THE KINDNESS OF STRANGERS

By Nita Shoemaker

Finally!  After spending three years overseas--away from the comforts of the good old USA--we were coming home from my husband's Air Force stint in the Panama Canal Zone.  We landed in Charleston, South Carolina, went through Customs, and picked up the car we had shipped from the Canal Zone.  We loaded a heap of luggage and started driving away from town.

The airplane ride was long and tiring for us and our two small children.  All we wanted to do was get out of the city and find a nice, comfortable motel room for the night. Thus began one of the most bizarre episodes in my experience as an Air Force wife.

Since it was already evening, darkness fell while we were looking for a decent motel.  Suddenly, the headlights and dashboard lights dimmed.  In another ten seconds, everything went dead—headlights, power steering and brakes.

Fortunately, my husband had fantastic night vision and was able to coast the car to the shoulder.  For a minute, we sat there in shock.  The car had been fine when we shipped it.  Obviously, something had been jarred or broken during transit, but that knowledge brought no comfort.

The night was one of those inky, black affairs with no moon and very little starlight.  There were no businesses, or even houses, visible from where we broke down.  We used our flashlight to look under the hood.  The battery was boiling hot, which didn’t tell us anything about why the car had gone dead.

This was in 1978, before cell phones were plentiful, and there wasn’t another car on the road.  We honestly didn’t know what to do.

As we stood there, wondering how long it would be before someone came along to help us, a set of headlights appeared in the distance, but the car was traveling in the opposite direction.  The driver probably couldn’t see us on the shoulder all the way across the interstate highway.  Scant hope for aid there.

Wonder of wonders!  The oncoming car suddenly braked and did a U-turn across the median.  At first, we thought we might have attracted a patrolman, but soon found out differently.  A souped-up two-door sedan, windows rolled down, rock music blaring to high Heaven, rolled up behind us.  The driver hopped out of this speed machine, barefoot, bare-chested and wearing jeans.  He was the most unlikely rescuer in the world, and we all silently worried about our safety.

I must admit here and now that appearances are deceiving.  As it turned out, he was on leave from the U.S. Army.  He offered, and we accepted, a ride to the nearest gas station where we might get help.  All during the ride, I expected him not to be as portrayed… i.e., a possible serial killer who haunted the highways looking for families to murder.  But, he delivered us as promised to a wide place in the road that had a gas station, restaurant, and a motel.

My husband accompanied the wrecker driver back to our stalled car and brought it in.  Then, we checked on a room.  To our disappointment, none were available.  We would have to spend the night in the restaurant, gas station, and our broken-down car.

After getting something to eat in the restaurant, we headed to where the car was parked.  We reasoned that the children might as well lie down in the back seat and get a little rest.  However, that was not to be.

As we trudged across the lot, a man with one arm approached my husband and offered to help fix the car.  It turned out that this man was a mechanic, and he’d recently had his arm amputated.  He was just getting back to the point where he wanted to return to his trade—fixing cars.

My husband agreed and I took the children back to the restaurant.  While the men worked, we alternated between the pinball games in the gas station and the hot chocolate and coffee in the restaurant.

At two or three in the morning, the two men came up with the solution to our mechanical problem. During transit, some insulation had been stripped from the battery cable, and it had shorted against the engine. We needed a new cable.

Knowing what happened didn’t help much because the gas station didn’t stock parts; and in the wee hours of the morning, there are no parts stores open.  After pondering a bit and looking around for some kind of substitute to place over the exposed wire, they came up with several rolls of black sticky tape and a length of garden hose.  With this, they were able to make a temporary repair.

All during this process, the gas station owner and his two small boys had been super hosts.  No one gave us a minute’s trouble for being underfoot.  The boys even kept my two children company while they played the few pinball and arcade games in the gas station.  (I never found out why those boys were allowed to stay up all night, either.)

At last, we were ready to resume our trip.  I really wanted to do something nice for all of them.  My husband offered the one-armed man money for helping but was refused.  He finally persuaded him to accept five dollars.  As for the boys, I dug into my change purse and found a whole handful of Panamanian pennies.  These I gave to them and was rewarded with eyes that sparkled like I’d given them a hundred dollars.

Fortunately, the rest of the trip passed without incident.  We found our motel, rested, ate, and arrived at our destination.  Only in later years did I think of those people in South Carolina who went out of their ways to help us: the young man on leave from the Army, the one-armed man, and those boys—and everyone at that gas station and restaurant who could have been less than cordial but who accepted us and did everything they could to help.

From that day to this, whenever I make a charitable contribution, or do something to help a fellow human being, I think of that dark night.  In small ways, without fanfare or receiving a “Thank You,” I pass along the compassion we received--and my belief in the kindness of strangers.

Special thank to my outstanding editors, Sonya White for the first pass and tedious line editing, and to Mike Shoemaker for the final editing and re-writing chores. You are both treasures beyond compare.

Nita is a romance writer and a member of Romance Writers of America, Gulf Coast Chapter RWA, Georgia Romance Writers, and the Kiss of Death Chapter. She is a retired secretary who loves to read and write.

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