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Meddling old man or West Point cadet

By D. G. Martin
Posted Tuesday, August 31, 2004

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I am still thinking about "Absolutely American," the book about West Point that was the UNC-Chapel Hill summer reading program selection. The new students at Carolina discussed the book last week. Now they have moved on to their regular classes and the challenges of adjusting to college life and to being away from home.

But campus life at West Point keeps coming back to my mind. From the first day a new cadet arrives there, he or she is subject to correction and discipline by cadets in the upper classes. On the surface, it seems silly. Haircuts, personal appearance, memorizing rules and history, running errands and such things catch our attention first and seem without purpose.

"What has happened to me? Don't I accept any responsibility as a citizen?"

These things are just the surface of a comprehensive system of mutual responsibility and accountability. West Point graduates will depend on the competency and loyalty of those who serve with them for their success-and their survival on the battlefield.

What does all this have to do with being an ordinary citizen of North Carolina? What does it have to do with me? What duty do we have to "correct" each other when we break the rules or fail to do our best?

Maybe you are thinking, as I often do, that the only positive duty is to stay out of each other's business. Shouldn't we leave the enforcement of laws to the government and the betterment of our fellow citizens to their families and churches?

All this was rolling around in my head last Monday on my morning run when I saw a car pull into a handicapped space. Quickly, a young man popped out of the car, threw a backpack over his shoulder, and ran up the hill.

"How could he take that handicapped place?" I asked, and then answered, "But it is just none of my business."

I ran over to the car and saw the handicapped permit on the dash. I shook my head and kept on running.

Later in the day I noticed the car was still parked there. It is the only handicapped space in the vicinity. I thought about it being unavailable for a real handicapped person. Unavailable all day long!

At West Point, there would be no question about what my duty would be. Get to the bottom of it. Report the infraction. Make sure the violator understands and corrects his conduct and his attitude.

In Chapel Hill, though, I felt no such duty. It is somebody else's job to enforce the rules.

Then I thought, "What has happened to me? Don't I accept any responsibility as a citizen?"

I put the thought aside.

Early Tuesday morning as I ran by, the same car was already parked in the same handicapped place. I thought, "There is nothing for me to do. Who would I call? What would I say? I don't have time for this. I have better things to do."

But Tuesday afternoon, when the car was still there, I wondered, "If not me, who will ever complain? And what about the young 'handicapped' runner? If no one confronts him, will he forever think the rules are not meant for him? Am I responsible to him, as I would be at West Point, to 'bring him around'?"

As I thought about it, I remembered the times some meddling senior citizen lectured me about what I was doing wrong. I remembered that I thought of them as meddlers, cranky old people who had nothing better to do than launch a tirade against someone. I didn't want to be like them.

Then I thought how much better off I have been as result of those who took a sufficient interest in me to give me hard counsel on how I should be doing things differently or better.

On my Wednesday morning run, just as I was passing the handicapped space, the same car pulled up. Without thinking, I walked over to car and told the driver, "If you ever park there again, I am turning you in."

To this minute, I don't know if I am just an old meddling man or someone with an enhanced sense of civic responsibility brought on by the book about West Point.

But on Thursday and Friday, that handicapped space was available all day long.


D.G. Martin is the author of "Interstate Eateries" a handbook of home cooking places near North Carolina's interstate highways-available through Our State Magazine (800-948-1409 or He is the host of UNC-TV's North Carolina Bookwatch, which airs on Sundays at 5:00 p.m.

Upcoming programs
September 5: Sheila Kay Adams, My Old True Love

September 12: Bill Thompson, Sweet Tea, Fried Chicken & Lazy Dogs

September 19: Orrin Pilkey, How to Read a North Carolina Beach

September 26: Orin Starn, Ishi's Brain

October 3: Karen Barker, Sweet Stuff

October 10: Dr. Gerald Bell, The Carolina Way

October 17: BJ Mountford, Bloodlines of Shackleford Banks

October 24: John Shelton Reed, Minding the South

October 31: Steven Sherrill, Visits from the Drowned Girl

November 7: Carl Ernst, Following Muhammad

November 14: John May, Poe & Fanny

November 21: Walter Turner, Paving Tobacco Road

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