Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

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August 10, 2012

Relying on the kindness of strangers

I have seldom depended upon the kindness of strangers. While my grandparents, and to a lesser extent my parents, grew up in an era when people would hitchhike across country with no fear, pick up strangers in their vehicles, and trust people more easily, I grew up in the era of “stranger danger.” Before I was even in school I was educated about how never to go anywhere with a stranger, even if they had candy, were missing their puppy, had a really cool van or said they knew my parents.

I grew up in the post-Adam Walsh era, when there seemed to be a new story about a child being abducted from the mall, the playground or even just riding their bike on the street every week. We had the Ident-A-Kid licenses made up at school with our pictures, ages, height, weight and thumbprint in case we were ever lost so our parents could give the necessary information to police. As kids, we thought these things were cool. It was sort of like we had our own driver’s licenses. I’m sure my mom still has that little card shoved somewhere.

From an early age, we were taught to fear strangers, to be suspicious of everyone’s motives and how to kick, scream and fight off would-be abductors. Today I am skeptical how well a 65-pound second-grader could fight off a full-grown adult. I am also skeptical if people would actually take notice of a child screaming like that or just dismiss it as an unruly child causing noise. With the psychology behind the bystander effect or “Genovese syndrome,” I sometimes wonder if all the people who say they would help a child in danger actually would recognize the signs of a child in danger. It doesn’t help that kids are pretty crafty.

Take, for example, the toy aisle at Walmart. When I was little, my grandmother and I went out on a shopping trip. I wanted a toy and she said “no,” that I didn’t need it. Being all of 4 or 5 and really wanting the item, I started screaming out “You’re not my mom! You’re not my mom!” over and over again, just like the kind people had told me to do in an abduction situation.

Naturally, my wailing drew a lot of attention and stares toward my grandmother. I’m pretty sure store security was mobilized. Coolly, she turned back to me and responded: “I’m not your mom, but I’m your grandma and you are not getting that toy.” I’m sure Walmart security had fun with that one.

•••

This week I found myself at the mercy of strangers for the first time in my life. My engine blew and my car broke down on Route 460. A lot of people would be scared, but in my typical fashion I was more annoyed and angry. I had somewhere to be, and didn’t have time for car trouble. I was one day away from taking the car in for an oil change, too.

I was getting ready to call 911 and ask for information about a tow when a young lady pulled over, telling me that she had seen what had happened and asked if I needed help. I didn’t learn her name, but I was grateful someone was kind enough to stop.

While she went to get her boyfriend to look at the car, a nice man named Jasper in visiting from North Carolina pulled over and took a look under the hood. He stayed with me until Mike with Sheets Towing showed up with the tow truck and got the vehicle ready for the auto shop. With the car taken care of, Jasper then went out of his way to drive me back to work so I could start tackling the whole mess of car maintenance, securing a rental and generally plotting my next move.

Once back at work, I had all sorts of questions and offers of help from my co-workers, which meant a lot more to me than I can say. With all the stress of dealing with auto trouble, it’s nice to know there are people who have your back.

It’s a pretty terrifying experience when I look back on it, being a young woman stranded on the side of the road. Thinking back, I realize it was pretty amazing that so many people stopped to check on me seconds after I had to force my car over to the side of the road. Of course, what else do you expect from people in the two Virginias?

•••

It turns out getting your car towed is the easily part. What’s harder is the aftermath: securing a rental, looking for a new car, calling your insurance, and all the stress that accompanies it. Of course, the stress is the easiest part of the hard part. For me, the hardest part is making that decision to junk the clunker I have driven since I got my driver’s license at 16. It was the first car that was mine, all mine. Well, unless I missed curfew and my parents took my keys. I’m going to miss Herbert a lot.

Yes, I am one of those crazy people who names their cars. Herbert, the 1996 Mitsubishi that has been my traveling companion for the past eight-and-a-half years is no more. He survived me learning how to drive, trips to college, family vacations and moving to the two Virginias. He was a good car while he lasted and deserves to be recycled into something good.

I’m not sure where the road will take me now, but I am hoping it will be in something that gets good mileage.

Kate Coil is a Daily Telegraph reporter. Contact her at kcoil@bdtonline.com.

 

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