LSS: One person making a difference

During the holidays, a reader sent a message to me asking if I could tell her what my column was about May 1, 2005 — or at least give her the general gist.

Since that was more than 500 columns ago, the topic didn’t spring to mind, but after hearing why she asked, I did some research and found the piece.

She told me she had gone to the funeral of a friend and longtime acquaintance. Among the pictures and memorabilia on display was a column I wrote, dated May 1, 2005.

She hadn’t been able to read it but wondered why he would have kept the column and why it would have been displayed.

I understood and was curious enough to dig through my personal archives to find the piece I wrote more than a decade ago.

Once I found it, I realized I had blocked the incident that prompted the column, but then the events of that afternoon a decade ago came back into clear focus.

The column was titled “While other people are watching.” The incident that inspired it occurred the Sunday afternoon of 2005’s Festival International de Louisiane.

My (then) young daughters and I had been enjoying the afternoon bands. We couldn’t help but notice the three couples and their children nearby.

As I wrote 10 years ago, “They were all well-dressed, beautiful people. Their children made merry in the midst of them.”

And then.

“One father and his toddler son were off to the side of the group. I didn’t see what happened, but apparently the child, who looked to be about 20 months old or so, knocked his dad’s sunglasses off. The glasses fell to the pavement.”

What happened next is why the incident is ingrained in my mind.

“After the father picked up his glasses, he grabbed his young son by the scruff of his shirt. He picked up the child and started yelling. He practically threw the child back into his stroller and continued to yell in the child’s face for what seemed like enough time to knit a sweater.

“I knew that I should do something.

“Don’t get me wrong, I am all about people disciplining their children, but this wasn’t discipline — it was abuse.

“However, I was frozen in place thinking thoughts like, ‘If he’s doing this while other people are watching, what happens at home?’

“Then I saw a man, a very old man, slowly walking in their direction. He was hunched over and seemed a little frail. When he was right beside the father and son, the father looked up. The old man simply said, ‘Stop. Just stop.’

“And he turned around and started back to his place in the shade. However old or frail, this man, right before our eyes, became a hero capable of great feats.

“The father suddenly forgot about his son and started yelling at the old man. What he yelled made no sense to any of the rest of us watching. In a case of strangers united, I think we were all, including the old man, just grateful that the father stopped yelling at his son.

“It got uglier. The friends noticed what was going on. They called the guy’s wife over. She got involved in the altercation. Finally, the whole group moved on.”

From there, in my column back in 2005, I went on to speculate how the events came to be.

I can’t be certain, but I believe the young father was expressing some kind of alcohol-induced rage toward his son. As a neighbor of mine used to describe a friend, “Maybe he is a mean drunk.”

Ten years ago, I wondered what happened during the week that followed. Was the incident swept under the rug or was it a wake-up call?

Reliving the events now make me wonder what happened to that little family in the years that have passed.

The toddler is now in middle school. Has his father gotten his stuff together in the years since — or have things gotten worse?

Is there a chance this was a one-time incident? Or, as the big brother to his siblings, does this kid take the brunt of trouble from his dad? Maybe the father gives all the kids their share of grief?

How many other perfect strangers have stepped in to diffuse the situations that have followed?

Per her request, I sent the column to the reader who wrote me. As you may have figured out by now, she wrote back to confirm her friend was indeed the old man in question.

I’m glad he knew those of us who saw what happened considered him a hero. I pray his wise words played a role in changing the trajectory of that family’s lives.