Phil Gulley: The Great Hoosier Helpers

Need a reminder of how inspiring Indiana can be? These folks provide some assistance.
I was driving around the north side of Indianapolis not long ago and saw a car with a flat tire with a little old lady standing beside it. I would have stopped to assist her, but a Hoosier Helper from the Indiana Department of Transportation had beaten me to it. I slowed down, honked my horn, and gave the Hoosier Helper a thumbs-up. I make it a point to encourage others to be helpful, especially when it gets me out of a really disagreeable task.

As I passed the scene, a man on the car radio was talking about how rotten our nation had become. He had just written a book about it, so had a vested interest in America’s decline, but the Hoosier Helper was proving him wrong. Any society that sends out people to help little old ladies stranded on the road can’t be all that bad. In fact, I was so touched by the kind effort that I am violating my cardinal rule against complimenting an insurance company and mentioning that State Farm Insurance underwrites the Hoosier Helper program. I give a lot of money to State Farm and none of it has ever flowed back to me, but I feel better about it now that I know they’re helping little old ladies.

I thought how useful it would be to have my own personal Hoosier Helper, so I wrote to Michael Tipsord, the CEO of State Farm, to see if he might send one out to Danville to assist me in moments of duress and difficulty. I haven’t heard back yet, so I can only assume he’s giving the matter the careful attention it deserves. I Googled his picture and he looks pleasant enough, like the kind of neighbor who might lend a hand with cleaning gutters, pulling weeds, or mowing the yard while you’re on vacation. In fact, he bears a striking resemblance to my neighbor Brian, who used to help me with such matters, back when he still believed in the social compact. But once a man casts his lot with the small-government crowd and starts watching Fox News, he can’t be counted on for anything.

It takes a certain kind of person to be a Hoosier Helper, someone not only mechanically capable, but also skilled in emergency medical assistance, perhaps an EMT conversant in automotive technology. You can’t be a criminal, since State Farm wouldn’t want to hire someone who might mug little old ladies broken down along the highway. Nor could they employ religious crackpots, who might take advantage of a captive audience and proselytize while waiting for a tow truck. There’s nothing worse than being cornered by a nutcase, unable to escape.

Hoosier Helpers must not only be trustworthy, they must appear so. I have shifty eyes, so I’m not well-suited for the helping professions. In fact, just last winter, I was driving down Main Street on a bitterly cold day and saw a woman walking on the sidewalk wearing a thin coat and no hat. I pulled over, rolled down my window, and offered her a ride. I assured her no harm would come to her, that I was concerned for her safety and well-being, which of course was what a serial killer would have told her. She declined my offer, and I didn’t press the matter, not wanting to frighten her. It’s hard to know who to trust these days. The Hoosier Helpers drive trucks with the words “Hoosier Helper Emergency Response” written on the side. Plus, they wear fluorescent safety vests. It’s been my experience that anyone wearing a fluorescent safety vest can be trusted. If I ever rob a bank, I’m going to wear one of those. When I direct the tellers to put all the money in a bag, they’ll do it cheerfully, without thinking, confident my motives are pure.

I’ve never been helped by a Hoosier Helper myself, though I was once assisted by an Illinois State Police officer when my car broke down on I-70 near Effingham. I phoned 911, and the operator sent an officer, who called a tow truck. The officer was a cordial young man, raised on a farm, and we sat in his car discussing Black Angus cows while waiting for the tow truck to arrive. It makes me think a Hoosier Helper, in addition to knowing something about automotive mechanics and medical assistance, should also know something about cows.

I don’t suspect anyone ever graduated from high school and said, “I want to be a Hoosier Helper.” It’s not a job you aspire to so much as arrive at, when your circumstances and talents inevitably bring you to the vocation. You probably just awake one morning and realize you were destined to be a Hoosier Helper. I would enjoy doing it myself, except that I hate driving and don’t like being around people having medical problems. Plus, I don’t know anything about fixing cars. I would excel, however, at pressuring people to become Quakers while they wait for their car to be towed.

People often say they don’t make things like they used to, which is true about some things, but certainly not cars. The average car built in 2018 is far more dependable than the average car built in 1961, the year I was born. Today’s vehicle, when properly maintained, lasts decades. We grow tired of cars long before they wear out. When cars no longer break down at all, we won’t need to be rescued. Still, Hoosier Helper is such a noble profession, such a symbol of what we can be when we all work together, we should keep the program around for inspiration. The city of London began using electric streetlamps in the 1850s, but still employs five men to light gas lamps. It is the role of some people just to serve as reminders.

Since the Hoosier Helpers are so versatile, we could assign them other duties. The other day, I promised my wife I’d wash the breakfast dishes, but by the time I remembered to do it, the stuck-on oatmeal was hard as cement. If Danville had its own Hoosier Helper, I could have flagged him down to scrub our pan. I could come up with a whole list of things I need a Hoosier Helper to do for me.

I have two sons, one of whom is a medic in the Army and the other a farmer. One son heals people and the other feeds them. I’m proud of both of my sons, but if one of them were a Hoosier Helper, I would be just as pleased. If another dad bragged that his daughter was a brain surgeon, I could look him square in the eye and tell him my child helped little old ladies stranded on the road. We spend too much time thinking about how much money we can make and not enough time thinking how much good we can do. Even though I’ve never met a Hoosier Helper, I suspect our world would be a much better place if we had more of them.