Thanksgiving’s coming up this week and so is my birthday. I’m turning 79. Hold the applause.

Growing up, I always thought I was getting ripped off sharing my birthday with Thanksgiving every few years, but looking back I realize I was pretty lucky.

Having a birthday when people are in a thankful, giving mood got me some great presents in this job, the kind you can’t buy.

The Reel Cowboys gave me a gift-wrapped present of humility and kindness I’ll never forget. They were a group of tough old movie bad guys — the ones Marshall Dillon always outdrew in front of the Long Branch Saloon in “Gunsmoke.”

Most of them were shot and buried before the first commercial. They never got to be the good guys in the movies, but in real life they were all John Wayne to me.

They gave me my present at a local women’s shelter — a safe house — where mothers and their children could come and hide from abusive husbands and fathers.

When these old movie cowboys walked in, the kids literally shook with fear and hid behind their mothers. They were that afraid of men.

The Reel Cowboys got down on their hands and knees and gave the kids horsey-back rides. They neighed and swung their heads back and forth, and they laughed. Pretty soon, the kids were laughing with them.

“Look at those silly men, mommy.”

They treated those scared kids like fathers should treat their children, with love and laughter. They showed them there are good men out there — men they didn’t have to be afraid of.

After a few hours, the kids didn’t want them to leave, but they had to go. As tough as these old movie cowboys were, the emotional toll on them was high.

What kind of man hits a kid? They didn’t know any, but if they ever ran across one, he’d be lying in the dirt, out cold, before the first commercial.

Kids have given me some great presents, too. One of my favorites was given to me by Lexie Flores, 5, who taught me to never underestimate the heart and resolve of people born with a disability.

Lexie was born without fingers on her left hand, but she had just accomplished something her teacher thought I should see.

“At 5, most of the kids in my class can’t even tie their shoelaces with two good hands,” Cynthia Beecher said.”“Lexie just won our class contest for tying her shoelaces the fastest with one hand.”

“Handicap? What handicap? This kid doesn’t have one.”

We sat at a lunch table next to the school playground as Lexie slowly unwrapped her present for me. She walked over to the rings and jumped up grabbing one with her right hand.

She dangled there for what seemed like minutes, her eyes fixed on the other ring as her fingerless left hand hung at her side. There has to be a way, the look in her eyes said. I’ll find it.

She tried over and over again, but it just wasn’t meant to be. Not on that day.

A few months later, her teacher called. She was standing at the window in her classroom looking out at the playground at lunchtime. The little girl who won the shoelace-tying contest was swinging on the rings.

“I don’t know how she did it, but she found a way,” Cynthia Beecher said.

Claire Klint gave me an incredible present on keeping the faith and your promises. She was the daughter of a circuit preacher who visited his churches in the early 1900s on horseback.

Claire would wrap her arms around her father’s waist and ride behind him in the saddle — listening to him preach and learning from him. When she became a Sunday school teacher she made a lifelong promise.

“As long as you give me breath, Lord, I’ll serve you.”

The Lord took the deal.

When Claire gave me her present in 2003 she was 105, and still teaching Sunday school at Grace Community Church of the Valley. She continued to teach there until she was 107, a year before she died.

“It’s absolutely flabbergasting,” said Pastor Bill Shannon, who was in charge of the children’s ministry at the Sun Valley church.

Yes, it was, but a deal’s a deal.

So, yeah, I’ve been a lucky guy to share my birthday all these years with a day when people are in the mood for thanks and giving. I get some great presents I get to share with you.

Have a wonderful Thanksgiving.

Dennis McCarthy’s column runs on Sunday. He can be reached at [email protected].


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