Discovering Generosity Is Contagious

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For the past two weeks we’ve been talking about the first few days Lolly and I spent up here in Pine. As you know, if you have been reading the column, they were very special days.

Of course, we’ve always been so much in love that our life together has always been special, but Pine has been even better.

What made it better? A single word. Generosity.

I’ve done a lot of thinking about that word lately, Johnny, and I may have learned something. Not something no one else ever thought of, I suppose, but something that sometimes goes right over our heads. It’s not an easy thing to put into words, so let’s take a look at a few examples.

A vast maturity gap existed between my two oldest brothers and me. I was just 5 when Daddy died, but they were both in their late teens and had to drop out of high school and go to work. Bill and Frank must have had close to nothing compared to most people their age, but what do I remember about them? How much time they spent doing things for me.

When Christmas came, I sat on the floor of the living room playing with toys like any other kid — they may not have been the kind of toys my rich cousin played with up on Ward Hill. The copy of Fort Zinderneuf from the 1939 Gary Cooper film, “Beau Geste,” may have been made of cardboard, and may have been manned by just six toy soldiers, but I played with it for hours. And the trike I got that year may have been one that Frank had repainted, but it still zoomed up and down Pike Street.

I have a good memory, and I find it odd that I don’t remember a single Christmas present that Bill or Frank got that year — or any other year, for that matter. Or Mom either.

I think about it at times, saying to myself that they surely must have gotten something, but if they did I never saw it, or heard a word about it. And I don’t remember seeing anything under the tree either.

It didn’t end there. I came home from Iceland in 1953, 21 years old and with three years in the Air Force under my belt. Bill and Frank had long since married, but Charlie was at home by then. Charlie had a 1935 Chevy. We worked on it together, and I swear that when we got done with it, it looked almost new. Then, just as we finished work on Charlie’s old Chevy, I had to move five miles from home, and — brace yourself — the Chevy went with me!

How? Why? I don’t know. It just did. It was never discussed. It just happened — like so many other things in my life.

Beginning to see where I’m headed?

In 1969, Lolly and I and the two kids were transferred to RAF Upper Heyford, England, where I became part of a 20-man Air Force unit that taught the F-111 aircraft. I had been in a similar outfit back in Missouri, and was struck by the dramatic difference in morale between my old outfit and my new one. The men in my old outfit had been a bored, unhappy looking bunch, but my new outfit was a smile-a-minute crew of happy Air Force NCOs.

I wondered about that, but only until the first weekend rolled around and I discovered what it was that kept that outfit so happy. It had “adopted” an orphanage down in Oxford. Week in and week out, we were down there, both men and wives, doing our best to put a smile on a lot of tiny faces.

Never before or since have I seen a happier group of people. They had found a mission in life, and it showed in their faces.

By now you know what I’m getting at, but I’ll put it in words anyway. We all know it is “more blessed to give than to receive.” I wonder, though, how often we think about those words.

What was Ralph King doing when he put his time — and his poor, stiff, 81-year-old back — into building a berm across my front yard?

What was Jewel Sparks doing when she baked that little loaf cake to welcome two new neighbors?

What were Frank and Bill doing when they set aside all thoughts of themselves to make a kid brother’s life a little better?

What put the smiles on the faces of 20 Air Force NCOs over in England? 

The answer is, of course, that they were giving. They felt good about themselves, about what they were doing, and about the world in general.

And there’s more to it than that, Johnny. A lot more. It doesn’t end there.

There is something else that happens when people give, something that’s not quite as obvious. You see, when you are on the receiving end, something happens to you too. You can’t help but see the faces of those who are so being so kind and generous, and those faces say a lot. They say: Join me. Be what I am. Pass it on.

Why should we do that? I can tell you why. Because it feels so doggone good. 

And so right.

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