With Veteran's Day approaching, The Log editor William Hatfield gave me an assignment to interview a local veteran and tell his story. With deadline approaching, I was struggling to find my subject, until a random act of kindness put him right in front of me.
I need to set the scene so that you can grasp how destiny, fate, divine intervention, or whatever you'd like to call it, brought retired Army Sgt. 1st Class Ernest McInnis and I together.
My wife, Alex, and I both work in Destin. We usually ride together to and from our home in Mary Esther. On Thursday morning, however, Alex had an early doctor's appointment. When she tried to wake me up early, I decided to sleep in and drive my truck to work for the first time in several weeks.
When I cranked my truck to leave for work, I realized two unfortunate circumstances: the needle of my gas gauge was sitting well below the "E" and my wallet was in my wife's car.
I had no cash, debit cards or identification on me. I went back inside my house, rummaged through drawers, our change jar and my nightstand until I found $4 in change, enough to get a little more than one gallon of gasoline and get to work.
Thankfully, there is a gas station within a mile of my house. I parked at the pump, walked inside and headed to the counter.
"Let me get $4 on pump 7. I've got a handful of change for you," I said to the teller as I unloaded a fistful of quarters, dimes and a couple nickels into her hand.
That's when I noticed McInnis standing near the counter wearing a hat that read "Retired Army," with several service pins in it.
"Put $10 in it," McInnis said, as he pulled cash out of his pocket and walked up to the counter.
"No, no. My wife has my wallet. That's the only reason I'm paying in change," I told McInnis in protest to his generosity.
"That's fine. Just put $10 in it," McInnis said. "It's a R.A.K., random act of kindness."
I thanked him and walked out to my truck. As I pumped the gas, I realized I had just found the story I needed to tell. I couldn't find a notebook, so I grabbed a couple of business cards to write on and a pen and walked back inside. I told McInnis who I was and asked if I could interview him for a column. He reluctantly agreed, and we stepped outside.
From there, I didn't have to ask many questions. McInnis, originally a native of Oakland, Calif., opened up and I quickly learned the morning's generosity was no isolated act on his part.
McInnis, a Mary Esther resident, said his motto is to "help who he can, when he can." That isn't all the time, but he said his history has taught him that he has someone up above watching his back, so he tries to pass that on.
In 22 years of service, McInnis never fought in a major war. He said he was fortunate to not be sent to either of the major conflicts the U.S. faced during his service: the first Gulf War and the Invasion of Grenada. He was stationed in Germany most of his career, and the most memorable moment of his service was watching the Berlin Wall fall in person.
He is no stranger to suffering, though. Within a year of retiring from the Army in 1996, McInnis suffered a heart attack. After recovering from that, McInnis was diagnosed with diabetes.
"Life is a gift. I say that and people laugh, but it's true. Every breath is a gift," McInnis said. "I don't have a ton of money, but I do what I can without putting myself in a position of hurt."
McInnis, a father of three, said he has been taken advantage of by some he has helped, but he doesn't let that bother him.
"That's on them. There are bad people on the planet. That's how we know the good," McInnis said.
He is happy where he is. His ultimate dream, he said, is to win the lottery so he can give to more people in need.
"A lot of people say they'd buy a new car or house. I don't want any of that stuff. The only thing I want is more life. I know you can't give that to me, so there's nothing that I want," McInnis said.
Jacob Fuller is a Destin Log reporter.