Last April I undertook to plant another row of shrubbery in the yard. I assembled the necessary tools, including the wheelbarrow to transport heavy plants and a large amount of dirt. As I began to dig and toss the surplus dirt into the wheelbarrow, I hesitated, smiled, and spent time remembering one of my heroes from childhood, Mister Sylvester Jones.

Among the many things I learned from Mister Sylvester when I was about eight years old was the efficient way to use the wheelbarrow. As he stood and watched me prepare to haul a load of anthracite coal in the wheelbarrow, he made some observations and asked some questions:

Him: James Edward, where do you plan to take the coal?

Me: Over closer to the house Mister Sylvester.

Him: Then prepare yourself to do it right and save your energy.

Me: Mister Sylvester, I plan to load some coal into this wheelbarrow and then push the wheelbarrow over closer to the house and unload it into the bin. That’s about as right as I can do it.

Mister Sylvester just nodded his head and took a seat and watched me do it my way. After the fourth or fifth load, he noticed my fatigue and suggested I take some instructions:

Him: James Edward I noticed you loaded the wheelbarrow from the front; the high end, which caused you to have to lift the coal higher. Now if you load the wheelbarrow from the back end, which is lower, you save yourself some energy. Next, before you load the wheelbarrow, have it pointed in the direction you plan to push it; no need to lift and turn around a full wheelbarrow.

On the recent April day as I moved shrubbery and dirt in the wheelbarrow, following Mister Sylvester’s instructions of more than seven decades, I also remembered another lesson he taught me.

(The following story was first published in I Wish You Had Been There.)

Measure Three Times; Cut Once

Mister Sylvester Jones was everybody’s ideal neighbor and every child’s mentor. He listened to my suggestions about almost everything, and he had such a gentle way of helping me understand why ninety-nine percent of them wouldn’t work or were impractical. On one day when I was about eight years old, he decided to let me perform what I thought was the correct way to solve a problem.

Mister Sylvester and I sat on the steps leading to the back porch. He suddenly noticed the weakness of one board, and since he was a man who just did whatever needed to be done, without prompting, at his home or at a neighbor’s, he decided to replace it with a board that was close at hand. Both of us knew the board needed to be cut. I volunteered to do the measuring and cutting. My mentor gave his consent. Just as I took the saw in hand and prepared to cut, Mister Sylvester asked if I was satisfied with my measurements. I assured him that I was satisfied, so I cut the board according to my measurements. It was at least a foot too short.

He did not scold me. Instead, he simply reached into his pocket and gave me a nickel and sent me to the saw mill to get a new board. Before I took the three-block walk, he also reminded me that I should “measure three times and cut once.” But equally important, he reminded me that I owed him a nickel.

Shortly before retiring from the Air Force, I returned to Valdosta to visit my family. I also wanted to see Mister Sylvester, so I telephoned him and offered to come and cook lunch and just visit for a spell. The invitation excited him. Our time together was one of the most exciting reunions of my life; two men just sitting and reminiscing how the senior helped the junior become a man.

And then it was time to go. We shared a long embrace, which both of us knew would likely be our final sharing. I headed for my car, but he summoned me back to the porch. My friend and mentor offered one last instruction:

“James Edward, I think you should just reach in your pocket and pay me that nickel you owe me for the board.”

We laughed and hugged for five more minutes. Finally, I said goodbye again – minus a nickel.

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