Yesterday afternoon, we loaded our car with our bags, food, our dog and our girls–4 years old and 6 months old, respectively–and hit the road to visit my in-laws in Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. It is a trip that, with stops for feeding the baby and letting the dog out to do her business, and even perhaps a meal, should’ve taken us at most 6 hours.
NINE hours later, we arrived on the island. Why? Well, let’s just say that it started with us having to return to our house only 15 minutes after we’d left to retrieve an item, involved crowded rest areas, insanely loud hand dryers and a freaked out 4 year-old, stopping several different places to try to find hot water for a baby bottle, and resulted in having to have our car jumped by strangers and a long visit to replace a battery at 9 p.m. in a tiny, dark, country town’s Advanced Auto Parts store.
Yet, I firmly believe we were visited by Thanksgiving angels. At the dark, remote, and just-a-little-bit seedy gas station in a tiny town in the middle of nowhere, S.C., several kind and generous souls came to our aid.
Here’s what happened: When I returned from a quick and desperate visit to the gas station bathroom (which involved a kicking a screaming 4 year-old who refused to “go potty”) I found my husband staring at the steering wheel and dashboard of our Honda Element in disbelief.
“I can’t believe this,” he said. “I think our alternator’s out.” He turned the key, and sure enough, that ghastly, horrible clicking sound filled the car.
In the back seat, the 6 month-old began wailing, and the 4 year-old started whining. “I want to get out,” she pleaded. It was 37 degrees outside the car, with a wind out of the frozen North. A car which no longer had power. Or heat.
“I’m going to have to call AAA,” my husband said, hand gripping his forehead.
“What garage will be open tomorrow?” I wondered out loud.
“We’ll probably have to get towed to a hotel and spend the night,” my husband muttered. He hopped out of the car, sans coat and hat–which he really needs for his handsome bald head–and began pacing as he talked to the AAA rep. Minutes later he knocked on the window. “I need to find out the address of this place,” he said.
So, I got out and headed into the store, but the door was locked. I pressed my face to the window: all the lights are on, and no one there.
Normally, I’m not so great in situations like these. I deal with them, but I’ll admit: I’m a bit of a drama queen. I blame those acting classes in high school. Anyway, for some reason I felt calm, though the wailing baby and the whiny 4 year-old, plus the idea of trying to find a hotel that’d take us and the dog, was wearing on me. And then I noticed a man in a University of South Carolina sweatshirt approaching my husband.
The man had hopped out of a mini-van, parked under the florescent lights where he’d been filling his car with gas. There were only two other cars in the parking lot of this gas station, and a variety of teenagers–mostly boys–in camouflaged hoodies and baggy jeans had been going in and out of the store there. I said it before, but the gas station was on the side of a country highway with only a Dollar General across the street. Sometimes the boys walked out with brown bags.
It was not looking good.
Finally, the cashier–a cute young woman in a blue t-shirt–unlocked the door and pops her head out. “Hi, sorry about that,” she said. “It’s open.” As I was getting the address from her I watched the man–in his late 30s or early 40s, perhaps, approach my husband. I couldn’t hear what they said to each other, but I could tell he’s wondering if we need help. The next thing I knew, my husband popped the hood of our car and he and the man leaned under the hood. It was going to be a while, and the car was now getting cold, so I bundled the girls and got ready to take them into the store.
A few parking spots away, as I was trying to get my baby out of her car seat in the freezing cold and cover her with a blanket as quickly as I clould, an older lady rolled down the window of her aging Cadillac. “Y’all need help?” She asked, bright-eyed in the pitch dark.
“No, ma’am,” I answered. “We’re going to call AAA, so we should be okay.”
“You sure?” She asked again.
“Yes, ma’am. Thank you.”
Finally, I got the girls bundled and headed inside. “Our car’s broken down, ” I told the cashier. “Do you mind if we hang out inside for a little bit?”
“No, ma’am, not at all,” she said sweetly. “You’ve got the baby, and it’s freezing out there.” So we wandered around the store, and I did a fairly good job of convincing my 4 year-old that she did not need candy corn or that perfectly lovely rhinestone and leopard print wallet. In the mean time, my husband popped his head in and said the stranger was going to jump our car to see if it was the battery, and if it was, we were going to jump in and keep driving, not stopping, until we got to Hilton Head.
While we waited, I chatted up the cashier. I like talking to strangers. Turns out she has to work the next day, Thanksgiving Day, and Christmas, too. When I offer my condolences, she just smiles. “Oh, I don’t mind it,” she says, “It’s real quiet.”
Finally, my husband waves to me from outside the store. The car started! As we’re clipping the girls into their car seats I can see that there’s a wife in the passenger seat of the man’s mini-van, and two boys, preteen to early teenage, in the back seats. My husband jumps in and looks at me across the car and in the dark. “There’s an Advance Auto Parts about 10 miles away,” he says. “They want to follow us there to make sure we’re okay.”
Turns out, our car battery had corroded. Which is just bad luck all around, because we’d had the car serviced back in N.C. that very morning. As we sat in the parking lot of the auto parts store, I handed snacks back to my 4 year-old, sang songs, and listened to the sounds of my husband laughing with the teenager who worked there as he installed our new battery. The man in the mini-van stayed for a while. I heard Stuart say something to him before heading inside to pay for the battery. Alone in the car with the girls now, I waved to the man as he headed back to his mini-van, backed out, and started to drive out of the parking lot. Suddenly, his car stopped. He hopped out, ran over, and knocked on our window.
“Everything’s okay now,” he said. “It’s just the battery. It’s going to be alright.” Then he smiled and jogged back to his car. As he pulled out, his wife flashed me a big smile and waved, and I waved back until they were gone.
Thanksgiving angels, I’m telling you. First the mini-van stranger, with what looked like his entire family in tow on a frigid night, goes out of his way to make sure we’re okay. Then the sweet older lady in the Cadillac checks on us. The cashier at the somewhat seedy gas station shares the warmth. And the Advance Auto Parts just happens to be open late on the night before Thanksgiving.
But it’s the stranger in the mini-van who takes the cake, mainly because he was a University of South Carolina fan. I mention the Carolina fan thing in particular because we are Clemson fans, and happen to have a big ol’ orange Tiger paw on our license plate, which I’m sure the man saw. And if you know anything about the Clemson-Carolina rivalry, it’s old, long, and ugly. But this guy didn’t care. He obviously saw a family in need and didn’t hesitate to help us out. In fact, his whole family didn’t hesitate. Imagine what he taught his boys that night, just by helping us out? They got to see what kind of a man their dad is, and that’s lovely.
I have so much to be thankful for this Thanksgiving holiday–for family, friends, my faith, a warm home, a healthy baby and child, and so, so much more. But I’m particular grateful, this year, for my Thanksgiving angels.
With my 6 month-old, Willa, in the broken down car on Thanksgiving Eve