Bookstore owner delivers Christmas presence

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, December 19, 2001

"That was pretty classy of you," I said to Cochrane coffee companion George Parry when I heard about what happened.

"I look at it this way," the owner/operator of Westlands Bookstore replied. "That could've just as easily been me out there."

The snow was nearly knee-deep that cold December afternoon a few years ago when George glanced out his bookstore window to see a man lying facedown in the yet-unploughed street, not moving, and in imminent danger of being run over.

"He's drunk," one of George's customers said. "He was staggering across the street when he fell."

"I'll be right back," George said as he rushed outside and knelt next to the fellow.

George recognized him right away. Only a few weeks earlier, he'd had an enjoyable conversation with him about hobbies, travels, and philosophy of life.

For many of the townsfolk, however, the fellow in the snow was just another drunk, filthy, foul-tempered, and disorderly – certainly not the most welcome character in Cochrane's shops and restaurants. On top of all that, people didn't like the way he smelled.

He didn't smell any better this day, either.

But that didn't faze George.

"Come on," George said to him. "We better get you inside before you freeze to death."

He helped the wet, shivering fellow to his feet, and supporting him under his arms, he walked him through the front door of the store, past waiting customers, around displays of glossy Old West picture books, through his office, and into the back room warmed by the crackling wood fire in a drum-shaped convection heater.

After making his guest comfortable, George phoned local author and friend, RCMP Cst. Peter Ormshaw. He explained his situation, that he was tending the store by himself and was concerned to get help for his guest. Could Peter drop in for a friendly visit?

Then, informing his customers, still waiting to make their purchases, that he'd be with them in a few minutes, he excused himself, went back to his guest, served him some hot coffee, and kept him company till Peter arrived.

Only when George was satisfied his guest was warm and in good hands, did he take his leave and return to his customers.

I think about this story often. In his characteristically non-judgmental way, George performed an act of compassion for someone whom many of us might have ignored. His action proclaims that nothing – not business, not personal comfort, not even smelling good – is more important than simply being there for a fellow human being.

Let's lift our cups in a toast: To George! Thanks for reminding us that the best present we can give each other – this Christmas or any other time – is the gift of presence.

Before closing this last column for the year, I must share with you one of the most beautiful Christmas gifts I have ever received. It's an e-mail responding to last week's column on Stoney Country's heart of beauty:

DEAR WARREN, my name is Kirsten Ryder and I'm from Morley. I am 16 years old and I'm graduating from high school this year. I just want to thank you for writing an article about my people. You don't know how much pride I felt when I read your article. I just wish that everybody understood the way you do. It's hard to live out here sometimes. I realized that we do look "beyond the individual to the community," and that without our extended family it's hard to get through challenges. Nobody writes good things about us the way you did. I just want to thank you for understanding and I appreciate all that you do.

—Kirsten Ryder, Morley

THANK YOU, Kirsten, and thanks to all of you who have joined our coffee table over the past year. You are lamplighters in the true spirit of the season. May God bless you richly in the new year.

© 2001 Warren Harbeck

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