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I've spent most of my career as a traveling salesman, and I know that there's nothing lonelier than a bunch of salesmen eating their meals in a motel coffee shop.
One year, my 5-year-old daughter pressed a gift into my hands. The wrapping paper was all twisted, and it was bound together into a shapeless mass by at least a mile of tape.
I gave her a big hug and sloppy kiss -- the kind that all daddies give -- and proceeded to unwrap the little package she had bestowed on me. The contents hidden within felt kind of soft, and I was very careful not to cause any damage. With excitement radiating from her face, little brown-eyed Jeanine stood attentively beside me in her too-small pajamas while I completed the process of unraveling my surprise.
A pair of black, beady eyes peeked out from their papery hiding place, then a yellow beak, a red bow tie and orange feet. It was a stuffed toy penguin that stood about five inches tall.
Attached to its right wing with still wet paste was a tiny, wooden sign, and a hand-painted declaration, "I Love My Dad!" Beneath it was a hand-drawn heart, colored with crayon.
Tears welled up in my eyes and immediately I gave it a special place on my dresser.
Seldom did much time pass before I had to leave on another business trip. One morning when I was packing, I tossed the penguin in my suitcase. That night when I called home, Jeanine was very upset that the penguin had disappeared. "Honey, it's here with me," I explained. "I brought it along."
After that day, she always helped me pack, and saw to it that the penguin went in along with my socks and shaving kit. Many years have gone by since then, and that little penguin has traveled hundreds of thousands of miles all across America and over to Europe. And we have made many friends along the way.
In Albuquerque, I checked into a hotel, dumped out my bag and dashed to a meeting. When I returned, I found the bed turned down and the penguin propped up on the pillow.
In Boston, upon returning to my room one evening, I saw that somebody had perched it in an empty drinking glass on the nightstand -- it never did stand up that well. The next morning I left it sitting in a chair. Again that night it was in the glass.
Once, at New York's Kennedy airport, a customs inspector coolly asked that I open my bag. And right there, on top, was my little pal. Holding it up, the agent quipped, "That's about the most valuable thing I have seen in all my years on the job. Thank God we don't charge tax on love."
Late one night, after driving over a hundred miles from my previous hotel, I unpacked my luggage only to discover that the penguin was missing.
Frantically, I phoned the hotel. The clerk was incredulous and a bit aloof. He laughed, saying it hadn't been reported. Nonetheless, a half hour later, he called back to say that my penguin had been found.
The time was late, but not that late. I got back in my car and drove the couple of hours to retrieve my two-toned touring buddy, arriving near midnight.
The penguin was waiting at the front desk. In the lobby, tired business travelers looked on at the reunion -- I think with a touch of envy. A few of them came out to shake my hand. One man told me that he had even volunteered to deliver it to me the very next day.
Jeanine is in college now and I don't travel as much anymore. The penguin spends most of its time sitting on my dresser -- a reminder that love is the best traveling companion. All those years on the road, it was the one thing I never left home without.
Cover image via wildmeg I Shutterstock
This story is from Chicken Soup for the Soul: Dads & Daughters: Stories about the Special Relationship between Fathers and Daughters © 2011 Chicken Soup for the Soul, LLC. All rights reserved.