Online Edition                                              Natchez, Mississippi                                   

The Rinaldi Report

       by Peter Rinaldi


Jim’s Christmas gift

            Jim always has a smile on his face. No matter where he goes, he greets even strangers with a cheery hello. Jim’s got a compliment for you. He tells his women friends that their hair looks nice. And to guys, he comments, “The older I get, the younger you look. You must be working out.” It’s not hard to figure that people like those compliments and a little schmooze. Somewhere in his ancestry, he must have Southern blood, even if he was born in Maine.

            In the old days, when we were back in college, Jim was quite the athlete. We’d run around the indoor track, which was the standard 220 yards, and he’d beat by a third of a lap. “Rinaldi,” he’d say, “You can improve your time. Let me give you a few tips.” We’d hit the tennis courts: a lot of 40-love scores and you can guess which side of the pounding I was on. But we had a great time anyway.

           Jim’s great passion was football. He was a wide receiver in high school and college. He would run precision routes, turn on a dime, and the ball would just stick to his hands. And that was in the days before sticky spray and receiver gloves. One game, I think it was against our big rival, he scored three touchdowns. And that was when he was just a sophomore.

            He had a winning way. And the ladies loved him. I was jealous.

           Jim and I parted ways more than 30 years ago. After college, our career paths went in different directions. In the late 70s, he eventually moved to Montana and I fell into Natchez. We exchanged a few postcards, Christmas cards and an e-mail or two. So it came as quite as surprise, when four years ago, he showed up on my doorstep. “Pete, I’ve moved to Jackson. I always wanted to live in the South. Here I am,” he grinned.

            After getting over my shock of actually seeing him for the first time in decades and his announcement of arrival, I took him around the big city to meet some of my friends. We hit the restaurants. He likes a beer or two or three, even though he shouldn’t. So I drank my Diet Coke and he had a few at the local nightspots.

           In four years, he’s fit more into the Jackson scene than I have after living here for 30 years. That’s testimony to his likeability. He’s on a bunch of community boards. He’s earned a sackful of local awards.

            You might see Jim driving around Jackson or occasionally in Natchez in his old 1998 Dodge Caravan. It’s a bit of a wreck and surely must have at least 200,000 miles on it by now. Jim calls it “the Hulk.” Of course, it’s not all green. It’s partially green, and some blue as well. Jim doesn’t have much money. But he has other attributes that count him wealthier than some.

            I believe Jim is a success. He can make other people feel good because he feels good about himself. When I get together with my friends at lunch, we talk politics: who we like and who stinks. And of course, the conversation tends to center on more the stink and less of the like. We’re into the negative. Jim doesn’t like discussing politics. He sees it as a waste of time and energy. He’s a positive person. “There are more important things to think about,” he says.

            So you’ll find Jim visiting the nursing home down the street, tutoring high school students, working on his occasional sobriety and that of others. He’s big into AA. He’s not perfect. He’s got his faults, his demons, like everyone else. Jim says, “Every day is a new day. All we have is today. Let’s try to make it good.”

            And most days are.

            Reading over these lines, you might wonder why Jim is driving such a heap and why he doesn’t have much money. In 1973, he was in the U.S. Army in Thailand, and his chopper went down. A couple of guys were killed. He was maimed, losing both legs to amputation, and the effective use of one arm. For years, he was on near total disability. But he got sick of that, and when the computer age dawned, he learned how to fix computers with one and a half hands, which was a pretty good feat. He gets a small Army disability and makes a little money with computers. While we get hyper if we don’t make $30,000-$50,000-$100,000 a year or more, Jim seems to keep happy, even though he probably makes a lot less than many of us.

            I believe the only thing he’s really missed is being married and having children. There was one girl, Katy, a pretty blonde and smart to boot. I thought they were headed to the altar. That was back in the early 80s. But her parents convinced her she should not marry a guy in a wheelchair – too many medical problems. Her mom would say to her, “Still dating the invalid?” Jim was heartbroken when they split.

            I was in Brookhaven two weeks ago, printing a special edition at The Daily Leader. I decided to journey up to Jackson and see Jim at home (where he does his computer work.) I drive into his driveway and he’s in the carport assembling and organizing Christmas decorations, not for his house, but for his neighbors, an elderly couple, who are pretty much ailing. Jim said, “I’ve got the tree, untangling the lights and dusting off the ornaments. I’ve got to repaint this nativity scene, so it will look nice on their lawn.”

            We live in a materialistic, often crass and pessimistic society. We all spend far too much time concentrating on the bad. We don’t have a fancy car. We need more money. Our jobs aren’t going right. We wish our spouses and kids would treat us the better. We lack. We need. We fuss and fume. There are so many reasons why we are dissatisfied.

            Jim is sometimes discontented like all of us. He is a normal person. But he has learned to be “content in his discontent,” realizing there is more good to life, more happy times than bad. “You never have the future. You only have today,” Jim has said to me more than once. “Enjoy the beauty of what God gives us.” For hardened cynics, it’s simplistic. But as philosophy of life, it really does work.

            Just last Friday, around 8:15 in the morning, I was walking from my parked car to the office in Tracetown Shopping Center. I looked up at the sky. It was a deep, dark blue, a sunny day with temps supposed to hit the 70s, warmish for fall. I saw a hawk cruising on the air currents high above Tracetown, half-floating and then flying into the back side of Fatherland subdivision. It was a beautiful way to start my day.

           For a moment, I thought of Jim and wondered what he was doing right then and how his gift of persistent optimism has made a difference in my life since he’s moved to Jackson.

          I think I will send him an e-mail today.




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