Saturday, July 22, 2017

Thoughts From a Stranger in Exile



One of the peculiar aspects of my childhood was the small town where I spent the early years of my life. It had numerous faults, like every village, town, and city across the planet but one of its saving graces was an air of humanity that seemed, to my young eyes, to even cross racial lines.

The best example I can give is the fact that as you cruised the picturesque streets of my hometown filled with houses built before the American Revolution everyone waved and smiled. I'm not talking about barely conscious reactions executed reluctantly, but a full-fledged greeting where each person made solid eye contact and smiled. It wasn't until I reached young adulthood that I would learn such behavior was wildly out of the ordinary in nearly every other location I spent more than a few hours.

Call me naïve, but in many ways I have come to cherish that basic recognition of an imperfect but common humanity. If anyone is wondering, yes, on a recent short visit to my hometown I discovered this behavior is largely still intact. On the other hand, I have long since learned that the area I now live is the complete opposite to that open and friendly behavior. I'm only half joking when I write that only way the natives could become more dour and xenophobic would be for them to build a wall around the county and then send out armed patrols to scour the domain for malcontents like myself.

I didn't come to this belief on a whim. My cynical and distant attitude is not only the result of numerous observations but was confirmed by one of the locals who lived down in the Low Country for a short time. It was during a relatively deep conversation, something quite dangerous given how that individual believes pro wrestling and magic are real, that he felt the people from the Low Country area of South Carolina were far too laid back and “touchy feely” for his taste.

Yes, it is wrong to paint with such a broad brush, and yes I have met and know some exceptional people who were raised in area I now live. That being said, if I'm ever lucky enough to be able to move the door behind me will not be slammed shut by the irate natives eager to cleanse their hive of the likes of me, but by the gush of wind I produce leaving as fast as possible.

I could easily produce many examples of what caused me to develop such a disdain of the general area, but I will just offer up an incident that truly freaked me out for its blatant callousness.

It was mid-October of 2002 and I was working for a third party x-ray repair company that had the service contract on all the imagining equipment for the local county hospital system. My boss, a guy named George Miller, and I had spent the early part of the morning traveling out to one of the more distant satellite facilities owned by the county hospital to calibrate and do preventive maintenance on the various pieces of x-ray equipment located there. Situated in a truly small town, well away from the modern shopping centers of the Greater Columbia Area, the main street business district still contained active shops and commercial enterprises whose histories could be traced back for decades. Being well out beyond the territory I usually traveled, seeing all those functioning old style businesses did create a bit of a time warp for me.

The actual medical facility was really nothing more than urgent care practice that at best did extremely light outpatient surgery. This suited my boss fine since besides keeping the x-ray equipment running throughout the hospital system, it allowed him a chance to train me on the smaller, relatively idiot-proof instruments used there.

While I do have an Associate Degree in electronics, I had no experience in any type of medical imaging equipment. The only reason the third party x-ray repair company hired me in the first place was that they were desperate for a warm body being that experienced technicians were damn near in a similar venue as Bigfoot and unicorns. Conversely, I was eager to prove myself and begin building a lasting career since due to a lingering recession I had been laid off twice in the previous six months.

Our actual time onsite was brief, a testament to the simplicity of the imaging equipment and the call we received from the main hospital saying one of the bigger, money making fluoroscopes was sending all sorts of complex error messages to the control panel. This resulted in a cascade panic attack first infecting the operator and then quickly moving up the chain of command to the distraught department head.

The boss man and I were packed up and back on the road in less than ten minutes. Despite the urgency, we both settled into the usual routine of discussing our mutual interest in science fiction and the stalled American manned space program. Since I was riding in George's car I was sort of required to listen to his lecture on how the space shuttle was an utter failure and how NASA should be putting funds into rockets that after launching their payloads into space would then fly back and land vertically on legs that extended from the fuselage. While I liked George, I'll admit to the fact that I thought the dude had more than a couple of screws loose with his 1950's ideas on making space travel less expensive. Little did I know that by 2017 Elon Musk and his SpaceX company would make what I thought of as a crazy, impractical idea a reality.

As we approached the main hospital we had to stop at an intersection with the medical campus to our left and a fast food chicken place on the right. George was in a dedicated left turn lane and as we waited for the traffic lights to cycle around so we could turn into the parking lot his lecture had devolved to him explaining how he believed an alien spacecraft really did crash at Roswell, New Mexico back in 1947. Yeah, while George hit the nail on the head about reusable rockets, he had some crazy ideas about UFOs and the belief that there was an actual population of giant herbivore dinosaurs still living in the largely unexplored jungles of Africa.

As George switched between talking about his crashed Roswell alien scout ship and hoping some rich individual would fund dinosaur hunting expeditions into the Congo I noticed a guy waiting at the crosswalk next the chicken place. This particular intersection had recently been fitted with pedestrian crosswalk signals to aid folks in safely getting across what already a busy highway. This individual waiting at the crosswalk was an average looking guy dressed in casual slacks and a jacket, and I would have immediately forgotten I ever saw him if the following event hadn't taken place.

I don't know anything about how traffic lights and pedestrian crosswalk signals are programmed but before the guy waiting next the chicken place got his to cross the highway the lights changed allowing traffic to flow until the road was essentially empty. That's when the pedestrian signal went to green allowing him to cross over towards the hospital campus. It was then that I noticed he not only had a bad limp but that his pace crossing the highway was glacially slow.

As the guy crossing the highway slowly made his way to the other side George had switched over to the long-necked herbivore dinosaurs living in Africa lecture and the reasons why he was sure they existed. His chief reason was how, according to him, the local tribes of central Africa all spoke about giant monsters living deep in the jungles. As I said, George was a cool and interesting guy on most subjects but I had worked with him long enough to realize you didn't interrupt his lectures, even the ones that had long since drifted into improbable and outright bizarre territory.

As he droned on my attention was on the pedestrian trying to cross the highway. After making it to the small cement median in the middle of the road I could tell he was tired. By all rights he should have just stayed there and waited for the clearly visible oncoming traffic to pass before attempting the cross the other half. But the median didn't have anything to trigger the pedestrian signals and stop the flow of traffic, which meant he could have stood there for a long time waiting for the highway to clear again. So it made sense when the guy went ahead and stepped out into the highway even with a cluster of cars speeding his way.

That being said, given the speed of the oncoming cars and how long it was taking the guy to limp across the highway it was clear that something bad was possible if the former didn't slow down or the latter didn't pick his pace up. I wasn't yet panicking for the guy, I figured that the drivers coming towards him would slow down as they got closer. I mean, it was the commonsense and compassionate thing to do for another human being. That didn't happen, if anything from my perspective the two leading cars seemed to speed up.

The pedestrian noticed this as well and began something akin to a trot to get out of the way. With the distance between the cars and the pedestrian closing rapidly I remember physically cringing expecting the guy to become road salsa. At the very last second though, the pedestrian literally jumped the last four or five feet of the highway head first to avoid getting hit.

When that group of cars passed by the left turn traffic signal George was waiting for hit and he scooted his car into the hospital parking lot. As George made the turn, I tried to see if the pedestrian was okay but my last sight was of him laying on the sidewalk. A series of landscaping shrubs, small trees, and an embankment quickly blocked my view.

Another of George's peculiar traits was his desire for the perfect parking space, yet another subject that could cause him to begin a lecture with him explaining the factors involved like shade, distance from the entrance, and relative condition of other nearby cars. So it was several more minutes before I was able to get out of his car. When all those conditions were finally met I didn't hear anything in the way of sirens nor the screams of a group of people I spotted heading in the general direction of the intersection. I could only assume the pedestrian had picked himself up and proceeded on to his destination. As for George, I didn't say anything to him about what I had seen, being so wrapped up in his dinosaur lecture the entire incident with the pedestrian had totally escaped his notice.

This event occurred just a few years after I moved to the area, and since then it surprises me far too much when I do see examples of basic humanity and simple common courtesy. No, I do not feel I am keeping a score card since most of what I'm talking about wasn't directed at me personally. And yes, to a certain extent I realize that people generally see what they come to expect so it would not be wrong to say I have a large rather polished chip firmly secured to my shoulder.

I guess the simplest explanation for my disgruntled, bias, and possibly unfair attitudes is that I do not feel at home in my current location. I recognize this because my kids, who I believe are well adjusted and give every indication of that fact do quite well getting along with the natives. Whenever this gets a little to depressing I remember how my grandparents often remarked that they didn't like my hometown and wished they could move back to Marion, South Carolina, the area they were raised. Something that puzzled me since I thought the Low Country was the best place in the world with it beaches and beautiful Charleston a short drive to the south. 

After everything is said and whined about, I guess all comes down to the trite idea that home is where the heart is, and that you shouldn't look to closely for what you expect to see. That being said, I'm still moving my sorry ass away from this place if I ever get the chance.

7 comments:

Harry Hamid said...

It's strange the way areas develop a culture for what is acceptable. In HOusotn, I'm not sure anyone would realize they were being callous or cruel - they'd just be too busy on their phones to look out. I've known a couple people who would put us and others at great risk while driving and then tell me, "Well, I had right of way!" as though right of way really matters if a possibly life-risking accident occurs.

I hope I never get that way. It only takes a split second to show an iota of compassion.

The Bug said...

It's interesting - when we moved to Ohio I felt like I fit right in; whereas now that I've moved back "home" I feel a little culture shock. It was fine when I was growing up, but now I guess I see it with "Ohio" eyes. Ha! However, that being said, I'm really glad to be back here. It probably won't take too long for me to fit right in.

Jimmy said...

When I left South Carolina I remember everyone knew everyone and always spoke and waved, when I arrived in New Mexico the town I lived was pretty much the same, but our move to California got strange looks from us when we waved, after nine years the ones in our neighborhood at least smile and wave back now.

sage said...

We've all be in conversations where we were thinking about something else, like the guy crossing the street. As for SC, I am not sure I could live there--I've made too many jokes about the "lessor of the Carolinas" and I look much better in light blue than red. That said, I do like upstate, around Greenville.

Marja said...

I agree home is were the heart is. What a wonderful town you must have grown up in. I do think in the past here in NZ as well as in Holland people were a lot more a community. These days people are more individualist and there are a lot of lonely people out there. Ashame I hope that sense of community comes back again.

Beach Bum said...

Harry: Great points!

The Bug: I should have used the term "culture shock" to describe my situation. Because I think that is what it comes down to in many ways.

Jimmy: Yeah, while in the army I passed a guy from my unit one day and gave a small wave of acknowledgement. We had know each other for over a year but the guy just gave me one of those cold, puzzled looks. Oh well...

Sage: Like I wrote, I'd leave in a new York minute if I had the chance. As for what you've heard about South Carolina, It's worse.

Marja: Good points!

Pixel Peeper said...

While I basically liked living in South Carolina for the seven years we lived there, I do realize that I was a bit misplaced. Co-workers wondered about where "the meat" was when I ate lentil soup for lunch at work, and I always found it curious when a crime was committed and people would say, "...did you hear about the black guy who..." but never, "...did you hear about the white guy who..." And don't get me started on the flag that (at the time) flew on top of the Capitol, or Maurice Bessinger's restaurant (I refused to eat that chicken when they had a catered thing at work one time).

Like I said, I liked living there, but I agree that the Charleston area and the Greenville/Spartanburg area seem a bit more...hm...progressive.

Speaking of science fiction - are you watching the show "Salvation" on CBS? It's also on Amazon Prime. One of the characters is an Elon Musk type.