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One Man's Smile and Wave Brightens a Community During Hard Times

Lori has been writing fiction since she first caught the writing bug at age nine.

Ricky the flagger. Is that a winning smile or what?

Ricky the flagger. Is that a winning smile or what?

Driving Through the Ricky Zone

The old saying, "A smile can make a difference," always seemed trite and cheesy to me. Yeah, a smile can lift me a little in rare moments, but an encouraging word or a warm greeting packs a bigger punch for me.

I am here to tell you the story of Ricky Brooks, a young man who works as a flagger in the road construction site on the highway that runs down the Key Peninsula where I live. If you ever look into the face of a flagger who's been standing in one place for hours, you'll see a frown or a distant look which you just know he or she is thinking "I really have to pee," or "Is lunchtime ever going to come?" or "If one more blankety-blank comes through too fast I'm going to (fill in the blank). I can't say I blame them one bit, but then again, they chose the job.

Ricky Brooks is different. He has been elevated to celebrity status in our community. There was an article (please read) on him in the local newspaper. I know you're dying to hear what is so special about a flagger named Ricky. Ricky is special because he literally smiles, waves, gives thumbs up and shouts "hey" or "hi" to EVERY car that passes by. I mean literally every car. We come through slowly because it is a construction zone, so he seems to get every car covered. As he waves he kind of does a little bouncy type move. Ricky has won the hearts of every person in the community. The other day on my way to town I rolled down my window, stuck my hand out and shouted "Hey Ricky!" He looked me right in the eyes and said "Hey, how you doing." One the way home, I shouted "God bless you Ricky!" He echoed my words with great sincerity. I felt like he was glad to see me, that he appreciated my greeting as much as I appreciated his.

What is most special about Ricky's vivacious greetings is the eye contact. It feels as if he knows us as individuals because he looks directly into your face. As it turns out, Ricky is a young Christian who wants to make people's day. People are unhappy and grumpy going through highway construction zones, especially if they have been working for months, which is the case here on the Key Peninsula. They are building a bridge on a curve on the highway so the salmon can get through. I have dubbed the construction zone the Ricky Zone.

When this COVID-19 lockdown began, our spirits were dampened far more about this situation we face than about having to slow down for construction. Ricky's endearing greetings came to mean much more. The other day when I passed him I began to weep, thinking about how much joy he has brought to people through these hard times. The only bummer is now Ricky is required to wear a mask. Ridiculous since he's on a highway and the construction workers are a very far distance from him, but I'm sure it's due to some mandate somewhere. But Ricky's spirit is not hampered by a mask. We can still see his eyes, crinkled from smiling, and there is no hindrance to seeing his bouncing body and wave.

I wept because of all the many times I went on the Key Peninsula Facebook group page and there would be posts about Ricky, how Ricky made someone's day, or Ricky wasn't there today and how sad it was. I could feel the energy of their love for him, the expression of how much his simple smiles and waves meant to them. If Ricky has a day off, we are disappointed and feel let down. It's even worse when he has two days off.

Right now, they are not stopping cars with long waits. Ricky is mostly just seeing people come through slowly. Stopping cars will come at some point. At that time, Ricky's waves and shouts of greeting will be needed all the more since long waits when people need to get somewhere make people grumpy. But there is also the risk of distracted drivers, which Ricky's supervisor mentioned in the article. I'm sure it will all work out.

“For me, the main thing here is really simple: Treat thy neighbor as you want to be treated. That’s something anyone can do. A little good goes a long way.”

— Ricky Brooks, Key Peninsula News

Driving through the Ricky Zone.

Driving through the Ricky Zone.

Ricky's Brand of Friendship is Powerful

When Ricky first arrived with the construction project, life was normal, as we once knew it. Ricky was a novelty and we were amused and appreciated his joyful greetings so very much. But then the pandemic started, people started losing jobs, people were flooded with panic attacks, fear, depression, worry. Twenty four hours a day we hear about this virus, the politics, the restrictions and injustices, and constant stream of contradictory information by "experts." Now that they are working on "opening back up carefully," there is bickering about what that will look like. And our hearts break for those who have lost loved ones to this virus, and for those who have loved ones in the hospital for other issues and can't be with them.

So many are going stir crazy, families are getting on each other's nerves, marital problems, domestic violence, child abuse, mental health crises have all skyrocketed. Grandparents can't see their grandkids, no graduations for hard-working students, surgeries that could prevent worsening medical issues have been canceled because they are deemed non-essential. There is an endless number of frustrating and heartbreaking circumstances we are facing.

In the wake of it all, there is Ricky's smile and thumbs up saying, "Hey man, you'll get through it. You are important to me. God has your back." No mask can cover the love Ricky has for our community, for me, for Joe, for Karen, for Dee Dee, for Trevor, for every driver that passes through the Ricky Zone.

Ricky reminds us how powerful a simple one-time connection, even by strangers, can mean when times are hard. Think hard about the encounters you've had with strangers at the grocery store, bus stop, library over your lifetime, and been encouraged by something very simple but heartfelt. I love living in a small community because it is a personal community. I go to the bank and they greet me as Lori in a personal way by making eye contact and a welcoming voice. It says they are happy to see me. If I go to a different branch, they might call me Lori, but it's impersonal. They don't look me in the eyes always. You can tell the difference in the tone of voice and body language, although they still might say something simple that is meaningful without them realizing it. Even though my primary purpose is to get business done, it's nice for a pleasant exchange.

I can remember going to urgent care one day. I was not well of course and I was also pretty depressed. The doctor was very tall and had a brilliant smile, a sparkle in his eyes, and a quick wit. We bantered back and forth jokingly. Then I saw his tag. His name was Dr. Romney. This is when Mitt was running for president. I said, "Any chance you're related to Mitt?" Without missing a beat he said, "We are second cousins and I'm not voting for him." I laughed and laughed. He made my day.

I can remember many times when I've been in a doctor's office or E.R, or inpatient hospitalization and a personable nurse or technician made my day just being kind and engaged. You can tell when someone is just there for the paycheck. I loved working in customer service oriented jobs because I love people. I had many customers over the years say I was their favorite or requested me if I was on duty. I was baffled by it. One person I met down the line and became friends with said I was simply more friendly and engaging and made an effort to make sure they had what they needed, especially if there was a problem. Eye contact and friendliness go a long way.

I think of times when on the phone waiting for long periods of time with some corporation, tech support, or entity like Social Security, and the person who answers is curt or impatient. I'll ask for the supervisor, or more likely call again and the new person is kind in a sincere way and patiently explains what is going on.

I guess the issue is a connection with sincerity and kindness. Ricky more than meets that criteria.

Driving through the Ricky Zone while we are living in the Twilight Zone has been a blessing that words fall short to describe. Ricky is young, so I don't expect him to make it to heaven before me, but should he meet our Maker before me, I wouldn't be surprised to see him at the pearly gates to greet me, and instead of a mask or construction helmet, he'll be sporting a halo and a sign saying, "Welcome to Paradise."

“Service is a smile. It is an acknowledging wave, a reaching handshake, a friendly wink, and a warm hug. It's these simple acts that matter most, because the greatest service to a human soul has always been the kindness of recognition.”

— Richelle E. Goodrich, Smile Anyway

Update - 7/2/20

Ricky announced yesterday on his fan page that he was terminated from his job for waving. We thought this strange and unfair in light of the fact that some of his coworkers, especially the guy in charge, were interviewed for the newspaper article and said they what Ricky was doing and support him. I am sure if he had been told to stop and he didn't that would be another story, but it doesn't look that way. I pray Ricky can get the job back or find another job where he can use that loving spirit and gift of giving to make a difference in lives.

© 2020 Lori Colbo

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