Robert Hitt Neill column

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Stranger needed to help change tire on side of the road

We were returning from one of those Mass-Class High School Reunions, which was held about two hours from home. Onliest bad thing about Mass-Class Reunions for small towns is, the towns often don’t have a facility that will work for several hundred folks who want to sit and talk while they eat and drink, with old friends whom they haven’t seen in years, or sometimes even decades.

At any rate, we had been to one of those affairs and enjoyed it thoroughly, until the band began playing too loudly for anyone to even shout over.  We retired from the Reunion before 11 p.m. to the Inn where we were spending the night.

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Got up the next morning at the crack of 7:30 and I glanced out the window to see if it was raining, for we had planned to make it home in time for Sunday School and church. The day was clear, but my car was sitting catty-wampus.  The passenger side rear tire was almost flat!

No sweat: I always carry a couple of cans of that Flat-Fix stuff. You know the recommended motto: “Prepare for the worst and hope for the best.”

 That ain’t my own motto; mine, through years of painful experience, has evolved into: “Prepare for the worst, ‘cause it’s coming sooner than later.”  

Accident Prone is a poor definition of my life: my own mother used to say I could just walk through the room and pictures would fall off the walls. I got out a can of Flat-Fix, pumped it into the tire, then cranked up and drove several blocks to give the stuff the recommended coverage.

While at a service station, I went ahead and put some more air in the tire.  A half-hour later when we left, it looked fine.

But 45 minutes up the road, I felt the telltale shimmy and heard a whine. I pulled over on the four-lane highway right in front of Dan’s BBQ at Pocahontas, Mississippi.

Sure enough, the tire was nearly flat; no sense in wasting another can of Flat-Fix. I was going to have to change the tire. I’ve had that car three years and had to ask Betsy to look in the Manual to see where they hid the lug wrench.

Turns out that it is cleverly camouflaged into the jack handle. Three years of dust and rust had almost taken its toll, though. The fold-out part wouldn’t fold out.

I was almost to the point of maybe using some mechanical language I had learned in the Navy, when a car pulled over behind me and a man got out, looking a little surprised hisownself.  

“I NEVER stop for strangers,” he commented in wonder. “But do y’all need any help?”

Just as I exclaimed, “Do you have a lug wrench?” the lug wrench finally creakily unfolded from the jack handle.

 “Wait, maybe I got it figured out!” I called. He turned and walked over to kneel down and spin the lugs off as I loosened them. That dude with the electric torsion wrench had almost gotten them too tight for an old guy trying to make Sunday School still over an hour away.

Our Good Samaritan introduced himself as Alec, who had not left Jackson in time to make it to Greenwood Baptist in time to go with his mother.

Since he wasn’t going to make it in time anyway, he figured he might as well help us.

He calmed me down, found a lug nut I’d lost, stopped me when I had jacked high enough, and loaded the flat tire into the trunk as I finished tightening the lugs.

“My hands are dirty,” I observed as I stuck one out to shake with him.

“Mine are, too,” he grinned as he clasped my hand.

He then repeated his initial greeting, again wonderingly: “Funny, I never stop for strangers.”

I introduced myself after I had wiped my hands on an old tee-shirt from the trunk, by taking a copy of my book THE BAREFOOT DODGERS from the trunk and signing it to him.

He teaches English at Hinds Community College.  He stayed behind us all the way to Yazoo City, where we parted ways.  I hope he got to church with his momma.  He’d gotten a good start on it this Sunday.

Yet I had to think, you know, I seldom stop for folks on the side of the road any more. When I remarked on that to the Choir (I did make it back in time!), one soprano said of her husband, “Why, Frank always stops!”

Well, I resolved to do so too. Thanks to a stranger who says he never stops.