dranthonysblog

February 14, 2013

The Helpfulness of Strangers

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I have recently been taking care of my wife after she had major surgery.  Her recovery has been slow, though steady, and the experience has caused me to reflect on helpfulness from strangers.  It is far too easy to forget the good that we can do when bombarded daily with images and stories about the bad, which annoyingly receives extensive coverage, regardless of where you look.

Helpfulness from strangers takes many forms and really happens often when you stop and think about it.  When I was a teenager, my father was driving my mother and I back home from a trip to San Francisco.  We were about half way across the Golden Gate bridge when a tire blew out in our car.  My father was able to keep control of the vehicle, but there was no place to pull over. Worse, as we slowed traffic started to go around us at unsafe speeds.  Just then, a highway patrol motorcycle officer noticed our plight and cut across several lanes of traffic to get to us.  He put his lights on and motioned for my father to continue to drive forward as best that he could, which was very slow because we were quickly down to driving on a rim in the blown out tire.  It was rush hour and even though the officer was behind us, cars were still flying past, and more than once they came incredibly close to hitting the officer.  It seemed like forever until we finally crossed the bridge and made it to the first exit.  We parked on the nearest wide shoulder and the officer radioed in for a tow truck.

Clearly, the officer was doing his job, but he did it with little regard for his own safety and he executed it quickly and instinctively.  My father was Deputy Director of the State Department of Corrections at that time and was so grateful that he wrote a letter to Head of the California Highway Patrol commending the officer on the actions he took to assist us that day.

Years later, another less dramatic example of helping happened when I was a soldier returning home from overseas on emergency leave.  My flight had been delayed by a layover in London, so when the plane landed at JFK airport in New York it was very late.  I was not able to get a connecting flight to the West Coast until the morning.  I also had no means to get a hotel at that time and so I was forced to wait at the airport.  It was cold and damp, and I was tired and sitting in a chair with my bags when security asked me to leave.  I had no place to go when an elderly lady next to me apparently figured that out and motioned for me to follow her.  From all appearances she lived on the streets, so I was understandably a little hesitant to follow, but out of desperation I did.  She led me to another distant terminal that had flights departing all night and did not close.  I smiled, thanked her, and found a chair to make myself comfortable in until morning.  Unlike the CHP officer, she did not have to help, but she did and it made a difference.

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Another time happened years later when my wife and our then very young children were driving home from a Thanksgiving trip we had just taken.  We were in the Sierra Nevada mountains and it had just gotten dark and it started to snow.  The snow quickly turned to near blizzard conditions and so I stopped to put chains on the tires.  I installed them quickly and we were back on our way.  A short while later, and many miles away from any town or service station, one of the chains slipped off with a loud clang.  I stopped and realized that a part was now missing rendering the chains useless.  We also discovered that there was no cell coverage in the area and the snow showed no signs of letting up.

As my wife and I discussed our options, an old van pulled up behind us with a Hispanic family inside.  A man around my age stepped out, who spoke better English than I did Spanish, and told me that he could help.  He immediately took his shoe laces off and used them to tie the chains back into place.  He then said that he would follow me and, before he walked away, I pulled out some money and offered it to him with my sincere thanks.  He smiled and politely refused my offer and went back to his vehicle.

The storm worsened, but the unconventional repair actually held long enough to get us to the safety of a warm lodge.  A short time later we pulled into the parking lot and waved at the van as they drove passed us and traveled on down the highway in spite of the storm.

I thought about these, and similar helpful acts, when I took my wife to her first post operative medical appointment.  She required the use of a wheel chair due to the amount of walking involved.  While wheeling her around, strangers held doors open for us and politely offered assistance.  We also received help, and multiple offers of same, from numerous colleagues and coworkers.  I found myself humbled and extremely appreciative of all the help being offered.  I also wondered if this is what Mother Teresa had in mind when she said; “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other”?

Few would dispute that nearly everyone benefits from helpful acts, in whatever shape or frequency they take, throughout our lives.  We would do well to remember that because, among other reasons, none of us know when we might suddenly find ourselves in need of help from a stranger!

July 16, 2011

Our last family vacation!

“We are going to take a vacation to Mexico” my mother told the five of us kids as we listened, most only half interested.  She said that it was going to be our last family trip together because my sister was starting college in the fall.  I do not recall the rest of that conversation as I was very young, but the outcome is permanently imprinted in my mind.

The next thing I do remember is all 7 of us piling into our brand new Chevy Impala and driving from our home in southern California towards the Mexican border, which was a couple of hours away (this was before the current problems made trips like this less desirable to take).  We crossed the border and drove to Guaymas de Zaragoza, a port city on the eastern side of the Gulf of California notable to tourists for its warm weather and many undeveloped beaches.  From there, we boarded a ferry, the Benito Juarez (I am not sure why I remember the name, but I do), headed across the gulf to Mulaje in Baja, Mexico.  However, after a few of days of fun, somehow, we missed the return ferry to Guaymas, but learned that we could take the newly completed Baja highway and be back home in a day.  This is where the trip took a really memorable turn!

We followed the directions and drove a couple of hours to the place where we were to connect with the highway. When we arrived all we could see was more dirt road.  My father checked with some locals and found out that the highway was not yet completed, but that the asphalt was only around 30 miles away.  My father had to be back to work soon and so we decided to go for it!

Unfortunately, that information turned out to also be incorrect – this was long before the days of cellphones and the Web, and no maps were available that showed the progress of the road construction in Mexico.  We continued on and, at one point midway in our journey, we ran over a large cactus that was half buried in the sand and had transmission problems.  Some ranchers were nearby and helped my father make the car drivable again (I never heard exactly how they did that with few tools and no parts).  Another time my mother was answering nature’s call when a bull started heading in her direction.  When have super-8 film of her running back towards us with the animal clearly visible in the distance!

At times we had to move large rocks to enable the car to pass the very rough dirt road.  At night, my father and brother slept on the hood of the car, while my sisters, mom, and I slept inside as we had no camping gear.  Along the way we passed a small village where my father was able to get enough gas and food to keep us going.  We also met some Americans in a dune buggy going the opposite direction who updated us on how far we were from pavement (still over 100 miles) and gave us some foul-tasting water to drink.  I am sure they thought my parents were crazy and, being a parent today around their age then, I can totally understand why!

By noon on the third day we finally connected again with the asphalt.  My mother literally kissed the pavement, which was not very clean but mom did not care (we have that on film as well)!  We ended up driving well over 200 miles on unpaved roads in the Baja desert, during the middle of summer, with 5 children, and few supplies.  Later, we learned that there were 7 species of venomous snakes in the region and the car forever after had a layer of red clay that permeated the interior no matter how well it was detailed.  This was no doubt deposited during the numerous times my brother was slow to roll up the window when wind gusts or passing dune buggies kicked up dirt and dust!

Mom and dad are gone now and that trip is just a memory from many summers past.  As mom predicted it turned out to be our last trip together as a family and it was very memorable, though not for the reasons that she had hoped.  Still, we persevered, worked together despite the occasional bickering, learned some important lessons, and have great stories to tell about it that never fail to entertain!

April 24, 2011

A life…

The boy was visiting his mother in a sanatorium in southern California when a family friend asked if he could deliver a message for him.  The friend was a young army officer from Peru who like the boy’s mother was also being treated for tuberculosis.  The boy agreed and soon hopped on the blue line headed for the Chilean consulate in Los Angeles.  After a brief ride, he entered the imposing building and was asked to sit and wait.  In a few moments a distinguished looking lady emerged and he gave her the note. The lady thanked the boy and offered him some cookies and cocoa.  While he enjoyed the snack she talked to him for a few minutes.  When he was finished, she walked the boy to the door, and told him to “always work hard, keep up your studies, and take care of your family.”

It was the early 1940’s and the world was in the midst of a second great war.  The lady was Lucila Godoy y Alcayaga, also known as Gabriela Mistral.  She was a diplomat, educator, feminist and writer who later was the first Hispanic to receive a Nobel Prize in literature.  The boy later said that he never forgot the conversation nor the simple advice he received during that brief meeting early on in his life.

The boy’s mother recovered thanks to cutting edge treatment that she received paid for by the boy and his father working long hours at multiple jobs during her treatment.  His mother and father were immigrants to the country and, though you would never know it from listening to him speak, his first language was not English. His parents believed in education and hard work, and they provided their son with music lessons from an early age.  He quickly excelled and was able to literally play the piano by ear.  He had his own band by the time he was in junior high and played throughout southern California.  He later said that music saved him from getting more involved in gangs that were prevalent in southern California, even in those days.

In college, he worked for the school paper and met and wrote about many people, including American jazz performer and composer, Gene Krupa.  One of his early teachers was a visiting anthropology professor named Margaret Mead.  He was the first in his family to complete both high school and college, graduating with an associate’s degree in science.

The young man enlisted in the Air Force after completing his studies with the hope of becoming a pilot.  He finished his training at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas and was assigned to work at Eglin Air Force Base, in Pensacola, Florida.  His boss, then Colonel, and later General, Paul Tibbets, was the base commander.  Several years earlier, Tibbets was commissioned by President Roosevelt to fly the plane that dropped the bomb that helped to end the Second World War.  He was then the supervisor who allowed the young airman to moonlight after hours, where he played jazz from Fort Walton Beach to New Orleans.

It was in Florida where the young man met the love of his life, a 20-year-old, former cheerleader from Boise, Idaho. She, unlike many young women in those days, joined the service to see the world.  They married in 1955 and shortly afterwards both were honorably discharged from the military.  The young man later said that this period in his life was among the best years, no doubt due in part at least to the sunny beaches, youthful diversions, and many lasting friendships that he made there.

The man and his wife moved to southern California where they established a restaurant in Anaheim.  Soon after, an amusement park opened across the street from their business.  The restaurant unfortunately did not last long, but the amusement park is still entertaining millions of visitors each year, many sporting now iconic mouse ears.

The man went back to college and in a couple of years he completed a bachelor’s degree in Political Science.  He soon landed a position working for the state as a parole agent.  Promotions came quickly and less than 10 years later he was selected to head a first of its kind task force made up of FBI, local police agencies, and federal border officials who worked closely with the Mexican government to crack down on crime across the border.  Later he wrote, produced, and gave a highly acclaimed film, Basta, to the state of California.  The work provided much-needed training about prison gangs, a topic that up to that time was not given serious consideration.  He was eventually appointed as California’s first Latino, Deputy Director of the State Department of Corrections, by the then governor, Jerry Brown, who interestingly holds the same position again today.

Before retiring, the man now a grandfather was credited with helping to thwart a prison break at San Quentin State Prison that was being planned by Charles Manson.  At San Quentin, he also met Carlos Santana, who he later “jammed” with.  He was also interviewed on the popular news television show 60 Minutes about his career and expertise with prison gangs which in part due to his ground breaking work was now recognized as an important problem that plagues prisons across the U.S.

After retiring the grandfather moved to the desert and worked for Sonny Bono’s city administration in Palm Springs.  He was hired as the youth court coordinator through an innovative program that employed peers to hear and sentence youth offenders.  During this time, he also consulted for Paramount Studios on the making of “American Me” which was a movie produced by Edward James Olmos.  He later obtained his private investigator’s license and founded a consulting firm that specialized in working on cases that involved the death penalty.

During his life he traveled from Europe to Asia, helped to raise 5 children, had 7 grandchildren, and was married over 50 years.  He also published articles, taught, mentored many, and had more friends, famous, infamous, and regular, than most of us will ever know.  He worked almost up to the end of his life writing and consulting before finally passing on.

Shortly before he died, I asked him if he had any regrets.  He looked at me with tired but alert eyes and said quite simply that he really had none and that he felt he was blessed with a wonderful life to which I responded, “Yes Dad you were!”

My father, Anthony Casas, Sr. (1929 – 2006), has been gone 5 years yesterday, and I feel fortunate to have known him and now you know a little about his life as well.  As dad often said, because he was a musician at heart, “be cool!”

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