I grew up in New England and we have our share of wonderful men who truly fit the term “gentleman.” But since moving to the south, I’ve discovered that there is something unique and special about “southern gentlemen.” And I’m finally realizing that difference is part of how they were brought up.
When I was in my twenties and traveling through North Carolina, I had to pull over to change my infant son’s diaper. In the very short time it took to get the job done, three different men pulled over to see if I needed help. I was surprised by the offers because my car didn’t have an obvious flat nor did I have the hood up with steam pouring out and I wasn’t standing at the side of the road looking lost. Each of the men who took the time to pull over and see if they could help were polite and after discovering my reason for stopping, wished me a safe journey as they climbed back into their trucks. That was my first introduction to “southern gentlemen.” I’d had truly distressing things happen along the road in New England, including an accident that rendered my car undrivable long before cell phones made calling for help easy, yet no one stopped to offer assistance.
For several great years, I worked as an office administrator for an investment broker. Doug was thoughtful and generous, interesting and smart and just plain fun to work for. He had also been in the Army for thirteen years, and on leaving active duty, joined the reserves. I used to joke that you could take the boy out of the Army but you couldn’t take the Army out of the boy. I met him when he was just a Major, but his dedication and commitment to the Army kept him advancing until he retired as a full colonel. When he made Lt. Colonel, he became the commander of the training battalion for the State of Maine, which put in him in charge of five different companies whose day-to-day operations were overseen by regular Army staff sergeants. That was my first introduction to being called ma’am. No one in the State of Maine calls a woman ma’am. In fact, in my entire life, I’d never been called that in any New England state. Answering the phones was one of my tasks, and I always knew I had one of Doug’s “men” on the line when I was greeted with Good morning, Ma’am. I found that small level of respect, inculcated by their military training to be pleasant and very welcome. No matter how brief the conversation, or how urgent the reason for their call, the contrast between their civility and the greetings from regular business clients was refreshing.
So now I’ve moved south permanently and the manners that men and boys learn here has become underscored everywhere I go. The fact that all the bagboys at the grocery offer to wheel your cart out to the lot for you every time you shop was the first thing to surprise me. That NEVER happens in New England even when you are very old, or coping with a handful of small children. The other day I was walking my dog along a road that winds through a county park along the edge of the waterway and I noted, not for the first time, that every single man that drove by me waved as they passed. Nothing flashy, just a brief salute of acknowledgement in passing. In one spot a teenage boy was casting out a fishing net while three very bold herons hovered close by hoping for a snack. I commented that he had an audience and the young man looked up and replied, “Yes, Ma’am.”
There’s a lot I love about where I’ve chosen to live, but this small mark of respect, this ingrained civility that I’m sure the men who show it never even question is a very special bonus.