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An Antiquated Sense of Social Protocol
by David Norris

It costs nothing to be kind, yet too few people do it. We’ve been given this advice in so many ways, from so many voices. The Golden Rule tells us to treat others as we would want to be treated ourselves. Buddhism tells us that our actions in either helping or hurting others will eventually return to us, like a boomerang. John Lennon told us to be careful or instant karma was going to get us.

I believe in “trying to give off a good vibe,” that is, sending forth positive energy. A colleague of mine once defined behavior as “a response to stimulus.” That is true in most civilized instances. A gesture of kindness in the way we address others very much influences the way they see us and receive us and respond to us. I have learned to say “Hello,” “Thank you,” and Excuse me” in the language of every country I have visited. It is a simple courtesy. And within our quickly changing multicultural world, I have learned to greet folks in stores and on the streets in their own language. That’s a little kindness, but it is at the same time a gesture of welcome, of acceptance into our community.

Back in my hippie days, when I had hair half-way down my back, as well as a big old bushy beard, my friend Flash Gordon persuaded me to attend my first NASCAR race, to be held at Talladega, Alabama, the fastest track on the circuit. He described to me how high the turns were and how fast the drivers went into those turns. He told me apocalyptic tales of Cale Yarbrough sailing over a fence, of two brothers, Bobby and Donny Allison, running side by side banging fenders and trading paint, and of course, the legends of the Great Buddy Baker. He said they just couldn’t make a car for Baker that was strong enough to last the length of the race at the speeds he wanted to run. He talked of the rivalry between David Pearson and Richard Petty. He showed me a picture of the Wood Brothers Mercury, but what he most valued and enjoyed displaying was his collection of Cale Yarbrough keepsakes. I later learned why he admired the man so much, and I later came to love Buddy Baker as my own man on the track. Choosing a driver to follow involves many rituals and decisions that cover more ground than winning or losing, sponsor or driving style, fame or virtual invisibility. It touches the very core of the Southern heart. But I’ll have to go into that on another day, as I’m into a different story right now.

After I had agreed to go, Flash started making plans, even though the race was still a month away. He wanted to drive straight to the track from Covington after working a 16-hour shift at the Paper Mill, driving all night with a fuzz buster on the dashboard and two buddies to keep him up. I told him I’d head out a week or ten days earlier. He assured me he would find me in the huge campground among thousands of people in tents and RVs. He seemed confident he could do it, as he had been there before; and as I was a complete cherry boy on this adventure, I put my trust in his hands.

Since I had a couple weeks off from work before going back to school, I decided to take a small backpack and a tube tent and hitchhike my way down the East Coast on I-95 from Richmond all the way to Jacksonville. Then I headed directly west along the Gulf of Mexico, landing on my third day in Destin, Florida, where the sand is white like sugar, and when you drag your bare feet on it just a little bit, it squeaks, the sand sings in its own voice to you. At night, the waves roll in and peel back the top layers of the sand, and when they do, the beach sparkles the same as the stars in the sky. You stand there for a moment with the stars both in the heaven above you and covering the earth beneath you. Then the little phosphorescent shellfish quickly burrow themselves back into the sand, only to be uncovered again.

I had been afraid to travel along the Southern coast and then up through the Deep South through Alabama to Talladega. This trip was taking place shortly after that movie Easy Rider. Now let me be very firm about this: I am a Southerner and proud of it down to every drop of blood in my body, but at that time, I was also a member of the counterculture; I believed in making love, not war. I was opposed to the political direction in which my country was going, and I showed my opposition in the clothes I wore, the length of my hair, and the music to which I listened. I was afraid to travel in that strange land I had seen portrayed in the movie, where the young men get killed for no reason other than pure meanness on the part of others.

Well, let me tell you, I was never treated with more kindness in my life.

I stood off to the side of the Interstate exit at Richmond, and my first ride was with an older gentleman who took me down across the state line into North Carolina. I stepped out of the car holding on to my cardboard sign with Jacksonville printed in big letters. Before his car was even out of sight, I was offered a ride by a big rig driver who insisted on buying me a meal when we stopped for a rest a little later on. He paid for my lunch and told me to have a great time at the race. I was in Jacksonville before sunset. These two men had been so kind to me, so trusting. Perhaps it was a different time, a time of innocence we have lost; I hope not, as those memories roll through my mind even now, all of these years later.

That night I slept at a little state campground near Tallahassee, surrounded by water and tall thin grass. I had not seen anything like it before up in the mountains of Virginia; it was lovely and a little scary at the same time. It was so dark, and the night was filled with the sounds of croaking and chirruping and water noises. The air carried the aromas, fragrances and stench of a place filled with life. The texture of the sandy earth beneath my feet and later my back while lying in my little tube tent added to the cornucopia of new experiences. I lay there alone watching the stars and a “little silver slipper of a moon.”

The next morning I found myself in Destin before noon. I saw a small privately owned campground in the distance, and I hiked on up to it, checked in, and passed by a group of people on the way to my assigned campsite. A mom, a dad, and two daughters making lunch. The whole family looked over at the same time and gave me a big ole Southern smile.

I said, “I’m David, and I ain’t never been here before, but it sure is pretty!”

They laughed and said, “David, we’re the Moonies from Crossville; now why don’t you pull yourself up a seat and have a bite to eat.”

I stayed in that campground for a week, sleeping in that miserable little plastic tent, but I was never shown more kindness in my life. I didn’t cook a meal the whole time I was there, and I wasn’t bumming. People had a kind heart that summer; they were generous. They opened up their hearts and their campsites to me. I was invited to a new table almost every day, but to be honest, I preferred the cooking at the Moonies, prepared by their lovely eldest daughter, Cathia. Cathia painted mysterious yet enchanting pictures of the sea, and she loved to walk on the squeaky sand late at night beneath the moonlight.

************


At this moment, I’m on the road. I’ve been on the road for 21 days, and I have 11 more to go. I’ve traveled from Seoul to Washington, D.C., up into Maryland and then down to Richmond and across to Charlottesville and over the Blue Ridge and through the Shenandoah Valley, cutting off toward Lexington and rolling over two more mountain ranges before reaching my tiny home town of Covington, Virginia, just a few miles from the border of West Virginia. Covington had 8,500 people living here when I left. Now they have 4,400. Ironically, the very things that made me want to leave as a young man now draw me back in my later years.

I’ve seen many kindnesses both given and received on this trip. I started it off myself in a Korean taxi that I caught at 6 a.m. I had a bag of those nice big red Bing Cherries, freshly washed and still cold from the fridge. I offered the driver a handful and said “Mani duseo—eat a lot.” This put a big smile on his face. He loved cherries, and this gesture was as much about respecting one another as equals as it was about cherries.

Later on, while walking up the Metro subway steps at DuPont Circle in downtown D.C., there was this rather large, rambunctious, attractive and effervescent woman walking beside me. She had lovely toe nails, all shiny silver-colored and fresh from a pedicure. She was fussing about how much her shoes hurt. I said, “Ma'am, you sure have pretty toes.”

Her grin spread from one ear to the other, and she said, “Why, thank you so very much. You know, that even makes my feet feel better.”

The man walking behind me said, “You’re crazy to do stuff like that. I would never have the nerve to say something like that.”

“And why not take the time to put a little joy in someone’s heart, for heaven’s sake?”

He just frowned at me, but I could tell he was thinking about it. He was an acquaintance I had not seen in many years, and we had run across one another the day before at a conference in the D.C. area. We were on our way to the National Gallery in downtown D.C., one of the great museums of the world. I had it in my head to see the Canova on that day.

Another very good friend of mine, Larrie, is a single man about 60 who lives in the suburbs of D.C., on the Maryland side. He works downtown in the heart of the political machine. I first met him in Seoul way back in 1987. I was a rookie in Asia at the time, and he was a seasoned vet. He was and still is one of the finest teachers I’ve ever known. Student Land loved him, but ironically, his heart wasn’t there. He enjoyed it, but it was not his passion. He left, and after moving from place to place for a number of years in different administrative NGO positions throughout Asia and the South Pacific, he settled in Cambodia where he managed the VVAF artificial limbs program for the victims of the landmines. On one of his visits to a remote village, the mother and father of two young children had recently been butchered by the Khmer Rouge. The young son had lost one of his legs below the knee, and the daughter was in shock. As it turned out, the housekeeper in Larrie’s home was a distant relative, and she encouraged Larrie to take care of the children. He was hesitant at first. That is a huge responsibility, but during his visits to the hospital to check on them, he grew closer to them, and they to him. One thing led to another, and now he is a single father raising these two fine children with love and concern and guidance in the suburbs of Maryland.

The last time I had seen them before this visit was in Phnom Penh, only a short time after they had lost their mom and dad. The children were recovering, bonding and coming together as a new family to support and protect one another. Now they are full-fledged American high-schoolers; the athletic and stunning young woman is a jock on several of the high school teams and the handsome young man loves to chat on the Internet and watch WWE on TV!

There are other little things we can do for people, such as for those with whom we work. If they have to stand up in front of a crowd to give a presentation, offer a smile directly at them, nod your head and say, “Yes.” If your friend leaves her newspaper on the car seat while she is getting out, save it for her. If your friend has lost his wallet, loan him what he needs until he can get home that night. Don’t hesitate to say, “Sir” and “Ma'am” and “Excuse me” and “Thank you.”

And learn to say them in the tongue of the people around you.

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WRITER’S BIO: David Norris has lived in Asia since 1985. He currently resides in Seoul, Korea, where he lectures in writing and literature for the University of Maryland University College Asia. His work has appeared in The Chariton Review, Taproot Literary Review, Poetry San Francisco, and The Dan River Anthology. David was born in the small town of Covington, Virginia, way up in the Alleghany Mountains. He left when he was 20 and has been traveling ever since.

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Read more David Norris stories at USADS -- go here:
The Ants
Sometimes We Just Have To Let Them Go
Fifty-five Minutes Past the Hour
When Living Gets Hard
It Was A Golden Day


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