But For the Grace of God

My memory of that afternoon awakens thoughts of a sunny fall day.  Back in time a dozen years it was one of those in-between days of not cold yet, but not warm either.  Balanced between extremes that Saturday was one of those cool fall days I love most.

Gone are the details of where my then-wife and I were driving to, but clear is the mental image of the ramp she was exiting on.  It was one of those long, circular highway exits that causes you go twenty-five miles an hour around three-quarters of a circle to get to the other side of the road.  Once there I looked down on that side of the in-town freeway to see an old car with a much older man outside taking to someone sitting on the passenger side.

After getting my wife to pull over over safely on the side of the ramp, I got out and yelled down to the stranded man “are you OK?”  A slow Oklahoma country drawl came from the old man’s mouth “No sir, we ain’t”.   He looked harmless enough and had some difficulty walking, so I felt safe headed down the bank of the ramp to get close enough to talk to him.  On my way down I saw he was at least seventy-five or so and his passenger was a woman near his age who I assumed was his wife, which he later confirmed.

As I stopped about six feet away from him, the old man said “once upon a time I was rich, but not no more.  That’s been gone for a long time.  It’s OK, but it’s hard when I come up short sometimes like now”.  I asked what was going on and he answered “we’re trying to get to some family down in Tahlequah.  The gas gauge don’t work and I thought we had enough to get there.  I was wrong and we ain’t got no money.”

About that time I saw the head of a baby close to a year old pop up from the lap of the woman in the car.  The old man said “that’s my great grand baby!  My wife and I been takin’ care of her ‘cause her momma and daddy ain’t no good.  It’s hard on us, but church helps us some and we get by.  I try not to complain ‘cause it’s what the good Lord sent us.  When I hold that little baby I just know God’ll provide for us somehow”.

I asked about credit cards and found they didn’t have any.  I knew what had to be done. Remembering a farm supply store a few miles away across from a mini-mart I told him we’d be back be back in fifteen or twenty minutes with some gas.  At that moment the first smile I’d seen on the old guy’s face lit up.  The smile was missing half the teeth it once had but was warm and genuine.  His relief was obvious.  As I walked back to our car above I heard his “thank you mister” followed by the old woman chiming in right after with “God bless you sir”.

A half hour later we were back with a near full red plastic five gallon gas can.  My wife stayed in the car after we pulled up behind them on the shoulder of the road.  Not much spilled as I poured the gas into the tank of the old car without a funnel.  When done the old guy began trying to start his car.  It took a while and several false starts with the engine spitting and sputtering until it roared to life.  The motor was not running well, but seemed like it could get them to where they needed to go.

After buying the gas can and gas, I still had twenty-five dollars and some change left.  I kept a five and tried to give the remaining twenty to the old man sitting behind wheel of his old car.  He said “No sir, I ain’t gonna take your money.  You already been real too kind to us.  I’m much obliged God sent you.”  I insisted saying he didn’t have enough gas to finish his trip.  He continued to resist and shake his head side to side to say “no”.

Walking around to the passenger side of the car I made eye contact with the old lady and asked her if it would be OK if I gave her the money for the baby.  She looked at her husband and then at me… and repeated looking back and forth between us several times.  She never said a word, but ever so slightly he nodded his head “yes” to her.  I handed the money through the window and as she took it she held back tears and repeated the same four words I had heard her say earlier; “God bless you sir”.  Soon the car steered onto the highway and faded into the distance.

To this day I don’t know why I believed the old man.  He could have been a con artist, but if so he was damn good at it.  Even now I feel certain he was legit.  Real pain and fear are hard to make up.  The exact look in his face when he first looked into my eyes and began to speak saying “I used to be rich….” clearly showed the old man’s anguish.

Even thought my now ex-wife was nervous enough to not get out of her truck, she was proud of what I did that day.  There will always be gladness within that we got to help someone in need, but to an even greater degree I am grateful for the gift I got that day.   Many times I have remembered the old man’s words “I used to be rich…” and how they touched me.  Thinking about those words and the situation I found him is a reminder that nothing on this Earth is permanent.  Tough times harder than we can even imagine are never far away from happening. The possessions I own, the money I have, the good health I enjoy: everything could all be gone in a blink!  I am grateful my memory of the encounter with the old couple is so vibrant yet today.  Each time I recall it my mind whispers softly to my soul, “There but for the grace of God, go I”.

Courage is as often the outcome of despair as of hope;
in the one case we have nothing to lose,
in the other, everything to gain.
Diane de Pointiers

First posted here 5 years ago on December 6, 2011

About James Browning

A seeker working to grow each day and be a better version of my self. Through sharing I commit myself deeper to my ideals and beliefs.
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