Passing lanes

Aug 25, 2004

Little House on the Prairie plays every day in our home, and while I’ve watched these first season episodes countless times with Anna, occasionally I listen a little more closely and find a beautiful lesson. A few nights ago it was the first episode, about Pa building the house and then working two jobs to pay his lumber debts and buy seed for the fields he’s also trying to plow. Pa gets hurt, and by the end of the episode his oxen are about to be repo’d by the seed distributor because Pa can’t get the sacks of seed stacked into the store. The men of Walnut Grove stream in to help. They form a line and pass the sacks of seed into the shed.

That scene is getting to me these days, and I’m always teary-eyed as the bouncy Little House theme sends out the episode.

On Paama Island, we formed these lines many times a week: whenever a cargo ship stopped just offshore, we’d jog to the black-sand beach and pass sacks of flour or cement to the waiting (and lone) truck. (One of the most beautiful moments of my time on the island was the day all of the students at Liro Primary School and Vaum Junior Secondary School circled the schoolyard so that Erin and I could shake each of their hands in farewell.)

I thought of Pa Ingalls and the Paamese the other day as I passed a stalled car in the middle of the Raleigh highway. Some signal passed in my brain suggesting I pull over to help the person, but before that signal registered, I was past the delay and speeding on my way to work. Did someone else have a response time quicker than me, and did that person assist? I’ll never know.

In the Little House episode, Doc Baker sees Charles struggling, through the pain of broken ribs, to lift heavy seed sacks high into the shed. Mr. Hansen sees the same need from his sawmill, the blacksmith from his forge and Mr. Olson from the general store. They were observing their world, and their world wasn’t moving at 65 miles per hour. Their individual reaction times led to community action.

On Paama, Chief Louis drummed a tamtam, someone sang out the whooeee that foretold the cargo ship, or the deacon hit an old cylinder — bang-bang — a hundred mind-jarring times the hour before the church service was to begin. The village congregated.

I wonder about the state of community these days. More and more leaders are saying publicly that they’ve never seen the level of contentiousness and shrill, mean-spirited attacks that are fueling the wildfire of this election cycle. Are the Walnut Grove observations and village summons being drowned out by talk radio and 527 ads and skinflint documentaries?

One hot summer day in DeKalb during my high school years, I was walking to my grandparents’ apartment downtown, listening to The Joshua Tree on my Walkman. I looked across the street to see an elderly woman hunched over a lawn mower. My steps slowed, and I contemplated crossing over to help her, but I didn’t stop. That passing neglect haunts me to this day, and now, whenever I’m standing, walking or even running, I jump at the opportunity to be helpful.

In my car the other day, I was travelling fast, but I was also seated.

Maybe that’s key to community. The men of Walnut Grove were quick to assist Charles because they were all working — and thinking — on their feet.

Anton Zuiker

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