There was a homeless guy, his name was Mr. Ripkey. I remember him because he’d always stand out by the fence at the high school waiting for kids to return to school from lunch and give him their pop bottles. I used to drop my own in his plastic bag. He was dressed okay, he was dressed for the weather, and he was dedicated to that spot. I saw all of this and will never forget him, because he had a smile for everyone, and was a very kind person, and grateful for each bottle, that would equal a ten cent deposit, put into his bag.
Time went on in high school and like every other person in that age bracket I became self-absorbed and eventually viewed Mr. Ripkey as an old homeless man, a permanent fixture awaiting his bottles. I looked no further than the surface of things. I didn’t have a phone to take his picture while he returned those bottles and I didn’t have the internet to post said photos.
I then grew up; I bought a home and got a job in the city. One day while driving home from work I saw Mr. Ripkey walking through the parking lot of my old high school. He was still carrying a bag with him. I pulled into the parking lot and realized, with a little guilt, that I had spent four years in high school and never paid attention. I asked him if he would like a ride. I was driving a mini-van and he agreed. I opened the door for him and he shakily got in. He was a little older, a little frailer then the guy I knew from high school, time had taken its toll.
I introduced myself to him and he told me his name. I asked if he was retired, and he said yes. He was retired from the rail road. He had a Veterans hat on his head and I asked him if he served. He proudly told me that he fought in World War Two and that he flew on a plane with President Roosevelt. He was proud of his life, proud of his stories and glad that someone wanted to hear him.
Mr. Ripkey gave me directions to his house and I dropped him off. I had been given a very large fruit basket from the hospital I worked at, and before letting him get out of the van, I reached back and asked him if he would like some fresh fruit. He said, yes. I helped him out of the van. There was snow and ice on the walk and I didn’t want him to fall, so walked slowly with him so he could keep his balance. The winter wind was cold, and it dawned on me, looking at Mr. Ripkey’s running nose, that he had spent a lot of hours walking in the cold. I saw a car parked in front of the garage with snow on it as I held the front door open for him.
His wife, who was in her late eighties greeted me with a smile, she sat in an old wheel chair rocking back and forth. She didn’t speak but had a lost look as if she was stricken with Alzheimers or dementia. I was then introduced to his son who couldn’t speak and was mentally retarded; he was watching an old rerun of Sanford and Son on television and had a permanent grin on his face. I said to Mr. Ripkey that he had a beautiful family. He smiled and nodded, tears appeared in the corners of his eyes showing me that he was a proud husband and father. I asked where he wanted the fruit basket. There was a table full of old newspapers and clutter and he said I could put it there.
There were no Christmas decorations, but there was family, and love for one another. Mr. Ripkey was the provider and the only one with mind enough to recognize and take care of who he loved. He didn’t brag about his service, he didn’t ask publicly for praise for doing the job that he chose to do. He proudly just greeted people and tried to make ends meet a little easier by collecting pop bottles from the local high school kids. His home was his home. It may have been cluttered, needing a good cleaning, with drafty windows covered with plastic, and his family may have been suffering from some form of mental illness, but he still trudged through the darkness of it all because that’s who he was.
From day to day, society, at least the adults of the world, stayed self-absorbed, like the high schoolers that passed him. It was an ignorant reality to face, to digest and it made my heart hurt.
I drove home crying for Mr. Ripkey, even though I don’t think he would have wanted that. Since then I moved my family from the city and saw Mr. Ripkey only a couple more times before he quit his jaunts through the high school parking lot. I learned a lot on those few encounters. That he was a good man. That he was making ends meet, and that no matter what car he drove, no matter what extra cash he received as handouts from strangers, no matter what his family was going through, he didn’t expect me to take his picture, or several pictures, and post them on the local telephone poles to show people that he didn’t deserve that help.
I didn’t judge him, I listened to him. I didn’t scorn him publicly; I only want this story as a lesson to others. Hard times, addiction, and other things posted on public forums are damaging and as long as society continues to do this, we lose, as a human race. Even if only one person posts a picture of someone less fortunate, without knowing the entire story, or even reaching out to understand the person’s life, it makes the rest of us just as ignorant to give it attention, to read it or even comment on it. I’ve been guilty, hell, I think everyone is.
Thank you Mr. Ken Ripkey for your service, but most of all thanks for teaching me that even if I’m stressed about things in life: work, bills, etc., you showed me that none of that stress will ever get me down because when the odds stack up, they should all be taken down, one by one, and to clear the darkness to see the light. Thanks so much for everything you’ve helped awaken in those you’ve connected with in this life, and if you’re at peace today because age has taken you from us, may you be in a better place, where there are smiles from everyone, reciprocating the kindness you reflected in your life while on earth.