Imagine Ronnie Roach's surprise. The petty criminal thought he'd found an easy mark when he approached the old man in the Food 4 Less parking lot and reached for his wallet.
The elderly fellow walked with a pronounced limp as people who are missing a leg at the knee will do. Fact is, the intended victim was 83 years old.
But Roach, 42, didn't know what he was getting into when he reached for the wallet of Ira Dale.
Ira admits he's never had much money. You'd probably call him poor. But he'd spent a long, brutal life earning what was rightfully his.
He'd survived and supported a wife and five children on one leg, small pay and long hours.
So when the thief made his move, Ira grabbed his arm in a vicelike grip.
And did not let go.
The thief struggled and rolled and strained, at first to get the wallet, and then to break free. And still Ira did not let go. The thief shoved and struggled and shook. And went nowhere.
Folks at a nearby U-Haul store saw the struggle and called police. Another shopper at the North Las Vegas grocery store helped hold the suspect until the cops arrived and made the arrest.
After filling out the appropriate paperwork, Ira again went about the business of putting his food in his car and returned home to his trailer in the dilapidated Belmont Crest Mobile Estates. Not counting the company of a stray cat and an old dachshund, he lives there alone these days in a neighborhood that long ago went from poor working class to no class at all.
Had the two met under different circumstances, Roach might have learned something important from Ira Dale. Something about self-respect and working for a living despite life's little inconveniences, like one leg and illiteracy.
As an 11-year-old boy, Ira worked loading coal cars in a mine outside Grundy, Va., for $1.50 a day.
He was 18 when his left leg was crushed between the bumpers of two coal cars. A social worker told him he was handicapped and would have to work for less.
"I'm not handicapped, and I'll get my own work," he recalls saying. "I went back to work loading coal. I loaded as high as 52 ton in one day."
But work in the mines didn't last. Ira moved from one job to the next, never giving in. He bounced from Virginia to Baltimore to Washington, D.C., to Chicago to Duluth, Minn., and finally out to Las Vegas 28 years ago for work as a maintenance man.
Of course, Ira can do more than that. He set bowling pins for a while, learned the bakery trade in Minnesota. He worked odd jobs and even tossed pizzas for a time.
"I used to ramble," he says, grinning at a memory. "Everywhere my nose would lead me, that's where I'd go. Now I do well to get outside of the door."
Not being able to read slowed Ira, but it didn't prevent him from becoming a crack mechanic and handyman. If it was broken, chances are good he could fix it.
Good times and bad, Ira worked. He didn't rob old people in a parking lot. He just worked. On Sunday, he went to the Baptist church.
"I only wore out about five legs," he says. "Artificial legs, I mean."
Thanks in part to his tussle with the would-be thief, the foot of his prosthetic leg isn't right, and the straps on it are shot. Not that he's complaining.
Although you'd call him retired, until recently Ira continued to play taxi and fix-it man for two blind ladies who lived in the neighborhood. The ladies have gone to their reward now, but one left behind the dachshund. Of course, Ira takes care of the dog.
His friend and neighbor, Evie Kenny, checks on him regularly.
"He's one of the thousands and thousands of people who deserve to be recognized and taken care of in their old age," Kenny says. "He's been alone all these years, but he's been so faithful. He's an exceptional person, one of the invisible people."
When asked about the attempted robbery, Ira pauses and says, "Well, I ain't bitter."
About any of it.
Ira doesn't see what all the fuss is about, but Kenny calls him a hero. I think she's right.
Not for what he did in that grocery store parking lot, but for the life he's led while no one was looking.
John L. Smith's column appears Fridays in the Nevada Appeal. E-mail him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295.