Just 17 and in trouble with the law, Chris Allen’s life had taken a turn that his single mom did not want to see. It would have been easy to let him go – toward a life, perhaps, in and out of jail.
Enter Harry McAlister, a U.S. Air Force communications technician with an interest in electronics and a motorcycle that Allen found intriguing.
It was the early 1970s when Allen and McAlister saw their paths come together in Tampa’s Big Brother program. Though their collaboration only lasted a short time, the impact was far-reaching. It changed Allen’s life.
The two met for an emotional reunion Sunday afternoon in the cacophonous Pin Chasers bowling alley on Armenia Avenue, site of a Big Brothers Big Sisters fundraiser.
Allen held a small box wrapped in gold paper that contained a Skagen watch, one that matched his own, to give to his former mentor.
Allen spotted McAlister walking his way in the bowling alley, and both men smiled, though McAlister looked a bit nervous. McAlister held out his hand for a shake. Allen took his hand, but delivered a hug.
“You are the reason I am where I am today,” Allen said, “and I want to thank you.”
Tears welled up in Allen’s eyes when he greeted his Big Brother from so long ago, telling him how his life had changed.
Allen, 59, and McAlister, 70, recalled the past fondly, if not differently.
Allen said McAlister had a Honda Gold Wing motorcycle and the two often would go out riding. McAlister said he didn’t remember what kind of bike he rode those days, but he‘s pretty sure it wasn’t a Gold Wing.
McAlister remembered one time the teen put McAlister’s contacts in and got scolded for it, not only for possible damage to his own eyes but to McAlister’s contacts. He also remembered returning from a trip to Turkey with a new pair of boots, which Allen commandeered and never returned.
Allen chuckled at that tale, and didn’t dispute it.
Allen said the two fell out of touch after he began taking classes in electronics – an interest sparked by McAlister’s work with MacDill Air Force Base – at a local technical school and began working.
“I just wasn’t able to keep in touch,” Allen said.
McAlister said he was deployed to Korea and that’s when the two drifted apart.
It all was in the distant past – one the two gray-haired men sat on a Sunday afternoon chatting about.
Allen embarked on a career in electronics and now is a General Electric electrical engineer who services ultrasounds in hospitals.
“I was 18,” he said, “but I still needed a father figure in my life and there was somebody there who made a difference.”
McAlister said he was impressed with how Allen turned out.
“The best thing was his pursuing, pretty aggressively, his interests,” McAlister said. “I didn’t realize electronics meant so much to him. I guess that rubbed off a little.”
Asked his reaction to the effect he had on Allen’s life, McAlister paused a moment.
“Humbling,” he said.
After a separation that lasted four decades, Allen decided to find his former mentor. He got in touch with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Tampa, which encourages “bigs” and “littles” to reconnect through a “Reunite Now!” program.
“I got the idea not to pay it forward,” said Allen, now married and the father of four grown daughters, “but to pay it backward.”