If you’re new to this area and are even a little observant, one of the first things you’re likely to notice is the wave. You won’t see it in town, but on country roads it is almost a rule of civilized behavior.
It wasn’t long after I’d moved here — two years ago this week, as it happens — that I ended up standing in the driveway, talking with Leonard and June and my neighbor Tom.
I was beginning to realize that standing out front and talking is a common and useful way of gathering here. It just seems to happen, fairly regularly. Little bits of very local news, speculation as to the weather and its effects, the growing of things, where morel mushrooms could be found, and ordinary gossip are exchanged at these events, which can be an hour or more in length and which invariably leave me with a satisfying sense of community not often found in cities.
My friend June grew up here and has lived here all her life. I think that on this particular afternoon she wanted to instruct me in local etiquette.
A car passed and she waved; the driver waved back.
“I don’t know half the people a mile down the road anymore,” she said, “but you have to wave anyway.” It was a gentle lesson but an important one. And it explained something I had noticed but had been at a loss to explain: the wave.
Driving along country roads, if I passed a person or group of people standing out front talking, they invariably waved at me. I would wave back, a little hesitantly, almost timidly, not knowing if I was supposed to stop or just what.
Even stranger, drivers in other cars would wave. At first, long habit would make me wonder if I knew this person and if so, who was it? Soon, though, the number of cars surpassed the number of people I could possibly have met. I had of course encountered other people in cars waving, but here they used all five fingers.
June, who with Leonard had raised two sons in the very house where I now lived, was accustomed, I think, to gently pointing out proper behavior, and for that I am glad. She is my expert on everything local and I have learned much from her.
I knew, now, that waving was what one did. And now, I began to observe how people wave. There is a lot to it.
People standing outside sometimes wave cheerfully and enthusiastically — they are happy with the day, with the way the place looks, with their families. Sometimes the wave is pro forma, often from someone conversing with someone else, as if to say “I know you’re there, but unless it’s important I’d just as soon not be interrupted.” This wave often comes, too, from people on riding mowers, which is good — if they wave too vigorously and lose track of what they’re doing, there go the begonias. One fellow who lives down the road a ways from me waves as if he’s guiding a jet fighter onto the deck of a carrier. But he is thought to be generally flamboyant anyway.
The real style, though, comes in the waves of drivers in other cars. Sometimes the wave is almost a salute, a couple of fingers touching the temple. Sometimes it is four fingers raised from the steering wheel — this is casual and friendly. Raising just the index finger would be too stern, but one often sees the businesslike lifting of the first two fingers. Interestingly, waving is the driver’s responsibility; never have I seen another occupant of a car undertake it.
It is also nearly universal. When you stop for a school bus, you can be sure its driver will wave at you when the bus is again underway. The height in my experience came when an ambulance, with lights and siren, passed me — I had pulled over — and the driver waved!
It is, I think, one of the most endearing aspects of country life. It is the acknowledgement of another human being and the tacit agreement that we assume that even people we do not know are friends. That agreement, which in the ivory towers would be dissected and called a “social contract,” is a convention born, I think, of the realities of living in the country. You never know when the barn might burn down or, more likely, the car will end up in the ditch. But whether it happens to you or to me, we’re agreed that the other one will come round to help. There used to be times when lives depended on this. Now it means that we’re all here to help out.
In the country, the word “neighbor” has greater than geographical significance.
Dennis E. Powell is crackpot-at-large to Open for Business. Powell was an award-winning reporter in New York and elsewhere before moving to Ohio and becoming a full-time crackpot. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.