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The Kindness of Strangers

by Charles C. Cole

If it’s true what they say, that we judge people by the vehicles they drive, then I must have been temporarily installed high up on a pedestal while the proud owner of a “cherry” 1967 Ford Mustang, getting more attention and, sometimes, critical assistance than I deserved.

It was 1990. In the east, cars were savaged by winter and rust, but cars on the warm west coast were safely removed from bad weather, suffering only from infrequent “sunburn,” which lead to a renewable paint job. In an intersection in Santa Cruz, I once noted eight classic Mustangs on the road. This would never happen in New England.

I was moving from the central California coastline to Maine. Everything I owned was stuffed in that car. At the last minute, aware that I had filled the car to capacity, I tossed a basketball and a pair of cross-country skis behind the shrubs in front of my stucco ranch house — the one with the four grapefruit trees in the back yard — and left an explanation for my roommate.

I was driving solo with the intent of getting to Maine expeditiously to start school at the university. This was not a sight-seeing tour; I stopped only for gasoline, the bathroom, and food. Before it was over, I had driven roughly 66 hours without sleep.

On a blindingly bright day in near-treeless western Nebraska, bleary-eyed and foggy-headed, I accidentally filled my tank with diesel instead of gasoline. Fortunately, I noticed before I started the car. And, fortunately, the best friend of the station owner loved Mustangs. He was visiting and he rolled me to the edge of the lot to drain my tank into the grass — before I could do any permanent damage — over the objections of the station’s owner.

Once, to break up the monotony, I left the major east-west interstate for a while, but I didn’t have a local map and the surface roads weren’t exactly parallel to the route I’d left behind. I was down below a quarter tank and panicked, going further “in country” in search of fuel and food.

The third time a passing vehicle honked at me, I started thinking maybe something was hanging out my driver’s door or dragging behind me, so I pulled over. Nothing. I saw nothing wrong. Then someone drove by in the opposite direction in a white pickup, a total stranger, a grandfatherly sort, honking and waving and smiling.

“Nice car!” he yelled.

The locals were just being friendly. I was driving a celebrity car. I got back in. I came to a heavily settled area with a couple of stores to my right with huge plate glass windows and no business. I crawled forward, checking my car’s reflection with a sort of geek pride. That’s when the police officer pulled me over - for the unexpected offense of driving too close to the curb.

He must have been the last customer at the hardware store that day, because the gentleman with him was apparently locking up. The law man stood on the sidewalk, one foot in the road, and blew a familiar policeman’s whistle, waving me to a stop. I pulled over immediately. Even as the officer approached my driver’s door, another pickup stopped in the other lane immediately across from us.

“Problem?” called the concerned driver, a skinny-faced middle-aged fellow in overalls.

“Let you know in a minute, Hal,” said the officer over his shoulder.

“Sure is a nice-looking car,” said Hal.

“Sure is,” said the officer.

“Don’t see one of them in these parts very often. Maybe he’s on his way to one of those classic auto shows. Don’t want to make him late. I’ll bet people are waiting for him.”

“I’ll keep that in mind. Anything else?”

“I just heard on the radio that a sandstorm is coming our way. I’d hate for such a swell car to get all scratched up because someone got their feelings hurt, especially in an election year.”

“Nobody got their feelings hurt.” The driver wasn’t in any hurry to move on. The officer stood outside my window. His chin and shoulders drooped as he gave in. “Next time don’t drive so close to the curb. Now get out of here.”

“Are you sure?” I asked.

“No, but he is.” He nodded to the man in the truck. “We wouldn’t want you caught in a sandstorm. They can be pretty nasty to cars in these parts. Off you go. Now get.”

“Thank you, sir,” I said and followed his advice. I was still looking in my rearview mirror when I got back on the interstate. It was the last straw; at dusk I eased my way off the highway to the first convenient motel and slept through the night.

In the morning as I dressed, I turned on the news. The weather report had been wrong. It hadn’t been a dust storm I’d escaped after all, but a tornado that had cut a swath right through the center of their town, devastating everything in its path.

I might have been there, stranded or worse, in the middle of the debris and carnage except that some kind stranger insisted, based on some charming middle-American value system, that we save my beautiful vintage pony car from nature’s rage.

In the years since, whenever I hear news of similar acts of large-scale destruction, of senseless tornados beating down on the good people of “Small Town, USA,” I still pause and remember my near-miss with disaster and the friendly folk who ushered me to safety “just because.”

Copyright © 2012 by Charles C. Cole

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