Twenty five years of reporting can make a person a bit cynical about humanity, and I confess to falling victim to exactly that. But, now and then, something happens that reminds me not everybody is hurtling along the self-centered, materialistic fast track to hell. Case in point, our experience this past weekend in Connecticut–home of David Letterman and some mighty rich folks who are not part of this story.
We were northbound on the Merritt Parkway, on our way home from a quick trip to the bedside of an ailing family member in Pennsylvania. A little ways south of Wallingford, we heard a deep boom, and saw smoke rising from a vehicle two cars ahead of us. When we pulled alongside the weary-looking van, we could see a gaping hole where the left rear tire had blown out. Hats off to the van driver for managing to steer the injured machine off the parkway safely, with no harm to those of us around him.
But that’s not what really inspired us. It was the sequence of events that unfolded a few minutes later. As we approached the Wallingford exit, we heard a very strange noise from underneath our car. It sounded like our tire had gone flat. I crawled down the exit ramp and into a convenience store parking lot. Sure enough, the left rear tire was flatter than a pancake. It was about 3:30 on a Sunday afternoon, in a town we didn’t know, and we were still five hours from home. What are you gonna’ do?
When I looked up from the deflated tire I saw a tire store right across the street, but that particular chain is apparently not open on Sunday afternoon, at least not in Connecticut. My wife started searching the Web for other tire stores in the area while I walked inside to ask the man running the convenience store if he had any suggestions. In somewhat limited English, he told me there were “too many” stores in both directions along the street out front, but he didn’t know if any of them could fix a flat tire.
We put in a call to AAA. They said they’d send somebody out to put the temporary spare on for us, but he wouldn’t be there for 45 minutes and he couldn’t fix the flat. The temporary spare is only good for about 50 miles, which meant we couldn’t limp home on it. Things were looking bleak. And then…
As I contemplated an unplanned overnight in Wallingford, a young man with a Tennessee license plate on his pickup truck pulled in to gas up. Next thing I knew he walked over to me and asked if we needed some help. I told him our situation and he immediately offered to put on the temp tire for us. I told him AAA was coming for that, but we couldn’t find anyplace to get the flat fixed. He’d already noticed the darkened tire store across the way. He thought for a moment and came up with Pep Boys. He said he’d go back to his truck and see if he could find one nearby. I thanked him, but didn’t expect he’d find anything.
While he was gone, the AAA van arrived (in far less than 45 minutes, by the way). A very business-like technician had us sign all the necessary paperwork and then got to work installing the temp. As he labored at that, the young man with the Tennessee plates returned with news that a Pep Boys store about fifteen minutes back down the parkway was open Sunday. He gave me their phone number.
The initial response from the young man who answered the phone at Pep Boys was that he wasn’t sure they could fit in a tire repair before closing at 6:00. I explained our situation: Mainers far from home in a strange land. Yes, I begged a little. And the young man said, “If you can get here in a half hour or so, we’ll squeeze you in.” The waning afternoon light suddenly seemed to brighten.
The man with the Tennessee plates was still standing by. He told us how to get to Pep Boys, and the AAA guy, who had seemed a bit distant at first, gave us more detailed directions, better than you’d get from Google Maps. And what, minutes earlier, had looked like an unavoidable exile in Wallingford, now looked like nothing but a slight delay. We thanked the man from Tennessee and the AAA technician, profusely, and headed south on a temporary tire, 4-way flashers warning parkway jackrabbits that a wounded vehicle was limping along the highway.
We reached Pep Boys and met the young man who’d answered the phone. When I gave him our home address, he said, “Oh, Maine. That’s a beautiful place. I’ve always meant to get up there.” As I handed over the car keys, he offered some suggestions for a place within walking distance where we could eat while they replaced the tire. When we returned a half hour later, the car was waiting out front of Pep Boys. As I paid for the work, I thanked the young man for rescuing us, and told him if he ever comes up to Maine, I’ll buy him a lobster. He said that sounded good. And we got back on the parkway and headed home.
No heavy thoughts here, but some warm ones. Just a realization, once again, that there are some really nice people out there, willing to make your problem their problem for a few minutes. We are truly grateful to those three men. I hope the guy from Pep Boys comes to claim his lobster, someday. He’s got my phone number.