“We didn’t get to be the top species on the planet by being nice.” That statement, made by a veteran in the documentary “The Vietnam War,” stuck with me long after I finished watching the riveting and very sad 10-part series on PBS.
Certainly it’s true. The history of the human race is one of astonishing cruelty and viciousness.
But it’s also not true. Because humans can also be surprisingly nice – and that, too, is part of our history.
On Labor Day, as many of you Cortezans already know, a sudden squall swirled through our city. My husband and I were sitting in our upstairs bedroom when there was a loud crack! and a tree appeared just outside the window.
One of the three ancient, 50-foot-tall blue spruces that marked the eastern boundary of our yard had been blown over by a “microburst.” The wind was so intense that it yanked the giant roots right out of the ground from under the concrete driveway. The enormous conifer, home to countless birds (and wasps!) crashed onto the roof. Its two close companions were untouched.
That was all remarkable enough, but what happened next was even more so.
David and I rushed downstairs to assess the damage, and could barely squirm out our front door, as giant blue-spruce limbs with stiff bristly needles filled the porch. The police stopped by to make sure we were all right and wished us well.
What to do next? It was a holiday. I wasn’t sure whom to call to get the tree off the porch, let alone off the roof. Our neighborhood’s power was out so we had no Internet service. (No, I don’t use a smartphone.) The tree was also totally enveloping our Subaru, so it looked like I would have to trek downtown to the office to use the computer there.
Then people started appearing. Not our immediate neighbors, who weren’t home then, but people from blocks away whom I had never met. Everyone ooohed and aaahed over the giant tree. And then they set to work. Wielding chain saws, men began sawing limbs off the blue spruce. Others showed up with trucks and trailers and gathered the limbs to haul to the landfill the next day. Before long our Subaru, miraculously unscathed, was freed. “Thank you!” I told everyone.
But our helpers weren’t finished. Scampering up and down the now-bare trunk, they began slicing it into chunks to haul away as firewood. Then the tree was gone, except for the stump. I managed to give everyone a beer before they disappeared as quickly as they had come.
They didn’t know me, what religion I was, or what political affiliation I might have. They asked nothing in return. They simply saw an opportunity to help someone, and took it.
The statement from the war veteran will linger with me. But so will the memory of the fallen tree and the unsung helpers who turned a minor disaster into something very special.
Gail Binkly is editor of the Free Press.