Just before he died last year at the age of 75, my cousin Jack told me some stories about his life. He grew up in Bryant, Alabama, and was a star athlete at Pisgah High School.
He earned a basketball scholarship at a Montgomery, Alabama college, and like most rural kids of the 1950s, he didn’t have a car. Some weekends, he would hitchhike, thumbing a ride home.
One Friday evening, an older man in a convertible pulled over and waved this tall 18-year-old toward his car. “Where are you going, son?” the man asked. Jack told him he was headed to the Chattanooga area, and the man said, “That’ll work, I’m on my way to Knoxville.” Jack headed for the passenger side, and the man said, “No, come over here. I’m tired, and you can drive.” For the next three hours, young Jack drove north on U.S. Highway 11 while the man slept in the back seat. Jack stopped in Trenton, Georgia, and said, “This is where I get out.” In total darkness, he marched up Sand Mountain for ten miles, crossing into Alabama, finally reaching his parents’ home. The older man, now rested, continued on his way.
In this era of cell phones and privileged children, that story would not take place today. For one thing, who still picks up hitchhikers? It’s hard to imagine a world in which a man voluntarily hands over his car keys to a total stranger, a young one at that, and says, “Here, you drive while I sleep.” That was an isolated occurrence, but Jack told me he depended on the kindness of strangers, and always managed to make it to Montgomery and back.
Hearing Jack’s story made me wonder: What has happened to us? Even the most generous among us were warned by our parents about the danger of picking up a stranger, or even making eye contact with one. Today’s young people would be shocked by the story I just told. They also will likely never live in a world where you can enter a sporting event without someone snooping through your purse, or where you can board an airplane without being x-rayed or frisked.
Recently I wrote about the fictional “Mayberry” where Sheriff Andy and Deputy Barney lived their lives as many of us once did. We left our doors unlocked, we left our cars running on cold mornings while we grabbed a cup of coffee in the store, and schools left their doors wide open to catch some fresh air. It was our way of life, and no one lived in fear. I doubt that any of our jails today have an “Otis” who can let himself in when he’s had too much to drink, and then let himself out when he has sobered up.
We all know why this is happening, of course. In the past few decades, schools have been vandalized and terrorized. Churches, which sit empty for days at a time, are popular targets too. Airplanes, once so easy for skyjackers to overtake, began increasing security measures in the 1970s. The September 11, 2001 attacks proved that more needed to be done.
Many professional and college sports teams are stepping up enforcement of their “carry-in” food policy. Any such food must be in a clear, gallon-sized Zip-Loc bag, with a limit of one sealed water bottle. Why? Some might suspect their desire to sell more premium-priced ballpark food and drinks. However their official answer is, security. There is always a fear of someone sneaking in a weapon in a hidden, zipped-up cooler compartment.
Recently, many of us were upset by video of a 13-year-old boy, wearing only a thin t-shirt and shorts, being subjected to an uncomfortable two-minute body search, best described as groping, at a Texas airport. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) first responded to his mother’s complaints by claiming the search was justified because the boy had a laptop computer in his backpack. However, any reasonable observer would say the TSA agent strayed over the line of common sense. Sheriff Andy Taylor would have just given him a stern talking-to.
How did we get to this point? We have always had crime, and people have long been tempted to do bad things. So, what happened in the past half-century to trigger an increase in violent, terroristic actions? Depending on who you believe, it’s either a breakdown in the home, negative influences in the media, increased accessibility to drugs, or a combination of these and other factors.
It is a different world. We have been traumatized by violent events. We have studied, answered, and responded to those tragedies. We have changed our policies, and taken drastic action. I can’t help but wonder, though. Even with our locked doors and heightened awareness, do you really feel any safer?
David Carroll is a Chattanooga news anchor, and author of "Volunteer Bama Dawg," a collection of his best columns. You may contact him at 900 Whitehall Rd., Chattanooga, TN 37405 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.