If Thomas Chance never tried robbing the old man at the end of his street when he was fifteen-years-old he may have never become the world’s greatest photographer, an explorer and mountain climber, and a husband and a father. He was the product of a broken home, with an absent father and a mother who was severely addicted to alcohol and painkillers. He fell in with the wrong crowd at school because the misfits naturally seem to gravitate toward one another. He was a constant problem with his teachers and authority figures. His grades were satisfactory at best and he lacked motivation. He liked football, but he was never able to play because his mother spent all of her extra money on her addictions.
When summer break had finally come around following his freshman year Thomas planned on never returning to school. His best friend, Jimmy Foley lived down the street. He was a year older than Thomas and from a similar background. Jimmy had no plans of dropping out. He intended to do anything possible to play football. So Jimmy conceived the plan while they were sitting on his front porch one evening.
Mr. Carver lived in the house across the street. He was a very old man, appeared to live alone, and was the perfect target. Jimmy figured there would have to be something of value inside of the house. At least enough valuable things he could take down to the pawnshop to come up with the money to play football. He wasn’t sure he could do it by himself, so he called on Thomas for help. Thomas had been talking about getting some money together to skip town. He did not have any destinations, but he knew it would be somewhere very far from that small town. So he agreed to help as long as they split everything right down the middle.
On the night they were going to break into Mr. Carver’s home Jimmy bailed on the plan. He was the lucky benefactor of his uncle’s passing and, in turn, inherited four thousand dollars. Thomas, on the other hand, needed to go through with the plan.
So he watched Mr. Carver’s house all day and saw no movement. No one came, no one left. When the sun went down it was as dark on the inside of the house as it was outside. Thomas was positive that no one was home.
When the clock struck three in the morning he decided to do it. He climbed over Mr. Carver’s backyard fence and searched for an open window, a broken door lock, anything that would give him a way into the house. Then he found it. The kitchen window had been left open. He popped the screen out of the frame and climbed through. He began casing the first floor of the house, grabbing every small little thing he could put in his pockets.
Mr. Carver lied in his bed. He was not asleep despite the late hour because of a condition he developed during his tour in World War Two. He could only sleep an hour, maybe two, before the night terrors set in, waking him in a state of panic and fear. After 50 years of nightmares Mr. Carver had discovered ways to get his mind off of the horrors he had seen first hand, horrors that revisited him on a nightly basis. He would think of every beautiful thing he could imagine—flowing rivers, snow draped mountains, fields of flowers on a warm Spring day. Thomas was not even in the house when Mr. Carver heard him. Despite his old age he had an acute sense of hearing. He did not call the police until he was certain that Thomas was inside.
Just as Thomas reached the landing, between the front door and the stairs he saw the red and blue flashes in the driveway. He froze for a moment, and then made a break for it through the back kitchen door. Before he could begin climbing the fence he was hit on the back of the head by the police officer’s billy club. He knew it was all over. He was handcuffed and thrown in the back of the police cruiser.
The police officer went inside, and talked to Mr. Carver. Then he came back out to the car and said, “I have two options for you, kid. I can take you down to the Juvenile Detention Center, or you can call Mr. Carver every night and talk to him for a half hour.”
“What?” Thomas said, perplexed. “What do you mean, talk to him?” he asked.
“Just that,” the police officer responded. “He said he wouldn’t press charges if you called him on the phone once a night for the next week, and talk to him for a half hour.”
“Okay,” Thomas said, “Can’t be worse than going to jail.”
“Here is the phone number…you better call him, son. I’ve advised Mr. Carver to get a hold of me the first day that you don’t, and I will be at your house to take you to Juvenile.”
“Yes, sir,” Thomas said, and took the small piece of paper.
The next day Thomas took out the piece of paper, and called Mr. Carver at six o’clock. Mr. Carver answered the phone on the first ring, and started talking immediately. He did not ask him why he tried robbing him. He did not ask him anything at all. He just began talking to Thomas like they were old friends who had not spoken in a while. The first day he talked to Thomas about football. He said that he played when he was young, and may have played in college had he not been drafted to serve in the army. Thomas asked him why he did not play again after the war. Mr. Carver simply said he had other things to worry about. They talked for a half hour exactly on the first day.
Thomas called Mr. Carver at six o’clock on the dot the following day. Again, Mr. Carver did not ask Thomas any questions. He began speaking to him the same way he had the previous day. They discussed Mr. Carver’s death defying trek up Mt. Everest when he was young. Thomas was blown away. He could not believe Mr. Carver had climbed the tallest mountain in the world. On the second day their conversation lasted forty minutes.
Once again, on the third day, at six o’clock, Thomas called Mr. Carver, who picked up on the first ring, and began talking. This day he told Thomas about the time he sailed around the world—starting in California, going down around South America, across the Atlantic Ocean, down the Coast of Africa, up through the Indian Ocean, and finally across the Pacific back to California. Thomas was even more interested than he was the day before. He could visualize every sentence, every description that came from Mr. Carver’s mouth. Their conversation lasted an hour on the third day.
Everything began exactly the same on the fourth day. But instead of mountain climbing, or sailing, Mr. Carver talked about his run with the bulls in Pamplona. He talked about the entire trip with very vivid detail. He talked about how he nearly did not make it, because he lost his passport, but that he snuck across the Spanish border on a fruit train, carrying the biggest and most delicious grapes he had ever tasted in his life. Thomas was enthralled once again, and pressed the phone against his ear for an hour and a half.
The fifth day nothing changed. It was six o’clock, Thomas dialed, and Mr. Carver started talking as soon as he picked up the phone. He had shifted from Spain to the Caribbean. He told Thomas about the year he spent living as an island hopper. He said he would wake up early in the morning, before the sun came up, eat his breakfast on the beach, watch the sun rise, take a morning swim in the bluest and most beautiful water he had ever seen, and then he would take tourists on a small plane from one island to another all day. During that year he gave a ride to all sorts of people, including JFK, Joe Dimaggio, and Marilyn Monroe. Thomas listened with disbelief for two hours before hanging up.
On the sixth day Mr. Carver immediately started talking about Paris. He said that it was still his favorite place in the world. He talked about the buildings, the people, the way the Eiffel Tower looked at dusk, the way the flowers bloomed and smelled in May. He talked about the love of his life, too. A woman he met there and fell in love with. For the first time in Thomas’s life he became very interested and open talking about love—his heart was opened. At the end of the conversation on the sixth day Mr. Carver made a request. He said, “Don’t call me tomorrow. I want you to come visit me. I want to talk about you.”
“Okay,” Thomas responded without a second thought. “What time?”
“How about six o’clock…I’ll make dinner,” he said.
“Sure thing, Mr. Carver. I’ll come by at six.”
The following day Thomas walked across the street to Mr. Carver’s house. He knocked three times on the front door, and Mr. Carver opened it. Thomas looked at him for the first time. He was tall and thin, with wrinkled skin, a left hand that shook from the Parkinson’s, and a right hand that loosely held a long white stick with a red tip. He was blind.
“Sit down,” Mr. Carver said, leading Thomas to the kitchen table. “I hope you like soup.”
Thomas was dumbfounded. He could not help but ask, “How long have you been blind, Mr. Carter?”
He replied, “Since I came back from the war…Eighteen-years-old.”
“But what about Mt. Everest, and Pamplona, and sailing around the world? What about Paris? What about island hopping? What about everything you told me you did?”
“What about them?” Mr. Carver replied.
“How could you tell me you did them? How could you describe all of that if you have never really seen it?”
Mr. Carver simply said, “One does not need eyes to see…he only needs his imagination. I did do everything that I told you I did. I saw everything I told you I saw. I did it in my mind.”
Thomas was not bothered or upset; he did not feel that he was misled. He was completely and utterly at a loss for words.
“You see, Thomas…life does not always go the way you want it to go. When I was a young kid, not much older than you are now, I had set my mind to do everything that I described to you. God had other plans. I came back from the war without my eyesight, but I never lost my dreams. They could not be taken from me. You have the opportunity to do anything at all that you want. You have youth and health, intelligence and aspirations. Don’t let anything get in the way of your dreams. Don’t let anything stop you from imagining and then doing.”
Mr. Carver and Thomas ate dinner for the first of many Sunday nights. Every week Thomas would walk over to Mr. Carver’s house to talk, and eat soup. He did not drop out of school, and after a year of getting his grades to good standing, Mr. Carver paid for Thomas to play football. He never missed a game, either. By the time Thomas’s mother had gone to rehab at the beginning of his senior year, Mr. Carver adopted Thomas, and had him move in. Thomas graduated in the top ten of his class, went to college, and took a job with National Geographic. Mr. Carver passed away shortly after, and Thomas lived every day to keep his promise. He did everything that Mr. Carver had told him about the first week they began talking. He even fell in love in Paris, married the woman, and had five kids with her. Every night that he tucked his kids in he thought about Mr. Carver, and what his life might be like had he never tried to rob the old man at the end of the street.
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