I believe the year was 1999. It was the season of life where everything surrounded youth baseball – competitive, sometimes intense, but always a lot of fun as I juggled three boys in this sport. It was championship Sunday for my middle son in Omaha, Nebraska, three hours away from our home in Kansas City. We had been there since Thursday and thoroughly expected to play in the finals on Sunday, probably three games, being the top-rated team. But as we prepared early that morning to go to the field, my gut told me to pack up everything for the trip home rather than returning to the hotel between games to checkout and loadup. I don’t know if it was intuition or just a desire to get back to Kansas City. My youngest son was the bat boy for the team so was always with us, but I had missed my oldest son’s birthday who stayed back to play in his own local tournament. I had a divided heart those few days.
I’m not sure why the boys played so poorly. It was an early-morning game – 7:00 a.m. and these ten-year-olds were known to play better in the evening than early mornings. The heat could have been a factor too – near 90 degrees as the the first game of the day began. Summer had set in early that year. When the last out was made, I rushed my two boys off the field and hit the road in our brown Suburban we came to call the “Subdivision” as the other parents headed back to the hotel to pack. We would be home by noon on that sunny Sunday for a belated birthday celebration with their brother. This was one time I didn’t mind losing a ballgame.
I’m not sure it was even 9:00 a.m. when we were soon on the rural stretch of Interstate 29 just south of Omaha/Council Bluffs, nothing but rows of corn and soybeans between the scattered exits. The boys were playing with their Game Boys in the back of the Subdivision and didn’t notice when we abruptly lost speed. I had the cruise control set and thought it had malfunctioned so pressed on the gas pedal, but nothing happened. We were simply coasting, and fortunately we were right at an exit. We got about halfway down the ramp. It was like steering an army tank, but I managed to get off to the side. The vehicle was only two years old, but I soon learned there was absolutely no power – no lights, no air, no power brakes, no power steering, nothing registered on the dash panel. Furthermore, we were locked in with power windows. I panicked for a few seconds thinking we might suffocate but then realized I could manually unlock the driver’s door. Whew!
From the back of the dead Subdivision, “Why did we stop here?”
“Something’s wrong with the vehicle,” I answered as I picked up the heavy eight-inch (then coveted, now antiquated) cell phone. I called home in hopes of getting some advice about what to do. My 14-year-old answered the phone but said his dad was at work.
There’s no way we could sit inside that brown beast very long. I jumped out and opened the hood just when two older men in a pickup turned off the outer road and headed our direction. They said they were going fishing but wanted to help if they could. One of the men came to the conclusion it must be an alternator problem. They talked between themselves, almost as though I wasn’t present, trying to determine how best to help me … “nothing’s open around here on Sundays … no hotels nearby either … whom can we call … don’t want to call that guy, he’ll take advantage of her.”
Then they turned to me and said there was a local man at the Bartlett exit I had just passed a few miles ago who operated a small repair garage out of his home. Maybe he would help a stranded mom with two young sons on this hot Sunday. He had a tow truck too.
The two men left to call from one of their homes and returned with the good news. The self-made mechanic was on his way. They waited until the scraggly, gray-haired bearded man arrived in a rusty old pickup with an attached trailer bed. “Ma’am, you and the boys are going to have to ride with me in my pickup back to my place so I can look at your vehicle and see if I can help you. Hopefully I can get you back and running today. If not, there are no hotels nearby, so I’ll do the best I can.”
He hooked the Subdivision to his trailer and asked me and the boys to hop in his pickup cab. I thanked the two fishermen for their assistance as all four of us piled in the single bench seat, both boys sandwiched between us. I thought quickly. If I had to stay stranded for the night in rural Iowa, that was fine; but I needed my boys to be taken care of. I remembered that the other team parents had gone back to the hotel. So as we headed back north on the outer road, I called up the coach of the team telling him where I was, what had happened, and asked if he could stop off at the Bartlett exit and take my boys home. Of course he could.
Whew! At least someone knew where we were. And I made sure the scruffy old man heard every word I said making eye contact with him as I detailed the precise location. He reassured me that everything would be fine and confirmed my directions to the coach. He must have sensed my uneasiness.
We heard a pop from one of the tires on his trailer as we pulled into his place – a large corner parcel of land with an oversized stand-alone building – his garage – and his mobile home several feet away. There were lots of trees scattered on his property with a beautiful weeping willow shading the front-porch deck of the mobile home. Railroad tracks were nearby – just across the partially paved and gravel road.
The boys played some catch and chased each other around the yard while the man inspected the Subdivision. It did not take him long to determine the problem was, indeed, the alternator. But he said he would have to drive to Council Bluffs and hoped the parts store would have one in stock. He said he would be gone at least an hour, maybe two, and asked if I would mind sitting on his front porch as he pointed to a round high-top table with two barstools. He offered us ice tea. I grabbed a book out of the Subdivision and sat at the table while the boys continued to play, at least for several minutes. Then they were bored and wanted to get home to their video games and the remainder of their Sunday afternoon. I pointed out all of the different things to do in the country, the sights and sounds, when about that time we were rocked by the sound of a freight train coming through. That definitely got their attention, and it wasn’t much longer before Coach John pulled up with his family in his mini subdivision. The boys were thrilled and crawled in the back with his boys, and without even a “see ya later Mom,” were headed to their comfort land. I think I heard: “Thank God.”
Sitting there alone, I read several chapters in my book and found the breeze and shade somewhat relaxing. There was nothing I could do but rest and wait. Life had paused, my sons were safe, and I was fine. Whew!
The old man returned in good time, replaced the alternator, and had me ready to go in less than two hours. I was amazed when he said I could write him a check. The bill was less than $150. I apologized for the flat tire on his trailer and was very grateful that there would be a late-afternoon birthday celebration in Kansas City.
You know what I learned that day? He was not a scruffy old man. He was a kind, gentle man, a real gentleman. I had to trust strangers that day, something I never forgot. I don’t know if my sons learned anything on that ordinary day in June, but I did. I was thankful for the two men who first stopped to help. I hope they caught some fish that day. As for the gentleman mechanic, while I paid him for his service, I never felt like that was quite enough.
Two years later, we were back in Omaha again for several days at another baseball tournament. As I checked out of the hotel, I picked up some of their famous chocolate chip cookies. The boys and I headed south down Interstate 29 on another ordinary Sunday in June just like two years earlier. This time I intentionally exited at Bartlett, Iowa.
Déjà vu. From the back of the Subdivision, “Why are we stopping here?”
“There is something I have to do. It will just take a minute.”
The windows were open in the mobile home and I heard a game on the televsion as I stepped onto the deck porch shaded by the weeping willow tree. I knocked on the door and waited for the bearded old man to answer. I handed him the gift sack of cookies as I reminded him who I was and what he had done two years earlier. He stepped out onto the porch grinning ear to ear and said, “Is it still running for ya?”
“But of course, see for yourself. And I thank you again.”
And on just an ordinary day in June twenty years later, I’m still talking about two fishermen and a gentleman mechanic. Maybe it wasn’t so ordinary afterall.