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Mutual aid is the stuff of friendship

I can still hear my dad say "Much obliged" as he bade farewell to a neighbor. He wasn't shy about asking for help, but he was careful not to overdo it. He always seemed to find someone to give him an assist when he needed it, and he had lots of good friends. Of course, "obliged" meant just that—he was obligated and willing to help in return.

The phrase "much obliged" isn't used much anymore, and I wonder whether people are more reluctant to ask for help than they were in the old days.

My favorite story about asking for help happened over 50 years ago. We lived in Milwaukee, Wis., with our three children, and had met the Fredericks in church. They lived about a mile down the street and also had three children, with ages that matched those of ours. Our families had some good times together, but now the Fredericks were moving to Elkhart, Ind.

The phone rang; it was George Frederick.

"The moving van just left," he said. "All of our dishes and foods are gone."

He cleared his throat.

"We had planned to go to McDonalds before we started the drive toward Elkhart, but I don't feel well. Do you have any chicken soup?"

George could be pretty sure the answer would be affirmative. I wasn't much of a cook, and canned foods were my staples.

It was just a little after one o'clock in the afternoon. By the time George arrived, the contents of a couple of soup cans were heating on the stove. My children were in school and my husband was at work. I could be a short-order waitress.

George put both elbows on the table and held his head in his hands. What an honor to be asked to provide a simple meal that would make him feel better and send the family on the road toward a new home. In the few minutes it took him to finish the soup, our friendship deepened. If George hadn't asked for that soup, the family could have moved away and the friendship turned into only a word or two on a Christmas card.

I am as guilty as the next person in thinking I can hire someone or struggle through on my own. Our modern reluctance to ask for help may stem from knowing a person who asks too often and too much. It could be a reluctance to reciprocate. Sometimes it takes a disaster for people to help one another.

Hurricane Katrina, the tornado in Joplin, or even a big local snowstorm can bring out the neighborliness in people. It isn't likely anyone will say "Much obliged," but it is good to hear "Thanks, friend."

Asking for help can bond a friendship. People who volunteer to help clean up after a disaster are rewarded with words of appreciation, smiles, and handshakes. Volunteers return home to tell their stories. The tears in their eyes say, louder than words, that their efforts have been repaid.

It feels good to be needed. Of such feelings are lasting friendships born.