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A rebuke from a much gentler age

Captain Crosby wore command lightly. He was a ‘people person’ before that term existed.

Summer traffic jam in Cairo.
Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters/File
  • Brian Williams

This is a story of road rage gone good.

The incident happened long ago and was unremarkable in and of itself. It was even forgettable – but for Captain Crosby’s reaction to it.

It was the year after my father retired from the US Navy. In the transition of our moving to a new house, the Crosbys had lent us theirs for the summer. I don’t know the details – I was only 11 – but for some reason they were going to be gone from their Connecticut home for the summer, and we moved in.

The Crosbys were one of those peripatetic Navy families, with postings all over the country and the world. I remember visiting them in various places through the years. In addition to Connecticut, we visited their home outside Washington, D.C., and one on a beach in New Hampshire. No doubt my father, in his travels, stopped to see them when they were stationed in Bahrain. And during a year I studied in England, I stayed for a weekend with Captain and Mrs. Crosby at their home outside London. Mrs. Crosby and I spent a beautiful spring morning in their garden, weeding and digging in the rich black soil. She was apologetic she had nothing more exciting planned, but I was completely content to take a break from studying and sightseeing.

But back to that summer. I say the Crosbys were gone, but in fact Captain Crosby made several work-related visits back to the nearby naval base. I don’t remember if he stayed with us in his own home or found other quarters. But now I guiltily suspect he stayed elsewhere, thinking the promise of a house is the promise of a house unintruded upon.

But he came around several times, either to take care of house matters or just to visit. And I remember one day when we were out on an errand – my sister and I in the back seat, my dad driving, and Captain Crosby riding shotgun.

At some point another motorist blared his horn at us, apparently thinking his right of way had been infringed upon. And that’s when Captain Crosby said it.

All families have lines that get told and retold through the years. Some come from movies or TV shows, some from memorable moments. In our family, the most infamous came during a trip to New York City in the late 1960s. As we drove by the front of what was then the tallest building in the world, my brother blurted out, “I don’t see no Empire State Building!” The disconnect and the grim grammar ensured the line would live on in family lore. (In fairness to my brother, the view, at street level in a car, is not the one you’re expecting.)

And then there was the time at Fenway Park in Boston a few years after popular Red Sox third baseman Rico Petrocelli had retired. A batter on the other team popped a high foul fly ball that drifted toward the stands. In an attempt to make the catch, Petrocelli’s replacement leaped into the crowd but came up empty-
handed. A fan near us called out, “Rico woulda had it!” That line, too, has lived on in our family. As has Captain Crosby’s. To fully savor it, though, you have to know more about the captain.

He wore command lightly. He was tall, outgoing, and given to easy laughter. His cheeks were red on somewhat pale skin, and his smile often impish. He spoke to the point but never harshly. He was a “people person” before that term existed.

And when he uttered his immortal line, it was completely in character. While expressing annoyance, he maintained his good humor.

So that summer day when another motorist took offense and honked his displeasure at us, there were no gestures, no confrontation, no profanity in return. There was just Captain Crosby’s dismissive comeback: “Use your brakes instead of your horn, you dummy!”

Those are words from a different era. At the time, they were hilarious to us in the back seat. Today, they embody an approach to life and a forbearance that we all could benefit from.

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