Jones was silent for a time, and I began to wonder if I had been rude enough to shut him down completely. But, no. That was just the first of several chances I would offer him to give up on me and leave. And he didn't.
"Young man?" Jones asked as he brushed a wisp of white hair from his eyes. "What would you think if I told you that, yes, your bad choices and decisions have had a part in your ending up under this pier, but beyond that, under this pier is exactly where you should be in order for a future to occur that you can't even imagine at this point?"
"I don't understand," I said. "And I'm not sure I would believe it if I did."
"You will," Jones replied. "Trust me. One day you will." Then, suddenly smiling, he said, "Here's the thing, son, everybody seems to misunderstand that saying you threw at me a minute ago. Why does everyone think that when people say that 'God will put a person after His own heart where He wants him to be' . . . that it means God will put them on a mountaintop or in a big house or at the front of the line?
"Think with me here . . . everybody wants to be on the mountaintop, but if you'll remember, mountaintops are rocky and cold. There is no growth on the top of a mountain. Sure, the view is great, but what's a view for? A view just gives us a glimpse of our next destination—our next target. But to hit that target, we must come off the mountain, go through the valley, and begin to climb the next slope. It is in the valley that we slog through the lush grass and rich soil, learning and becoming what enables us to summit life's next peak.
"So, my contention is that you are right where you are supposed to be." The old man scooped up a double handful of the white sand and let it pour from his fingers. "It may look like barren sand to you, son, but nothing could be further from the truth. I say to you that, as you lay your head down tonight, you are sleeping on fertile ground. Think. Learn. Pray. Plan. Dream. For soon . . . you will become."
Before he left that night, Jones opened his suitcase, holding it carefully away from my curious gaze, and removed three small, orange hardcover books. "Do you read?" he asked. As I nodded, he added, "I'm not asking if you can read; I'm asking if you do."
"Yes," I responded. "Mostly magazines and stuff, but I do."
"Good enough," Jones said. "Read these."
I looked at what he handed me in the semidarkness. The titles were all names. Winston Churchill. Will Rogers. George Washington Carver. I glanced back up at him. "History books?"
"No," he said, with a twinkle in his eye, "adventure stories! Success, failure, romance, intrigue, tragedy, and triumph—and the best part is that every word is true! Remember, young man, experience is not the best teacher. Other people's experience is the best teacher. By reading about the lives of great people, you can unlock the secrets to what made them great."
I read Winston Churchill until dawn. It was comforting somehow to discover a life that had endured more tragedy and rejection than my own. And it didn't escape me that by the end of his life, Churchill had met with more than an equal measure of success.