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Last week, Ernie and I made the 70-mile trip from Lexington to Owenton to tend to a little business. We had several stops on our do-list, not the least of which was meeting up with a friend. We wanted to give her a copy of an old picture of particular interest to her family, and she in turn had several she wanted Ernie to see. His hobby is computer restoration of historic photographs, and we both are local history buffs, so we make time for such encounters whenever and wherever we can.
We got away from home later than planned, so we missed her at lunchtime at McDonalds. Through the miracle of cell phone communication, however, we caught up with her on the sidewalk in front of Stuart Bowling’s insurance agency on Owenton’s courthouse square.
It was a bright, clear day, and we stood and talked on the empty sidewalk for 20 minutes, maybe longer, first discussing the details of the old pictures, then moving on to philosophical observations. (People who enjoy historic artifacts tend toward the profound, I’ve noticed.)
Finally, we made our good-byes, and proceeded to an office down the street. We’d been there about 30 minutes when someone rapped on the door.
It was Stuart Bowling holding out a phone to my husband.
“I believe this is yours,” he said. “Someone found it on the sidewalk near my office and brought it in to me to see if it were mine. It wasn’t, but I dialed “home” in the phone’s directory, and got your answering machine.”
We were so flabbergasted – Ernie had not yet missed his phone – that neither of us thought to ask Stuart how he knew where to find us. We simply took it, thanking him as profusely as we could. Cell phones, even an older one like Ernie’s, are expensive. And he’s come to rely on having a phone in his pocket. Its absence for the day or so it might take to purchase another would have been unsettling.
The story could end here with a public acknowledgment of our graditude to the nameless person who found our phone and to Stuart who brought it to us. Both went out of their way to be helpful when no one would have known the difference if they hadn’t bothered. It didn’t surprise me though. It’s what comes naturally to Stuart and to most people I grew up with in Owen County.
But the story doesn’t end there. I posted a brief account of Stuart’s good deed on my Facebook status that evening. By morning my inbox was flooded with near 30 comments, all ending in exclamation points. (I should mention here for the unconnected that the exclamation point, driven into exile by English teachers a generation ago, has been granted asylum at Facebook. It’s the workhorse of social networking.)
“Amazing! That is KY for you!!” an expatriate wrote. “Awesome! What a lovely place!” another said. And so it went, one after another. Had Stuart and the anonymous passerby landed our plane safely in the freezing Hudson River, I don’t think the Facebook comments could have been more effusive or incredulous. Has a simple deed of kindness and honesty become so rare, I wondered?
Coincidentally, I ran across the obituary of Aaron Rueben a few days later. I didn’t recognize his name, but like most Americans I’m familiar with his life’s work. Born in 1914, he grew up in Al Capone’s Chicago, and got an early start as a comedy writer in radio for the likes of Milton Berle, George Burns and Gracie Allen. From the 1950s through the 1980s, he was associated with many of television history’s most successful series. He’s best remembered, however, as the producer of “The Andy Griffith Show” – a cultural touchstone that still airs regularly in re-runs 50 years after its 1960 premiere.
“I’m frankly surprised at this show having become an icon,” Ruben said in an interview with Morrie Gelman in the Archive of American Television. “My theory,” he went on to say, “is that the Griffith show is like the grown-ups’ Oz. It’s the land of, ‘Oh, wouldn’t it be wonderful to live in a town with no drugs, no crime, no gangs, no violence, (where) people greet each other, people are kind to each other.’ . . . That’s why grown-ups love that show.”
I’m reminded, however, that the Wizard of Oz turned out to be an illusion, and that Oz was plagued by the Wicked Witch and her evil monkeys.
So even in Mayberry – even in Owenton – bad things happen that wouldn’t have to happen. Drug and alcohol abuse are as familiar to small town Kentuckians as to big city dwellers. Crime, even the violent sort, spreads like kudzu throughout the highways and byways of our country. Our own locally grown sage, Wendell Berry, writes of American culture, “We have pretty much made a virtue of selfishness as the mainstay of our economy, and we have provided an abundance of good excuses for dishonesty.”
I’m not sure how much you or I can do about that. But we can try to live by the Golden Rule. We can say hello. We can be kind. Thank you Stuart – and Aaron Ruben – for reminding us.