One day a couple of summers ago, I didn’t have a lot of pressing work to do, and I found myself free for lunch. I hopped in my dune buggy and went on a mission for beef nuggets, my favorite menu item. As I like to tell people, beef nuggets are just like chicken nuggets…only with meat.
On my way home from Decorah, I saw an interesting scene on the side of the road about three miles from Ridgeway. Two vehicles were parked along the shoulder and several occupants were standing in the ditch. Yet there appeared to be no fire in either of the vehicles. I kept going without breaking my pace. Right as I went by, I noticed that the minivan on the side of the road had a jack under the passenger side rear tire. The crowd standing in the ditch appeared to be high school or college-age young ladies. (It’s not that I’m old, but I can’t tell the difference between 17 and 19 like I used to.) A guy was jacking up the van. He appeared to be the only male in the group.
Three events went through my head in succession. The first one was my Good Samaritan experience in the buggy a couple years ago, which was a blast. The second one was a similar situation on I-494 in Minneapolis where I drove by and didn’t stop to help a guy in the same position, because traffic looked ugly that day and I questioned the safety of being that nice a guy. The third one was a story I saw about a guy who did stop to help a fellow motorist and got run over for his trouble. The story was about the benefit being held for him to pay his medical expenses. On balance, the odds said I had a 33% chance of this being a good thing and a 67% chance of this being the lead in the paper, on TV, and in the opening paragraph of my potentially-soon-to-be-published obituary.
It didn’t take long for me to do the math and decide I felt lucky. Sometimes you just have to take a leap of faith. A quick check of my mirrors told me I could make a quick U-turn and do these people a favor. I had something coming up later in the week where I might need a huge favor or two myself, so building up a balance in advance may not be all bad.
Turning around and pulling up to the shoulder of the road near the assembled group generated a grand total of response of zero from the crowd. No one said a word and no one had any reaction. I climbed out the ultra-discreet GuyNo2Mobile, walked over to the guy running the tire iron, and announced, “Hi. Need any help?”
Once again, the hills were alive with the sound of crickets. Not a word was said by anyone — not the eight or ten young adults, not the roughly 50-year-old Hispanic lady by the rear of the van who appeared to be the driver, and not by the roughly 50-year-old guy running the tire iron. We all stood in silence as he kept working on the remaining lug nuts. It was surreal. My leap of faith appeared to be shifting the odds to 1-to-4 for roadside Samaritan success.
When I pulled up, I noticed that the van had Howard County license plates on it, which meant it could be as little as 10 miles from home. Once I got back to the work area and didn’t have to spend my time being chatty with everyone, I noticed that the fairly new Nissan pickup behind us also had Howard County plates on it. Yet I didn’t recognize a soul in the group. My first thought when passing these people was that they were Luther College students on some kind of outing. They seemed to have the diverse look to them that says, “I attend Luther College, but I probably won’t do anything practical with my degree for at least six years after graduation.” Although, the van wasn’t really Luther College caliber. It looked extremely practical. It also looked extremely experienced.
The lug nuts were finally off. The rim did not want to get divorced from the hub. It took Tire Iron Guy a couple good whacks to bust it loose. Thinking ahead a step or two, I asked him if he wanted me to run the tire up to Hanson’s (the Goodyear dealer in Cresco) to get fixed. Tire Iron Guy gave me an unbelievably noncommittal answer. He looked at me like I said I enjoy scallops, but only on Thursdays. He then started to crawl under the back of the van. “They’ve got a spare under here.”
We were making progress. By his voice, I could tell “they” meant he wasn’t really acting as the representative of the group, but he wasn’t totally distancing himself from them and coming to my side either.
I got on one knee and took a look under the van. Just as I suspected from the tire and hub marriage, the separation of spare and van frame was going to be a messy divorce proceeding. Even money says the spare won’t have enough air in it if we do get it busted loose. Had I been driving the Ranch Hand, this would be different. I could whip out the air hose and do all kinds of feats with it. I had the buggy, though, and added features are not its strong suit.
Once again, I asked about the idea of taking the tire to get fixed and then putting it back on instead of using the spare. Tire Iron Guy was again pretty indifferent, as was everyone else. Not a word was said. I took the tire and began to carry it toward the buggy as I repeated my intentions. “I’ll run this up to Hanson’s and be back in a while. It won’t take long.”
Again, the conspicuous sound of crickets.
Most of this time, the group of students hadn’t really done much or moved around much. As I went by with the tire on my way to the buggy, they remained in neutral. No questions were asked. No advice was given. Eight or ten X-chromosomes, and not a single one had a conflicting idea or suggestion for me. I expected Alan Funt to hop out from behind a nearby shrub at any moment. He never showed up, so I put the tire in the buggy, fired it up and headed west. I was not overcome by warm fuzzies.
As I got to Ridgeway, I made a decision. If the proprietor of Glen’s Service Station was around, I would try my luck with him instead of driving the extra eight miles to Hanson’s in Cresco. Sure enough, Glen was in the shop. I explained my situation and Glen took the tire to start working on it. As soon as he got it loose from the rim, he said the word you never want to hear in a tire shop.
Glen pulled the tire to the side and showed me the inside. The inside of the tire had a substantial pile of tiny little rubber shavings in it. That meant the tire was wearing out from the inside. Glen said he didn’t want to put the tire back on, because he didn’t think it would hold air. I reviewed the facts with him: A vehicle with Howard County plates, and probably a small budget, needs to get maybe 15 miles total. A fixed-but-less-than-ideal tire would get them there. A new tire would require some negotiation or approval from the van’s owner(s). Fix the tire, Glen. It’s not that bad. I have faith in it to make it all the way to Cresco. Worst-case scenario, they’ll get partway to Cresco and I can do a better job on the next flat with the Ranch Hand if they’re closer to my place.
Glen started putting the tire on again and then paused. “I’d really rather put a used one on than this thing.”
Now we’re talking options, Glen! How much will it cost and what do you have for a used one?
“I charge ten for a used one.”
Ten whole dollars??? I figured that meant putting it on, but I also figured a used one can’t cost more than $25, so we went in search of a used tire. Lo and behold, we found one! Glen slapped it on and had me ready to go in no time. We went to the office to do the paperwork. The total bill? Ten bucks for everything! I felt like asking if he sold lottery tickets, but I decided to squelch my glee and hit the road after handing him a twenty and getting ten back.
When I pulled up to the waiting van on the side of the road, several of the assembled group actually began to jump up and down and shout, “He came BACK! HE ACTUALLY CAME BACK!!!” as they hugged each other in mass hysteria.
I smiled and got the tire out of the back seat as I headed for the van. One skeptic had a burning question for me as I went by her and she looked back at the buggy. “Who’s Guy Number One?”
Sticking with the brevity theme, I said, “I have an older brother.”
Case closed. The prosecution rested.
Tire Iron Guy was nowhere to be seen, so I began putting the tire on myself. After I got a couple of lug nuts on, the inquisition began again. Still feeling mildly creeped out, I decided to be somewhat evasive and vague in my answers.
“What’s your name?”
“Are you from around here or something?”
Yep, I live west of here, towards Cresco.
About that time, Tire Iron Guy appeared. I got the last of the lug nuts on, and he began letting the jack down. Curiosity finally got the best of me and I asked him what his name was. He apparently followed my lead.
You from around here?
“I live in Cresco.”
Oh, okay. What’s your last name, Mike?
That’s when it got really weird. Leaning into the van like he was looking at the tire, and sort of whispering in a voice the others couldn’t hear, he said, “I…don’t…remember.”
Cue The Twilight Zone theme! This was major creepy. Yet, it sort of made sense.
I got ya, Mike. You with these people?
“Nope. I just happened to be driving by.”
Okay. We’re now some sort of Samaritan Blood Brothers or something, I think. Let’s not make any sudden moves and maybe we’ll all get out of here in good shape.
Next, one of the chatty members of the group stepped in with a question. “So, do you two know one another?”
Look at the ground. Answer, but keep looking at the ground. In the Stephen King movie, your head always explodes if you look them in the eyes. Look at the ground! Short answers. No details.
Great answer, Mike! But, like an idiot, I gave in to a Midwestern reflex. “So, where are you folks from?” I asked.
With an unbelievable amount of glee, multiple people responded in unison, “We’re from the mission in Cresco!”
Whoa! Suddenly a lot of stuff made sense. I didn’t know much about “the mission,” because it seemed to want to keep a low profile in our community. Whatever its “mission” was, it seemed you had to join the club to find out what the heck it was.
Mike and I got the tire back on and the jack put away. It was time to hit the road. I turned to head for the buggy and was greeted with several cheers and shouts of thank you. Not a dime was offered for my services or for the tire I bought them. Frankly, I was feeling lucky to get off that hook for only ten bucks and an hour’s worth of, I don’t know, entertainment, I guess. It was the first time I’d gone anywhere without both my cell phone and my business cards. Talk about lucky! Not that I wouldn’t want to build a long-term friendship with everyone involved that day or anything, but I really wanted to slip away as anonymously as possible. You know, what with me wearing no hat and everything, how tough could that be? “Yes, officer, he was a tall, bald man with a knobby skull. He was driving a bright yellow dune buggy with ISU Cyclone plates that said ‘GUY NO2.’ Do you think we’ll ever find him? He’ll probably blend right into the scenery, don’t you think?”
Anyway, my next day was much better. My Samaritan habits were rewarded quite handsomely. On the balance sheet of life, things have a way of coming out even for me — no matter how big a leap that sometimes seems.