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Jack Smith

Our ruthless-driver image collides head on with examples of human nature on the high road

December 18, 1985|Jack Smith

I saw an incident on the street the other day that somewhat fortified my faith in common courtesy and the goodness of human nature.

We all have plenty of human nature, especially in its baser forms, but common courtesy sometimes appears to be in short supply, perhaps because it has to be taught.

I was driving east on Wilshire Boulevard, about to make a left turn on Figueroa, with the green light, when I saw that an elderly woman had fallen in the crosswalk. She was gray-haired--in her late 60s, I guessed--and she wore a gray suit.

I didn't see her fall, but evidently a leg or an ankle had gone out on her. She was sprawled in the crosswalk, struggling to right herself. Her purse had tumbled from her grasp.

Two or three lines of cars were waiting behind the crosswalk for the signal to change. I was trapped in the middle of the intersection by the fallen woman in my path. Before I could think what to do a young man got out of a red Mercedes 280-SL, one of the waiting cars, parked in the curb lane, and ran toward the woman.

He helped her gather herself, got her up on all fours, retrieved her purse and made sure it was in her hands, helped her to her feet, after she assured him she could stand, and then walked her slowly, supporting her, to the curb.

What touched me about this incident was not merely the young man's quick helpfulness, but the patience of the drivers in those other cars. I didn't hear a horn as this little drama was played out.

It's true that only the one young man came forward to help the woman in distress, but he had acted so quickly that no other help was needed.

We are supposed to be ruthless drivers in Los Angeles, caring only about No. 1, but this showed me that it isn't true.

I was reminded of another incident that happened not long ago to one of my sons. He was driving home from work on the Ventura Freeway when his car caught fire. He has an old Porsche with the engine in the middle, and because the fire was behind him, he didn't see it.

Then he heard horns honking. He looked in his rear view mirror and saw the fire. He was in danger of being blown up. He pulled to the left, off the center lane. He got out and saw that the fire was burning up through the grill over the engine. He took off his coat and tried to beat it out.

Then a car stopped in the right lane and my son heard its horn. A young man got out waving a fire extinguisher. By this time traffic had begun to slow. My son waved it to a stop and ran across the freeway to get the fire extinguisher. He carried it back and put out the fire in the top. Across the way the young man was motioning to the bottom of the engine. My son kneeled and saw that the fire was burning down below. He put it out, emptying the extinguisher.

In a very few minutes a fire truck came. Evidently some driver had stopped and called them. The fire was out, but the fire crew cut the gas line and made sure. A highway patrolman came along and stood by until the tow truck came.

In the first place, the young driver of the other car, at great danger to himself, had probably prevented my son's car from exploding, and may have saved his life.

How many drivers on the freeways carry fire extinguishers, and are willing to stop and use them to help someone else?

Maybe there are more than we think.

I'm glad to say that there was a modestly happy ending to this story. My son had thought to ask the young stranger for his name and address, and later he bought three bottles of wine and delivered it to his place of business.

I am sure that a young man with that much farsightedness and presence of mind will not drink the wine before driving.

Not long before that incident my wife and I ourselves were the beneficiaries of a Good Samaritan. For some time I had been driving a car with a mysterious clunk. Mechanics had been unable to diagnose the cause of this disturbing sound. One night as we were coming home the cause was suddenly revealed.

We had just turned off the freeway and were going up the hill to our house on a rather dark road when the right front wheel collapsed. I forget the name of the part that was faulty--a knee, or something--but in any case the wheel had broken from its bearings and was turned out in an almost 90-degree angle. It was the end of that car.

Meanwhile, we were stopped in the dark street on a dangerous curve. The car could not be moved, not even by pushing it downhill. It was unsteerable.

Just then one of our neighbors, a retired policeman, drove up the hill and came upon us. He stopped, opened his trunk, and pulled out half a dozen of those flares that policemen use to light accidents. He lighted them and made a ring of rosy light around our stranded car, then drove my wife home so she could telephone for help.

So we are not, as we sometimes think, entirely alone.

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