Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Kindness of Strangers

In 1971, when I was in the Navy and serving aboard the USS Sampson (DDG-10), we were deployed in the Mediterranean for six months; and on two occasions we were anchored off shore near Athens. For the first Athens visit I had to stay on board for the two weeks that the other Hospital Corpsman was on leave, since one of the two of us had to be available at all times for any emergency that might have arisen. On our second visit, though, I had my chance for two weeks of leave and traveled from Athens via the Orient Express to London. During the three day train trip that took us through Yugoslavia, Hungry, Austria, Switzerland, and France, I got to know fairly well the seven other folks who were traveling with me in the second-class compartment made for eight. They were all traveling on British student tickets, and we took turns sleeping in the luggage racks and under the seats in whatever configuration we could manage. I introduced them to peanut butter and jelly, and they invited me to visit them during my stay in Britain. I did just that and traveled by train and hitchhiking from London to Birmingham, Liverpool, Edinburgh, and back to London before starting my trip to meet the Sampson that was scheduled to be in northern Italy upon my return. All my British hosts shared their modest accommodations without any apparent hesitation and were extremely kind to me. The first night in Bucks, England, near London, David Vincent, took me home to his parent's house in Gerrads Cross where his mother drew a bath in the tub in the kitchen. After he had his bath, I got to have one in the same water (something I had never done before nor done again since) in order to save the cost of heating water which was done by gas and paid for by putting coins in a meter. Whatever level of hospitality was possible was shared. One new friend, Andy Lowe of Edinburgh, was an artist and gave me two of his water color paintings that I continue to treasure.

Since this was before the time of credit cards, I took with me what I thought would be sufficient cash for my entire trip. Soon, though, I realized that I needed more money and was delighted to discover that I could cash a Wachovia personal check at a Barclays branch in the Hampstead township of London (Wachovia was a correspondent bank of Barclays). Unfortunately, however, as I was about to depart London from Victoria Station, the Barclays branch there would not consider cashing one of my checks . This meant that I left for Paris with about one dollar and my pre-purchased train ticket to Orbetello, a town in the province of Grosseto (Tuscany), Italy, where the Sampson was scheduled to arrive three days later when my leave would be over.

Upon my arrival in Paris, a small bag of pommes de fritzd was purchased with my remaining funds (5 francs). Moneyless, and after discovering that the American Express office was closed, I decided to see if the Marine guards at the American Embassy would be willing to help me. I figured that I would otherwise have to go without food and lodging until I could get back to the ship. I used my very limited French to ask various people for directions, "Pardonnez s'il vous plaît, où se trouve l'ambassade américaine?" Folks would smile and ask, "À pied?" I would answer, "Oui;" and they would laugh and point in the direction of the embassy.

As I walked along the sidewalk in the direction I had been shown, I passed a couple seated outside at one of the many sidewalk cafes. For some reason, our eyes met and I said, "Hello," rather than "Bonjour." There was a nice reply in English, and I was invited to sit with them and have a beer. In the course of our conversation, it was revealed that I was a Navy Hospital Corpsman on active duty, without money, and on my way back to my ship. I explained the circumstances of my being moneyless and that my plan was to throw myself on the mercy of the Marines at the American Embassy. As it turned out, I was speaking with an active duty US Marine Corps lieutenant colonel and his wife. Their daughter had been born at the Naval Hospital Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, my home state, and not too far from Cherry Point Marine Corps Air Station where I had been previously stationed at the Naval Hospital and had helped to deliver the babies of about 700 Marines. Upon our parting, Colonel and Mrs. John Coffman loaned me $50 which I promised to send back to them in the form of a check as soon as I got back to the ship. I was no longer moneyless, and I had met two very generous, kind people!

Fifty dollars (worth about $250 in today's money) allowed me to stay at the USO and to spend the next day visiting The Palace at Versailles with a member of the Air Force who was stationed in England and visiting Paris. He was staying at the USO, had a car, and asked me to go with him to Versailles. The fifty dollars also allowed me to eat adequately until I arrived in northern Italy where I found the Sampson pulling into port right on schedule. After getting back on board, the first thing I did was to write and mail a check to my guardian angels, the Coffmans. For many years after that, we exchanged holiday greeting cards.

For me those two weeks continued over the ensuing years to be extremely memorable, not so much that it was in Europe (which was, indeed, great for a small-town fellow who had never previously left the United States) but much more as a result of the many people I met along the way who treated me with so much kindness and generosity. I've lost touch with most of them, but my memories of their kindnesses are an indelible part of my most valued experiences. There are many more examples of similar kindnesses shown to me over my entire life, and it has been my goal, whenever possible, to pay them forward.
Pay It Forward--Assignment To Save The World

When I was hiking the Appalachian Trail in 2008, there were many instances of "Trail Magic" where people would unexpectedly show up with much welcomed food, drink, or a ride to a town. On one occasion a deputy sheriff, after checking to make sure I wasn't wanted for something, drove me with all my gear the17 miles from Erwin, TN, back to the Trail at Sams Gap where I had gotten off the AT for a night. I had previously been given a ride to Erwin from Sams Gap by the Georgian "Slow" (his trail name) of the two-brother pair of hikers, "Slow and Steady." "Slow" had a car parked at Sams Gap and was ending his hiking adventure. He said, "My brother loves this, and I hate it." I later ran into "Steady" who was flip flopping in Virginia. Melisa, from Chicago, was another angel who gave me seedless green grapes when she showed up at Russell Field Shelter in the Smokies, walked with me to Spence Field, and then showed up again at Newfound Gap at just the right moment to give "Savannah," "Low Gear," and me a ride to Gatlinburg where the four of us had dinner.

As I said, there have been so many instances of kindness shown to me from strangers. Just two days ago, I ran out of gas late at night in the middle of Research Triangle Park where gas stations are few and far between and traffic was light. I left Dorothea Dix Hospital in Raleigh heading home about 11:30 pm and realized about 11:50 that I had no more gas and could only travel a little further on Prius battery power. I got off I-40 and turned south on Davis Drive, hoping to find gas despite the lack of a sign indicating the distance to gas. I managed to drive about 2 miles before it was not possible to drive another inch. At that point it was about midnight and I felt that I was in the middle of nowhere. I eventually got home at 2:18 am, but would have been much later had it not been for Romero, a nice fellow originally from Bogata, Columbia, who stopped at about 1:00 am and asked if he could help. He drove me to the nearest station about 2.5 miles away, brought me back, and helped me figure out how to operate the gas container. How is that for kindness and compassion from a stranger? I only got about three hours sleep after that and was tired at work later that morning but was otherwise no worse for the experience--actually I was better for having met Ramero, father of six whose license plate is REVIVAL. He said that he has lived in the US for about 20 years, the first seven being like being in hell. For the last twelve years, though, he has been doing computer work for Fidelity Investments and says life has been good for him and his family. He also said he nearly always stops to help others. I won't be surprised if we meet again somewhere along the way.

I am so grateful for having met the folks from Britain with whom I shared the cramped quarters of a second-class compartment on the Orient Express, the Coffmans who kept me from being moneyless and without food or shelter in Paris, the Airman with whom I visited Versailles, "Slow" and the deputy who provided me with transportation from and back to Sams Gap at a time when I really needed a break from hiking, Melissa who shared her grapes, her time and thoughts, and gave my friends and me a ride when we needed another hiking break, and Romero who stopped in the middle of a cold night to help a stranger on the side of the road. Each of these folks gave me even more than hospitality or the needed immediate assistance. They (and the countless others who have given me similar gifts) also gave me a chance to get to know them at least a little and to learn over and over again how there are a lot of good folks in this world who are willing to take a chance and reach out to others in need, not because they have to but because of their kindness and compassion.

Please consider sharing your own experiences of being the recipient of kindness from a stranger or any thoughts you may have about reaching out to others for whom there is need and with whom you have the means to share what is needed.

I like this quote attributed to John Wesley, "Do all the good you can. By all the means you can. In all the ways you can. At all the times you can. To all the people you can. As long as ever you can."

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