People like to be appreciated and being thanked. For being acknowledged for doing something good or heroic or just plain useful! However, a lot of people do and say things just for the acknowledgment and to be ‘seen’ as doing good, like someone giving a meal to a homeless person then taking a selfie with them. Just so they can post it in Instagram or Facebook, without thinking of the shame that the person receiving the meal actually feels.
The point is that giving or doing good, should be its own reward. What does it say in the bible? ‘Never let your left hand know what your right hand is doing?’ OK, if you’re not Christian, that also applies to Karma as well.
The Americans have a holiday around Thanksgiving, which focuses on giving thanks to what they have or for what people have done for them. I know that it started with the Pilgrims of Plymouth and the Wampanoag people and that it’s grown from there, but I think that a day of giving thanks, should be universal.
I was raised in a Greek household in Melbourne Australia and had been spoiled and sheltered my whole life. I had a younger brother, Nick and an older sister; Thea and our parents were hard working, small business owners. Specifically, an old-style cafe in Fitzroy. It’s funny when I thought about it, but I had learned to speak Greek before learning English. Actually, I learned to speak English at school.
The three of us were just normal kids. We were polite, obedient to our parents’ wishes, wanted to be popular at school and have people like us. I had always loved pretending to be a policeman or a firefighter growing up and when I left school, I joined the Australian Army.
Everything progressed how I expected, and I aced most of my tests and challenges during boot camp, but even though I was officially Private Alexander Papadopoulos, I was still that sheltered little Greek boy from Fitzroy.
The guy that slept on the bunk above me, was both my best friend and competition and we used our rivalry to become better soldiers. That ‘steel sharpening steel’ thing and his name was Michael Rizzo. His parents were Italian, so that was another humorous point of conflict that we had. He stuck his head over the bunk and asked,
“Hey, Alex! Nervous about being sent to Afghanistan tomorrow?”
“No… We’ll be right. There are so many of us over there that we’ll won’t see any real action. Are you?”
Our gear was already packed and ready to go so when we woke up the next morning, we would jump onto a Hercules and be on our way. The next thing I knew, we were in Kabul. Me and Michael, were there for about six months and apart from a few tense moments, things seemed pretty peaceful. Until that day…
It’s been about a year since I’ve been back. Well… since my physical body had returned to Melbourne but a big part of me had disappeared forever. Along with my innocence, naivety and ignorance, which were obliterated and replaced by anxiety, guilt and lack of direction.
I just spent most of the day in my bedroom in my parents’ home. I was lucky that I had lived with them when I enlisted, and it made things simple for me, but my family didn’t know what to do or how to act around me.
I was twenty-five years old and burnt out, but I had just begun going back to church and started to see… to feel a light at the end of the tunnel. Then one day, I was walking down Bourke street in Melbourne, wearing a thick coat on top of my hoodie, which I had over my head as it was so cold. The city was pretty empty as it was a public holiday and the skies were slate grey and threatened to rain.
I had my head down and hands in my pocket, as I headed into a freezing cold wind, when I saw a man that sat in front of a building, surrounded by a few meagre belongings. I was about to do what most people do - just avert any eye contact and walk by, when I saw that he had a small mixed breed dog. He look so much my dog Chi-Chi, that I had when I was a young boy and before I knew it, I stopped and asked the man,
“Excuse me… What type of dog is that?”
The man seemed startled. Maybe because it had been a few days since anyone had spoken to him but after a moment, he said,
“I think he’s a cross between a Pug and a Jack Russel… and something else. His name’s Jackson and he’s my little buddy. Aren’t you, Jackson?”
My new friend rubbed his dogs head, who looked up appreciatively, with his tongue hanging out the side of his mouth.
“I had a dog who looked exactly like him when I was a kid. My name’s Alex, by the way.”
I said, while I extended my hand for him to shake. He hesitated for a moment, rubbed his hand on his flannel shirt and he shook it.
“My name’s David.”
I saw a brief flicker in his eyes, just as another cold breeze whipped us.
“David. Do you have somewhere warm to go?”
I didn’t know much about charities and who could do what, but I found that I wanted to help.
“Yeah… Uhm. The Melbourne City Foundation’s not far from here. They’re a bit full at the moment, so I thought I’d wait here for a little while.”
I was glad that there was somewhere he could go, then I looked down at his crude cardboard sign that asked for ‘help’, the small hat that contained a few dollars and his threadbare blankets, that were doing very little to keep him warm.
About fifty meters from where he sat was a McDonald's and a little further up from there, was an Ausie Disposals City store. I remember walking through there years ago and knew that they sold swags, which were a cross between a tent and a sleeping bag. I looked back down at David and asked,
“When was the last time you ate, mate?”
“What day is it?”
The poor guy hadn’t eaten in days, so I asked,
“Will you be leaving anytime soon?”
“Not for the next few hours.”
“OK. I’ve got to do a thing, but I wouldn’t mind saying goodbye to you before I went home. See you in a minute?”
I said, then headed to the camping store. When I entered it, I proceeded straight to the camping area and picked up a swag, a large fleece lined, waterproof jacket and gloves. I didn’t remember if his shoes were any good, but I also grabbed a few pairs of woolen socks and some toiletries. I then saw the military merchandise and found myself back at that horrible place and time…
Four years ago, me, my buddy Michael and our team, were inspecting vehicles that entered a small town that we were stationed at. We just kidding around but still mindful of where we were. It was oppressively hot but felt hotter, with all the gear that we had on.
Michael and I were disparaging each other’s football teams, when there was an explosion and I was thrown across the road into a nearby car. So hard, that I made a massive dent in the door. I blacked for a few minutes and when I came to, I could only hear muffled sounds.
A suicide bomber had detonated a device in his little old car and killed himself, four civilians and five of my team. Michael was laying against another car and was missing a leg. He had his hand on the side of his neck, in the attempt of stop the blood gushing from his jugular.
I staggered toward him and dropped to my knees to see how I could help, then grabbed some first aid supplies from my gear.
“OK, Michael. Let me have a look what we’re dealing with.”
Michael moved his hand for a moment, and I found that there was a piece of his neck missing. I placed a piece of gauze on his neck and pretended that I was able to help but… there was no chance.
I made Michael put pressure back on his neck and he looked into my eyes. He knew he was finished and even thought I was mostly deaf; I could hear him calling for his mum. Crying and screaming for her.
I looked down at all the blood that soaked the sand beneath us, and I felt part of me… part of my heart mingle with the blood. I held him in my arms then a few minutes later, Michael Rizzo left our existence.
Me and what remained of the unit received medals and thanks, but I remember feeling… guilty for having survived. I didn’t want medals or recognition because I didn’t deserve them. I spent the rest of my tour an empty shell of a man – a robot, just doing what he was told.
I snapped myself out of that time and place and got down to business. Then I made my purchase, carried a large bag back down to McDonald's and bought three large Big Mac meals with hot coffees. I paid for the meals but then found that I was stuck, as I had no way of carrying everything back down to David. I looked at the young girl behind the counter who seemed to appreciate my dilemma, then looked around and found that it was very quiet, so I had thought of a solution.
“Excuse me… I don’t seem to have enough hands. Could you please help me carry these meals just down the street?”
The young girl hesitated but I was glad that she decided to help. My new friend followed me back down to the little enclave were David sat, who was very surprised when he saw me return with a large bag and hot lunches. I thanked the young lady who seemed happy that she was able to help, then I sat next to David.
“David… Would you mind if I ate lunch with you? I hate eating alone… Oh and I thought that I’d buy you and Jackson some lunch as well, as a way of saying thank you.”
I then handed him two bags of the hot, fatty food and coffees. David then looked at me and said incredulously,
“You want to thank me?!”
“Yeah! For having lunch with me.”
David got a little misty eyed, but we wasted no time eating. We spoke a little about the weather, but I could tell that David had some mental or emotional issues, which was probably why he was on the street. I didn’t judge and just did my best to communicate with him.
Little Jackson let me pet him and he seemed like a good little dog, then after about half an hour, I got up from the freezing cold pavement and presented David with a bag.
“I thought that Jackson would like a warm place to stay, when you can’t get to a shelter, but I suppose that he wouldn’t mind you sharing it.”
I said with a wink and a smile. David looked like he was going to refuse my gift, so I said,
“Please… I haven’t connected with anyone for a very long time and it means a lot to me that I can do something for you. Please consider this a gift and not charity, OK?”
David nodded his head, thanked me and shook my hand then as I walked back to the car, I realized that that I felt… good! My anxiety had lessened a little, at least for the moment but I sensed that a little bit of something that I had lost, had started to return.
Mum sensed a slight change in me when I returned, and she seemed really happy. Or was that relief that I saw? Either way, things slowly improved with me and my family and I even started working at my dad’s café.
A few weeks after I met David and Jackson, I drove down Bourke street to see if he were there. He wasn’t but I did see a woman in her thirties and a cat, so I parked my car, went into the disposals store and bought exactly what I had gotten David but a small woman’s size jacket. The brief view I had of her, seemed to indicate that she was small in stature.
Then I walked down to McDonald’s and found the same young girl that had helped me the last time I came by. She gave me a big smile and said,
“I seem to sense some deja vous! Let me guess… Three Big Mac Meals… three coffees… and a hand to carry them down the street?”
“Wow! You’re good… Do you also read tea leaves?”
Then we laughed. My McDonald's friend helped me carry the hot lunch down the street, where I introduced myself to Cathy and her cat… also named Cathy.
“Would you mind having lunch with me? I hate to eat alone…”
I started following the same pilgrimage every few weeks or so but sometimes, there wouldn’t be anyone in that little alcove. Then about six months later while watching the news, I saw the same young lady that had helped me a few times from McDonald’s, being interviewed. I turned up the volume to hear what she was telling the reporter.
“… and then, the same man would walk into the McDonald’s that I worked at and order the same thing, then give a Big Mac meal, camping gear and warm clothes to whoever would be there! But… he would sit down and spend some time with them. He seemed so caring!
The last time he came by, one of my other colleagues helped him, as I was at the back. I don’t know… I think he’s like some sort of Guardian Angel for the homeless. I wish I knew his name…”
It was good to hear such nice things from a person that I had only met a few times and I was thinking that maybe I should stop by for a social visit one day, when my mother said,
“It’s nice to see that there are still good people in this world. I hope that God blesses that man.”
I just smiled but didn’t tell her it was me, because God did bless me. He helped me leave that dark place once and for all and for that, I was well and truly thankful.