It was the day before Thanksgiving, 1981. I was in the back seat of my 1974 Oldsmobile ’98, sleeping soundly after driving most of the night. Four college buddies and I started in San Antonio the day before, stopped in St. Louis to drop of three off, and now it was just the two of us, heading north towards Chicago at about six o’clock in the morning.
It was a cool and sunny morning, and I was very much looking forward to getting home to Milwaukee to be with my family and celebrate Thanksgiving together. I was going to college more than 1,100 miles away, so I hadn’t seen them since August. Since we only had a few days before we had to be back in class, we had decided to travel these many miles straight through, stopping only for food, gas and drop offs.
As we neared the town of Litchfield, Illinois the quiet was suddenly replaced by the sound of a shattered windshield. I quickly awoke to find we had gone off the road, hit a temporary road sign, and was careening into a roadside ditch. The driver had fallen asleep behind the wheel. We barreled through the ditch for what seemed an eternity and finally came to a stop, the radiator destroyed and the car very much undrivable.
There we were, two college kids with very little money and a broken car, still many miles from home. So as the police car came and got us a tow into Litchfield I was very skeptical that we could get the car fixed in time to even get back for classes the following Monday. Little did I know I was going to learn a lot about the basic good nature of humanity as the day progressed.
Our first stop was the local garage, and we were greeted with smiles as well as concern – we told our story as the mechanic took a look at the car and then disappeared into a back room, and I was very apprehensive as he returned and began to tell us what he found and what he could do. “Boys”, he said, “It’s your lucky day”. “I just happen to have found the last radiator for a ‘74 Oldsmobile in the whole town of Litchfield – and since I know you are trying to get home for Thanksgiving, I’ll move the repair to the top of the list and we’ll have you out of here by early afternoon”.
Needless to say we were thrilled, but there still was a problem – we didn’t have more than $25 between the two of us. After explaining our financial quandary the mechanic suggested we go the Western Union office up the street and get our parents to wire some money. But first, he suggested “go across the street and get yourself some coffee and breakfast – they know you are coming and they will take good care of you”.
The owners of this diner were even nicer than the person at the garage – they already knew of our plight and made our coffee and doughnuts “on the house”. All the patrons were as friendly as could be, expressing good wishes and confidence that their local mechanic was up to the task.
By the time we had gone to Western Union (of course, the lady there was quite helpful and got us the money quickly) and come back to the garage, I was feeling like this was some kind of dream – and we were going to wake up any minute now and find out we were still in the ditch. The mechanic greeted us upon our return with the further good news that he was already finished with the work (and it was only noon!), and we could be on our way home.
We got back on the freeway still in disbelief as to what had occurred over the course of that morning, but thanking our lucky stars that we were going to make it home in time for Thanksgiving. When I did get home the holiday took on a special added significance for me, not only because I felt lucky I just made it there in one piece, but because of what I had learned about the kindness of strangers in the little town of Litchfield.
Yes, I’ve come to believe strongly in the “incredible potential of the human spirit” (it is the core of my Belief Statement on my blog), and a lot of that belief came about as a result of this wonderful Thanksgiving miracle. Now every Thanksgiving I remember those fine folks in Litchfield, as well as all the other caring people in the world who extend their hearts and hands to those in need. Thank you Litchfield for this valuable life lesson!
(this post originally appeared in Joyful Jubilant Learning on November 21, 2006)