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JACK SMITH ON SUNDAY

No More Mr. Nice Guys? : Modern-Day Good Samaritans Prove That Their Breed Is Far From Extinct

June 11, 1989|JACK SMITH

I HAVE TWO stories from readers that refute the common notion that courtesy between strangers no longer exists, that the stress of life in the modern technopolis has made us all hostile toward one another and that the Good Samaritan is dead.

One comes from John Degatina of Studio City, a sometime correspondent of mine. He calls his story "one of those things that deeply affect and color following things."

Degatina says he recently bought his first new car--"a wonderful feeling after all the used clunkers I've had." But he had no sooner got it on the road than a tire went flat while he was driving down Crescent Heights Boulevard.

"It was a dark and stormy night. No, I mean it. Raining, and nowhere to pull off the road. By the time I got to the bottom, the tire was ruined. I pulled into a garage."

The garageman removed the tire and replaced it with a "doughnut" spare. Degatina was greatly relieved. He had been "on the thin edge of hysteria." Grateful to the man who had changed his tire, Degatina tried to pay him. The garageman refused his money. The man said: "I know how you feel. You were very excited about your new car, and then this horrible thing happened to you. So if I change your tire for nothing, now you will have something nice to remember about this day."

Degatina says the man was of slight build, perhaps 40-plus, with "a Middle Eastern sort of appearance and accent." He adds: "This act of kindness has drastically changed the way I behave toward strangers. His treatment of me made a profound impression."

Susan Klenner of Woodland Hills writes eloquently of an incident at the Berlin Wall. I must apologize for taking excerpts from her touching essay, which, if I had room, I would quote in its entirety.

She and her husband were spending six weeks traveling in Germany and Austria. They had experienced high emotions during visits to the Dachau memorial and the House at Checkpoint Charlie on Friedrichstrasse. What she calls "the moment of epiphany" came one late-summer day when they were driving to Berlin along a transit road and tried to cross into East Germany.

"There was a great deal of red tape and handing over of travel documents, some of which we failed to understand. In his limited German, my husband made known to the East German border officer his dismay. The officer responded in English.

"Now, one must understand that border officers, guards along the frontier who man gun towers--indeed all sorts of officials who might have contact with the West or easy opportunities to escape the East--always come in pairs and often in trios. Watchers, we called them.

"Everyone was being watched by someone else. In such circumstances expressions of international friendship were difficult indeed, and yet this young border officer managed to find a way. When his watcher was behind him and couldn't see his face, our friend there at the frontier delivered us a small smile accompanied by a wink.

"That wink communicated so much: 'Don't be intimidated by us; we are as human as you, and regardless of the policies of our government, as people we want to be your friends.' "

Thus two unexpected acts of grace, half a world apart, one from an immigrant Middle Eastern mechanic, one from a German border guard, restored in their beneficiaries a faith in the goodness of their fellow human beings.

I am reminded of the Mexican who interrupted an afternoon with his girlfriend to drive me to an auto-parts store for a water-pump belt and then installed it on our overheated van at a tollgate on the Ensenada Freeway, in Baja California, and seemed embarrassed to take the $20 I gave him.

It sometimes seems that human encounters have been replaced by technology. We communicate by computer, by telephone and, now, by fax. We have learned to expect little more in expressions of good will than an occasional and mechanical "Have a nice day."

But, as these three stories show, many of us are still moved by acts of compassion from others--even strangers--and that such acts can cut across national origins and international borders.

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