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On Sept. 11, 2008, Barack Obama and John McCain appeared at Columbia University and talked candidly about the need for more public service despite the great personal sacrifices required to practice it.
It is relevant in its national and international forms.
Obama spoke about his experience as a community organizer and McCain about his experience as a military officer. Both, in their own way, had practiced public service early in their careers.
I reflected on my years in public service. Particularly recent years spent with the United Nations Missions in Bosnia and Kosovo helping to train the police officers in those developing nations.
Volunteering to serve overseas has been a personally rewarding experience. It is worthy of imitation by qualified persons seeking the satisfaction of standing up for those less fortunate than themselves.
The mission programs are a success. However, the friendships of the people they serve are the most rewarding and enduring.
I will share one of my friendship experiences with you.
A new suit for Saint Nicholas
My British associate strutted in front of me wearing a wonderful new black leather coat. It was made to order and well crafted.
Bragging, he said, “I’ll show you where to get one.” We drove about 40 miles out of Sarajevo, Bosnia, to the rural village of Visoko. Road signs led us to a neat house with a small manufacturing plant at the rear. We knocked at the door.
A trim, bright-eyed, middle-aged Bosnian woman answered. Jasmina stumbled with English until her 12-year-old son, Ismar, appeared. Like many other kids, he was studying English in school and was conversant. Lucky for us!
Out of respect for their house and their Muslim faith, we removed our shoes, leaving them on the porch with the others.
Jasmina showed us their busy workroom. Eight women were cutting and sewing leather skirts—300 of them. Plenty of other orders were waiting.
I described the coat I needed for police work as she measured me up. It was to be ready the following week.
Bosnians love America. I showed her photos of my family and our home. Among them was a photo of me in my Santa Claus suit—a hobby of mine for more than 30 years.
My dear spouse, Penny, designed and tailored my suit. Jasmina was fascinated with it.
Sensing a unique opportunity, I asked her if she could make a leather Santa suit for me. She was excited about doing it. I agreed and left her the photo, measurements and a deposit of intention for the materials.
When I returned the following week to pick up my new coat, she had the dyed- red leather, sheep fleece and suit design ready for my approval. It was to be a fully lined cap, coat, pants and bag for a price comparable to a good man’s suit in the United States.
I was delighted. The suit was finished two weeks later. Since then it has brought great joy to kids and adults at home and abroad.
As our friendship developed, I invited them to visit my family in the U.S. After some liaison with the U.S. Embassy in Sarajevo, it was arranged. Because she had a substantial business and home, plus a supportive husband and another son living in Bosnia, their visit was approved.
They had compelling reasons to return to their country.
Penny and I met them at the Charlotte airport. Having never flown, they looked a little bewildered as they disembarked into the afternoon sunlight. The trip back to Columbia, S.C., began a 20-day experience for all of us that rivaled four years of university education.
The road trip home left them bug-eyed as the scenery flashed by. The wide roads, traffic volume, tall buildings, landscaping and vast numbers of businesses and homes were far more than what they ever imagined.
We had a wonderful new high-end home in Columbia, situated in a manicured neighborhood. We pulled into our driveway and the garage door rose for our entry. That started the tour of the house that was to be their home for more than two weeks.
We began with the kitchen and worked our way through the 3,400-square-foot house. Each had a bedroom and shared a bathroom. Neither ever had their own bedroom with a real bed to themselves.
Jasmina began to cry. Ismar explained his mother was happy and a little overwhelmed. America was like heaven to them after the horrific war they had been through.
I knew Jasmina loved to cook, and Penny explained she could have full run of the kitchen as she wished. She excitedly examined everything. She never had a garbage disposal, dishwasher or microwave oven.
Even the fully equipped laundry room was special. Life promised to be very different in the weeks that followed.
It began at 6:30 a.m. the next morning. As usual, I was sitting in my easy chair with coffee and the newspaper after my morning run.
Suddenly, Jasmina was standing next to me, putting on an apron. She must have brought it with her.
“I fix you Bosnian breakfast,” she said smiling, using her halting English. She took my hand and led me to the kitchen table, pulling the chair out for me. I nervously complied. It was a wonderful gesture. She did it every day for her husband.
Penny emerged, got the paper and a cup of coffee and situated herself in the living room within view of the ongoing process. I was being treated like a Bosnian man. Otherwise, I would have been on my own.
Within five minutes, a full breakfast appeared in front of me. Jasmina stood behind me during the entire time I ate, refilling my coffee cup and reaching for the salt, pepper, butter and jam.
“Watch and learn!” I whispered to Penny. That put me on very thin ice!
We made sure they got a balanced impression based on a full disclosure of the good and the bad. They are smart people and understood very well. Bosnia is a developing democratic nation. They had to see what the future may hold for them.
Big shopping centers, the vast assortment of goods on open counters, oceans of new cars, government facilities, churches, schools, hospitals, the status of men and women, the racial divide, media, movies, amusement parks and restaurants with unfamiliar food. They saw it all.
We spent a week vacationing at Holden Beach. They loved it. They also saw rural America, failing towns with rundown buildings and junk cars sitting in front of humble mobile homes.
Ismar loved the waterslide at Myrtle Beach, S.C. We drove through downtown at night, and the experience left them both boggled.
We made up a photo album of all that they experienced. Jasmina clutched it to her chest as she boarded the plane for home. Tears ran down her cheeks through a faint smile.
As I reminisce about my international public service, the wonderful friendships and experiences made the sacrifice worthwhile.
I think of Jasmina and Ismar every time that I suit up as that jolly old elf, Saint Nicholas.
John Heidtke has been employed with municipal, county, state, federal and international law enforcement agencies since 1963.