All stories are mysteries. Some are just bigger than others. The best stories present listeners with a series of facts that leave open questions, resulting in listeners wanting to hear more. When done well, one final missing piece of information pulls the entire story together, adding final context and meaning.

I walked the length of Terminal B at Mineta San Jose International Airport in search of the shortest line. There was only one person waiting to dine at San Jose Joe’s–a woman, probably in her early thirties. About five minutes later, the waitress seated her, leaving me on deck. I looked for any signs that a table might be opening soon, but it didn’t look good.

That’s when the waitress said, “The woman that I just seated says that she doesn’t mind if you sit at her table.”

Folks, let’s be real here. I’m a middle-aged man. If a young woman offers to share her table with me, I’m going to agree without hesitation.

I weaved my way through the tightly packed tables and sat down. “Thank you so much for letting me sit here,” I said.

She looked up from her phone. “Of course,” she said, gesturing to the table for four. “It’s a waste for one person to be taking up this large table.”

I noticed it instantly. There was something unique about her–the way she answered, the calmness of her demeanor, let alone the fact that she was comfortable sharing a table with a perfect stranger. She exuded a self-confidence. Not one of false bravado or arrogance, but a real, comfortable-in-one’s-own-skin type of strength that’s rarely seen. There had to be a story behind this behavior and the storyteller in me needed to know what it was.

“Where are you from?” I asked.

She placed her cell phone face down on the table. Usually, when people do this, it’s with a sense of annoyance, but not my impromptu dinner partner. She did so with the intention of being fully present.

“South Carolina,” she said. She worked for Google as a sustainability manager and was on her way home after a long business trip.

She then asked me the same question. It was clear that she wasn’t just being polite. She truly wanted to know. This young woman exhibited something that I’ve struggled with for my entire life–the ability to ignore distractions and live in the moment.

We continued our discussion over dinner. I learned that both she and her husband travel for work and that they hadn’t seen each other in almost a month. And although it would have made logical sense for her to stay in San Jose this weekend, she wanted to spend a few days with him before she trekked back to the Bay Area next week.

I hadn’t yet found the story yet, but I had gathered enough information to identify her special trait as something I’d seen before, yet in a different context. I glanced at my watch to see that time was running out. I had to solve this mystery before we went our separate ways forever.

“So, what did you do before joining Google?” I asked.

“I was a Nuclear Electricians Mate in the Navy.”

That was it! She was a sailor. The special trait that she’d been exhibiting was similar to one that I’ve observed in working with three generations of sailors during my volunteer work for Battleship IOWA. No wonder she felt so comfortable sharing her table with a perfect stranger. She felt at home in cramped places with hundreds or depending upon the ship, thousands of shipmates.

I smiled, pleased that I had solved the mystery before dinner was over. “Thank you for your service,” I said.

For the first time that evening, she revealed a little self-consciousness. “You’re welcome.”

“So, you’re a sailor,” I said. “I should have known. I’ve been around enough of them.” I then described my work with the IOWA and the men who served aboard her.

Soon it was time to head off toward our respective flights. She got up to head to her gate.

“By the way,” I said, “What’s your name?”

“Sara,” she said.

“Nice to meet you, Sara. I’m Ron.”

“It’s been a pleasure, Ron. Have a safe flight.”

And that was it. Sara headed to catch her flight to South Carolina while I headed to catch mine to Orange County.

From the moment I met her, I knew that she had a story. Something in our interaction sounded familiar, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. The clues were there, but I couldn’t piece them together.

Think about your favorite customers. Is there something about the way they act, the things that they say, or the way they say them? Do they have a familiar accent, an interesting tattoo, or always take their lunch at 12:12?

Take the time to notice. Then invest the time to uncover the story behind your observations.

In other words, have dinner with a sailor.


Photo Credit: Jacksonville, Florida. Fighting French sailors messing at the United States Naval air station. Duval County Florida Jacksonville, 1942. Oct. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress,