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!

June 5, 2011

A summer trip to New York City…

We had an informal tradition in my family, or at least that is how I understood it, that when you were around 16, you would get to go on a trip.  The trip was usually taken alone and to someplace far away with the duration being at least two weeks.  One of my older sisters visited Mexico where she stayed with relatives one summer and perfected her Spanish that she had studied in school for years.  Two other sisters went to Hawaii for a couple of weeks where they soaked up the sunshine and my brother went to Washington, D.C. where he visited the historic sites of our nation.

Being the youngest, when I turned 16, I naturally reminded my parents about these journeys that the others took and asked where I could go.  My parents were in a situation at that time where their resources were temporarily stretched, so they tried to dissuade me from any thoughts of a trip by saying that I could go next year or perhaps the year after.  However, I was ready to go somewhere and, as my father had observed long ago, when I get something in my head I usually find a way to make it happen!  A trait that has (mostly) served me well in life and this time was no different.

The “where” was a bit more challenging to figure out as I received the message clearly that it had to be relatively inexpensive and so Hawaii was definitely out of the question.  I spent a few days thinking about it when I remembered that my brother-in-law of 5 years was attending the University of Southern California’s film school and was a graduate intern working for Paramount Pictures in New York City.  I had only seen the western United States and Mexico up to that time and had never been on an airplane, so the thought of spending a few weeks in Manhattan was interesting to say the least.  My parents probably did not think I could come up with an acceptable trip, but when I did and discussed it with them they reluctantly had to agree.

It was the early summer of 1981 and soon I was going on a plane and bound for the Big Apple!  My sister drove me to the airport, LAX, and made it a point to remind me to be nice to my brother-in-law, her husband!  Another message received.  She helped me to check in to my flight and before long I was listening to my Walkman, playing “California Dreamin'” among other tracks that I remember, while flying east alone in what turned out to be the first of many such trips in my life, though I had no clue about that yet.

Three months earlier, I was sitting in 10th grade waiting for English class to start when I looked down and found a piece of paper that set me on another related, but much larger, journey.  That paper described a test that I could take and if I passed would enable me to drop out of high school and go directly to college.  My father’s promotions had come at the cost of the family being moved several times during my childhood and most recently to California’s capital where I attended high school.  The school I attended, Del Campo High, was the same one where Candy Lightner’s daughters went the year before and one was tragically struck and killed by a drunk driver causing the grieving mother to found Mothers’ Against Drunk Driving (MADD).  It was also the same school that former baseball major leaguer and current Cincinnati Red’s Manager Dusty Baker graduated from years earlier.  To me it was a nondescript suburban holding facility for teens where I knew few people, due to the moves, and was not at all challenged by the curriculum.  So when I found the paper under my desk, I read it and happily realized I had stumbled upon, by chance, a solution to my problem.  A literal treasure map for me!  My parents saw things differently and it took some work (well, a lot to be honest!) to convince them but they came around (I probably should have gone into sales!).  I took and easily passed the test a few weeks later.  Sitting on the plane, I had time to contemplate the fact that in the fall I would be in college, at a time that should have been my junior year of high school.

In a few hours the plane landed and I was off to retrieve my suitcase.  I then called my brother-in-law who was not able to pick me up because of work, but told me how to find the train to the plane and where to catch the subway and that he would meet me at one of the stations.  I navigated the crowds and remember feeling very grown-up as I followed his instructions and eventually got off at the correct stop.  My brother-in-law was, at that time, a big burly fellow who greeted me warmly, though in looking back, I am sure that he had to be convinced to put up with me for several weeks.  We quickly hopped into a taxi for a short trip to a large brownstone building on West 67th Street, located next to a restaurant that I am sure is long gone now called “The Three Monks” or something like that.

The apartment was a studio layout that my brother-in-law was leasing from a doctor who decided to give up his practice in favor of pursuing a career in acting (I am curious to learn how that turned out!).  Not being used to apartment life at all, I remember being struck by its small size as well as the fact that it only had one bed and a small sofa, where I was to sleep.

That evening we went out to eat and walked around.  I remember thinking how alive the city was and how things were very lit up and noisy.  Everyone appeared to be in a hurry and I recall being especially struck by the sheer number of people everywhere!  Being from southern California where you drive to go places, it also surprised me that the only car I needed was a taxi and that only rarely.  This felt far more foreign to me than being in Mexico, where I spent many earlier summer days enjoying the beaches with my family.

The next morning my brother-in-law went to work and told me to enjoy the city and left. Being a teenager, I went back to sleep but soon got up and ventured out into Manhattan.  I walked around the streets and saw girls younger than me selling themselves, other people in suits or dresses headed to meetings, students rushing to classes, and tourists like me taking it all in.  Once I walked by and twice passed Flip Wilson with a fancy invitation in his hand, apparently trying to find an address.  I saw street hustlers at work and was told by a stern-faced man that I was not “dark enough” to continue farther on from where I was, so I took the advice and turned around.  I spent a lovely morning in the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art, with a pleasant girlfriend of my oldest sister’s, who told me that I looked at least 18, which I know was said to make me feel grown-up and it did!  I explored central park daily and took a ride to the observation deck of the World Trade Towers, which I will never forget!

Most of the time, I had lunch on the street at one of the many vendors and never tired of people watching, foreshadowing what I would do on many future trips to faraway places.  At the end of the day I would meet my brother-in-law at the building where he worked, which was the headquarters for Paramount Pictures.  I got to know the elevator attendant fairly well and enjoyed seeing the well-appointed suites, where the executives worked.  Once, I was standing next to Warren Beatty when he was talking to an executive while I waited patiently for my brother-in-law and I remember thinking how many people would love to be standing in my place!  I, of course, just wanted them to finish up so we could have dinner and explore the city some more.

At night, we would eat in different restaurants and soak up the city.  We explored the village, listened to music at various clubs, and took in the movie, “New York, New York” one evening.  I remember the movie because I thought it was very cool to be seeing that while sitting in a New York City theater!  We went to Broadway, and saw “A day in Hollywood, a night in the Ukraine” and another time caught a pre-release viewing of “Gallipoli” in an executive screening room at Paramount.

On the weekends, when my brother-in-law was not working, we watched Shakespeare in the Park, Henry the VIII, if memory serves.  We also took a train trip to Connecticut for a few days and visited a good friend of my brother-in-law, who had recently written a script that was made into a movie starring Burt Reynolds.  I remember the writer had a girlfriend that was not a lot older than me who asked if I was going to miss attending 11th and 12th grades, to which I responded, without hesitation, that I would not and meant it.  Still, that served to remind me that things were changing for me and they would never be the same again.

Several weeks passed and it was time to head back home.  As I said good-bye to my brother-in-law, I sensed that he would actually miss having me around even though I am sure I was a burden that he had not wanted.  I thanked him and hopped into a taxi and went to the subway station, caught the train to the plane, and checked myself in for the trip back to Los Angeles.  On the flight home, I spoke to a much older lady who was an executive for a perfume company and she gave me her business card.  I also listened to my Walkman again, which at one point was playing “Arthur’s Theme” that includes the refrain “When you are caught between the moon and New York City” and I smiled to myself as I realized that it had been a good trip for me.

As for my brother-in-law, John Wells, he completed his master’s degree at USC, under the tutelage of instructors like Spielberg and Lucas, and eventually became one of the producers of China Beach, ER, West Wing and others. He was also elected President of the Writers Guild of America West, started his own successful production company, and received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.  He and my sister eventually parted ways…

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