Stopping to Help an Angel

Shawn Mitchell

11/5/2012 12:01:00 AM

 

Americans share the tearful little girl’s pain as she whimpers in the online video sensation: “I’m tired of Bronco Bama and Mitt Romney.” During the one-day calm between the politicians’ arguments and people’s verdict, I’m mulling the public’s approving, even thirsting response to the striking images of the thin, liberal president and portly, conservative governor touring devastated areas in harmony.

The absence of politics is partly an illusion, of course: there may be no Red way or Blue way to get the power back on, or comfort sufferers. But there are certainly differences of view about how to organize and prepare for the next storm, or how to shape the budget that supports public needs.

Those differences will reassert themselves because they’re real. Hugging survivors and distributing water is critical, but in some ways easier than agreeing how to prepare.

Still, something about the moments when helping is all that matters, hands reaching for hands, people lifting people, distils our humanity and decency. Those awful, warming, exhilarating times leave prints on the heart that make us yearn for our better selves.

I once stumbled into helping people who really needed it, in the middle of a desert plain.

After clerking for a Salt lake law firm the summer of 1988, our family headed back to the Bay Area for the second year of classes at Berkeley. My wife flew with our two young children and I set out in our economy sedan, stuffed heavy with meager possessions.

Interstate 80 was mostly empty that evening. It leaves Salt Lake and cuts across the Bonneville Salt Flats, a bleak scape of smooth salty plains spreading over many miles. Eying the vastness, I was startled by an old motor home on the shoulder, and a weathered, bearded, long-haired man shaking a crow bar at me. He seemed a combination of street preacher and angry property owner yelling “Get off my freeway!”

For reasons I didn’t think through and couldn’t explain, I hit the brake hard, nearly skidding to a stop a little beyond his camper.

He loped towards me in a stooped, uneven gait. One arm, not the one still brandishing the tire iron, was withered, with the hand pulled up against his chest. The crowbar shook in the dusk, coming closer. Is this about to get ugly? How will I fare against a disabled man with a weapon? Is he on drugs?

“Thanks for stopping!” he blurted. “I’ve been trying three hours. No one would stop!” 

“You might reconsider your public marketing strategy,” I thought to myself. “What’s wrong, sir?”

“I have a flat tire and my crowbar is the wrong size; it won’t fit the lug nuts on my tire,” he explained. 

A small girl of 5 or 6 emerged from the other side of the vehicle. Skinny, ragged, and seeming vulnerable even for a child, she stepped behind the man and peered at me.

“This is my daughter. Her mom’s gone. We’re traveling to Iowa to be with family.”

My first thought then wasn’t what, sadly, it would be now: Iowa, a Dem-leaning swing state with important early caucuses. Nor did I ask myself or him why he was westbound if he was heading east.

He kept explaining: “I’m a Vietnam vet. That’s where I got hurt,” nodding at his arm and leg. “We got a flat and my crowbar doesn’t fit.”

I had a crowbar in my trunk, under our packed clothing and other stuff. I pulled out enough junk to paw down and extract the iron.  Kneeling back at the tire, I tried to place the cup over the nuts but it was too small. Mine didn’t fit either.

Well, let’s have another look at his. He handed me the iron, I slipped it up to a lug nut, pressed, and it bit firmly. It was the right size.

As I started to contract and pull up on the iron, the painful reality flooded my mind: He wasn’t strong enough to turn the bolts, not with one good arm anyway. He was ashamed to tell his daughter the truth.

She looked to him for protection. Her mom’s gone. What did that mean? Had she died? Left them?

He was all this girl had. He couldn’t bear to tell her he couldn’t do the simple thing they needed. They’d been stuck in one of our land’s most desolate stretches for three hours while he waved for help as motorists passed by.

I relaxed the tension on the iron and pulled it off. “It fits kind of awkward. Let me try again. I think it will work.” I wiggled it a few seconds before resetting it with perfect bite.

“I think that will hold…” I “struggled” to make the iron fit each successive nut. I’ve never changed a tire with moist blurry eyes before or since then.

Driving on my way, I felt warmed and yet still condemned. Thank heavens I stopped. How would the rest of their trip would go? How will their life go? Will others be there if they’re needed?

I wondered then, and since, how often I pass someone on the road, at the store—or in my home—who needed big, important help from something little and easy on my part.

Far too often. I need to remember that, whatever happens Tuesday.

Politics matter. Policy matters. Results make big differences. But, being human to each other matters even more. It shouldn’t be a surprise to see an R and a D reaching out to help other people. It’s in our soul.

Neither, though, should we pretend our shared humanity eliminates--or peacefully resolves--our deep and important differences about how to organize.

That’s up to us.