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  • Mary Fichtner

Three Life Lessons

Three life lessons from a dive hamburger stand in the middle of nowhere!

On a Sunday Morning in Minnesota

As we attempted to get on the road one beautiful Sunday morning in Minnesota to head home, we were already road weary from the 13-hour drive to get there. The sun was out and the nostalgic town we were leaving was full of interesting things we hadn’t gotten to see yet. The St Croix River rolled right next to the old downtown shopping area full of shops and restaurants; naturally, we stalled as long as possible. As we watched the lift bridge rise and all the big boats go under, we decided we couldn’t resist having breakfast at The Oasis. Such a boisterous place where you give them your favorite cartoon character as your name for the waitlist. The atmosphere was joyful as the huge plates came with food spilling over the sides. Such an unusual place would provide memories for our future; however, it would never compare to the life-changing moment we would have at a dive hamburger place later that same day. A very unassuming hamburger place, where one would only expect food for the stomach not food for the soul; stay tuned. As soon as we hit the two-lane highway, we immediately felt regret that we hadn’t left hours ago. Now we were going to be very late to our next stop, which was helping our son move out of his apartment. It was one of those moments that left us questioning our decision-making. But life always has its own built-in punishments and we knew we would pay the price by packing and loading in the dark, along with probably not find an open restaurant for dinner.

The Elbow Room

As we drove through the beautiful farmland and green fields of Minnesota, lunchtime arrived. As was usually the plan, we looked on our maps and chose a town with some restaurants a few miles off the highway. We bumped along a winding two-lane toward where the map told us to go. Every minute made it more apparent that we were headed nowhere and that possibly the restaurants, and maybe even the whole town, were just not there. We finally turned around and took a Y in the road that seemed to veer back to the interstate in a straighter route. Oh the time we were wasting! We both sighed and even more regret-filled our minds, it seemed we had just gone on a wild goose chase that would only add to the consequences of our decisions. Off in the distance, we started to see a few, small, random buildings. As we got closer, we noticed a small hamburger stand. The name sounded interesting and it looked like the perfect place to see a little bit of the real outskirts of Minnesota. It was called, The Elbow Room.

Hamburger Stand called The Elbow Room
The Elbow Room

As we walked in, I knew we had made the right decision. A cute family was just walking out, leaving us a spot at a table with a checkered cloth. The old-fashioned look and a friendly waitress, that seemed right out of a storybook, told me our find was no coincidence. We ordered our hamburgers and sipped on our cokes while we took in the sights. One other table was seated, an older couple with his family. As the older gentleman stood up, with much effort, and turned toward the door, my veteran husband noticed his World War 2 Veteran cap. There are not too many World War 2 veterans left on this green earth and that is a hard reality. In fact, one of the last was in the same small town hamburger dive on this very day, in the absolute middle of nowhere. I noticed how my husband could not take his eyes off the old soldier. He watched this older veteran’s every move and the only way I can describe the look on my husband’s face was respect and honor. It was obvious this World War 2 Veteran had been on a long journey and a rough road. My husband acted as if he was seeing an extinct creature, the emotion behind his eyes was strong. I urged my warrior to pay his respects in such a rare opportunity, as I could feel him pulled to do so. We watched him walk out of the restaurant and shuffle toward the ride waiting for him. Finally, my soldier got up to make a choice he knew he would probably never have again.

Band of Brothers

My husband thanked him for his service and shook his hand in a stance of full respect, though this aged soldier was small and feeble from his many years. They smiled at each other with an understanding that only two soldiers share, even though their experiences were very different. It’s hard to believe one can have a Band of Brother’s moment with a complete stranger, but that is what happened. I not only witnessed it with my eyes, I felt it big. Tony Chavez was his name and his humble spirit told of his heart. He told us very little, it was just a special moment in time. I don’t remember who asked if we could get a photo, probably me as that makes the most sense. Please see the attached photo to witness for yourself two soldiers, having never met before, but standing side by side in full understanding of the other. An understanding those of us who have never served will never truly grasp.

Two veterans, one wearing a World War II Veteran hat
Band of Brothers

His daughter was escorting him and his wife for the typical Sunday of church and a burger. She shared that there was recently an article written about him in the Albert Lea Tribune and that we could read some of his story there. Please see the link for that story below. In the next moment, he needed to sit down in the car and get on his way. My husband helped him slide into his seat as they gave each other the final nod and salute of brotherhood. As we watched him drive off, I knew this was a moment in time that was meant to happen. One that I believe was orchestrated from above. One that would have never happened if we hadn’t made the decisions we had earlier that morning. Decisions we believed possibly wrong.

Lesson One: Let go of regret so you can trust

This brings me to lesson one: sometimes you have to let regret and fretting go to trust that there could be a bigger picture, a reason for a delay, a purpose in what feels like a mistake. I wonder if, sometimes, we miss something because we are so focused on what “should have, could have, been, seen, on and on.” It made me wonder how many times I was blinded by annoyance over a change of plans or a delay, causing me to miss a gift meant for my heart. How many times has a disturbance held a blessing, but I missed it because I forgot to look? I want to allow myself to trust more, to remember that delays can be divine.

As we went back into the restaurant to eat our burgers we chatted with the owner/cook inside. We learned he was the grandson of the warrior we had just met. He told us more of his grandpa, with so much love and pride, our hearts were once again moved. We had noticed his grandpa had two black eyes and some marks on his face, along with an injured hand. His grandson told of how he had fallen down and cut his hand open very badly, along with receiving two black eyes and other bruises. But what does a 97-year-old from the Greatest Generation do in such a situation? He loads himself into his car, after he wraps his own hand due to bleeding, and drives himself to the hospital. His wife was in the house but why bother her? He got 10 stitches in his hand and then drove himself home. He would never even consider a different option because doing hard things was his first mode of operation. His grandson shared that his grandpa doesn’t feel that he really did anything great to be written of in the war or in his life. The humility of that is a message all its own. He still mows his lawn and has recently taken up painting, as you will read in the attached article.

Lesson Two: Never forget those who have gone before

This brings me to lesson two: we must never forget, always honor and treasure those who have gone before. Those who have done hard things without even a question. Sometimes I feel we do anything to avoid something hard instead of stepping into it. We gain so much by impressing ourselves after completing something hard or at least giving it our best shot. We don’t want to miss learning from a hero’s example of how to live tough, how to be humble, how to live with courage and honor, and not shirk from duty and resolve. The harder things we choose to do, the more we impress ourselves, and oddly enough, the more humility we gain. I worry that some of our world has lost touch with this skill. I want to complain less about having to do something unpleasant and to step into difficult things with courage. Sometimes it indicates it is the right thing.

This seemingly small, chance meeting changed me. It grew me, it made me better. It helped me re-learn some valuable things that easily get out of sight in day-to-day life. We got to our son’s apartment very late, it was dark and we had a lot to do. We made it to the last restaurant open with 15 minutes to spare. As we reflected on the day, we knew that the very few moments we had with Tony Chavez, US Army, were life-changing.

Lesson Three: Never ignore your gut

And now lesson three: NEVER, EVER ignore your gut instinct to follow an urge or a tug at the heart. Step forward and take the chance, it seems it always holds a promise. I am confident it will include a life lesson that, if you choose, will forever change you. I know without a doubt that if we hadn’t approached this amazing man, we would be regretting it to this day. So, thank you sir for your service to our great nation and your part in one of the most world-changing events in history. Thank you for your kindness and your courage and your humility. Thank you for your example. And thank you for letting us share just a moment in your life that changed ours.

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