“Who do you thank when you have such luck?”
A boy in Florida watched an old man on an evening in the 1970s. He was sitting by a pier, just before sundown. The old man came strolling along the beach and walked out to the end of the pier, holding a bucket and looking out across the water. The sun was a huge orange, low down on the sea and ready to disappear, casting a golden bronze glow across the water. There was nobody much about, apart from the boy and a few joggers on the beach. The old man looked up.
Far above him, up in the sky, a thousand white dots, screeching and squawking, winged toward the end of the pier. Before long he was surrounded by seagulls, fluttering and flapping wildly. The old man wasn’t just unfazed by it all. He called out to them, and he smiled, and reached into his bucket. And for the next few minutes, he threw shrimp to the seagulls, who flapped and squawked and beat each other to the food.
The boy watched him stand there, talking to the birds. He almost thought he heard him say, “Thank you. Thank you.”
The bucket was soon empty. But the old man didn’t leave. He stood there lost in thought, as though transported to another time. One gull landed on his weather-beaten hat; an old military hat he’d worn for years.
When he finally turned to walk toward the beach, a few birds hopped along the pier with him and then they, too, flew away. And the old man quietly made his way down the beach and went on home.
To the boy, he looked like a funny old codger. “Who stands around talking to seagulls?” he wondered. He talked about it to his father at dinner.
His father smiled. “Sounds like Old Ed,” he said. ”Did he have an old navy hat on?”
“Yes, he did. Very faded – nearly white.”
His father nodded. “Ed Rickenbacker,” he said. “Nothing weird about him. Let me tell you about him.
“That man,” he said, “is a national hero. He was the top American air force ace in World War 1, when people were still learning about air forces. He shot down more enemy planes than anybody else. After the war, he started an airline, and he did a whole lot of other things. He got badly injured in a crash — they actually reported he was dead, but he survived. In World War 2 he was a sort of Air Force advisor. Not fighting, but reporting on various projects. And he was on a mission for the President, in the Pacific, when his plane was lost and they crash-landed in the ocean, about seven of them. 1942. He was reported killed again, but they turned up after about three weeks at sea in a life raft, all but one man who died during the journey. He’s a tough man, Eddie Rickenbacker.
“He’d be nearly 80, now. And he’s not just tough, either. He’s shrewd, too. Their food on the lifeboat ran out about the eighth day. They were hundreds of miles from land and no one knew where they were. They needed a miracle. So they prayed for one. Eddie leaned back and pulled his cap over his nose. Time dragged.
“Suddenly, something landed on the top of his cap. It was a seagull! Old Ed sat perfectly still, thinking, then with a flash of his hand he managed to grab it and wring its neck, and he and his starving crew made a meal out of it. Then they used the intestines for bait. And they caught a fish, which gave them more food and more bait…
“They survived. They were rescued after 24 days at sea. And Eddie Rickenbacker has never forgotten that first seagull, that landed on his hat as an answer to prayer. And he’s never stopped saying, ‘Thank you.’”
Gratitude is a fundamental quality. We all, every one of us, has people in our lives to whom we should be grateful: parents, teachers, workmates, neighbours, total strangers … and every one of us should be grateful to God. Why does my digestive system work? Why did the sun come up today? Who in this world loves me, or is there for me to love? Thank you God, for the gift of life. Help me to live it well, and with gratitude to you. Help me not to take good things for granted.