Monday, March 15, 2010

RETURN TO THE MOUNTAIN AND CIVILITY ALONG THE WAY



The atmosphere on The Mountain at Sewanee in mid-March is as gray as a London fog. Mist overhangs the wooded area in our backyard, the trees are a wet gray color, and the only green is the lichen growing on our rooftop (again, shades of England). A quick glimpse at the landscape this morning revealed three fat crows sitting on the fence conversing loudly. They sat there a long time, and I think they were discussing civility, a subject I covered in a previous blog. However, the crows had a few thoughts to add to this discourse. I envisioned them saying, “Alas, what some people don’t know is that civility is a virtue, the basic foundation of law and society, even for birds.”

So goes the early morning visions of an aging woman who loves crows–to the chagrin of many people who think that crows are public nuisances–and who also loves civility, the absence of which causes her to attribute this lost art to the birds of the air. Civic virtue has been around for a long time, dating back to ancient Greece when Socrates and Plato declared civility was a matter of political duty. The Ten Commandments contain most of the rules for civility and were delivered to bring about actions that would transform the world so that citizens could live together as respectful, caring people.

For me, civility incorporates good manners, courteous behavior, listening to other people in an attempt to reach agreement, and it includes people working and making contributions to society. Incivility covers a list of rude behaviors like disrespect for elders, public displays of temper, and threats to other citizens. During the 40’s when I was growing up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the principal of my elementary school a woman named Mrs. Peters who had dyed red hair, walked the halls with a wooden paddle under her arm, and taught good manners and the principles of civic virtue. The paddle was a threat to those who bullied, vandalized, sassed teachers, and generally wreaked havoc in the classroom and the schoolyard. Later, I was taught civic virtue in the Girl Scouts, an organization with goals to foster good behavior in women who learned to consider the needs of others and to contribute to the larger community.

Having said all of that, I have to report an incident of civility that happened as we were traveling toward Tennessee a few days ago. We had started out with a new set of tires on my Honda Hybrid–tires reputed to be of good quality and that were balanced before we took to the road–tires that were delivered with the admonition that good tires and proper balancing are a matter of safety. This advice was delivered by the manager of a tire supply and service company in New Iberia. By the time we reached Baton Rouge, my teeth were chattering from vibrations of the car, and as we drove further, they became stronger. I consulted the Honda handbook and found that we were probably traveling on a ride of unbalanced tires. I won’t repeat what I said about the preachy tire provider.

When we reached Meridian, Mississippi, I noticed a tire company on the left hand side of the highway where twenty or so big 18-wheelers were parked. There were no cars around. However, we swerved onto the service road and pulled into the crowded lot. We entered a small business office where brawny truckers stood before the counter and asked if someone could just take a look at the tires. A manager with a Mississippi drawl as thick as my own told us he’d have someone check them out. We were fairly travel-worn and probably looked as though we had been behind the wheel of an eighteen wheeler, and the manager kept us waiting about ten minutes before he directed a worker to check out the Honda. The car was stacked to the ceiling in the back seat and the floor was also filled with boxes of manuscripts and papers, so the front seat was pushed forward until the driver was almost affixed to the steering wheel. The stout man checking the tires couldn’t get behind the steering wheel and came into the office, apologizing for his bulkiness. Vickie went out and steered the Honda into the space designated for replacing and balancing tires, reassuring the worker that we were transporting too much stuff.

Inside the business office, I spied a vending machine with moon pies, a dessert I tasted back in the 50’s and declared inedible, but we scurried around for change to purchase a banana double decker moon pie (a cookie that really is long on sweetness). When I took the first bite, the manager, who was sitting behind the service counter, said, “You need an RC to go with that.” “Yes, I know the formula. Actually, we’re headed for the place where these are made,” I told him. So began a conversation about the Moon Pie Festival in Bellbuckle, Tennessee, about mutual travels, and his upcoming twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. Before the conversation ended, I had lapsed into my Franklinton, Louisiana drawl (derived from my Mississippi great-grandparents). When we finally fell silent after twenty minutes of robust conversation, the worker came in and declared that every tire had been balanced improperly wherever we had bought them. We were temporarily dismayed until the manager declared “He says they’re fixed now. You’re ready to roll.” “How much?” Vickie asked. “No charge,” the manager said emphatically. “Have a safe trip.” We thanked him in southern dialect and drove on. The Honda moved along without vibration and when we reached the Tennessee line, it climbed The Mountain smoothly.

Now what would that service cost at most tire businesses, especially a business that didn’t cater to cars? Not “no charge,” that’s for sure. Perhaps the manager was showing respect for my white hair; perhaps he empathized with two women driving out of state who showed up tired and a little doubtful that they’d be helped. The point is that he conversed with us, listened to our problem, tried to provide assistance, submitted to a need above “making a buck,” and made a useful contribution. That was civility in action.

No more rants about civility for me for awhile anyway. And Meridian, Mississippi is on my list of those possessing the virtue of civility.
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