A young boy entering his teen years told me that he felt sad because he didn’t have any friends. He said that it seemed like other people had plenty. So, I asked him to sit down, and I told him the following story that I hoped would have some relevance to his sorrowful frame of mind.
I was a young man, when Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated, and I became so disillusioned with society in general that I decided to “drop out,” as we said then. I stopped pursuing education, regular employment, possessions, status, and power, and genuinely looked forward to the dawning of an age when people would be kind to one another. This particular worldview was defined by such outer trappings as one’s dress and hairstyle, and preferences in music and diet. Those of us who shared this outlook often used hitchhiking to get around. So, I left my little farm near Columbia, MO, to make one last cross-country hitchhiking trip before committing to a spiritual path (and that’s a story for another time).
I arrived in Albuquerque, NM, in the winter of 1973. On the highway, I was picked up by a Volkswagen van whose occupants appeared as if they, like me, had abandoned the regular world in pursuit of peace and love. All went well until, somewhere in the mountains, a tremendous blizzard began. The folks in the van pulled over to a motel where they would spend the night. I, assuming that we were all brothers and friends, trailed along with them to the motel entrance. There they told me that my ride with them ended, and so I was on my own.
I walked back to the highway, a little disappointed, but at the same time overwhelmed with the majesty and beauty of the country around me, in all its stillness, the fallen snow glistening with moonlight. The snow was so deep that I couldn’t see where the side of the highway began. Only an occasional trucker, braving the storm, would travel the highway, but they passed me by. Finally, off in the distance, I could see the headlights of a fast-moving car coming towards me. I put out my thumb, and the car skidded to a stop – a shiny new Mustang Mach 1 fastback 350. The driver, a young African American man with a green bandanna tied around his head, opened the door. Heavy Metal music was blaring at full volume. He said, “Where are you going?” And I replied that I was going to San Francisco to catch a plane to Hawaii. “How far are you going?” I asked. “Wherever you want me to take you.” We were then about halfway between Flagstaff and Phoenix, AZ.
When we arrived in Phoenix, the storm had stopped and the temperature was at least 60 degrees. He turned down the music and began to tell me about his broken heartedness. He’d just returned from Viet Nam, where he was a rescue soldier on a helicopter. They’d land in the middle of a firefight and evacuate the wounded. He’d seen so much bloodshed and disregard for human life that he was heartbroken. He told me all about his family and loved ones, who he no longer felt he could be in relationship with because he’d done so many unspeakable things. We wept together.
And somehow, through the grace of God, this conversation, which lasted hundreds of miles, came to an end just outside the Oakland airport. I’d found a friend, a most unlikely friend, although I couldn’t tell you his name. But I felt like the man, from Jesus’ parable, who fell among thieves on the road to Jericho, and those who seemed most likely to offer help passed him by. He was rescued by the Samaritan instead.
So, my beloved child, I concluded, true friends and neighbors are a gift from God and they show up at the most unexpected times and places. Then I sang him part of a song – an Irish folk tune called, I think, “Mary and the Gallant Soldier” : “and when we’re in a foreign land, I’ll guard you darling with my right hand in hopes that God will send a friend to Mary and her gallant soldier.” I smiled, and we laughed together.