The Meanest Man I Ever Met (who changed my life) — part 1

In memory of James Eldridge “Cookie” Dalton (1926–2001)

From left to right: Joshua Mayfield, Mr. James Eldridge “Cookie” Dalton, and Steven Vuong. Photo courtesy of Steven Vuong. All rights reserved.

An exasperated, world-weary receptionist greeted our group of seven at the front desk of that old, dank nursing home. She looked as though bigger dreams had long since passed from her sphere of ambition. She had no idea who we were, but when we told her why we were there she slumped back in her chair.

“Um. Are you SURE you want to do this?” she asked incredulously.

One of us stepped forward and said, “Yes ma’am. We are here to be an encouragement to someone and hope you can help us.”

She shrugged in a gesture of deep resignation and asked us to wait a minute. She came back a few moments later with another lady who introduced herself as the facility director.

“Boys, I want to tell you what you’re up against when you go back there,” she said. “Please listen to me carefully before you do so you can make up your minds now. This man is the most difficult I have ever dealt with. He is angry and hateful and may very well throw his dinner tray at your heads.”

We all shared furtive glances, but ministry is ministry and we were there to do it. We assured her that we could handle it, so she gestured with her hands in resignation and gave us one last warning.

“If he gets violent, leave the room immediately,” she admonished. “I’ll let you do this today because I’m certain there is no chance you’ll be back after this.”

We were not exactly encouraged, but we followed her down the hall to his room.

The room’s single occupant, Mr. Dalton, was a withered form under his sheets. His closed eyes were beset with dark circles underneath and thick, white azalea bushes for eyebrows. The director slumped her shoulders in relief when she saw that he was sleeping and began ushering us toward the door.

As we turned to leave, those eyes flew open and began wildly darting from face to face. His lips drew back in a menacing snarl, revealing toothless gums. A low rumble began in his throat as his mind apparently caught up with the picture in front of him. The director tensed immediately and wished us luck.

“What the **** are you boys doing in here?” he growled. “I was put in here to die alone, so get out and let me do it!”

One of us — I think it was either Jeff Works or Jared Seamons — stepped forward and said, “Sir, we just came to visit with you and see if there is anything we can do for you.”

“You wanna do something for me?!” he shouted. “Bring me some potted meat and candy bars! Get out and don’t come back without ‘em!”

We all looked at each other, shrugged, and filed out of the room. After reconvening in the hallway the lady said, “So. That, uh, went well. Thanks for coming!” We assured her we would be back, and she just shook her head as if to say, “Hey. Your funeral.”

We left the facility and headed straight to the Piggly Wiggly grocery store just up the road. After filling up a shopping cart with the required items, we paid at the register and went straight back to the nursing home. We were gone maybe 20 minutes. Seven college-age males, each carrying a paper sack full of groceries, marched right through the reception area and down the hall to the room we were thrown out of only minutes earlier. The director opted to stay in her office this time, as she apparently didn’t want to be held responsible for what was about to happen next.

Our knock on the door was, of course, met with a terse “Go away!” which we ignored. I was one of the first through the door, so I got to see an instant transformation that I will carry all of my days. That same flushed, rage-filled face broke into a torrent of tears as we unpacked the bags and filled his drawers with at least a two-week supply of potted meat and candy bars.

I will never forget the next words out of his mouth.

“Thank you, boys. This sure means a lot to me. God bless every one of you!”

“Mr. Dalton…”

“Boys, they call me ‘Cookie.’”

We all turned at the sound of sharply drawn breath behind us. In the doorway stood the facility director, her mouth wide open, with one tear trickling down her cheek.

TO BE CONTINUED…

Frank Vaughn is a regional Emmy Award- and AP Media Editors Award-winning writer and columnist who attempts to describe his view of the world from the cheap seats. Frank is a graduate of Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, Ark. and the Defense Information School at Fort George G. Meade, Md., where he received training in journalism and public relations.

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Brother Frank

Brother Frank

Everyone’s brother. Self-help guy trying to help himself.