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As America approaches the seventh anniversary of 9/11, Amar Parkash has a message for us: This is a great country.
"It's greatness is not in the F-21 or 31 or the Sherman tanks," he says. "It is in the generosity of its people. That personifies what America is."
Parkash says he should know. As he hitchhiked around the world, he arrived at Kennedy Airport in January 1968 with $10 in his pocket and the telephone number of his father's friend, a doctor practicing in New York City.
Today he sits in his tidy home between Chiefland and Fanning Springs, which also houses the office for his business, Shamrock Services, which he will soon rename. He says he will rename it Shamrock Painting because what started as a lawn business morphed into a pressure washing business to where 80 percent of the jobs are for painting.
If you have ever shopped at Hitchcock's groceries and notice how spiffy they look, you can credit the workers at Shamrock. Parkash's workers provide landscaping maintenance, pressure washing, painting and building work for the locally owned chain of supermarkets.
"In 1966 I was 18 years old when I met some cricket players who hitchhiked from London to India," he said. He liked the idea of hitching rides, living with the people he met along the way, and working to pay his way.
He started by traveling to Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, Hong Kong and Japan, where he met a childhood pen pal.
When he ran out of money, Parkash returned to India to earn more cash for his next trip. That trip included Iraq, Iran, Turkey and eventually Germany, where he had another pen pal to meet.
"In Frankfurt I heard they were hiring in the electrical department, so I worked there for two months and earned enough money to go to Switzerland, Italy and France," Parkash said.
From there it was on to London. Then another job to earn the money for the really big puddle jump to New York.
Once in America he decided to stay, but his travels were not over. Parkash lived with his father's friend for a short while before heading off to Michigan, then Missouri and California. Along the way he attended college, enlisted in the U.S. Army, and met and married the love of his life.
Parkash said he was working in California and not very happy in his job when he spotted an interesting classified ad.
"I read this classified that said jobs, no experience needed, will train, free medical and one month's vacation a year," Parkash says in his trademark happy gush of words. "I was excited. So when I went down to the place in the ad, it was for the Army. So I enlisted."
He was sent to San Francisco, not a popular spot for the Army as it was a hotbed of activism in the late 60s and early 70s.
After he left the Army, Parkash became interested in the travel business and started an agency. Along the way he also became an American citizen.
Then he met Martha.
"We were together five years and in 1982 I asked her to marry me," he said. They were married in '83 and a daughter was born in '84. Today he proudly points to her photo and that of his grandson.
"Martha taught me the meaning of honesty, patience, humility and integrity," he said. "Even though we are now divorced, we are best friends." He even stays with Martha when he is in California.
The divorce came, he said, after accepting Jesus Christ into his life in 1997. "I just told her I wanted to go a different way in my life," Parkash said. Prior to that he had been a Hindu.
"Many Americans were so generous and kind to help me realize my dream," Parkash says, reflecting on his life.
Among them is Helen Stoneking, who opened her home to him when a job in real estate did not work out.
She brought him into the fold at Christian Fellowship Community Church in Gilchrist County. Parkash started working as a night desk clerk at the Holiday Inn Express in Chiefland.
When another church member was laid off from his lawn care job, Parkash partnered with him to start a lawn care business.
"The first thing my church did was give me a bunch of business," Parkash says, sounding like an amazed boy.
The two won a job at the Trenton Hitchcock's and he started asking about doing their pressure washing business. Parkash admits he was persistent in trying to win the business. The one store led to two more stores to clean and now five stores.
"I thought I was in the big money when I got that," Parkash says. "But the first two or three years were rough, but I kept my integrity."
Parkash said his business' core values are: deliver more than promised, take care of the safety for your customers and workers, use quality materials and do quality work, maintain your integrity, deliver customer service and quality assurance. "I have lived by these core values."
"Since I accepted Christ in my life, my life has changed," he said. "I have learned man's value is not in his wealth but in his character.
"My success is the love of my ex-wife and my daughter Helen, but more importantly in my love of Christ."
He is sanguine as he gets ready for a month-long trip back to India. He's taking his family members an item he thinks is a true American item for gifting: the iPod.
He is also contemplating more travel. He says he will be paying back generosities in his life - the Rotary Club scholarship he received to attend Park College will be repaid.
"Let's not be cynical because there are a few bad apples," he said. "Every country has a few bad apples.
"I am grateful for the generosity shown to me by America and for the generosity shown by America to the world," he says. "This is the only country in the world where government files a suit against a citizen and a citizen wins. This does not happen in any other country in the world."
And in repaying it he is contemplating an opportunity to do missionary work in other countries. "I must tell some other countries of the joys and blessings I have received.
"I really want to inspire people not to lose hope over our lives.
"There's always a silver lining."
Parkash's travels certainly reinforce his beliefs.