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!

February 24, 2012

Lisa

Painters work with liquids on open surfaces.  Sculptors free representations from unremarkable lumps.  Writers use words to do the same.  Their work is not displayed in galleries, but comes to life for each reader.

Their art appears different to all, but is no less precise, deliberate, and thought-provoking, at least, and impactful, in intent.  These words are a brief portrait of Lisa in simple prose, with some verse, who is anything but simple in reality!

In form, her hair is dark, thick, and wavy and her eyes are large and brown

With complexion smooth, frame slender, and height slightly taller than most

She is pleasant to see and enjoys creating her very own bling

Lisa loves flattering designs though she does not flaunt nor boast

 

I met her through the alchemy of modern electronics and communications

A lady in the tradition of belles past and not unlike the one who loved Rhett

She was far from home, younger, searching, and wondering then…

Her close companion was a gray feline far more familiar than pet

 

Not surprisingly, she was raised in the land of the Iris and Tulip poplars

Her mother was a true southern beauty and her father was smart and lived near

It was said before her birth, by a forgotten carny, that she had a larger destiny

Her early childhood was somewhat challenged and difficult, but her intent was clear

 

Her years of youth and early adulthood were marked with change and growth

Hurts were shared with tears and lessons learned in ways hardest of all…

Still, like that fiery mythic avian she arose from her times and learned much

As an adult, she is focused and her poise self-assured;   She knows her call!

 

When she speaks it is true and well of things both near and far removed

Her thoughts are filled with wisdom and depth from life lived and just half-started

She has a temper and is independent, but still has room to need and be needed

The sum of her to present is demure and direct with future paths yet uncharted!

 

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!

May 7, 2011

My Mom…

I could not write about my father without also writing about my mother, Dorothy Jean Smith.  Her experiences are less expansive than my father’s, but that does not mean that her journey is no less unique or important than his.  Also, with Mother’s day coming up, and the world still digesting the recent news about what bin Laden’s demise means, a story about a mother is just what this doctor decided is needed.

My mother was the third born child of Ivan “Jim” Smith and Adelie “Addie” Kent.  She was born in the middle of the depression in Boise, Idaho.  Her father was earlier in life a farmer and park ranger but, by the time she was born, he was a beer distributor and her mother took care of the 5 children (4 girls and 1 boy).  Addie could trace her family tree back to the Mayflower, while Jim’s included a Dutch grandfather born in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean and also likely a confederate soldier from Louisiana.  Addie was raised on a horse farm and though short (a couple of inches shy of 5 feet tall), she was said to be a great rider.  At nearly 6 feet, Jim was tall for a man of his day (he was born in 1899), and had traveled the rails for a time when he was young.  When Dorothy was a girl, her father told her stories of a place where they eat flat, round bread with vegetables so hot they would burn your mouth.  She would later retell this story acknowledging the irony of her later life with my father and that fact that she was a great cook, especially of Mexican food dishes!

Dorothy, according to my grandmother, was a headstrong little girl, who when she was 3 would make neighborhood kids walk around, not on, her father’s sidewalk.  She loved to play with her younger sisters and sometimes had crushes on her older brother’s friends.  At 15, she took a job as a soda jerk (mom’s term for it) at a local ice cream shop, where she earned money to buy clothes and have fun, like most young girls in those early post war times.  While in high school, she was a cheerleader and among her classmates at Boise High, was a young man with the last name Albertson, whose father owned a local grocery store.

After graduating high school, a first in her family, she wanted to see the world. She found her ticket when a girlfriend suggested that they join the newly created United States Air Force (prior to 1947 it was part of the Army) together. Unfortunately, her father would not allow it and refused to sign off on her enlistment paperwork, a requirement in those days.  She eventually convinced him to sign and a few weeks later she found herself in San Antonio, Texas attending basic training, which is something that few young women did in 1951.  Her friend, unfortunately, was not found to be fit for service and so Dorothy entered the Air Force alone.

Immediately after completing basic training she attended a service school where Dorothy learned administrative skills.  Upon completion of the program she was stationed at Eglin, Air Force Base, in Pensacola, Florida.  Dorothy would later say, as her husband did as well, that this was one of the happiest times of her life!  The base was staffed with thousands of airmen, including pilots and support staff of all types, however, only a couple of hundred were women.  Mom said finding a date to catch a movie or go to a dance was never a problem.  Playing on the then undeveloped beaches, snorkeling and enjoying a game of ping-pong were the favorite pastimes that mom said she enjoyed while stationed in Florida.  One evening she met a Latino airman from California, who played piano in local clubs after hours.  The pair were soon dating and eventually became a couple, not unlike the popular one portrayed by Lucille and Desi on prime time television at the time. They soon married and spent most of their last year in the service living off base in a small house, where mom said that they constantly entertained their friends who liked escaping barracks life as often as they could.

After both were honorably discharged, the couple moved to southern California where they decided to settle down.  Over the next 10 years they had 5 children, 3 girls and 2 boys.  Early on they opened a restaurant which did not last, and my father worked a number of jobs, while mom stayed home and taught the children how to make beds so tight you could bounce a quarter off of them, and at bedtime lined them up and marched off to bed.  These practices were amusing remnants of the fact that Dorothy really wore combat boots and had all the training that came with them!

Mom was always there to make sure we were up in the morning, did chores after school, cleaned our rooms on weekends, had fun, and along the way taught us those skills that would be needed as adults.  Like most mothers during those days, her job was to manage the household.  She did this very well and cooked, cleaned, and coordinated all the daily details for her family while still making the time to befriend many and enjoy life.

She had a great sense of humor, even if it was at her own expense such as the time one of my sisters, who was 3, locked her out of the house when she really needed to use the restroom.  The result was predictable and mom loved to retell the story anyway never failing to mention the devilish grin her daughter had as she repeatedly refused to let her in the house.  There was also the time when mom needed to dry her hair while simultaneously trying out her eldest son’s mini-bike in the backyard.  She drove round and round until her hair was dry and had fun while entertaining us.  During our last trip together as a family, we drove 200 miles through the Sonoran desert (that is a tale for another time) and have super 8 film of her being chased by a bull while answering natures call and of her literally kissing the pavement when we eventually reached it!  The road did not look that clean either, but mom did not mind as she was just happy to be on pavement again!

When the children were a little older, she worked as a waitress part-time at a restaurant to earn to extra money and told us kids to help ourselves to her tips, which we (the bigger ones anyway) apparently did perhaps a bit too often.  Later on, she worked part-time as a hotel maid, but did not share those tips with us!  After her kids moved out, she worked full-time for a state social services agency helping field client calls and completing paperwork.

She supported my father’s career fully and even helped to found a halfway house and assist with professional association membership drives. She made sure our holidays were filled with cheer and laughter and that we took vacations back to Idaho, down to Mexico, up the coast, to the desert, or in the mountains whenever possible.  In later years she even made sure that Dad and her visited Alaska, Hawaii, Central America, the Deep South, the East coast, and Europe.

She loved to shop and enjoyed buying her friends and family presents, which she did often.  Dorothy believed in helping people and many times while growing up we had family or friends staying with us to assist them in getting through some transition in their lives.  She told me that it was important to always celebrate marriages, births, graduations, and other significant life events and to remember those who are no longer with us.

At the age of 60, she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of lung cancer and I was present when the doctor gave her 4 months to live. This was one of the very few times that I saw the twinkle leave my mother’s eyes. She quickly rebounded, obtained another medical opinion, and fought with everything she had to live.  Five years later she was cancer free and went on to live another 10 years after that! Mom was quite the fighter!

She saw the birth of 7 grandchildren, 4 girls and 3 boys, and made it a point to be present when both of my sons were born.  She told us children that she loved us very much, but that grandchildren were very special in a different way in terms of the joy that they bring during that stage of a person’s life.  She and my father were together over 50 years and, though they were quite different, they loved and supported each other as much as any couple I have thus far known.

Summarizing a life in a few hundred words provides an incomplete glimpse at best, regardless of who they were or what they have done.  Still, hopefully enough was written so that you have an idea of the kind of person my mother was and what she meant to her many friends and family members.  As this mother’s day approaches, the third since she has left us, I am very much reminded of her wise words about celebrating life and about how fleeting it really is.  If yours is still with you, spend time with her, and listen to her unique stories, even if you have heard them many times before…

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