Just the Other Day: Good Sam

Everyone likes to hear their name, even when it’s not necessarily referring to them. I tend to have a special feeling for people, characters and places that share my namesake. For example, when Tom is chasing Jerry, I always root for the cat. Tom Terrific is my favorite cartoon hero; Tom Selleck was the best TV detective ever and Tommy Johnson Jr., is my favorite drag racer.


Last Sunday morning, I stopped for gas in historic Wallace, Idaho. It’s an absolutely beautiful town nestled in the Rocky Mountains. I got online and checked church schedules and found I was too early for mass at St. Alphonsus, in Wallace. If I drove down the road another hour, I would be twenty minutes early for the 11:00 mass at St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho – another gorgeous town. What are the chances I would be in one of my favorite places in the world, the Rocky Mountains, just in time to catch mass at a church bearing my same name? I smiled and drove west.


The morning was beautiful; the scenery around me, the cool fresh morning air – I could just feel it, this was going to be a good day.


Inside, I visited the washroom before mass. While I was washing my hands, a priest came in to wash his hands also. He asked where I was from. We chatted for a few moments and he said, “You’re going to like it here. The people are very welcoming and friendly. I’m glad you’re joining us today.” He made me feel right at home.


Sunlight shining through the stained-glass windows filled the church with brilliant, warm colors. The organ began to play and the processional began. There must have been at least six seminarians on the altar joining in the celebration of mass. I really enjoyed that. Father John delivered a very interesting homily that held my attention from beginning to end – It was a spiritually rewarding morning for me. After mass, June and I continued west on I-90.


The next morning, I stopped at a rest area in Coburg, Oregon, about ten miles from our destination. On the sidewalk across from where my car was parked, an old man sat on an upside down five-gallon bucket. Next to him was an empty red plastic coffee can and a sign that read, “Three things are forever: Faith, Hope and Love. Love is the most important.” Nobody stopped to talk to the old man to say hello, or good morning, let alone asking if he needed help. People looked the other way to avoid making eye contact as they walked past him. The man just sat quietly with his can and sign.


After I fed my dog, June, I walked over to the man. His truck was parked in front of him. It was an older, beat-up, white Ford pickup. Both taillights had been broken and were covered with red plastic film, fastened to the truck with duct tape.  The glass door was missing from his topper, allowing me to see inside, where there was a makeshift bed and what appeared to be all of his possessions. The side windows had old towels hanging over them as curtains.


Although he was sitting down, I could tell he was a fairly tall man. His white hair and beard were not washed, but they were combed. Missing most of its buttons, his thin, blue cotton shirt was open, exposing his chest. He wore tan pants that were dirty and his slip-on, loafer style shoes were very worn. I greeted the man with a simple, “Good morning.”


“What’d you say?” He practically shouted back


Quite a bit louder, I repeated “Good morning.” then asked, “Have you had anything to eat?”


With his hand, he cupped his ear toward me, “You have to speak up. I don’t hear so good anymore.”


The rest of our conversation, although civil, was just short of yelling at each other in order for him to hear me. I asked again if he’d had anything to eat. He tipped his red coffee can to look inside. It was empty. “Well, not yet.” he said. I asked if he would like something to eat. “Well, I’m a little hungry.” he said in a humble but loud voice, “I suppose I could eat a bite.” I asked if he would like a bowl of Cheerios, or, if he’d rather have a sandwich? “A sandwich would be good if it’s not too much trouble.”


I lifted the tailgate of my Subaru, then opened my cooler. On a paper plate, I prepared a ham and cheese sandwich with some chips on the side, a few baby carrots and four big, fresh strawberries. I balanced the plate on a banana and the palm of my left hand. I tucked a plastic spoon in my shirt pocket and pinched a single serving can of pork and beans under my arm. In my other hand I carried a gallon of water.


The old man was appreciative and set the plate in his lap. I asked if he would like a banana, “Sure, bananas are good.” he said. I gave him the fruit and the water. I offered the can, asking if he would like some beans. His eyes got wide and a big grin shot over his face, “I really like beans.” I gave him the beans and the spoon, then left him to enjoy his meal.


June and I went for a twenty-minute walk around the rest area. I kept thinking about the way the man’s face lit up when I offered him those beans. I had another can in the car and decided I would give him those as well.


I offered him the second can of beans, “Well I can’t eat them now, but I’ll take them for later, if you don’t mind.”  I handed them to him and struck up a conversation. I learned his name was Darrel and he had served in the Army.


“The VA hospital takes pretty good care of me. They keep saying they’re going to get me a hearing aid, but they ain’t done it yet. I think they forgot me.” He shook his head, “I can’t complain though,” he said pointing to a long, purplish colored scar on his chest, “they fixed my heart and I need my heart more than my hearing.”  Darrel coughed as he laughed about that.


“I’ve got another scar where they took out my appendix and several scars where I got shot when I was in the Army.” Darrel got quiet for a moment, reflecting, then said, “When I got home from Vietnam no one seemed interested in hiring me for a good job, so I spent most of my life working in restaurant kitchens until I got too old. Now I get a little disability and social security. It ain’t much, but it helps.” He scratched his beard, then picked up his bible, “I’ve already served my country and my community. Whatever time I got left, I’m going to spend serving my Lord.”


Darrel paused, then smiled, “I’m not going to sit somewhere watching TV, so I come here. Maybe I’ll get a few dollars to get something to eat or maybe I’ll meet someone like you to talk with for a bit.” I felt good for spending some time with Darrel.  As much as he was hungry for food, he was lonely – yearning for someone to talk to. I handed him a little cash, we said our farewells, then June and I headed west to Eugene, Oregon.


After reaching my destination and finishing my business, I started the long trek east; headed home. I had a story bouncing around in my head. It was one of those stories that was so clear, there was no way I could forget it. It was the story about Darrel. A little voice kept whispering to me, “You’re going to forget this story if you don’t stop to write it now.” The voice was right and there was a McDonald’s at the next exit, so I pulled off the highway.


Near the end of the exit ramp was a sign with golden arches, an arrow to the right and the numbers 3.5 on it. I don’t like it when a sign is posted for a restaurant so far off the path. I pulled right back onto the highway where two exits later there was another McDonalds – this time right off the end of the ramp. I took that exit.


When I was walking toward the restaurant, I could see a girl with two sizable duffle bags on the ground, standing near the entrance. People seemed to be going out of their way to avoid her. She had stopped a lady and I could see they were talking briefly.  The woman shook her head as if saying no, then went inside.  Another couple stopped, the man shook his head, and they walked by. A third woman just held her hand up toward the girl and kept walking.


As I got closer, I could see the girl was pretty young. We made eye contact, then she quickly looked away. She would glance toward me, then turn away again. Her eyes were red and swollen, her face flushed. I could tell she had been crying.  It seemed like she wanted to address me, but was afraid, or, too embarrassed to say anything, so I asked her if she was okay. She started crying again, “No, I’m really not.” she said. Breathing hard, through her sobs, she asked me, “Are you going anywhere near Portland?”


“I could be.” I responded, “Why don’t you tell me what’s going on.”


The girl explained, “I just got kicked out of rehab because I lost my temper and told one of the counselors what I thought of them.” I told her she probably shouldn’t have done that. “I know,” she said, “and I’m sorry I did it but it’s too late now.”


She went on to tell me she only had a couple dollars and didn’t know what she was going to do. I asked if she had friends in Portland and she said, “My dad lives there.”


“Do you have a cell phone? Can you call him?” I asked.


She explained, “You’re not allowed to have a phone in rehab so my dad has mine.” I offered her my phone to call him. She dialed a couple different numbers and when the party answered she would say, “I’m sorry. I dialed the wrong number.” She looked despondent and said, “I can’t remember his number, it’s in my contacts on my phone.” I suggested she call her own number. When she dialed it, I could hear a message in her voice, “This is Emily. Leave a massage.” She handed the phone back to me. “It went right to voice mail. He doesn’t have it turned on.” She began crying again, “I just want to go home to my dad, but everyone I ask says they can’t help me.”


That really got to me – she needed her dad. I imagined one of our own daughters being stranded and scared and having no one to turn to. I could only hope and pray that someone safe would help my child. “Emily,” I said, “I have to sit down and work on my laptop for about an hour.  If you want to wait for me, I will be driving right through Portland on my way back to Minnesota. I can give you a ride.”


She was genuinely appreciative, thanking me over and over again.  I asked if she had eaten anything, she said, “No, I only have about two dollars on me.” I went to get an iced tea for myself and bought Emily a sandwich and a drink.   When I came back, she fumbled nervously with the sandwich, “Can I ask you something?” I nodded, yes. She said, “You’re not going to kidnap me, are you?”


Her question broke my heart. She was so scared and yet so desperate she was willing to accept a ride from a complete stranger. I forced a smile and said gently, “No Emily, I’m not going to kidnap you. I’m going to get you home safe to your dad.” I asked her how old she was and she told me twenty. I opened my iPad and brought up a picture of our kids to show her. “Emily, I have a daughter just a few years older than you. I hope if they are every stranded and in trouble, someone safe comes along to help them. You are safe.” With that said, she seemed to relax and ate her sandwich.


I was trying to write, but couldn’t stop thinking about Darrel at the rest area that morning, and now Emily. He was hungry – she was scared. Both of them were asking for help, but people just passed them by – going out of their way to avoid any contact. I couldn’t concentrate.


I put my laptop back in the bag. “Come on, Emily. I can work on this later. Let’s get you home to your dad.”  As we walked to the car I said, “I probably should have mentioned, I travel with my dog, June. I hope you’re okay with dogs.”


“I love dogs.” Emily replied. The thought of June being along, seemed to put Emily even more at ease. I put her bags in the back of the car, then introduced Emily to June.  We had a nice visit during the two-hour drive to Portland. She explained to me that she was in rehab for a drug addiction and she really wanted to stay sober. “I’m six weeks clean from being in rehab and I want to stay that way.”


As we got closer to Portland, I told her that when I give people rides, I will only drop them off at a public place. (For my safety, I won’t take them into a residential area.) I dropped her off at the market where her dad worked. I got her bags out of the car and we said our farewells. As she started to walk away, I called to her, “Emily?” She turned around, “Get back into another rehab program. You’re not the only one who struggles with a drug addiction. They will help you.” She set her bags down and came back to give me a hug. That made me feel pretty darn good.


As I headed for home, I kept thinking about the two people I’d met that day. I wondered why the good Lord keeps putting me in places where I run into such people whom I am able to help out.  I don’t know why He does it, but I am sure glad He does.


I started thinking about the recent coincidences in my life. The day before I, Tom, was at St. Thomas the Apostle Church, where I met Father John, of all places – in the john.


Father John gave the best homily with the most in-depth history on the gospel reading I had ever heard. I felt blessed and truly inspired by his homily. Would you like to guess what the gospel reading was? That’s right – the parable of the Good Samaritan.


I said a prayer for the new people I had met over the last day and a half – Father John, Darrel and Emily. I prayed for them, calling each by name. I think everyone likes to hear their name…