Last Saturday, Ann and I set off eagerly on a long-anticipated campervan trip from Austin to the San Juan Islands in Washington State. At mid-day, our 1971 VW, undone by Texas heat, succumbed to vapor lock. It had happened three days earlier too, and we had immediately made some mechanical improvements. That should have remedied the problem, but it seems that no matter what you do, old VW vans do not run reliably in hot weather. Sitting beside a little-traveled road in cheerless terrain about a hundred miles northwest of Austin, we considered whether it might just be impossible to drive it out of Texas during the summer.
Loading the van and the rooftop luggage carrier that morning had required several hours of hard work and a lot of sweat, and we were a little dehydrated by the time we left. Then in our hurry to get going, we neglected to bring along much water. We were looking for a place to get some, when the van broke down.
After an hour or so of trying unsuccessfully to restart it, thirst threatened to move beyond mere passing discomfort, so I stuck out my thumb to hitch a ride to the next town or crossroads gas station. Several cars passed before one turned around and came back. I told the driver why I needed a lift. She said, “Oh, here,” and handed me one of the several gallon jugs of water that were on the passenger seat.
Her name was Cindy. She was wearing tattered flannel pajamas. Her car had no air conditioning. She was traveling with several gallons of water to fill the boiling-over radiator of the Pontiac she had bought for $300. “I’ll stay with you until you get help,” she said. And she did.
She was on her way to Bangs, a small town farther up the road for a weekend visit with her young daughter who lived there with her mother and sister. Chatting with her was just the distraction we needed. Among, other things, we talked about angels.
BK, the cat, who is in the late stages of kidney failure, lay very still on the floor looking like her life might end at any minute. We turned a battery-powered fan on her, but it blew warm/hot air.
After a while, it became clear that the engine was not going to cool off enough to start, and we called a tow truck. When it was certain he was coming, Cindy went on her way.
While we waited, a man in a car with Colorado plates stopped to help. Later a man in a truck pulling a livestock trailer stopped.
A wrecker operated by one Billy Murphy arrived at 4:00. We climbed up into the cab of the Kenworth, and he drove Ann, BK, me, and the old van back to Austin. BK revived nicely riding on Ann’s lap in front of an air conditioning vent. We talked amiably for the two-hour drive, even though Billy was tired. He works 24/7, and he’d been answering distress calls since before daylight. At the VW garage, which was closed by then, he wouldn’t leave us till someone came to take us home, which was another thirty minutes down the road.
After about an hour, a taxi driven by a man named for the archangel Uriel arrived. Uriel’s lovely fourth-grade daughter, Sophia, was with him. Uriel is proprietor of a one-taxi company. Like Billy, he works all the time. Uriel is a first-generation Mexican-American. His view of Mexicans coming to America without papers was that most are good people, though some are not.
At our apartment, we discovered that I had put our only door key in the drop box at the VW garage. Uriel and Sophia waited until we turned up the one that we had left with my son Murph. He was out of town, but the key was on his desk at the bakery/restaurant he owns. Uriel took me to get it, then at 10:00 or so, he and Sophia started the twenty-mile drive to their home.
A few days earlier, the van had died on a busy street in central Austin. I turned the key and sweated and held up traffic and tried to figure out what to do. A man in a pickup truck stopped to help. He phoned a friend to bring a tow rope, and he pulled me into a nearby parking lot. His name was Joe Rodriguez. He was a cheerful man, covered in construction-work dust and sweat. I tried to give him some money, but he wouldn’t take it. “I have a grandfather,” he said. Then he went back to his job pouring concrete.
A wrecker driven by a proud Marine Corps veteran named Jimmy got to me after a couple of hours. His truck was not air-conditioned, and he was sweating heavily. He assured me that when you think the loving God has gone to sleep, He hasn’t.
I was reminded of an incident from a couple of years earlier when I was felled by back pain while taking a walk. I didn’t have my phone with me, so I couldn’t call for help. I was half lying, half sitting in a gutter and struggling to get to my feet, when a man doing yard work across the street came over to help. He managed to get me into his truck and take me home. He told me his grandmother in Mexico uses a homemade cannabis pouletice for her back trouble.
At about the same moment the van stopped running last Saturday, a man with an assault rifle opened fire on Walmart shoppers in El Paso. At about the same moment Uriel and Sophia were leaving our apartment, a man with an assault rifle opened fire on dancers in Dayton.
The coincidences bring to mind eternal questions. How can an omniscient and loving creator allow suffering? How can brutality and hatred coexist with kindness and generosity? Why do bad things happen to good people? However the question is formulated, I’ve never heard a satisfactory answer. Personally, I don’t require one; the kindness and generosity of Cindy, Joe, Jimmy, Billy, Uriel, Sophia, the yard man and other passing saints are sufficient to keep me going. But then, I’ve never had a relative or friend killed by someone they don’t know while while they are out shopping or dancing.