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Calendar >  Attitude of Gratitude Thomas Calabrese

Attitude of Gratitude Thomas Calabrese

By   /  October 29, 2022  /  14 Comments

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Legendary Johnny Street

Thomas Calabrese -If you googled the word victim, you might see the name Della Street next to the definition. A combination of biological and environmental components negatively impacted her life from the day she was born. She grew up in poverty in Stockton, California the youngest of three children. Her mother was an alcoholic and her father had bipolar disorder that manifested itself with manic mood swings and violent outbursts. It was a chaotic upbringing for her. Her two older brothers joined the military as soon as they were old enough to escape the toxic home environment, leaving her alone to deal with a horrific situation. Left with no other choice Della ran away with Adam Pervis, an immoral drifter when she was 15 years-old and he was twenty. Pervis was a violent drug user who often beat Della and after she became pregnant he abandoned her in Escondido, California with a few dollars in her purse and no prospects. Della ended up in a homeless shelter where she gave birth to a healthy boy. With the help of a local charity, she found a minimum wage job and moved into a low income apartment complex. Her neighbor Maggie Garland, had two young children and was also struggling to get her life together. The two women agreed to work alternate shifts so they could exchange daycare.

Della’s son, Johnny was precocious and much more mature than boys his age. Maybe God figured that he needed to grow up in a hurry if he was going to survive with a mother who had a history of making bad decisions and could barely take of herself. Most children begin speaking between 12 and 18 months, but Johnny spoke his first words when he was 8 months old and by the time he was one-year-old he was already conversing in sentences. He was a charismatic and cheerful child that loved to watch old movies with the close captioning feature turned on so he could read words while people spoke them. One of their neighbors in the apartment complex was Hispanic and Johnny learned to speak fluent Spanish by socializing with them. He was ambidextrous and could write with both hands at the same time. By the time Johnny was in kindergarten, he was already making his own lunch and had become a very good cook. There wasn’t much future in being a waitress so Johnny tried to convince his mother to learn a marketable skill while she was still young enough to start a new career, “I’ve been thinking that a Human Resources job might be your best option.”

            “What do you know about human resources?” Della asked. 

Johnny flashed a smile, “I’ve been doing some research. You are a waitress and deal with people all day long, that’s variation of human resources. Human Resources would be an extension of those skills. You’ll do hiring, interviewing, administer pay and enforce company policies.”

            “I have no aptitude for studying. I don’t even have a high school diploma,” Della said.

            “One step at a time,” Johnny encouraged.

Three years passed and with her son’s help Della got her GED and was in the last year of her studies before getting a Bachelor’s Degree in Human Resources. Della had just arrived home after her shift at the diner and planned on doing a little homework before her son returned from baseball practice. Johnny heard the gunshots as he rounded the corner on his bicycle. His glove and bat were in his backpack. Della exited her front door and saw the crazed man shooting through the window of the Hispanic family’s front window. Della screamed out, “Get away from there!”

The man’s rage turned toward Della and he began firing at her with his automatic weapon. The shots got louder as Johnny got closer to his apartment and he feared the worse. As he came up the stairs he saw the shooter standing outside his apartment firing through the window. Johnny took the bat from his pack, came up behind the man, took a mighty swing and hit him in the head, killing him instantly. When Johnny opened the door to his apartment, he saw his mother lying on the floor dying from a fatal wound to her abdomen. He bent down next to her and she apologized, “I’m sorry I wasn’t a better mother.”

Johnny smiled and held his mother’s hand, “You don’t hear me complaining.”

It was later found that the shooter was Armando Hernandez, a cartel hitman. The police found a card inside his pocket with a name and address on it, 679 Juniper Avenue, Apt #202, but he was at 976 Juniper Avenue. A numbers dyslexia killer, what are the chances of that. This may have been extremely lucky for the intended target, but not for Della Street. It was a small funeral and the attendees offered their condolences to Johnny who thanked each person for their kind words and condolences.

Paige Callan was Johnny’s fourth grade teacher and knew how truly gifted the young boy was on many levels and could not bear for him to end up in the foster care system. Paige was divorced and living with her children, daughter Jamie and son Kyle, both were currently in high school. While sitting in the living room, Paige brought up the subject of Johnny, “A tragedy happen to a boy in my class. His mother was killed in a shooting.”

Jamie responded, “That’s sad.”

            “He doesn’t have any family and will have to go into foster care,” Paige continued.

            “Lose your mother and then lose your home, that’s rough,” Kyle said.

Paige swallowed hard and choked back her emotions, “He’s the smartest student that I’ve ever had, but more than that he’s the kindest and sweetest person that you would ever want to meet. I don’t want that light to go out by him going into the system. I’d like him to come live with us.”

            “Seriously?” Jamie was surprised by her mother’s proposal.

Paige said, “This is your home too and I am not and I repeat I am not going to do anything unless we are all in total agreement. He’s currently staying in temporary foster care, I’ll invite him over for dinner and after you meet him, you don’t want him to move in, I won’t mention it again. Is that fair?”

            “Sounds fair to me,” Kyle said.

            “Me too,” Jamie agreed.

Two nights later, Paige picked Johnny up at his temporary foster care home. Johnny was quick to thank his teacher. “Thank you for the invitation.”

            “I hope you like salmon,” Paige said.

Johnny quipped, “I was thinking about how much I love salmon…what a coincidence.”

Paige laughed, “Are you playing with me?”

            “I would never do that, Ma’am,” Johnny flashed a smile and his eyes seemed to sparkle.

Jamie and Kyle were at home waiting for their mother and Johnny to arrive. Jaime reminded her brother, “You have to make it look good.”

            “I will…don’t worry about me…it’s you that’s the problem. She reads you like an open book.” Kyle retorted, “After this boy leaves, we’ll tell mom we just didn’t have a good feeling about him.”

            “She’s too softhearted for her own good,” Jamie said, “Lucky for her, she’s got us around.”

As soon as Johnny arrived and flashed a smile, the siblings’ plan suddenly went out the window. Jamie and Kyle couldn’t help but like the young boy, no matter how much they tried. Kyle was a big sports fan and despite not being an avid enthusiast, Johnny had a vast amount of knowledge on the subject. Jaime was more into pop culture, the environment and movies and Johnny was well qualified to speak intelligently on those subjects as well. He didn’t come across as pompous or I know more than you, but rather ‘I’m genuinely interested in what you have to say even if I have a different opinion’ and people were drawn to that type of positive behavior. By the time dinner was half over, a stranger might have thought that they had been raised together. Paige sat back and thoroughly enjoyed watching the interaction between her children and Johnny. She did not have to initiate or stimulate the conversation, it just flowed naturally. After Paige returned from taking Johnny back to his temporary foster parents, she asked her children, “So what you do you think?”

 Jamie tried to act ambivalent, “If he needs a home, it doesn’t seem fair for us to say no.”

Kyle shrugged, “It alright to me, I guess,” then added, “as long as he don’t get into my stuff or expect to hang out with me.”

The Callan home had three bedrooms, Paige, Kyle and Jamie each had their own room upstairs so Paige set up the family room for Johnny’s and the sleeper couch would be his bed. Paige apologized, “I hope this is alright. I’ll get you a bed soon.”

            “This is fine…I’m deeply grateful to you and your family for taking me in, Ma’am. I’ll do my best to not make it a decision that you’ll regret.”

Paige smiled, “You don’t have to be so formal…you can call me Paige.”

It was 5AM and Paige woke up early and walked downstairs to check on the Johnny. The sleeper was put away and everything was neat and in place. Paige was confused at first then nervous, she hoped that Johnny had not run away. Suddenly she saw something out of the corner of her eye in the backyard, Paige pulled open the sliding door and saw Johnny sitting at the picnic table in almost total darkness, “What are you doing out ?”

Johnny replied simply, “I never stayed anywhere before that had a yard.”

Paige smiled, “Enjoy it.”

As time passed, Johnny continued to amaze and surprise the Callan family with his independent and responsible behavior.  He was up before dawn every morning and the family room never looked like he was ever in there. Once he got a feel for the routine of the home, he did his best not to interfere with it. He did his own laundry and before long he was preparing breakfast for the family on weekends. Johnny took nothing for granted and lived each day like it was a gift.

Paige would occasionally hear a faint sound early in the morning and walk to the top of stairs and look down and see Johnny dusting or the cleaning the floors on his hands and knees. On one particular evening Paige was sitting at the dining room table paying bills when Johnny walked in.  He could tell that she was distressed so he commented, “Pretty tough keeping things together…huh?”

Paige replied, “I’m used to it, the high inflation isn’t helping, that’s for sure, but we play the hand that we’ve been dealt.”

            “From what I observe, you’re are doing a great job,” Johnny said.

As Johnny turned to walk away, Paige gave the young boy a little advice, “I appreciate all your help around the house, but don’t grow up too fast. Take some time to be young and carefree. Those moments pass much too quickly and I don’t want you to look back at your time here with regret.”

Johnny flashed a big smile, “Ma’am, I’m nobody special, but I figure that whenever good things happen I should be grateful and when bad things occur it’s a lesson from God for me to learn from. I can already tell you right now, I’ll never have any regrets about living here. ”

            “You’re dead wrong about one thing,” Paige said, “You’re somebody very special and this house and this world is a better place because you’re in it,” then gave Johnny a big hug.

The young boy came up with an idea, made up some flyers offering manual labor services for $10 per hour and passed the advertisements around the neighborhood. He began getting calls to pull weeds, dig holes, paint and clean. Johnny was a conscientious and tireless worker and the homeowner would sometime caution him about working so feverishly, “You need to take it easy…there’s no rush. I don’t want you to hurt yourself.”

Johnny would respond, “Thank you for your concern. I know my limits and I want to make sure that you get your money’s worth.”  

The local Grocery Outlet was located two miles from the Callan home and opened at 7AM. Johnny would ride his bike three days a week and be there as soon as the doors opened. He went on the days when the store was getting their deliveries because that was the time to get the best deals. He used the money that he earned to purchase the groceries. After a while, Johnny got to know Ray, Vanessa, Elena, Alex and Adan, the morning crew so well that as soon as they saw the young boy they were quick to tell him about the best bargains. 

Paige was saving several hundred dollars a months in grocery bills thanks to Johnny’s efforts. When she thanked him, he responded, “I’m learning a lot about codes. I make a list of what items have to be sold or pulled off the shelves by a certain date and try be there on that particular day. With the perishables, dairy and stuff, you have to use those fairly quickly, but some things you can freeze and use at a much later date. A “Sell-By” date tells the store how long to display the product for sale but it is not a safety date. A “Use-By” date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. I should be thanking you for giving me the opportunity to learn some important life skills.”

            “One of the life skills that you’ve already perfected is learning how to divert attention away from yourself,” Paige said.

            “Really…I hadn’t noticed,” Johnny smiled coyly.

Even though Jamie and Kyle were several years older than him, Johnny was so intelligent that he sometimes helped them with their homework. He was especially proficient at writing essays. Kyle initially said that he didn’t want Johnny hanging around him. He initially introduced the young boy as a guest staying with his family and that evolved to Johnny being his step-brother and that was shortened to brother.”

Jamie’s friends really liked Johnny, he thought he was cute, humorous and kind. Several of them commented, “I wish your brother was a few years older…I’d date him in a heartbeat.”

Paige came home one day and saw a big backpack in the hallway then heard voices in the backyard. When she looked outside, she was totally shocked to see her brother Luke sitting outside with Johnny. She watched for several minutes and saw them laughing and enjoying themselves.

Luke was a former Marine who suffered a serious traumatic brain injury when the vehicle he was riding in drove over a land mine in Afghanistan. Despite her best efforts, Paige could not convince her brother to get off the streets. Luke had been homeless for over three years and during that time period, she only saw him a few times. He would stop in for a few hours and then disappear again, always looking sad, depressed and lost. It broke her heart to see him that way, but eventually came to the realization that this was Luke’s choice to live this way.

She walked outside and before she could say a word, Luke called out, “Hey Sis! It’s good to see you. I was just talking to Johnny, come out and join us.”

Paige was dumbfounded to see her brother being happy and cheerful…how could this even be possible? There could only be one explanation. Luke asked to spend the night, something he had never done before then added, “I can sleep on the floor in Johnny’s room.”

Paige turned to Johnny, “Is it alright with you…it’s your room and I don’t want to crowd you.”

            “Absolutely, I already told Luke it was alright with me,” Johnny grinned.

Over the coming weeks Luke set up appointments with the Veterans Administration to deal with a variety of health issues that he had ignored over the last few years. In the mornings, he would practice martial arts with Johnny in the backyard. Luke volunteered at an animal sanctuary in San Marcos that helped veterans obtain service and therapy dogs. Soon afterward, he found a job working on a fishing boat docked at the Oceanside Harbor and rented a room from a retired Marine that he used to serve with.  As he packed his belongings, Luke thanked Paige for her hospitality and Johnny for sharing his room, “I know I overstayed my welcome, but I appreciate you being patient with me. I’m starting to feel normal and I like the feeling.”

            “You’re my brother and I love you. You will always be welcome in my home.” Paige said.

Luke extended his hand to Johnny, “Semper fi.”

            “Thanks for talking time to teach me so much,” Johnny responded, “I’ll try not to forget any of it.”

Luke struggled to keep his composure and promised, “I hope you like fresh fish because when I get some extra, I’m going to bring it over here.”

Jamie truly loved the sport of volleyball and was hoping to get a college scholarship. On weekends she would go with Johnny to Moonlight Beach in Encinitas and challenge some very good players in two person volleyball. It wasn’t long before the two youngsters built a reputation as the team to beat. Many were impressed by Jaime’s fundamental skills, but all amazed by Johnny’s raw athletic ability.

By the time, Johnny was a junior in high school, he was already a star athlete in football, basketball and an excellent student. Jaime was a senior and starting left side hitter for San Diego State women’s volleyball team and Kyle had just started working as a paramedic with the Bakersfield Fire Department. During his senior year at Escondido High School, Johnny received numerous scholarship offers, both in football and baseball and decided to focus on baseball.  He accepted an offer from well-established powerhouse Cal State Fullerton to play baseball for the Titans. After a discussion with Luke, Johnny also decided to join the Marine Corps Recon Reserves. He went to boot camp in June, followed by the School of Infantry and a 12-week course to qualify as a Reconnaissance Man (Military Occupational Specialty 0321.) Johnny was assigned to the 4th Reconnaissance Battalion (Reserve) under the command of the 4th Marine Division.

 Johnny began the attending Cal State Fullerton in the Spring Semester and distinguished himself in the classroom and on the baseball diamond. He earned the position of starting centerfielder during his freshman year and was also on the pitching staff. He was the team’s lead-off hitter and led the team in batting average, stolen bases and was second in home runs and became an effective relief pitcher with an ERA (earned run average) of under 1.00.

Active duty Marines from 1st Reconnaissance Battalion were training with Johnny’s reserve unit on Saturday at Camp Pendleton. Word was passed down that a special mission had been approved and the assigned Marines needed to ready to leave within 12 hours. The rest of training schedule was cancelled for the rest of the weekend so Johnny went to his house in Escondido.

He received a call on his cellphone from the base, “Lance Corporal Street, this is Lt. Colonel Ben Curtis, “You need to get back to Pendleton immediately. Go to Camp Del Mar, Building 21321…understood? You know what I mean when I say immediately?

            “Yes sir, Building 21321, confirmed. I’m leaving as we speak, sir.”

Paige overheard Johnny and said, “I thought you had the weekend off?”

            “I thought so too,” Johnny smiled, “Duty calls.”

When Johnny arrived at Building 21321, several officers and senior enlisted men from his reserve unit were waiting for him.

Johnny stood at attention, “Reporting as ordered.”

Colonel Curtis said, “At ease, Corporal Street. Come in and take a seat at the conference table. I’ll be right with you.”

Colonel Curtis talked to several Marines for a few minutes then sat down at the table. Sergeant Major Ray Chang and First Sergeant Aldo Morales stood behind him. Colonel Curtis began immediately, “You have been rated outstanding in the following areas. Individual Character, Mission Accomplishment and Leadership. Your composite score of Physical Fitness, rifle and pistol ratings, proficiency/conduct and education points are in the top one percent of the unit and you are also bilingual.”

Johnny sat quietly and Colonel Curtis asked, “Do you have any comments?”

            “Sorry sir, I thought you were making a statement, but if you are asking for a comment then I would say, ‘Thank you for the opportunity to serve my country and learn from some very highly qualified and dedicated professionals,” Johnny said.

            “There is a very important mission concerning homeland security that I will be leading and I am considering adding you to the team. What do you think about that?”

Johnny responded, “Thank you for your consideration, sir.”

            “Is that all you have to say?” Colonel Curtis asked curtly.

            “It would be presumptuous of me to comment on something that I know nothing about. However, I can make this statement without hesitation, I will do my best to honor the best traditions of the Marine Corps in the performance of my duties.”

            “Well said, I can’t ask for more than that,” Colonel Curtis smiled, “Ten pounds of weapons grade plutonium has been stolen from a NATO facility in Germany.  Credible Intel is that it has been smuggled into Mexico and will be sold to terrorists for an attack on United States soil. Any questions so far?”

            “Shouldn’t active duty personnel be handling this mission?” Johnny asked.

Colonel Curtis said, “They should and would be…except that one Marine caught diphtheria while he was on leave. It is a highly contagious virus and now the whole recon battalion is in quarantine including the team that was assigned to this mission.”

Johnny looked like he was deep in thought so Colonel Curtis asked, “Something else on your mind, Corporal?”

            “There’s Navy Seals and Delta Force, why not them?” Johnny asked.

“I can answer that question, “First Sergeant Morales interjected.

“Go ahead,” Colonel Curtis said.

First Sergeant Morales explained, “There’s seven locations where this plutonium could be. The problem is if we hit one place and it’s not there then we’ve lost the advantage of surprise.”

Johnny interrupted, “So we have to hit all seven places at the same and if I had to take a guess, then I would say that this an inter-service operations with Seals and Delta Force are already involved.”

            “Very astute and quick assessment,” Colonel Curtis said, “The plan was that Delta would take three sites, the Seals would take two and Marines would take two. Since this quarantine came up unexpectedly, the Seals are now going to take three and leave us only one. Intel has made the assessment that the site with the least probability of having the plutonium is the one we’ve been given, but we still have to plan accordingly. Since you’re a reservist and this is your first mission, I’m giving you the opportunity to decline. I only want Marines that are all in.”

            “I serve at your pleasure, sir.” Johnny said.

The multi-pronged multi-service mission was moved up by 12 hours when Intel emphasized the importance of moving with expedited haste. The thing about military and civilian intelligence is that it is basically a series of educated guesses that leads to a probable conclusion.  In this case, Intel was slightly off target. The location assigned to the Marines was where the plutonium was being stored.

Some people think Mexico is just desert, but if only one geographical feature can define Mexico, it would be its mountains. It is sometimes said that if you flattened Mexico it would be the size of Asia. The Sierra Madre Occidental is a major mountain range system that runs through northwestern and western Mexico along the Gulf of California. The Marine strike team was airlifted to the area by Osprey aircraft and took cover among the jagged rocks and waited until Colonel Curtis gave the order, “Move out.”

The compound was much more fortified than Intelligence led the Marines to believe. Colonel Curtis immediately came to two conclusions as bullets rained down on them; the good news was they were in the right place and the bad news was that they were outgunned, outnumbered, had no back-up or air support. Johnny came to similar assessments and knew that his fellow Marines would be annihilated if they stayed where they were. He had to get up the trail and take out a machine gun emplacement. Johnny moved so quickly that the gunners could not get a bead on him, but the bullets nipped at his heels like a pack of wild dogs. He found a place where he could rest the barrel of his rifle, took a deep breath, slowly exhaled, took aim at the men behind the machine gun and squeezed, not pulled the trigger and killed both men. Colonel Curtis saw what happened and ordered his men to move forward. Johnny got behind the machine gun and turned it on the terrorists and cartel members. When he had exhausted the ammunition, he continued his personal assault, taking out armed men as he went. The strike team followed his lead. When Johnny reached the walled compound, he took off his pack and put his rifle’s sling over his back and ran at full speed and leaped up. He was able to grab a piece of rebar that was protruding from the concrete with his right hand and pull himself up until he was standing on it, He saw another piece of rebar about eight feet away and five feet higher and jumped to grab that one.

Colonel Curtis watched in amazement as Johnny scaled the 30-foot wall with circus like agility and strength. He turned to First Sergeant Morales, “You seeing what I’m seeing?”

            “But I’m not believing it.” First Sergeant Morales responded, “You definitely made the right choice in selecting him for this mission.”

When Johnny reached the top of the wall, he sneaked up behind two men and tossed them over the side. He opened fire on a truck where a lead container was being loaded forcing the men to take cover. The Marines breached the fortified gate with C-4 explosives and found Johnny standing next to the lead container that contained the plutonium. A dozen men had been taken prisoner and were lying face down in the dirt.

Colonel Curtis walked over and said, “Damn fine work, Marine.”

Johnny smiled, “Thank you giving me the opportunity, sir.”

Four years later, Johnny was still serving in the Marine Corps Reserves and currently playing for the San Diego Padres. The team was in the playoffs competing against their bitter rivals, the Los Angeles Dodgers. In this best of seven games series, the teams were tied three games each and this was the deciding contest. Johnny had three hits, two stolen bases and made an outstanding catch that robbed an opposing hitter of a home run by reaching over the center field wall. It was the eighth inning and the score was tied 3-3.  There was one out and Johnny was on third base. Shortstop Mannie Zavala was up to bat and hit a soft fly ball to right field. Johnny tagged up and sprinted for home plate. The right fielder fired a perfect strike to the catcher and even as fast Johnny was, it looked like he was going be out by several feet. The catcher smiled in gleeful anticipation and prepared to make the tag. At the last moment Johnny leaped into the air, did a front flip over the catcher and landed on the plate. He then pitched a scoreless ninth inning to seal the win, sending the Padres to the World Series for the first time since 1998. The stadium broke into pandemonium.

Sitting in the stands were Paige, Kyle, Jamie, Luke and a group of Marines from Johnny’s reserve unit.  Retired Marine Colonel Ben Curtis called out, “Good game, Marine! You still got some spring in your legs.”

Johnny looked up, saw his family and friends and flashed his biggest smile, “Everybody gets lucky once in a while and I’ve been luckier than most.”

Some people are destined to stumble and grumble down the Boulevard of Broken Dreams looking for their place or safe space to dwell at Heartbreak Hotel, but if you maintain an attitude of gratitude the twisting and broken road feels light beneath your feet. If you don’t believe me, then just ask the Legendary Johnny Street.

Just in case you’re interested, the Padres won their first World Series and Johnny was named most valuable player. The End

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, business, events and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

The Veterans Writing Group of San Diego County invites all writers to join us at our monthly meetings. Veterans and Non-Veterans are equally welcome For more information go to our website: www.veteranswritinggroup.org

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14 Comments

  1. Tom says:

    What a great story line…you never disappoint your readers. USMC, bad guys in Mexico and the San Diego Padres winning their first World Series…what an outstanding combination!

  2. Clyde says:

    A very uplifting story. I enjoyed it from beginning to end. Great job!

  3. John michels says:

    Great story

  4. Tony says:

    A rag to riches story in this Sunday’s Vista press by none other than the great writer and story teller Mr. Thomas Calabrese. This is positive story of a young man with a great attitude that did not take “no” for answer or quite when the going got tough. It is a testament that if a person applies him or herself they will succeed in life. They may not have everything they want in life but have everything they need in life and this makes them successful. Having pride and respect go a long way in life among other things. I certainly like reading the line about squeezing the trigger vice pulling it. It is the difference between a professional writer and an amateur. A lot to be learned form reading this story and getting people off the Dole and the street.

  5. wolf says:

    Johnny had the commonsense, traits, skills and abilities of a Forest Gump, Willi Mays Hays and Rambo,

    All made for a
    very entertaining story

  6. Robert says:

    Very good story throughly enjoyable.

  7. Janet says:

    A very enjoyable story…how could you not like a character like Johnny Street.

  8. Jeremy says:

    A great way to start a Sunday story.

  9. Dave says:

    Hey Tom, that was a well written story. I’d like the last part that referenced Boulevard of Broken Dreams.

  10. Steve says:

    Add this to the list of great stories.

  11. Mike says:

    I liked the story..keep them coming.

  12. Guy says:

    The San Diego Padres finally won a Word Series ..thanks Johnny Street. All American hero!

  13. marty says:

    Great story Tom.

  14. Tamra says:

    Your story was very refreshing and enlightening!!! Thanks Tom

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