“Yes, I’m Al…”
I am sure that by now you’re tired of hearing about the Memorial Day events of my youth – and probably even more so about the race. But today, something happened that I could never imagine – and that I have thought about since I was a little kid! I arose at 5:45 this morning to get ready for my flight to New Jersey, where I am tonight. As I was passing through airport security, I noticed an older couple behind me. I collected my things and headed off toward the gate, but I couldn’t get it out of my head that the gentleman looked like someone I should know. He was in black jeans, a long sleeve, brown, plaid shirt and a pair of walking shoes. Gray hair, neatly combed, and a warm smile completed the look. I stopped to get breakfast and ended up walking down the “B” concourse of the Indy airport; finally settling in a chair down the row from this oddly familiar stranger. He was alone.
Finally, I couldn’t stand it any longer and in an instant, I turned into one of those people I just can’t stand. I walked down the aisle, stopped next to him, and asked, “Excuse me, sir, but by any chance are you Al Unser?” And he looked up with the kindest smile, and said, “Yes, I’m Al.” And all of a sudden, here I was face to face with the number one hero of my youth. Honest to God, I was speechless. So many recollections of my Dad and me welled up inside that I actually couldn’t talk. I was afraid that I was going to start crying right there on the spot. I’ve met Prime Ministers, movie stars, worked in the Reagan White House, and done many cool things in my life, but this was the capstone for me – the ultimate thrill. You must think I’m nuts, but each of us has a hero they looked up to as a child; and Al Unser was mine. And all I could think of was, “If only my Dad could be here to share this moment with me.”
For those of you who are too young to remember, or perhaps even care, he was the second man to win 4 Indy 500 races (after AJ Foyt) – and one of the dynasty of Unser family drivers who have won 9 of the 95 races held at the Speedway since 1911. He won in 1970, 71, 78 (several days before my father died) and 1987. His older brother Bobby won three times, and his son, Al, Jr. has won twice. In fact, Al finished second in the 1967 race I wrote about yesterday, behind AJ Foyt, and he has led 644 laps, more than any other driver in Speedway history.
But back to today’s story – when I finally composed myself, as my eyes were actually wet with tears, I told Al about how he was my childhood hero, and how Dad and I listened to the race when I was a boy; and about how much it meant to meet him. I even told him about my blog Sunday evening. I apologized for bothering him, and he was so gracious, letting me know that he enjoyed our chat as much as I did. He thanked me profusely for stopping and reached out to me. As we shook hands, I was consumed with his gentleness. Not too hard, not too soft, but just right – returning the exact pressure I exerted on his hand. And all I could think of was how this man had piloted four race cars to Victory Lane at the greatest track in the world – and now that same hand was shaking mine.
After our encounter, I called Janet at home. I was still so emotional I could barely speak. In fact, Janet thought something had happened to me. I assured her that I was okay, but it took me several minutes to recount my story. She was so thrilled for me. And oddly, as I was walking back through the terminal, while I was on the phone with Janet, Al nodded at me again as I walked past. He stuck out his hand a second time – I wished him safe travels home to Albuquerque, and Janet heard him wish me well on my flight to New Jersey. I had to laugh when Janet said to me, “That sounds just like him!” I said, “That’s because it was him!” And so my encounter with my childhood hero ended as quickly as it had happened. No autographs; no pictures – somehow that just didn’t seem right – just a great memory to remember.
And tonight, of course, I had to go to the Bible to read about heroes. And I found something interesting. In Is 3:1-3, we are told, “See now, the Lord, the LORD Almighty, is about to take from Jerusalem and Judah both supply and support: all supplies of food and all supplies of water, the hero and warrior, the judge and prophet, the soothsayer and elder, the captain of fifty and man of rank, the counselor, skilled craftsman and clever enchanter.” Isaiah then goes on to say how when the Lord removes the heros and the others, disaster reigns. There is no leadership and those without a history of success try to take over. And there is chaos. So we need our heroes; people to learn from and look up to. They are important to our growth.
My encouragement tonight is to try to be a hero to your children, and to the younger generations. Try to live a life worthy of being looked up to. Not in a grandiose way, but a humble, God centered life that sets a standard on earth for the Kingdom of God. And my prayer is that God will honor your attempt – and that you may be some other child’s Al Unser. You never know; you could change a life…..