The Ethics of the Country Road

In the summer of 1996, I was tired of shuttling between law offices in Pasadena and Beverly Hills, California, along asphalt corridors called freeways. I went home to visit my mother in Valdosta, Georgia.

One day, I decided to take a drive and retrace some of my tracks from childhood and reacquaint with the beauty of the countryside. Most of the roads are now paved, but during the decades of the 30’s and 40’s, I was the grandchild who accompanied my grandmother on roads where the pavement ended at the city limits sign. On this vacation day I was sharing the experience with my 86-year-old mother, who was wearing a 24-hour external cardiac monitor; an 83-year-old aunt, who had a newly installed pacemaker, and a 65-year-old sister, who was exhausted from making sure both older ladies were comfortable. Outside the late model rental car, the temperature was 95 degrees, and the humidity was 75 percent. The air conditioner was stuck on high.

A few miles out of town we turned on to one of the last dirt roads that was being prepared for pavement. Soon, asphalt and concrete would forever hide the sandy ruts and turn the ditches into curbs. Less than a mile along this trail every light on the dashboard suddenly lit up, signaling a major failure in the car. We came to rest next to long rows of beautiful stalks of corn ready for harvest. From the other side of the road we could smell the sap oozing from the forest of tall Georgia pine trees. A hasty inspection of the vehicle showed a broken fuel line, a clear sign that on this day, the present mileage on the odometer would not change. Furthermore, I had inadvertently left my bulky cell phone on my mother’s kitchen table, where she served breakfast for her “baby boy.” All that was functional to summon help on this country road were the blinking yellow lights.

Within a few minutes a car approached. The faces and clothing of the four occupants showed fatigue that suggested the end of their work day. They did not stop—immediately. After travelling on another hundred yards, the car stopped and was heading back to us in reverse. I knew the driver’s motive. The ethics of the country road dictated that he, at least, stop to render assistance or inquire about the nature of the emergency. He dares not disregard that code, because his disability might be just beyond the next curve. The driver asked, “Y’all alright, anything I can do?” I thought his vehicle too small for another passenger to go and summon help, so I declined.

Three minutes later another driver stopped and inquired how he could help. My need was to get to a telephone. He offered me a ride to the home of his neighbor, Mr. Johnson. On the way there he reminded his son to pull off his hat and inquire about Mr. Johnson’s health.

Mister Johnson, a frail elderly black man, sat comfortably in a rocking chair that showed signs of much service. He gently rocked, as though reminiscing about who might have sat with him in days gone by. The lad removed his hat and gave Mr. Johnson his proper’s. “Howdy Mr. Johnson. My Pa said you haven’t been feeling well, and that we hope you get better and come across that field and pay us a visit.” I was touched by how the child was being taught to respect his elder, a lesson during childhood to help shape his character. I asked Mr. Johnson for permission to use his phone. He consented by simply pointing to the inside of his home.

During my childhood most black families did not have telephones or cars. Now, I needed both, so I called forth a page from my history and dialed a neighbor who always had both — the black funeral home.

Fifteen minutes later the ladies were riding home in comfort.

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