working for a construction crew that was building a warehouse, so I couldn’t go with them.  And I was way too old and mature to need a babysitter (although if the babysitter was young, cute and single I was willing to discuss it).  Leaving me home – alone – for the week was the logical, sensible thing to do.

“We’re sending you away to college at the end of the summer,” Mom said.  “We might as well find out right now if you’re ready to be on your own.”

Her tone suggested that she doubted it.  But I figured that was because I was the youngest of her eight children, and she just wasn’t ready to accept the absolutely irrefutable fact that her baby didn’t need her anymore.

Either that or she knew me better than I thought she did.

My first night alone was the stuff of which dreams are made.  I bought a pizza for dinner (sure, Mom had prepared and frozen a week’s worth of casseroles for me to eat in her absence – but seriously, who wants tuna noodle when there’s Canadian bacon and pineapple just around the corner?).  I watched TV all night, right to the very end of “The Tonight Show,” guzzling Dr Pepper and chomping down multiple Mr. Goodbars and Almond Joys.

Oh yeah.  Heaven.  With nuts.

The second night went pretty much the same way, only substitute a couple of Big Macs and some fries for the pizza.  The third night was taco night (or was it burrito night?  Or tostada night?  More likely all three).  I was loving life – at least, at night.

During the day, however, was another matter.  My construction job was very physical.  We worked from 7 a.m. until 4 p.m. in the hot summer sun, and the late night TV and junk food binges left me ill-prepared for a full day working outdoors.  By Thursday I was dragging, and I was making dumb mistakes. When I almost ran over another worker’s foot with my hand-held compacting machine, the foreman – a big, tough, hard-talking task-master – had seen enough.

“What’s up with you today, Walker?” he bellowed.  “You know better than that.”

Or words to that effect.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m just . . . you know . . . really tired.”

“Tired?” he asked.  You working a night job or something?”

“No,” I explained.  “It’s just . . . you know . . . my parents are out of town, and . . .”

There was a sudden glimmer of understanding in his eyes.

“So you’re partying,” he said.  It wasn’t a question.  It was a statement of what he assumed to be a fact.  I wasn’t sure if his idea of “partying” was exactly consistent with what was actually taking place each night at my house, but I didn’t want to argue with him.

“Yeah,” I said, meekly.  “Sort of.”

“Well, let me tell you something I learned a long time ago,” he said.  “Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.”  He paused, letting that sink in a little.  Then he repeated his counsel: “Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.”

I nodded as if I understood – even though I didn’t.  At least, not immediately.

“OK, get back to work,” he said as he turned to walk away.  Then he called back over his shoulder: “And get some sleep tonight!”

For some reason those words have come back to me recently as folks around the country debate the merits of a controversial, divisive issue. There has been a lot of discussion about rights here – whose rights are being trampled upon, and whose rights are being protected – when maybe the discussion should focus instead on this simple question: what is the right thing to do?

I’m not going to declare what the right thing is in this delicate situation. Who cares what I think?  I’m just going to repeat the wise words of my grizzled foreman: “Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.”

And now if you’ll excuse me, I have a sudden craving for pizza and Dr Pepper.

— © Joseph Walker

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Look What Love Has Done:  Five-Minute Messages to Lift Your Spirit. 

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