The Kindness of Strangers

The summer I got married, I decided to take a trip alone about a month before the wedding. It was one last spurt of independence for what I thought would be years of partnered travel.

These were the days before cell phones and GPS. I planned my journey with maps and wrote to the people I’d be visiting to get directions to their homes. My goal was a day at the beach. I planned my visits and route so that I could get to Atlantic City. I promised my mom I’d check in with my fiancé daily, although what he’d do if I disappeared I have no idea. I was a city girl and would be careful.

I set out on a sunny hot Midwest summer afternoon in my used Chevy Monza, with the windows down (no air) and the AM radio blasting. I drove until I was tired and stopped at a motel somewhere off the highway past Columbus, Ohio. The desk clerk checked me in and gave me the key to a room right off the lobby. In retrospect, I’m sure it was a gesture of chivalry, keeping the young single woman travelling alone out of harm’s way.

The following morning, I drove a few hours into Pennsylvania, taking side roads to visit the town where my grandmother lived when she first came to America, where her father had died in a coal mine accident. The modern shops and vehicles didn’t match my mental picture.

On the Pennsylvania Turnpike, my father’s voice echoed in my head when the signs by the tunnels nagged me to turn on my headlights and take off my sunglasses. I did as a I was told, driving deep into the mountain, lights flashing on the tiled walls, finally exiting on the other side into the bright sunlight.

My first visit was in Philadelphia to a friend from college, with his wife and baby daughter. We spent the following day, a Sunday, walking the historic sites of downtown Philadelphia, and I watched the baby while they sailed a small boat in a park lagoon. When I told them my plans for Atlantic City the next day, they encouraged me to come back and stay another night.

I left bright and early as my friends went off to work. In Atlantic City, I carefully locked my Monza and pinned the key to the shoulder strap on the swimsuit I wore under my clothes. I carried a beach bag with a towel. My flip flops slapped the boardwalk as I strolled to the beach. I spread my towel in the hot sand a few feet away from kids building sand castles, men in speedos and women in bikinis baking in the sun.  Whenever the sun became too warm, I headed for the ocean, swimming out till I was neck-deep and floating at the whim of the waves.

After a final night in Philadelphia, I started the long drive to my next destination. The day was even hotter. As fast as I drank water, I sweated it out. Somewhere in Indiana, steam rose from the hood of my car and the temperature gauge needle surged past high. I parked on the shoulder and opened the hood. The radiator hissed. I knew enough not to open it to check the fluid level until it cooled. I grabbed a book and sat in the grass at the side of the road to wait.

Only a few minutes later, a semi pulled up. Two men got out and walked back to me. The driver puffed out his chest, hitched up his pants and said, “What do we have here? Need some help?”

“Oh,” I said, “I think it’s my radiator. I’m just waiting for it to cool so I can check the fluid level.”

The man put his hand on the cap and let go fast. He pulled a rag from his pocket and quickly twisted the cap off.

“Looks like you have a crack. Do you have any water?”

I handed him the cup from my car and he poured it in.

“You should be okay. Just make sure you keep filling it up.”

I thanked them and drove off as they strode back to their truck.

My next stop was an Illinois farm where another friend raised champion Cheviot sheep that had paid her way through college. I added water to the radiator that evening and more in the morning. After a night visiting, I went on to see my brother at the house he rented near his university campus. Again, I filled the radiator and packed more water for the trip home.

My car limped the final miles home, a new radiator in its future.

As I tell this story, I reflect on how much life has changed. My daughters taking a similar vacation would ask Siri for directions and listen to music on their smartphones on the ride. If their car broke down, I’m sure we would get a call and keep them company while they waited for AAA to come and help. I know they have close friends and family that would come to their aid the same way I did. I only hope they, and all of us, could still depend on the kindness of strangers.

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