When I was growing up, it wasn't unusual to have a flat tire or some kind of car trouble that altered moods and even travel plans. My family of 6 in 1970 never made it to our vacation destination when our Buick broke down.
25 Years Later
In 1995 I was a mom, traveling to St. Louis with 2 young children in a Ford Taurus station wagon. A stranger stepped in to help, before I even knew I had a problem.
Breakfast in Springfield, MO
The 3 of us were headed to St. Louis from Tulsa. We would be staying only 2 weeks, but the station wagon was packed as if we were Okies fleeing the dustbowl. The entire back was filled to the roof with props and materials I would use in a class I was teaching... things like Indian drums, bags of wrapping paper tubes, boxes of empty cans and costumes. So when we stopped on I-44 at Cracker Barrel for breakfast, I assumed the man pointing to our car, was questioning our unusual load. Actually he was pointing our nearly flat tire...which I had not noticed.
The kids were restless for pancakes as I stood talking to the stranger beside our car, but all I could feel was relief. What if the flat had occurred on the freeway? I pictured scenes like I remembered from childhood. Then I cringed at the idea of unpacking my insane assortment of class supplies to get to the spare. The stranger, who introduced himself as Jerry frowned with concern, then studied his watch a moment before suggesting I relax with the kids on the rockers and he'd send for help. "I was stopping by my mechanic on the way to work, anyway. I'll see if they can send a truck."
Jerry Came Back
As we sat rocking in the shade, a waiter stuck his head out the door. He said Jerry had called and would be right there. Who was this Jerry? I asked the waiter and he said he was just a regular customer.
Moments later Jerry arrived with a pump borrowed from the shop. "They're really busy over there! We can fill your tire good enough to get you to the shop." He worked briskly to fill the tire, and then told us to follow his car.
The tiny shop was bustling with business. Jerry guided me towards a man in coveralls. He called the man by name and told him to get my tire fixed right away. "I'll come back this afternoon to get my car done." He turned to wish us luck before dashing out the door. I wasn't sure he even heard my thank you.
I sat reading with the kids while a number of customers entered the shop. I kept hearing an apologetic voice behind the counter. "We're really backed up!" and "We can maybe work you in this afternoon." We'd only been sitting a short while before I was handed a bill. I felt a brief wave of worry that maybe this had been a big set up and I would be charged a ridiculous fee. But then I saw the total. $7.50. The tire could be repaired. (no digging for the spare!) I felt like I was in a Twilight Zone episode, stepping back in time to a small town with kind strangers.
Pancakes and a Postcard
We headed with our repaired tire back to Cracker Barrel for pancakes. I bought a postcard in the shop and squeezed a rambling thank you on the back. I read it aloud to the kids and asked them to sign it with me. They were confused by the thank you. I had to convince them that Jerry didn't have to reach out to us. He was not getting paid to be kind.
Thank You, Jerry!
Hopefully the waiter gave you the postcard when you came in the next time. I have a feeling I'm not the only person you have gone out of your way to help. (You had a bit of a guardian angel style about you!) You made me stop and appreciate kindness. But most of all you taught my kids that sometimes you don't have to buy help. There are people who give it.
To celebrate my birthday in April 2012, I decided to reflect on the past with a different kind of list. I've met a lot of people in my 55 years, but I'm going to stop and remind myself about the strangers I've met. These are people I met by accident, not through friends or work. For some reason, these strangers dropped into my life. Even though we may have only spent a few minutes together, these people have never been forgotten.
Each week, I'll spotlight someone I met in the past, who in some small way, made me stop and think.
Remember 55 Strangers