Sunday, April 11, 2010

A Cherry Coke and a 3 Musketeers

April 6, 1992: I remember it as if it was yesterday. It was a Monday and, like most Mondays that spring, I stopped by the corner store on my way back from class to buy a Cherry Coke and a chocolate bar – my favourite, a 3 Musketeers. As I walked into the store, I noticed a small group of gentlemen in old suits attentively watching the small television behind the counter. I asked to find out what was going on and someone said that they were witnessing a world changing event, the siege of Sarajevo. Although I could recognize the importance of the moment, hunger and the need for a sugar boost was, in my eyes, more important in the grand scheme of things. I wriggled my way to the counter and finally got my hands on the coveted treat. As I handed the money to the clerk, a nice Vietnamese man would seemed unimpressed with the whole event and wishing the crowd would at least buy something, a man at the back of the crowd cried out that he too needed a Cherry Coke and a 3 Musketeers to boost his morale. I turned to look at who had said that and saw a burly middle-aged man that had an “I am way more important than any of you think” look about him. As he made his way to the counter, I heard him say that it was certainly against doctor’s orders but important events called for important measures.

A number of years passed. I had now become a “productive” member of society. I had a job working as an accountant – hence the quotation marks around the word productive! - in an investment bank. My job called for me to meet with prospective clients to go over their application. In the morning of October 8, 2001 – I remember it well as everyone in the office was talking about the start of the war in Afghanistan, “Operation Enduring Freedom” – I was sitting in my office waiting for my morning appointment to show up. When he arrived, I immediately noticed something vaguely familiar about the young man but I could not put my finger on it. We went through the usual niceties and then down to business. After a while, my client asked me if there was any way he could go and get something to eat, as he had not had time to have breakfast prior to our meeting. As my schedule was tight, there was no time for him to do so, so I offered him all I had on hand, a Cherry Coke and a 3 Musketeers. He reacted strangely to the offer: his face turned pale and for a moment he seemed to stare into the distance. I was taken aback by his reaction and he must have noticed as he immediately apologized. He then went on to tell me the story behind his reaction.

His father had been a scientist and businessman. After having emigrated from some Eastern Block country, he started work for the defence department. That lasted for a time but he finally left civil service to found his own company. His aim was straight forward enough: market products based on research he had done while in his home country. He had tried to promote the ideas to his superiors in the defence department but they had found them too ludicrous to even be considered. He worked tirelessly and was on the verge of success when, in 1992, his life was caught short by a massive heart attack. It seemed that the stress of the work, combined with his awful eating habits – he used to say to his son: “You smell that? Kielbasa, son. Nothing else in the world smells like that. I love the smell of Kielbasa in the morning” - had made him a prime candidate for an acute myocardial infarction. On that fateful afternoon in 1992, his father had returned home glowing with a strange air of satisfaction. He had then sat down in his favourite chair and never got up again. Doctors were never able to confirm exactly what the true cause was but all signs seemed to point to a large intake of sugar which he had all but removed from his daily diet. Following his death, the company went bankrupt; no longer having a driving force to make it progress, and the family became destitute. The son, who was a teenager when his father passed away, had vowed to follow in his footsteps and finish what his father had started. He had worked himself through university, studied his father’s work and was now ready to pick up where is father had left off. This is why he was in my office that day; he was looking for funding to restart the company and finally produce what his father had invented.

His father was a botanist and biologist and had developed a fast growing plant that took on a different color based on whether or not the soil in which it grew contained traces of explosives. This would provide an effective, economical and much safer way of detecting landmines. The son had calculated that, had his father lived, his invention could have saved the lives of over thousands and thousands of people. As he kept on talking about plants, landmines and people, my mind started to wander and I asked myself what was so familiar about him. Then, as it often does, a small change in his facial expression made it all came back. His short brown hair that stood straight on his head, his eyebrows that seemed to have been drawn by a single stroke of a large felt pen, his brown eyes that looked both happy and sad at the same time, his round nose that gave the impression of inflating every time he took a breath, his crooked smile that revealed uneven teeth… He looked just like his father; the man who bought a Cherry Coke and a 3 Musketeers in a corner store on April 6, 1992.