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Paying it forward then and now

By Forrest Whitman

I’ve been hearing lots of “pay it forward” stories lately. One friend was in the drive up window at a McDonalds getting ready to pay for his breakfast sandwich. He normally won’t go to a McDonalds, but thinks the breakfast sandwich is at least a somewhat relatively healthy choice. He was surprised to see that it had been paid for by people in the car ahead of him. Those “pay it forward” stories abound. The idea is hardly new. Looking back at history in the west I see many examples. Those stories I’ve heard of late are eye openers though.

Paying it forward at fast food spots and in film

  Some of the pay it forward stories in the news lately are arresting. There were nearly 100 cars paying it forward at a drive through in Detroit recently. That is 100 plus people paid for the car behind them during one day. The record is in Manitoba, Canada where 228 consecutive cars paid it forward. Some other recent records include a donut store drive through in Massachusetts where 55 cars paid it forward. Apparently this idea hasn’t exactly caught on at the McDonalds in Golden, though it happened to my friend there. How did this phenomenon get started?

The film “Pay it Forward” was popular two seasons ago. It was based on a novel by Catherine Ryan Hyde. The plot has to do with an eleven year old boy Trevor McKinney. He sets up a kind of informal network of good deeds. His idea is that the recipient of a good deed “pays it forward” to three other people. The film critics pretty much panned the film. The plot does seem to wander. There’s a romantic plot and the boy also tricks several people into impressive good deeds. Runaways come home, estranged spouses re-unite. There’s a lot of that sort of thing in the plot. Roger Ebert, the dean of film critics, hated the plot (especially the badly contrived ending), but said that performances by Kevin Spacey, Helen Hunt, and Haley Osment were so good the film got up to 2.5 on his 4 point rating scale. Regardless of its quality, the film was widely shown and started the pay it forward movement.

Paying it forward back in railroad and mining days

  One local legend of paying it forward centers on Wink’s Lodge in Lincoln Hills. Lincoln Hills was the only black vacation resort west of the Mississippi River. It opened in 1922 with Obrey “Wink” Hamlet and Naomi Hamlet as the owners. Wink was deputized to enforce the law in far northern Gilpin County. Tales of how he dispensed leniency and the “paying it forward” from his acts abound. True or not, it was always said that he gave breaks and felt the recipient would probably do the same. For instance, as game warden, he might find deer poaching going on. The poachers then usually provided winter meat for some poorer families and extended that favor to others randomly. That kind of “on the ground” giving of a break was obviously easier to do in the 1920s than it would be today. Still Wink was famous for it and it seemed to work. Mostly the favor to the wrong doers was widely paid forward.

In any case the “good karma” Wink provided put him in good stead. Before long, famous musicians started showing up at the Lincoln Hills resort to get away from it all. Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and Lena Horne were some of them. African American girls from the next door YWCA camp soon filled out the list of summer visitors to Lincoln Hills. It was a good example of how paying it forward worked in ways he’d never expected to happen.

How Moffat and Palmer paid it forwards

According to Phyllis Flanders Dorset, David Moffat was not the greedy capitalist he was often thought to be. Rather, he extended many a favor to his workers. They, in turn, were thought to be among the most generous in the state toward the poor. When David H. Moffat died in 1911, the whole railroad shut down so whistles could blow and workers doff their caps. Another railroad baron, General William Jackson Palmer, was another example. He took a large chunk of profits to establish health programs for any and all who lived along his right of way. What happened when he sold the Denver & Rio Grande Railway is still talked about. He took not one cent of profit, but divided that up among the workers. These examples from western history are not exactly pay it forward in the current sense of the term. The donors were not anonymous. Still, they are examples of generosity given with no expected return.

Why pay it forward today?

It’s interesting to speculate about why this phenomenon should be spreading in 2013. Perhaps it’s because someone glances in their rear view mirror and sees a sad face following at the drive through. Interviews with fast food employees certainly bear this out. They tell tales of someone seeing the person behind them looking sad or even crying, and then the “someone” paying for their meal. We also hear of parents paying it forward just because they see more kids in the car behind. It’s kind of a way of sharing the joys and hassles of parenthood.

More likely, though, pay it forward is a response to the bad news avalanche we’re subjected to by the media all the time. We’ve seen some astounding examples of “Me first” selfishness these days. Who thought the U.S. Congress would shut down the government? Witnessing a small group of politicians willing to shut everything down just to prove their political point is incredible. That’s not to mention the deluge of crimes we see all the time. Instances of teen aged kids bullying a classmate into suicide, or going on a shooting rampage, are amazingly common. Some people are so sick of all this that they want to do some small anonymous act of good will. By paying it forward they seem to want to restore some faith in people and make themselves feel better about the world. Of course every religion talks about the spiritual benefits of giving with no interest in being noticed or getting something back. Buddhism especially talks of not getting “hooked” by someone’s situation, but then giving to that person in an anonymous “unhooked” way. A good many Buddha stories have that theme.

Here’s hoping we see more

Paying it forward has been around a long time. The current stories at drive in eateries are just a new twist. No matter how or why, they do help me feel better about being human.

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