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Make someone's day by giving them the finger

It's good to know that some things never change.

My parents grew up on farms in rural Mississippi. When you live on a farm, you learn to drive at an early age, not out of some need to be cool, but just out of necessity. My daddy has told me many times about how he was driving a tractor when he was just barely big enough for his feet to reach the pedals.

That tradition was passed down to my Mississippi cousins, who were always tooling around on some motorized gizmo, whether it was a tractor, an ATV, a motorcycle or an old car. My cousins Joey and Don were always racing around on minibikes, and my cousin Chris was scaring the bejeezus out of me in an old AMC Pacer when we were just 12 years old.

You turned the car on by flipping a light switch my uncle put on the dash, and even though a ride with Chris was nothing short of terrifying, I always found it cool that Uncle Grady let him drive at such a young age. It wasn't long before I was begging my parents to let me drive whenever we were in Mississippi, and at some point - I'm sure against their better judgment - they caved in.

At first, it was just short little trips of less than a mile from one cousin's house to another's on gravel roads that saw maybe three cars all day. But as I got older, and especially after I got my learner's permit, if a trip was to be made while we were at "home," I was more than likely going to be piloting.

Now I grew up in Decatur but spent a lot of time either in the woods hunting, at the lake fishing or in Mississippi learning about farm and rural life. My parents drew their water from a well, milked cows, churned their own butter and grew what they ate, and a lot of these stories were passed on to me. I've always considered myself a sort of suburban country boy, the kind of guy who can catch and clean his own fish but doesn't want to get too far from a grocery store. But one thing that was always foreign to me was the idea of everybody knowing everybody.

That's how it is in small towns. Everybody knows everybody. And if you don't know them, you know someone who knows them. Because of that, when I was learning to drive in Mississippi, left hand resting on top of the steering wheel (I didn't learn to put my hands at "10 and 2" until I was in driver's education, a year or two after I'd started learning to drive), my daddy was always reminding me to put up my first finger whenever we passed somebody on the road.

I'd always wondered about that. Why do these folks always wave at us, I asked. They don't know us. People back in suburban Atlanta certainly didn't wave at every passing motorist. Why did everyone out here in the sticks always stick up that first finger?

The answer, of course, was they were just being friendly. They figured they knew you or some of your folks, so they gave you a courteous "Good morning" on the road, the automotive equivalent of the head-nod in the hallway.

And they were consistent about it. In reality, they might not know you from Adam, but they would put up that finger and say hello anyway. I always thought that was one of the coolest things about going to Mississippi - guaranteed kindness from strangers.

As the years passed and rural areas became less so, the hello finger wave became a rarity, like my trips to Mississippi. But I'm glad to report it's not dead. It's alive and well in Barrow County.

The first time it happened after I moved to Statham, I turned all the way around in my seat, trying to see who it was that had waved at me because it had to be someone I knew. The second time, I recognized it for what it was - the hello finger wave.

I've seen it maybe four times in the past couple of months, and each time two things happen: I feel better about where we chose to live, and I feel better about people in general. They aren't all greedy, arrogant, self-absorbed jerks just yet. A few people still find it important to say hello to complete strangers.

And all these years later, it's nice to know some drivers still know how to use a finger other than the middle one.

E-mail Nate McCullough at nate.mccullough@gwinnettdailypost.com. His column appears on Fridays.