I was staying in Rockland to put a truck on a ferry, and go to the dump, and to attend a couple of meetings on the mainland. Parked with my coffee, oatmeal, and paperwork in the breakfast room of the hotel across the street from the ferry terminal I watched a man — older than me but not really “old” — leaning on a single crutch ambulate with some difficulty to the next table. He dropped onto the bench seat with a small groan and commented, to nobody in particular, on the comfort of the same. I asked him if he’d rather have the end seat. “No, I’m fine.” Thinking that the one crutch might indicate a wrenched ankle or some similar temporary injury, I went out on a limb and inquired if I could help with anything. “No, but thanks for asking.” I wasn’t sure it was acceptable to ask, because sometimes people are annoyed if a stranger assumes they want assistance getting a muffin from the breakfast buffet. He brushed that off.

“I’m 67 years old and I’ve been dealing with polio since I was nine months,” he offered. That was just the beginning.

My new friend clearly enjoyed the art of the chat. Shy he was not. I tucked into my oatmeal as he began discussing psychology. “It’s about being in control, for one thing. I had surgery once to attach a tendon so my foot would work better, and back then the drugs they used were, well — I realized I wasn’t in control. I didn’t like that feeling, being all drugged. I want to be in control.” Several times he’d interject, “It’s about focus.” I’m not sure I entirely grasped what he meant there.

“I’m from Iowa. My mom married my stepfather when I was a teenager, and he was a psych major. He made his living turning wrenches but he had a degree in psychology, and he taught me all about psychology.” He talked about people who are “too much inside their own heads” but also spoke with pity for those who aren’t happy being themselves. “They want to be Marilyn Monroe.”

“It’s a beautiful world. You’ve got to be content with where you are.” Three or four times he inserted, “You’ve got to think for yourself.”

He talked about Iowa working people, respected for their rough and calloused hands. He talked about raising five boys. He talked about jury duty, and serving on juries where he made them release people the prosecutors wanted to lock up without adequate proof of the charges. Mostly, he talked about psychology — or intended to.

“I have a neighbor across the street back in Iowa, the guy’s a preacher, has 14 kids. He lives large.” (I wasn’t entirely sure what he meant by that.) “He sees me outside working in my yard and he tells me, ‘I don’t know how you do it.’ But I’ve been fighting this demon all my life.” Yes, he said that. “I have this monster living inside this body, the pain I have from this” — he indicated his barely functional left leg — “and then there’s me in here too.”

OK; that was interesting.

Then he got serious. “You asked me a question.” (Did I? Well, I asked if he wanted a hand with anything at breakfast, nothing particularly deep.) “I’m answering you. That makes me the teacher and you the student right now. There’s always a chance to learn something.” I certainly was in no position to argue.

Then, my teacher from Iowa looked me squarely in the eye and deliberately slowed the cadence of his patter, as though to prepare me to receive something profound. I quit spooning up my oatmeal and sat up a little straighter to pay attention. “The question is ‘Why?’ Nobody is too old or too young to teach you ‘Why’.”

I confess that one eluded me a bit.

I didn’t add much to this conversation, which is unlike me, but my breakfast companion was on a roll. He explained that he and his wife were on a bus trip, and that they were going on a lobster boat today to see lobsters harvested, which should be very interesting, and then they’d eat the lobsters later. I’ve had some distinctly cold and unsteady lobster boat rides myself but kept quiet. At that time of the morning the gray weather was still forecast to improve through the day, and I told him so. It didn’t. By lunchtime it was drizzling and raw. I’m sure he did fine, though, out there on the bay somewhere. I suspect he enjoyed himself despite the weather. He was clearly in pain, and every step was an obvious effort, but he’d be alright. He was determined to be alright. Therein, the lesson.