It is not my custom to pick up hitchhikers. Two weary-looking boys at the side of the road with a sign would not normally make me slow down. But the colorful, bold letters sent a message bigger than the words conveyed, and common sense fought with curiosity. "German students to Virginia Beach." The word "Virginia" had been carefully crossed out, and written above it was the word "ANY." German students to ANY beach. Even the letters looked exhausted.
I passed the young men and wondered if I had lost all semblance of reason for thinking what I was thinking. A single woman does not pick up strangers. It's a sensible and simple rule. Besides, anyone can make up a sign. But just as quickly I thought of my own children and their travel adventures overseas. Too many miles with too little daylight left, wrong directions to a station, language problems in remote areas. Wouldn't I want someone to stop and help them? My motherly intuition was winning this argument. And I really did live on a beach. I turned the car around.
Through the open window I began to explain my reckless behavior, but duffel bags were already flying into the back seat. In delightfully accented English, the curly-haired traveler sighed, "You were sent to us by God." With my divinely appointed mission under way, I eased the car back onto the road. I explained that I lived on a beach about an hour away and would be glad to bring them back to town the next day. The heat from the long summer afternoon had dimmed their expectations as well as their energy, and they gladly accepted the unknown destination.
They had been exchange students in Oregon several years earlier and were making their way leisurely across the country to revisit friends. Yes, they really were German students on summer holiday. We talked of politics and peace and the kinds of walls that men build to isolate and divide. They had just arrived in Washington, D.C., the day before, in time to see the huge fireworks display over the Capitol and monuments. The city represented the center of freedom and hope, and July 4 was its grand celebration.
My house was dark as we pulled into the gravel drive. The boys stopped on the porch with their bags, heads turned toward the sound of waves but unable to discern the exact direction or source. Night sounds of owls and ducks and crickets punctuated the water's rhythm.
I felt the happy memory of my children coming home after summer camp, Stepping over piles of T-shirts, cameras, and souvenirs, I listened eagerly to chatter about new friends and challenges that bond. Always, it is stories of people we meet that seem to come before the remembering of places we have seen. The young men were glad for a shower and a big meal, and as the mountain of laundry disappeared to dry, I suggested we go outside.
The scent of honeysuckle drifted in the moist air. The night was clear, and we stepped out under a sweeping canopy of brilliant stars. The only other light was the moon, which, in rising over the water, had blazed through streaks of dusty pink and apricot. No one spoke. Noisy geese in "V" formation flew low across the water. We left our shoes in the grass and felt the cool sand between our toes.
Gathering firewood and twigs in the shadows along the shore, we talked and joked with the ease of old friends. Soon a crackling fire was roaring, sparks rising in bright swirls; and marshmallows roasted slowly on long crooked sticks. As we squeezed the gooey hot puffs between graham crackers loaded with chocolate, the boys began to laugh and lick the mess on their fingers and chins. This was a new experience for them, but the circle of friendship and sharing around that fire had no national boundary. We were on common ground.
Suddenly, flashing bits of light behind us startled my guests. "Fireflies," I said. With wide-eyed wonder, they watched the insects. "We do not have this!" they gasped. The soft glow of flickering lights seemed to surround us. I could not explain the mystery of a beetle that comes out at night to put small bursts of light into a dark sky. I think life just works that way, combining moments of surprise with unexpected joy and awe.
The students did not leave the next day, or the next. They stayed awhile. And when they left, they kept in touch with postcards and letters about their travels, schooling, and military service back home. They reminisce about our days together at the beach and how our paths crossed with unsuspecting certainty.
July 4 has a quieter side for me now. I still love the explosions of color and the thunder and pop of shells high above. But after the dazzle of fireworks has ended, I think of silent fireflies that bring gentle light to the darkness, one small flash at a time. They do not know how big the dark sky is - they light up only where they are.
And I remember a cool summer evening under the stars, when strangers became friends, and the rhythm of nature touched our hearts.