GENDUSA COLUMN: How to be ‘always cool’

Published 11:30 am Wednesday, August 17, 2022

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Each day we hear and read, the world is full of breaking bad news. Political discourse, shootings, distrust, wars, and economic woes can put us all in a foul state of mind. Unfortunately, such a mindset can motivate us to give up or no longer care.  However, some of us are born with a will to keep trying no matter what is thrown our way. I am blessed to know a few whose spirit won over immeasurably odds and whose courage inspires many to never give up and always care.

I met Austin P. Cook when I moved to LaGrange, Georgia, in 1962. We were both rising Sophomores at the local high school. I probably weighed more than Austin at the time, and I was considered thin!  His kind demeanor, accompanied by a sweet Georgia drawl, was immediately welcoming.

Austin was one of those people who everyone liked. The most robust football players, towering basketball champions, and even the bookworms loved the little guy with the huge heart. He became known as A.C., and I believed the moniker meant “always cool.”

Little did we know back in the 1960s, it was not only Austin’s heart that was huge, but he possessed the courage and strength of a lion. 

Austin is a fixture at all our class reunions, remains single and never left LaGrange.  I still weigh more than he, and his southern charm never faded.

Some things never change, nor do some folks let things change them. 

After suffering through an intense battle with COVID in the early days of the outbreak, which caused many to worry, Austin finally marched through to healthier days. We were both elated and surprised he survived.

In May 2021, Austin and his brother, Dan, decided to take a relaxing Sunday afternoon drive on their motorcycles. They were driving on a backroad outside LaGrange when Dan noticed a speeding car careening around a corner. “Watch out!” He shouted.

In a flash, an intoxicated driver struck Austin’s bike. Little did A.C. know that his arm was not only severed, but he had sustained many other life-threatening injuries.

A.C. spent the next four months in hospitals, including the Shepherd Center in Atlanta.  A horrific tragedy tried to take Austin’s sweet life at 73 years of age, but death had no idea who it was dealing with.

When I visited my old hometown a few months ago, I stopped at a local restaurant with a group of friends. When the side door to the dining room opened, I saw the familiar face of my old classmate.

I jumped from my chair and rushed toward A.C. He was walking with a cane, a smile on his face, and his brother by his side.   

With his familiar Georgia drawl and the same indomitable spirit, Austin explained the travails and triumphs of his incredible journey back to life to my friends. As he spoke, we all were astounded that he prevailed. 

Now at 75, we can still count on A. C. to be at all functions, care and keep moving forward. He was told he possibly would never walk again, but now he only uses a cane for balance.  He still drives his beloved Corvette, adores his friends, family, and faith, and doesn’t think much about what he lost. Instead, Austin is thankful for the medical teams who saved his life and the support he received from his community. 

My mother once said, “When I begin to complain or feel sorry for myself, I always think first of those who suffer more than me, have cried more than me, and are far more thankful than I will ever be.”

Yes, the world is full of whiners, complainers, distrusters, and power seekers.  Such weaknesses are on display each day, and their stories become headlines.   But the crux of who we can be and who many are is found in the small-town stories of heroes who live next door or the skinny kids we once knew.

The bullies in our lives may appear to be stars to some, but the true shining light is in those who never change, even when life throws them horrors. Instead, they become beacons of hope and strength for all to follow. They strive forward without resentment or malice, even if they walk with a cane and have only one arm.

Many folks survive brutal assaults on life, whether physically or mentally. They are the ones who inspire us to live on with vigor and charity. People with big hearts like Austin P. Cook show us the meaning of dignity, kindness, and a lion’s courage.   You know… those people who are “always cool.”

Note:  The inspiration for many of my stories come from the incredible LaGrange High School Class of ’65 who still live large in my soul.