In the Company of Strangers

THE interstate highway between Evansville, Ind., and Louisville, Ky., is bordered by miles of meadow, field, and cropland. At night, the roadside is dark, deer sometimes appear suddenly in the glint of a headlight, and signs of civilization seem few and far between. Which is why we were worried. We were driving home late one night after Christmas vacation when the temperature light on the dash began to glow red. Our old station wagon was loaded like a gypsy caravan. It was transporting my husband and me, our four young daughters, and their assorted games and dolls and other Christmas gifts. Somewhere in the car was also a frozen 12-pound turkey, five pounds of pecans, and three dozen diapers.

After carefully checking the radiator, we drove nervously about 10 miles to the nearest exit, Birdseye, Ind. This tiny rural hamlet had no brightly lit super-size gas station, no fast-food restaurant, and no motels. We drove eagerly toward the one light we saw. This was Possum Junction.

Possum Junction, we discovered, was a small general store. Inside, they sold a little bit of everything and in the back stood a table and chairs where I could imagine the local folks gathering on rainy afternoons. On the counter, next to the ceramic possum figurines, leaned a sign that read: ``Want a good laugh? And make somebody grin? Take home some possum fixins!'' Behind the sign were stacked cans of possum soup mix that only needed the addition of fresh possum meat. I became so immersed in this possum lore that for several minutes I forgot about our car.

At 9:30 on a rainy December night, Possum Junction was not a busy place. We were the store's only customers as my husband explained our problem to the owner. Just then, in walked a man whom the owner immediately recognized. ``Here is the man,'' the owner announced confidently, ``that you need to talk to.''

The man was Dan Madden, a truck driver who fixes cars as a hobby and to make a little extra income. He hesitated for just a moment, saying, as if debating with himself, ``I was up all last night helping a kid rebuild his car's motor.'' With a hint of reluctance, he asked what the problem was. Then, sizing up the situation, he asked the make of car. It was a Chevy - his favorite to work on! Caught by the excitement of compounded coincidence, he told us that the very part we needed was lying on the workbench in his shop. Soon we were following his car down a country road.

It was 10 o'clock and raining harder when we pulled into Dan's driveway. Before the children could even take off their seat belts, there was a knock on the car window. Dan's wife had appeared to invite the girls and me into her house. Echoes of all my past warnings to the children were ringing in my ears: ``Don't talk to strangers. Don't go anywhere with someone you don't know.'' I'm not sure how to explain it - perhaps it was the gentle magic of the Christmas season that made the dark night feel benevolent - but five bedraggled travelers followed the kind stranger into the house.

Once inside, we settled onto a soft couch, drinking in the hominess and forgetting the dark and cold outdoors. The woman, whose name is Brenda, turned on the television for the older girls and found a doll for the baby. We talked haltingly about the weather, the fickleness of cars, and the other people Dan has helped. It was the baby's lost pacifier that broke the ice. Turning couch cushions upside down, digging into the crevices of overstuffed chairs, and crawling on the carpet seemed to melt inhibitions. We finally found the pacifier and found, too, despite our different backgrounds, that we had a lot to talk about.

Then unexpectedly Brenda jumped up, opened the refrigerator, and began pulling out plates and plastic containers, jars full of sausages, cheese, candies, cookies, and cakes. Soon the counter top was covered with a feast. The smell of coffee brewing filled the air. I wasn't sure, at first, how to accept such generosity, but soon the girls and I were digging in while Brenda cheered us on.

About an hour later, the men came in, the job completed. My husband told me later that Dan had been reluctant to accept any payment. When pressed, he asked a fraction of what another place would have charged even at a decent hour. And at that late hour on a cold January night we filled the Madden kitchen as we ate and talked while the baby called out ``more'' every other second. We were finding out firsthand about the meaning of the Good Samaritan.

Our daughters haven't lived long enough to be wildly impressed by such extravagant humanity. But no doubt it will remain there as a bright spot in the lining of their memory. My husband and I immediately felt a lessening of fear toward the world that always seems ``out there.'' Brenda and Dan had made the ``out there'' more intimate and trust more possible.

In the United States today, our lives are marked with fear. The fear of war, of recession, and perhaps, most insidious of all, fear of the unfamiliar people around us who often seem so menacing - the strangers. We shrink back a little more, lift our eyes a little less, and get trapped within smaller and smaller pools of loneliness. Every once in awhile we have an experience that jars us into a new perspective - one of hope and camaraderie.

I wish I could say, after we had finished our meal, said our goodbyes, and driven away, that we continued home without incident. We were confident until, five miles away, the red light flashed on again. Surrounded by barren darkness and the pounding rain we did what Dan had advised. We pushed their kindness to the limit (and our humiliation) and turned around.

Dan was probably a step away from bed, but he never showed it. He came right out, concerned, but cheerful and ready to work. Up went the hood, and another inspection began.

Brenda, who could have justifiably hidden in the house, came out bearing candy canes and smiles. After 10 minutes the car was pronounced OK. The light itself was probably broken and may have been the problem from the start. So we set off once more with our repeated, insufficient thank yous, and their sincere insistence that we return again if necessary. This time we made it home, three hours later, tired, but still warmed by the night's epiphany.

The next day, exactly five minutes into a short drive downtown, the car's engine overheated. Steam billowed from under the hood. How had we gotten home the night before? Had the original problem worsened gradually, waiting until we reached home to become critical? I like to think that our car was held together that night by the strength of human kindness and those guardian angels in our midst. We had received our last and most precious Christmas gift. The New Year had begun with hope.

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