One of the things I enjoyed most in teaching ethics to an enthusiastic and dedicated group of New Hampshire students is reading the many personal stories from their papers that demonstrate a variety of ethical values.
Every morning, Barry Hutchins* would leave the town of Mason to drive a little more than an hour – frequently through snow – to get to class in Concord by 8:30am. That’s dedication, but commitment is but one part of Barry’s daily routine.
Hutchins is chief of police for the town of Mason, New Hampshire. “Our primary mission,” he writes on the town’sWeb site, “is to enforce the laws of society, maintain order within the community, protect life and property, and to assist the public at large in a manner consistent with the rights and dignity of all persons as provided for by the law under the Constitution of the United States and the State of New Hampshire.”
In one assignment, Barry shares his belief and experience with the Golden Rule. In my book, What Do You Stand For?,college student Courtney Thompson amended the rule for herself: “Not only will I do unto others; I will do unto others, ‘unconditionally.’ ”
“Natural disasters, Barry writes, “always seem to bring out the best in people, even those who are not ordinarily very giving. This became evident to me during the ice storm in December 2008 that crippled most of the Northeast.
“The rains started late during the night and with the rapidly dropping temperatures, everything became completely covered in ice. Trees looked like large ice sculptures. Electric power lines, transformers and even the poles were encased in ice.
“Houses had ice hanging from their eaves at least four feet long and the cable wires that stretched from the street to the houses, normally twenty feet in the air, were now stretching to the ground. The sand that covered roads the town highway department had put down earlier in the day were now covered over with ice, and private driveways looked like black ice skating rinks frozen solid.
“I began my shift as a police officer for the Town of Mason at four in the afternoon. Most of the residents were very cooperative and stayed in their homes so the roads were, for the most part, empty. Occasionally I would pass a highway department truck but that was it.
“At around one in the morning, I started to hear occasional, loud ‘bangs.’ Then they started to become more frequent. At first, I had no idea of what was happening. I stepped out of the cruiser and that’s when I began to see not just tree limbs falling, but entire trees breaking in half, going off like cannons on the fourth of July. They were falling everywhere I looked – across driveways, roads and power lines; and the power lines, themselves, were also beginning to fall from the weight of the accumulated ice.
“Forty foot telephone poles that were a foot in diameter and specially treated to withstand the weather were snapping like tooth picks. Now we not only had trees on the roads, but also energized power lines and transformers to add to the already hazardous conditions.
“I decided to drive a few more roads to check conditions then go home to wait it out. I drove past my house and continued another mile or so and found that the road was impassable. I figured that I’d just turn around and go back to my house. I pulled into a driveway and began to back out when a second tree snapped and fell across the road causing me to be stuck with no direction accessible. I ended up sitting in that driveway until almost six in the morning.
“Then, the strangest thing happened.
“I saw a figure walk out of a neighboring driveway completely covered from head to toe in cold weather clothing and carrying a chainsaw. I was very familiar with this residence as my department had arrested individuals from there on a regular basis. They were commonly known as ‘frequent flyers.’
“I sat up in my seat and rolled the window down. ‘How ya doing?’ I said.
“The individual looked at me, smirked and said, ‘Better than you!’
“Now we didn’t hate each other, but we definitely didn’t eat dinner together. I’m sure it wouldn’t have broken his heart to hear that I had fallen into a state of distress at some point in my life.
“He walked back towards his driveway and started his chainsaw. I figured I would sit there and watch him cut the trees from his driveway until the highway department could get me out. Instead, he began cutting trees which blocked me from the roadway, allowing me to pass.
“Both us went down the road for about thirty minutes – him cutting trees and dragging them out of the way and me driving the cruiser through. When we finally made it to a point that I was able to go on my own, he just looked at me and waived me through. I stepped from the cruiser, shook his hand and thanked him for what he had done. He told me that he didn’t do it for me but had done it in case someone needed the police at their home. Either way, he did me a great favor.
“For the next fourteen days with the power out, I watched hundreds of residents coming together to make the community whole again. Sometimes I felt guilty since I was being paid to be out there, while they were not.
“That ‘frequent flyer’ and I still see each other quite often and I have returned the favor to him in other ways but we don’t discuss it. I just view him in a completely different light now. He had absolutely no expectation that I would do him a favor or give him a future break for cutting the trees from my path. He just did unto me unconditionally as I bet he would want done to him.”
Note: While I promised the students that I would not use their names in commentaries that used their papers, Barry granted me permission to use his.