Friday, May 28, 2010

Paying it Forward, With Big Returns

I had an uplifting encounter today that made me think about episodes in our lives that prove to be formative.  I had an appointment with a man who is a witness in a case.  We were preparing him for the questions I will be asking him next month when he takes the stand.witness stand

Now let me say first that outside of close relatives, most folks hate the thought of being a witness in a lawsuit.  They really don’t want to be involved in things that are “other people’s business.”  I hear this all the time, and usually make do with a telephone conversation to determine what the witness might say on the stand, often followed by a subpoena which is, in essence, enforced attendance at trial.

subpoena I understand that appearing in court is nerve-wracking for all except us lawyers who do the grilling, and I suppose that is part of the reluctance. 

But what concerns me many times is the apathy shown by third parties who could contribute much to the Court’s understanding and to a good decision by the Judge.  Most people just don’t want to be bothered by someone else’s troubles.  So, I have to resort to costly depositions or subpoenas.  Sigh.

This guy is different.  He came at an appointed time and offered good information that will help my client and will educate the Judge as to the truth of the matters presented. 

Without going into detail that might violate confidence, he also had done an extremely altruistic act—gone out of his way to do a kindness that he did not have to do for someone who was “no one” to him.  And landed himself in court as a witness for it!

I was grateful on behalf of my client and told him so, saying, “You have been so helpful and giving of your time in this matter, and I am so amazed at the kindness your actions have shown.”

He responded, saying that many decades ago someone had done a kindness to him, and he had made up his mind at an early age that his life would be governed by the principle he learned as a result.  Here is the story this distinguished African-American man told:

caddy It was 1954, a more difficult time for African-Americans.  I was nine years old, and my daddy dropped me off at a golf course for the first time so that I could work as a caddy. 

I am going to make reference to “Caucasian,” not because I need to for identification—there were no African-Americans playing that course.  I refer to race because at the time it was an important factor in my perception of this event.

Now, I knew a little about golf  but did not really know what was expected of me.  I was nervous as a cat, standing there, not knowing what on earth to do and being afraid to ask anybody anything.  A Caucasian man chose me as his caddy and plopped down his golf bag beside me.

Another Caucasian man who was playing with him said “You can’t expect that child to carry that bag!  Why it’s almost as tall as he is, and probably outweighs him!  I’m not going to watch that happen!”

caddy pull cart The second man walked away and paid another man money from his own pocket to hire a wheeled pull-cart in which the bag would fit.  I had no idea such a thing existed.

I wasn’t much help to my employer, I’m sure, but I pulled that cart all around the golf course that day, at the end of which my golfer paid me $2.  The other man was standing there, smiling.  I expected him to ask for his money back, but he never did.  He just gave me a friendly “goodbye” and went on his way.

I never saw my benefactor again, but I sure thought a lot about him.  I realized that he had recognized a confused, scared kid with no parents on hand to guide or speak up for him.  This stranger had stood in the gap for my parents in their absence, helping me as they would have done had they been there.  I was so grateful.

As I aged, I would often think about that day and what it had meant to me to have a stranger care enough to do that for me.  I told myself that I needed to be on the lookout for other people for whom I could, in turn, stand in the gap.  It’s just common decency.

And, so, that long-ago (56 years!) act of random kindness by a man who never crossed this kid’s path again played a crucial hand in my client’s case.  I believe it must have had a part in forming the life of this distinguished, kind man.  It is an amazing thought at what a “little” act can do, especially in the life of a child.

In the order of nature we cannot render benefits to those from whom we receive them, or only seldom. But the benefit we receive must be rendered again, line for line, deed for deed, cent for cent, to somebody. 

~Ralph Waldo Emerson, Compensation.