As most everyone knows, I write primarily fiction and poetry – a thankless occupation, if I may say, one I often wonder why I pursue. Occasionally, I will do a book review and, rarely, a travel piece. Seldom do I write essays about my experiences in life or about my day-to-day observations. I leave those things for my stories and poems, incorporating them, however so intentionally or not, into the characters and plots, the lines and stanzas that make their way down from Parnassus and, somehow, into my head. But the other day, I had an experience that was so heartening– a piece of happenstance that challenged, in its small way, my view of life and revived my faith in humanity and in myself — that I decided to make this posting.
I was headed up to Harrisonburg to pick up my daughter from James Madison University for the Thanksgiving break. It’s her first semester there, and we were looking forward to her return home and to spending a week catching up on her experiences. Cruising along I66, I slowed down as I passed an accident on the left shoulder – nothing major, it seemed: no injuries, no catastrophic damage. Satisfied (an awful thing really, for we drivers tend to gawk at whatever drama unfolds along the arteries we ply so tediously, getting titillated when some poor soul is pulled over by the highway patrol or when tow trucks are dragging away their haul), I continued on when I heard a rather loud pop. I knew I had run over some debris but thought nothing of it and simply moved on.
Not long after, however, I heard the dull thudding of rubber against road and realized I had had a blow out, so I pulled off to the side of the highway, cursing, I might add, the fact that I was in the middle of nowhere (outside Middleburg, in fact) and did not feel particularly in the mood for changing a tire.
So I did what I normally do in such circumstances – I reached for the glove compartment to search for my insurance card so I could call roadside assistance. Unfortunately, there was no card so I started to call my wife when a white Chevrolet Sonic pulled up in front of me in, what I assumed, was simply a nice gesture. After all, I had my cell phone and was not completely stranded. Inconvenienced, yes, but there was nothing a good Samaritan could do about that.
So I put away my phone and watched as a guy of about 35 got out of his car and made his way toward me – a guy, I might add, with long stringy hair, a red bandana tied around his head, tattoos here and there and a physique that would make any Southern Virginia redneck proud.
“I’m on my way hunting,” he said to me gingerly as I opened my door to greet him. “Thought I’d stop to lend a hand.”
Now my feelings about country rednecks are pretty much the same as most people who come from the city. Rough and gruff would pretty much sum it up. Uncouth, perhaps. Racist. Intolerant of anyone who is not lily white. I suppose one could come up with any number of negative stereotypes and it would fit the bill. As for hunting: I’m card-carrying anti-NRA, and while I would not begrudge anyone the simple pleasure of stalking, terrorizing and mutilating an innocent member of the Bambi clan, I certainly would not participate in such senseless brutality myself. I may not be a member of PETA and I do love chicken and beef, but I am not one to harm a harmless animal.
And now, here I had standing before me the personification of all my stereotypes. But when one is in a jam, things suddenly take a turn (remember that Crosby, Stills and Nash song about two enemy soldiers stranded together in the middle of the jungle?).
“You got a working cigarette lighter?” he asked me. “If you do, I have a pump we could use.”
Now let me set this straight: this person was not menacing, though the red bandana evoked visions of flag-flaunting confederate defenders or of motorcycle gangs terrorizing middle-class families in their SUV’s. Nor did he seem to have an ounce of bigotry in him. In fact, he was quite a friendly chap who seemed rather content to delay his imminent hunting escapade with his uncle to help out a complete stranger.
My tattooed acquaintance attached his portable pump to the nozzle on the flat tire, plugged the other end into the cigarette lighter and, while the pump was doing its thing, announced that he was “going over the ramp to pee.” Several minutes later, he came back to discover that the tire was not inflatable: there was a gaping hole and no amount of air would be able to pump it up, let alone sustain it.
“You got a spare?” he asked.
I opened up the trunk and sure enough there was: not your usual donut either, but a full-sized one which made both of us smile, for he had just offered to escort me to the next exit ramp and the nearest gas station and that, it seemed, would no longer be necessary.
I pulled the spare out and my new-found comrade (how easily we human beings connect — we are, after all, social creatures and times of need cause us to bond quickly) set about changing my tire.
I stood there feeling small and helpless, for I certainly had the ability to change a tire though, as I defensively answered when he explained that one should always loosen the lug nuts before jacking up the car, I hadn’t changed one for perhaps 20 or more years.
Several minutes later — this guy was fast, much faster than I would ever have been — the spare was on, and I placed the flat tire in the trunk and thanked my friend several times, knowing a thank you was not enough and knowing that I would never be able to repay his kindness, for when would I ever see him again?
“What’s your name?” I asked, not having anything else to say.
“Roscoe,” he answered with a smile.
“I don’t know how to thank you, Roscoe,” I said to him, once again. “But I do hope you have a great hunting trip.” (Was I really saying that?, I wondered to myself, even as the words came out).
Roscoe and I shook hands, and he went his way, smiling and happy, I assumed, that he had helped someone in need, ready now to charge straight into his hunting adventure. As for me, I felt quite humbled as I resumed my trip to Harrisonburg, glad to be back on my way, thankful for the Roscoes of this world and cognizant that something significant had just happened. For, I realized, no matter how enlightened we think we might be — no matter how open-minded we tell ourselves we are — we are trapped somehow by ways we sometimes never see.
So, thank you again Roscoe. You have done much more than change a tire.
And rather than just repeating an overspent thank you yet again, here is my vow to you: as you have done to me, so I shall do in your name. And I ask everyone who reads this to do likewise.
Imagine how many deeds we can generate– random acts of kindness, as the cliché goes — and how many misconceptions we can slay, all in the name of Roscoe.