It was dangerously hot - warnings were issued. From the Rockies to the Appalachians, the heatwave had parked itself over the middle of the country and people were suffering and dying. Farmers were hosing-down their livestock to keep the animals cool. Roads were buckling as the concrete expanded in the heat. Still, we went ahead with our vacation plans, as the weather forecast called for improving conditions.
I had three women in the car: MSL, my mom-in-law, and a good family friend. Our destination was a cousin’s farm in very rural Nebraska. It was the old family homestead where electrical power didn’t show up until the 50’s or phones until the 60’s, and there’s still no running water indoors. Structurally, the house is in good shape, but there’s not much in the way of creature comforts. The homestead has a couple other tumble-down structures, some old cars rusting away, a muddy creek for wading, plenty of pasture for walking, and a whole lot of quiet - this last is why it is such a pleasure to go there. The loudest sounds are the mourning doves and the bees.
We had been on the road to this secluded slice of creation for a few hours when we stopped at a convenience store for gas and iced tea. My Dodge Durango had been running flawlessly, but when I tried to start it after filling the tank, it wouldn’t crank. I tried and tried, and nothing happened: not a tick, not a cough … nothing. I opened the hood because I didn’t know what else to do, and stood there in the heat, sweating and swearing. I just couldn’t believe that this vehicle, which had been running fine all morning, was now going to leave me stranded, in a tiny Nebraska town, on a Sunday afternoon when, even if there were any mechanics in town, they would have been closed. And it was the hottest damn day of the year.
The ladies and I pushed the Durango away from the gas pumps so I could swear at it without being in anyone else’s way. MSL said, “I think I’ll ask for help”. Customers had been coming and going and for such a small town, the store seemed to be doing a brisk business. The teenager working the register wasn’t sure what she could do for us.
The very next customers - a man and a woman - rode in on an ATV with a cooler strapped to the back. Rednecks. His head was shaved, his chest was big, sunglasses obscured his eyes and he swaggered when he walked. This is who MSL approached for assistance. I wasn’t optimistic, but he came toward me across the parking lot.
“No. It’s been running fine for two hundred miles and we just stopped here for ga”
“Got the key?” he interrupted me.
I handed it to him. He gave it a try and it was dead for him, too.
“Come on”, he pointed with his head toward the store.
On the way, he said something to the woman, who got onto the ATV and left. We went inside where my ladies were waiting in the air conditioning. He walked behind the counter, which seemed to surprise the teenager, and rifled through the shelves until he found a phone book. After a minute he had marked two of the yellow pages.
“Got a phone?”
“You’re gonna call this towing company. Have them come pick the car up and take it to this shop in Sioux City.” And then he stood there watching me, to be sure I got on the phone. I didn’t know who the hell this dude was, but he certainly had a command bearing and I wasn’t going to cross him. While I was on the phone, the woman returned, and the dude and my ladies went outside.
I finished making the towing arrangements and went outside, myself, in time to see my ladies, the woman and the man getting into a Chevy Suburban. Dude handed me a sticky note with his first name and a phone number on it. “Call me after they get your car.” And then they were gone.
My wife, my mother in law, and a great friend just drove away in the truck of a complete stranger, going God knows where, leaving me stranded and alone. It took a while for the tow truck to come, and while I waited, I thought it might be smart to grab my backpack with a few essentials, because I didn’t really know what was going on, or when or where would see my wife or my car again.
The wrecker came and winched the Durango onto the bed and disappeared down the road, and I called the number “Doug” had given me.
“I’ll be right there”
And he was, just moments later.
I climbed into the same Chevy Suburban that my wife had disappeared in an hour earlier. We turned onto a dirt road directly behind the convenience store and climbed a steep hill. Doug introduced himself properly to me and I to him. At the top, where it was flat, was a nice compound with a house and a barn. Immediately inside the front door I could hear the voices of my ladies. I found them around a table with Theressa, Doug’s wife, drinking lemonade and talking like they’d known each other forever.
Doug poured me a glass and before I could sit at the table he said, let me show you my man-cave. We went outside to the barn where he had a shop for woodworking, a long-term car restoration project in-progress, a pool table and fridge and a big TV and other stuff essential to manliness. I was impressed - the dude had it all.
We went outside, around the other side of the house and he showed me that this hill is actually the bluff marking the edge of the historic valley of the Missouri River. From here, they could look out over three states: Nebraska, Iowa, and South Dakota. He showed me the garden and the goats, and I wondered how he had time to work on cars and gardens, and tend the goats, and play pool and watch TV and, presumably, have a job, too.
It was hot enough that we didn’t spend much time outside and when we went back in, my ladies asked if I had seen the pictures of their kids on the wall. It was kind of a strange thing to ask me, because MSL knows I’m not terribly interested in such things. But I politely went to the hallway which was covered in portraits, and asked “OK which ones are your kids?”
“All of them”
“Huh?” I counted. Twenty-one.
Let that sink in for a minute: Doug and Theressa had 21 kids, ranging in age from 20s down to elementary school. The older ones were away at careers, college and the military. Younger ones were at friends’ houses, the swimming pool, or right downstairs. A few of the kids were Doug and Theressa’s own biological production, and the rest were adopted. No distinction was made between the two. This would explain both Doug’s command bearing, and his kindness. With 21 kids, the house needed a clear sense of who was in charge, and taking people in was their thing.
The goats and the garden were the responsibility of the kids, as was much of the house work. A calendar on the wall listed everyone’s duties for the day. Doug and Theressa ran a tight ship. At an unseen, unheard signal, a few came upstairs to begin making dinner. Salad and spaghetti were on the menu and appeared to be prepared in enormous quantities, and yes, we were expected to stay and eat. How could we not? We had no other place to go, and no way to get there. As nice as Doug and Theressa were, it hadn’t escaped my attention that we were in a Hotel California kind of situation: it was pleasant and we were being taken care of, but leaving wasn’t an option. I had all kinds of questions in my head: where would we spend the night, how would I get to the repair shop in the morning, how could I get out of this situation of being dependent upon strangers? It was hard to relax and allow them to serve me.
After we had eaten, we went about the business of securing lodging for the night. We called a Sioux City motel which was within walking distance of the car repair shop, and booked a room. This put me more at ease. Doug and Theressa thought it was too early to simply take us back to the motel, so we went for a drive - they showed us a state park, and their church. The Missouri River was flooding at the moment, so we stopped at an overlook to watch the water. It was a pleasant afternoon with people who had serendipitously become our friends.
Later, Doug drove us to our Sioux City motel, we shook hands and thanked him profusely, and I thought that would be the end of our encounter. But he said “I’ll pick you up at 7:00 in the morning and we’ll go get your car.” I tried to decline, saying I surely could walk that far, but Doug wouldn’t hear of it.
And the next morning, at 7-sharp, Doug was in the motel lobby. He drove me to the repair shop, and I was relieved to see my Durango in the holding lot. As I got out of the car, again I thanked him and tried to shake hands, but he turned the car off and said, “I’m going in with you.”
Inside, it was chaos. The customer service counter was besieged by a crowd of folks who all wanted work done, now. But Doug marched right to the front of the line and one of the servicemen greeted him by name. Doug said to him, “This is my friend Chris, that’s his Durango that was towed in last night. He needs to get on the road as soon as possible, and you know why I brought him here.” The serviceman nodded. And then to me Doug said, “If you’re still here in an hour, call me.” And with that, he turned and pushed through the crowd and left. I went to the waiting room to watch TV and look at magazines.
Precisely an hour later, car fixed, as I was pulling into the motel driveway, my phone rang. Doug was checking up. Clearly he was a guy accustomed to giving orders, seeing them carried out, and following up, just to be sure. It was unfortunate that my car had malfunctioned, but a blessing to have met Doug and Theressa, who then devoted an entire afternoon and some of the next morning to our well-being. I am forever grateful, and I’m sharing this story because the concept of hospitality is on my mind right now. I’ll tell you more next week.