My wife and I had been married two years, three months and were expecting our first child. She worked for a trade association in Washington, DC. I worked as a carpenter for a small building contractor in Maryland. We lived in the townhouse community of Greenbelt a few miles outside the city. Conceived by Eleanor Roosevelt and built by the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Greenbelt Cooperative has history. It’s a friendly place with miles of walkways, a school, a theater, a grocery, a town center, a pool and a library. Great place to start lives and families, but for us with a child on the way and our work futures uncertain, times then seemed always fraught with worry. Living in a co-op was cheap and we drove old cars instead of new, but for many young working couples like us, money did not grow on trees.
An old pick-up served me well for work and our “family car” was a dated Oldsmobile Cutlass. My wife dubbed the car the Lizard for its stealthy, brown and beige reptilian appearance. For the most part, the Lizard ran like a champ. It gulped gas and wore a little rust, but we could afford it, and with a hundred thousand miles registered on its odometer, the Lizard was a proven winner. One learns to compromise standards when one is handicapped by finances. I figured if the damn thing did not break down every time we ran it, well, it would have to be good enough. This is a simpleton’s reasoning and it led to our problems on Christmas Day, 1981.
One of my wife’s brothers lived in Philadelphia with his wife and four children. My wife’s mother lived in Philadelphia close to her son. As a result, we travelled to Philadelphia from our home near DC for all holidays. My brother-in-law took great pride in hosting a huge family Christmas celebration. It lasted late with good food and plenty of laughter. There were cousins and nieces and nephews and friends. It was a night of good feelings and passed quickly. Like most of our visits to Philadelphia, we brought along our unruly dog. For long forgotten reasons, we needed to collect the dog and leave that night for home. Unfortunately, we did not leave the party until close to eleven. Very few cars were on the street when we departed and the interstate was nearly deserted. Everyone was home snug and safe, but not us.
I am quite sure there are inaccuracies in this story, but the things I tell I can still see in my head clear as crystal. The Lizard malfunctioned while crossing the Susquehanna River on the interstate bridge at Perryville. She faltered and gave out going sixty right after the bridge. I heard my wife’s gasp. Somehow I steered the old car off the road to the outer reaches of the shoulder, got the transmission into park and set the emergency brake.
I sat for a moment without speaking or looking at my wife. By then it was after midnight on one of the coldest nights of the year and I had no idea what I could do. Winks of moonlight between clouds kept the night from total darkness but nothing on the car worked and the night had grown bitter. Because I thought our time would be spent indoors or inside a heated car, I made the brilliant decision to wear my lightweight faded denim jacket for reasons of style.
“What are we going to do?” my wife said.
“Don’t worry,” I told her. “We’ll be laughing about this tomorrow.”
In those days, there were no cell phones. I had to get the Lizard up and running by myself. I had to take care of business and protect my family. But after a futile half hour beneath the opened hood prodding around like I knew something, I gave up and got back inside the car. No further questions from my wife. The temperature was dropping and the wind was howling. She saw the peril in our predicament. I read it in her eyes. I leaned across the seat and kissed her. She put her hand on my neck and for a fleeting second I thought everything would turn out okay. But we were too far from okay.
“Lock the doors,” I said to her. “And don’t let anyone in but me.”
I climbed from the car into the cold night. At roadside I could barely see the arch of the Lizard’s roofline. I wondered how visible it was to someone driving by on the interstate. I faced north but there were no cars in sight. Any traffic had dried up by that time and I was left with nothing to do but freeze and wait. My teeth began to chatter. I moved closer to the concrete roadway. My jacket buttoned to the neck and my hands jammed in my pockets did little to keep me warm. I decided to check on my wife. Then a car, a glimmer faint in the distance, caught my attention. A single light approached from the bridge. Couldn’t be a motorcycle, you’d have to be nuts to be out on a night like this. The light drew closer, then a car with a single light roared past. I flipped him the bird. I should’ve known no one would stop and pick up a long-haired stranger in the dead of night in the middle of nowhere. I’m not sure I would’ve stopped.
Another set of lights appeared and was quickly on me. The driver of this car, a small compact, hit the brakes and pulled over way ahead of me on the road, as if unsure. When his back up lights flashed, I ran towards the car. The passenger window was open and I went right to it. The driver was unshaven and middle-aged with wild long hair and mirrored sunglasses. The car smelled and there were no seats. Sudden movement in the back made me skittish.
“Need a lift?” he said.
The radio was playing loud. He had cats riding with him, lots of cats. Just him and the cats, too many cats.
“Nah, thanks anyway,” I said. ” I’m allergic.”
“Do me a favor,” I asked. A half dozen cats gathered at the window peering at me trying to out-meow each other. “Stop and tell someone I’m here and my car’s broken down.”
“Cool,” he said. He pushed his sunglasses up the bridge of his nose, hit the gas and cackled as he sped away. I continued waiting. No cars came for what seemed like hours. But when I checked my watch, I’d only been standing outside about twenty eight minutes.
At first, I thought the next lights I saw belonged to an eighteen wheeler. They used to call truckers knights of the road. No knight would pass by a pitiful looking creature like me. I moved even closer to the road and held out my thumb. But as the lights grew brighter and brighter, I could see it was a car with its high beams on. The car was much larger than a standard sedan. The driver saw me and pulled off. When I reached the passenger side window, I heard a humming sound and the window slowly wound down, halfway. I saw the man driving was short in stature as he had moved the seat far forward, close to the wheel. He wore thick black glasses, a dark suit and a tie lit up with tiny twinkling Christmas lights. His eyes squinted while he examined me. He looked like a for hire driver on his way home from work. The vehicle was definitely some kind of limousine
“Having trouble?” he asked. The window remained at half mast.
“Yes,” I said. “Thanks for stopping.” I moved closer and the window wound up several inches. “My car is broken down.” I pointed to the resting Lizard.
“I see,” he said. “I can give you a ride. You are alone,? Yes?”
I hesitated but had to take the risk. “My wife is in the car,” I said.
“Your wife is in the car?”
“Yes,” I said and a chill colder than the night raised the hair on my neck.
“She must be very cold. Please, bring her to this car.”
“Don’t worry,” he said. “She will be safe with me.” I had to believe him. I had no choice. I hurried to the car, bundled our dog in blankets as best as I could, told my wife about the limo and helped her out of the car. I hoped her trust in me was not misplaced. I hoped my trust in the driver was not stupid. The limo’s passenger window hummed down when we arrived at the door.
“Please,” the driver said. The window wound down. The driver’s eyes shifted from mine to the bulge beneath my wife’s winter coat.” Please, ride in the back area. You will be so much more comfortable.”
Without further hesitation, I yanked the latch and opened the rear door. A blast of warm air greeted us. Stunned, I looked at a woman on the rear bench seat with two young children, one on either side of her. Her arms were around their shoulders. They were dressed as if they’d been out for the evening as well.
“Please,” the woman said. She motioned to two fold-down seats and the glass separating them from the driver slid down to reveal the driver leaning back to see us.
“My wife,” he said. “And my children.” He gave their names and they all smiled. I have forgotten the names but not the kindness. My wife and I climbed in. I thought about our dog, but he would be fine. He had a blanket. We’d come back for him later. But we had been rescued. A stranger had stopped and put himself and his family at risk to help us. He may have saved our lives.
This kind man, our savior, pulled his limo from the shoulder and drove across the interstate median, then north in the direction he’d come from and across the bridge spanning the Susquehanna to the Maryland State Police Barracks a few miles north. He pulled the limousine in front of the entrance and stopped.
Turning to face us, he said, “Good luck, you are safe now.”
We climbed out and I looked back to his wife and children. In that moment, I promised myself to be the kind of man for my family that this man was for his.
“Happy Holidays,” the woman said. Her children smiled.
“Thank you,” I said. But before I could say more, she reached over and pulled the door closed. The passenger window hummed once more and slid all the way down.
“Merry Christmas,” I said. The driver smiled at my wife.
“And to all a good night,” he said, then drove away.