I grew up in the 1960s and 70s, intensely tuned in to the current events of the time -- the civil rights movement; Vietnam; Kent State; riots in the inner city; integration; the Warren Court; Watergate; and the assassinations of President Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, and Martin Luther King.

These and other historical events of the time, while painful, I believe have served to transform ours into a nation with a heightened sense of security, transparency, wisdom, insight, and justice.

We’ve come a long way, in many ways.

I was raised by wonderful parents, who taught me, among many important lessons, to abhor bigotry, prejudice, intolerance, injustice, and racism; and that everyone should be treated fairly and equally.

I also went to high school in a small town environment that was 100 percent white, where there were zero minorities whatsoever.

And so the true test of the impact of my upbringing in this regard was delayed until after my high school years.

And as it turns out, my first roommate my freshman year in college was a young black man, a cross-country runner from Cincinnati.

He was the nicest guy you would ever want to know. His dad was a CPA. Like myself, he wanted to be a lawyer.

And although I considered the experience of having a black roommate hip and enriching, and we got along great, in retrospect I suppose the reality of the situation did not exactly represent a groundbreaking cultural experiment.

Still, I carried the mantle of my upbringing that we are all created equal, and I was glad that this first experience with someone outside my race reaffirmed that.

A few years later, as a young lawyer, an experience that offered more significant enlightenment and insight came my way.

In the late 1980s, before widespread use of cell phones and computers, I was driving my vehicle between the Jackson County Juvenile Court, located on 26th Street in mid-town Kansas City, to the UMKC Law School on 51st Street in Kansas City, to do some legal research in its expansive law library.

Among the most direct routes between these locations was to drive through some inner city residential neighborhoods with abandoned houses with boarded up windows, junked vehicles, and the like.

It was probably not the area that a nerdy, young, white, unarmed, pimply-faced lawyer wearing a suit and driving a Ford pickup truck would want to have a flat tire.

But that’s exactly what happened.

So there I sat in my truck, on this street in the inner city, in an unfamiliar neighborhood, that had seen better days.

Mustering all the resolve I could, I got out of my truck, took off my suit jacket, slithered on my back under the bed of my truck to begin the process of trying to liberate my spare tire.

I tried to appear nonchalant, but on the inside, I was in panic mode, vigilantly keeping an eye on my surroundings to see if I would be robbed, attacked, or otherwise accosted. This appeared to be the quintessential “bad neighborhood,” where just such a thing would be expected.

As I was lying on the pavement under my truck bed, fighting with my spare tire, my dress shirt and pants inundated with sweat and filth from rolling around on the street on a hot summer day, an older pickup truck, the first vehicle I had seen, pulled up behind me and three large young black men jumped out of the vehicle.

About that same time, a young black woman burst out of a nearby house on the street, chortling and laughing and chattering to the men about how I had been struggling to fix my tire. Her boisterousness startled me at first, but I soon realized that her amusement was expressed in a good-natured way, it seemed, and I hoped.

I scurried from under the back of my truck to my feet, trying as hard as I could not to show the panic I was feeling.

In unison, one of the young men crawled under my truck and quickly retrieved the spare tire with which I had been struggling, another grasped my back bumper to test its sturdiness, and the third retrieved from their truck a heavy duty farm jack.

In a flash, the three of them had the back of my truck jacked up, the flat tire off, and the spare in its place.

The whole time, the young lady was laughing and talking about my struggles before they got there.

It was clear by then, that she had seen me and called these guys to come help me out, which they did.

After they finished the job, the four of us passed around a can of Goop which they were happy to share with me, to clean our hands. I thanked them profusely.

They didn’t say much, but exuded a polite attitude of “no big deal.”

As I drove off, I felt a bit embarrassed at how I had misjudged their neighborhood, and the kindness of the people I had the good fortune to encounter there.

It was an eye-opening experience.

And I have truly wondered if those young men would have received such gracious assistance if they had a flat time in my neighborhood.

I would certainly hope so.

Thank you, young men, for helping me with my flat tire, and for re-affirming in me a sense of faith in the goodness of people everywhere, that I will never forget.

 

-- Ken Garten is a Blue Springs attorney. Email him at krgarten@yahoo.com