A riddle, of sorts:
You are behind the wheel of your car, stopped at an intersection planning to make a left turn.
A car approaches from you right with blinker indicating the driver intends to turn left into the street from which you are attempting to exit.
The driver of the car stops and waves you forward before making the turn.
How old is the driver?
Answer: over 60.
What's the catch?
None, really. It's just that my own observations have told me common courtesies such as the one described here are largely evident only in the older generation. No 20-something, or 30-something on up to even 50-something would stop in that situation and yield the right-of-way.
Okay, maybe a few. But my experience has been that most drivers will go out of their way, at times quite a bit out of their way, to get around my vehicle rather than let me go first. Some even speed up on approach for fear I will force my way out and make them apply their brakes. They give me credit for more courage than I have.
That's why I was so surprised last week when twice – twice, mind you – on the same day, drivers stopped and allowed me to go first. Both were men and senior citizens, further evidenced when each acknowledge my wave of thanks with a tip of the hat. It was like stepping back in time.
Several years ago I was at a conference and during one of the break-out sessions the speaker asked us to name some things that would shock someone who had fallen asleep 50 years ago and then awakened in the 1980s.
Most people said things like the cost of a loaf of bread.
I said it would be the deserted neighborhoods during the day, with every mom working and every young child in day care.
Today, I would say the rudeness that permeates our society, the total lack of manners and common courtesy.
I think they'd find it hard to believe because it wasn't always this way. I recall interviewing the late George W. Bainbridge when he was in his late 80s, perhaps older, and delivering Meals on Wheels to shut-ins most of whom were 15 to 20 years his junior. He talked about growing up in West Wyoming. He told me his family raised pigs. "But the biggest, plumpest one," he said, "well, we didn't even get the squeal out of that one. That one was for the neighbors."
Another old-timer, Chet Szumski, of Dupont, said the same thing in a different way about his youth during the Great Depression: "It was a time when no one had anything, but we were willing to share it."
The other-centeredness of Americans was legendary: the Hershey bars to children in Europe during World War II; the Marshall Plan after the war. A friend of mine was a little girl living in Germany at the end of World War II and tells the story of an American G.I. giving her the first piece of chewing gum she ever tasted.
Even in battle it was a sense of duty to the other that motivated U.S. soldiers to press on. In a documentary about the Battle of the Bulge, when asked how he summoned the courage to fight against formidable odds, if he fought for his country or maybe for a girl back home, a soldier said, "No, you don't even think about those things."
"Then, what?" the interviewer asked.
To which the soldier responded, "You fight for the guy standing next to you."
In more recent times – if I can dare call the late ‘60s and early ‘70s recent – a version of fighting for the guy next to you was evident, of all places, on the football field. It's the story of a gifted, eventual Hall of Fame running back for the Chicago Bears named Gayle Sayers and a teammate of considerably less natural talent named Brian Piccolo. If you do not know Sayers, look up his statistics. He was incredible. If you do not know Brian Piccolo, watch the movie "Brian Song." And have a box of tissues close by.
The movie is based on a segment of a book written by Sayers, who was an All American at the University of Kansas and one of the best college football players in the country when he graduated. Even as a rookie, he took the NFL by storm. And, although his career was cut short by injury, he is still considered one of the greatest ever.
The title of the book, I am third, is a simple statement of the guiding philosophy of Gayle Sayers' life: "God is first, others are second, and I am third."
Imagine the possibilities if we all felt this way.