Talk’s cheap — and sometimes worthless

People like to believe they can tell a person’s character by his or her utterances.

But I don’t believe judging folks by what they say is really much good at all when you’re trying to understand one of your fellow human beings.

People can say anything. It means less than nothing. Look at national politics.

If you didn’t have records to go by, you’d think all of our politicians were the same two guys. They beat each other to death with their alleged patriotism on the campaign trail.

And everyone is aware of those less famous folks who say nice things all of the time, and yet never seem to act on their words.

I know a guy in my neighborhood who is also a writer. He makes more money tapping his keyboard than I do — he works for bigger publications who pay more — but such wasn’t always the case.

A few years back I went out of my way to help him without seeking much credit for my actions. As the proverbial wisdom goes: no good deed goes unpunished.

He’s always very friendly to my face. But a third writer, who has known us both for years, and isn’t a gossip, called me a few weeks ago and told me the friendly fella was saying things behind my back about me — things even he, the third party, knew were untrue.

I believed the third party. He isn’t a particularly close friend, we disagree politically quite a bit, and he isn’t a gossip. He had nothing to gain by stirring the pot. But when I saw the backtalker a few days later, butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth.

“Hey, Dennis, how are ya? We need to get together for dinner. We haven’t done that for ages.”

“You’ve got my number,” I said.

“You got voicemail?”

I nodded in the affirmative.

“I’ll leave you a message.”

But of course he hasn’t called. And it’s finally dawned on me that this fella has suggested dinner about four times in the past six months, but never followed through.

He’s all talk. Pleasant to my front, unpleasant to my back.

Not that any of this is new.

These things happen more than Jennifer Lopez gets married. Popular culture has long been aware of this problem.

Walk your talk is a motto at least as old as I am.

Teddy Roosevelt, an expansionist president of these United States, said it in a slightly different way more than 100 years ago: “Speak softly, but carry a big stick.”

“An empty barrel makes the most noise,” my Irish mother often intoned when one of her offspring, usually your faithful servant, was expounding on what he might or might not do, without moving from the couch.

“Actions speak louder than words,” she might throw my way if I still seemed stuck to the furniture after her first loving barb.

Reporters over the years become cynics because we see so much of talking-not-acting behavior.

It isn’t only Port Orchard where a lion’s share of community work is done by the same few folks. One of the reasons certain county officials run for office again and again is simply because nobody else who is even remotely qualified ever steps forward.

The reason I can respect soldiers in Iraq and protestors who chain themselves to fences in opposition to the same war is that both are doing something that requires effort.

It takes no real gumption to scream your beliefs across the talk-radio airwaves or in nearly incomprehensible letters to a newspaper — although some letters to the editor do seem more full of effort than skill or sense sometimes, now that I think about it.

Whenever I think of actions displaying character, as opposed to words, I always eventually think of my friend Dirk (not his real name).

Dirk was a Vietnam-era veteran like myself.

Like many veterans, Dirk’s service grew more hair-raising over the years, his exploits expanding along with his waistline. Nothing frightened Dirk, or so Dirk said.

But one night in a Seattle bar about 12 years ago, a drunken homeless dude of some size took exception to something Dirk was saying to me.

The boozy gent pushed his big, bleary eyed head between us and called Dirk out.

The drunk then lurched onto the sidewalk and raised his mitts menancingly.

I followed, hoping to be able to stop the fisticuffs, if and when Dirk belayed Mr. Gin and Tonic with those hand-to-hand combat skills I’d heard so much about over the years.

The drunk and I chatted while we waited for the Dirkster.

It took a while, but the cops Dirk must have called finally arrived.

They had the drunk and I handcuffed when Dirk finally came skipping outside.

“Not him,” he said, pointing at the sputtering, indignant person I had become while being cuffed. “He’s my friend. It’s the other guy.”

The cops were good-natured as cops go. They ignored my verbal critique of their job skills and released me.

Dirk said, after the officers and the drunk were gone, that he was disappointed I’d been “hassled.”

“I was gonna come out sooner,” he said. “But I knew if I did I would have had to hurt that drunken bum.”

I nodded. After all, Dirk the war hero said it, so it must be true.

Dennis Wilken is a former Port Orchard Independent reporter.

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