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Friday, October 31, 2014

The friendliness of strangers and those you know

Friday, October 30, 2009 started as just a normal day at the Palatka Daily News. Like I had done so many times before on a Friday during the high school football season, I set up our scoreboard page, which is very involved because of the three-day television box of events since we don't have a Sunday or Monday publication.

And then after I left the building, I was on my way to Pierson Taylor High School for the annual rivalry game between provincial schools Taylor and Crescent City, separated by 15 miles along US-17.

So as I headed on US-17/SR-100 like I normally do in Palatka heading over the Veterans Bridge flanked over the St. Johns River and headed south, I was in an easy feeling. The ride I made to cover Crescent City football on its home field was 22 miles from the office. Now it was a 37-mile ride which meant I had to leave the building at 5:55 p.m. for a 7 p.m. game. You could tear down US-17 at more than 60 mph, but you couldn't do it the entire ride.

Starting out early was kind of important.

Heading down US-17, I did something that I hadn't done in quite some time. I pulled out a cassette tape out of the middle container of my car and popped it into the tape player. This was a first in some ways since I had not really needed cassette tapes to keep me occupied since I had gotten my XM radio during Christmas 2005. In other words, the cassette player was not needed anymore, sad but true.

The tape I pulled out was "The Best Of Warren Zevon," which I had in both cassette and compact disc version. October 30th marked the seventh anniversary that my sister and I had seen Mr. Zevon live in the Ed Sullivan Theater on "The Late Show With David Letterman." And it was sort of a sad occasion since he was no longer going to perform, having found out he was suffering from inoperable cancer just weeks earlier. The entire night was him as the guest.

And so on the seventh anniversary of this show, I popped in the cassette. The ride through Crescent City was a little rough, but not quite as rough as the ride through the southern end of Putnam County on US-17. The ride is a disgrace with lots of cracked roads that have never been fixed in all these years and still haven't been fixed. In 2009, the Putnam County commission agreed to a 6-cent increase in our gas purchasing, which meant we'd pay a little extra, but that money was going to go toward fixing the roads. Damned if after all these years that the road I normally travel on still haven't been fixed.

But anyway, I was starting to feel the tires under me and really wasn't liking the sound. Then the sound would kind of go away and I'd be focused in on the road and the music playing.

Then it happened – not even one mile after I had crossed into Volusia County from Putnam on US-17.


Suddenly I was wondering why my car was riding funny and it didn't take long after hearing a guttural hollow sound for me to figure out the obvious ... I had a flat tire. The car started to decrease in speed ... from 55 mph to 45 to 35 to 25 and lower than that. Still, I was determined to get this car to a parking lot and not on the side of the road. There was plenty of gas in the car and I slowed the car down enough to take it yet another mile and a half before I got to a fern-producing plant in the small town of Seville.

Now I'm going to take you back further – back to August 29, 2009. For the second year in a row, I had done 10 stories on some of the smartest kids in our county that had just graduated from the local high schools and were ready to be published in our paper's Lifestyles section. The payoff for doing that was ... well, there was a payoff. My publisher, Rusty Starr, was pretty awesome to work with and he said he appreciated my work and wanted to reward me for it since it was off-to-the-side work I did away from sports during the summer season, especially when Andy, my boss, would be on vacation.

So I got a check for $500. And my commitment to the check on this day was to fix my car. I figured the brakes couldn't cost me that much. Nope, was I ever wrong. I took the car to St. Augustine to a place called Brakes-4-Less. They found more than what was the average brakes problem with the car and were willing to fix the problem ... for $397!

Yeah, I felt raped right there. But the brakes needed to be done and she ran very well, thank you. But that left me $103 to take care of the back two tires on my car that were going bald. Unfortunately, there was nowhere in town that I could take the car to get two quality tires put on for $103. My last resort was a hole-in-the-wall tire shop on King Street off of US-1. The guy was willing to put two tires on for $30 each, but they weren't going to be tires I could ride long with.

I told him to go ahead and do it and made the promise to change the tires when that time came.

Funny how all of a sudden you a) forget you have to change the tires on the car that are only there to help you temporarily and b) don't really have the money at that moment to change those tires. Living alone has a lot of benefits to it, but one of those isn't bill paying.

And now it's 6:40 p.m. on the 30th of October and I'm expected to get to a football game by 7 p.m. and I'm stuck there. Nope, this wasn't looking good.

But no more than 30 seconds after the car hobbled its way into that fern-producing plant, I look behind me and a car pulls up. Now I'm thinking, "What did I do wrong? There's just something I did wrong and this person is going to tell me."

Turns out that the car was occupied by three people – an African-American lady in her 30s and her three young children. They were right behind me after they had picked up a pizza at Domino's in Crescent City for dinner.

"You need a ride?" she asked.

I told her, "Yeah. And I need to be at this place soon."

Then she asked me where I was going and I asked her, "Do you know where Taylor High School is?" 

She said she did, though it was a little out of her way since she lived in Seville. But she was willing to take me the rest of the way. I gathered what I needed to get me to the game, which included my notepad, my binoculars for the press box, two pens and my press pass. Once I got the car locked up, I hopped into the back seat of their van.

For the next eight miles of this trip, two of her children were arguing with one another, slapping each another in the process. With my patience with children, it's amazing that I didn't snap. But I was not going to do it ... I was grateful for this woman to come into my life at that moment and pick me up in my time of need and take me to the game, even if she apologized for her kids' behavior. It didn't bother me for one moment.

She knew her way to Taylor High and I told her if she just dropped me off in the parking lot, I'd appreciate it. Without saying a word, though, she went above and beyond the call of duty: She took me as far as she could toward the football field at Taylor High. She dropped me off at an open gate at the field ... an unoccupied gate, no less. I couldn't thank her enough and wished I had something to give her. She told me to forget about it and it was her pleasure to help me out.

I smiled and left her to go back to Seville.

Now it was a simple walk through an open gate in which I didn't have to show any press credentials and I was heading upstairs to the press box. It turns out that I had missed Taylor's opening drive of the game, but the team's statistician was upstairs in the press box and he gave me what I needed play by play. I was also lucky that of all the visiting press boxes I've ever been to since coming to Putnam County in 2003 that Pierson Taylor's was the best, hand's down. I picked it up from there and the rest of the game went rather easily.

Still at halftime and with Crescent City's lead well in hand at 28-7, I needed a way to get back to the office. It's nice I made it to the game, but without a ride back, this was going to be a challenge. So I called the one person who could bail me out of trouble because he lived in southern Putnam County at the time.

My boss, Larry Sullivan, my managing editor since 2009. I explained to him what happened and he more than understood the situation. So he told me he'd be there after the game, but just give him a call at the end of the third quarter to be on his way, which I did.

The game ended in the Raiders' 49-14 romp of their rival Wildcats as star running back Andre Addison, who would be the county player of the year in the sport, dashed for 197 yards on 13 carries and scored four touchdowns, while he went over the 1,000-yard mark for the season. They finished with 435 yards of offense as a team, including 280 yards.

And once I finished doing my interviews with Addison and Crescent City mentor Al Wisnoski, who was nearing the end of his five-year run as head coach, I headed back toward the parking lot.

Larry was not there yet. Thankfully, I called him to find out where he was and he told me he was almost there. About five minutes later, he arrived to pick me up at the front of the parking lot ... the same front that I had told the lady who drove me to the game to just drop me off at, but yet continued to the field open gate.

We took off and I asked him to stop at the fern plant to take a look at the condition of the car and tire. About 10 minutes later, we arrived in the dark. Larry took out his flashlight and put a light to it. The tire was an absolutely mangled mess. I was going to have figure out what to do with the tire and the car in the morning. I wasn't looking forward to it.

I grabbed whatever necessary stuff I needed from my car and we drove back to Palatka ... all 29 remaining miles in which we got back and I started writing my story and Larry went to check on the work that Patrick, our photographer, had done that night at Palatka for the Panthers' game with West Nassau before he turned around and headed back to south Putnam. I thanked him again, he said, "You're welcome" and he was on his way.

Writing the story and putting together the boxscore of the game were pretty easy to do, as was helping with the layout afterward compared to what the rest of the weekend might have been like in my head. When the night got done and we were off the board, I left the Daily News building at around 2 in the morning and walked the two miles back to my apartment, something I had done numerous times before.

The walk didn't kill me. I went to bed about an hour later.

It's Saturday morning and I get a phone call. It's Don, one of our carriers at the paper. I've known Don since the day I started at the paper in 2003. I told him about the misadventure with my car the night before. He was sympathetic about it, but I didn't expect anything. Now Don has news for me on this Saturday late morning.

"There's a new tire on your car," he said.

Before I left Friday night, Don thought he could do something about the tire. And it turns out he knew a guy at a tire place in Crescent City that could fix the issue. So he and that guy traveled to Seville to the fern-producing plant and saw the car there. Don told me that he and the guy had never seen a tire look that terrible before. I had told him it was in bad shape the night before.
So what they did was get a new tire, go back to the plant and put the tire on the car and take the horrible one off. They said it was easy.

And to my absolute shock, I came to find out that Don and his son Larry were going to be in Palatka on this Halloween Saturday and they were going to pick me up. "OK!" I said.

They arrived an hour later and the three of us headed down US-17 to Seville where the car was still sitting in that parking lot, now clear daylight. Sure as anything, the tire was gone and a new one was in its place. I had felt a joy of relief.

I started my car up and she was still running smoothly, but as I began to move the car back, something didn't feel right. I stopped it and got out of the car. The tire may have been new ... but it was flat! 

Yes, flat! Not quite like a pancake, but flat!

It seems when the tire got replaced, the guy who got the tire from the shop failed to make sure that there were no punctures or leaks. So Don came up with the idea to follow him to the nearest gas station in Seville, which at this point was two miles away. I figured the two-mile trip wasn't going to do much damage to the tire. We got there and put money into the air dispenser to fill the tire up, knowing it may not last long.

Don was able to give me the $35 for the faulty tire that he paid for it (knowing he'd get it back) and I took the car north to Palatka, fully aware that I had no choice but to replace the tire. I got into town and took it over to my buddies at Tire Kingdom. They took care of the tire and put a new one on for a little more money, but I was glad to take care of it. A few days later, I managed to replace the other back tire that was showing tread and ready to pop at any time on a long road trip.

The albatross cheapie tires were gone. And my car was riding smoothly again.

But I couldn't have gotten through that weekend without Don's help. Or Larry's help to pick me up. But more importantly, without that African-American woman with the three kids who was willing to take a stranger to a football game out of a random act of kindness.

I never saw that woman again, but she was a Godsend when I needed one. She got the "circle of kindness" rolling just 20 minutes before a football game I was supposed to be at.

Sometimes, it's better to be lucky than good.

It's fair to say I was lucky that night.

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