SMILES, AND TRIALS, ON AMERICA'S BYWAYS

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Every once in a while something happens

to restore my fragile faith in the basic goodness of humanity-or at least part of it.

My wife Merrilee was driving from Miami to Orlando the other week when all of a sudden she heard a noise in the back as if the car were going over grooved pavement, the kind you encounter prior to a toll booth to warn you to slow down.

She was on the Florida Turnpike, just before Easter and Passover, and cars were whizzing by. Merrilee was in the left lane, so she had to pull off the road on that side.

Luckily, she had a cellular phone in her car, and she stopped and called the highway patrol. Twenty minutes later, a cop pulled up in back of her.

The state trooper instructed Merrilee to go forward slowly so he could listen for the noise. He said: "You've got something wrapped around your driveshaft. Do you know what a driveshaft is?" Merrilee said, "Kind of," and he proceeded to give her a four-minute lecture on what it was.

He told her to drive over to the right-hand side, get to the exit, and find a hotel room because nobody would help her on the weekend. And he sped off.

So far the basic goodness of humanity isn't faring so well. But a little while later, a Mercedes technician drove by and pulled over. Merrilee got out of her car and said to him, "You must be my Easter angel." He laughed and proceeded to slide under her car, where he tried to pull off a towel. She noticed that the name stitched on his work clothes was Angel. Good deed accomplished, he gave Merrilee a "thumbs up" and drove off.

On the other hand, once in a while something happens to destroy my faith in the goodness of humanity. When Merrilee was driving to Orlando, my daughter Heather, son-in-law Ken Hanson and granddaughters Candace, Ramsay and Emery, and one of the girls' friends, Miles, were boarding a plane in Miami bound for Orlando. They had a lot of kids' stuff, including a collapsible stroller. Heather put the stroller and some cakes in a luggage compartment, but the flight attendant said she couldn't put it there unfolded. The attendant declined to fold it; she said she would wheel it back to their seats but ended up storing it somewhere else (the cakes got squashed).

The flight was delayed about 45 minutes. When Heather tried to get up, the attendant told her to sit down.

When they were leaving, Heather asked the attendant about the stroller. The attendant said she'd get it "when it's convenient" and made them wait until everyone left the plane. When Heather said her family had been treated rudely, the attendant said, "You have a nice vacation."

You're supposed to get more cynical as you go through the prism of time (to use a phrase from Ann Landers). But Merrilee's Angel was almost too good to be true ("Was he really real?" she wonders). And Heather, at 28, now knows that people who are supposed to help don't try very hard if it puts them out. And me? I've seen enough of both not to expect either.

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