Diane and I spent our honeymoon roaming the western U.S. and Canada, living out of the back of our tiny Honda Civic. Leaving the Honda in Chicago, our new home, we flew to Pittsburgh, site of our marriage earlier that summer, to gather our remaining clothes, wedding gifts, and furniture. We loaded these into a rented U-Haul, hitched it to my mother-in-law’s 1972 Cutlass and, accompanied by Diane’s brother Richard, headed west on the turnpike toward Chicago.
The late August heat and humidity in northern Ohio was sweltering, and the air conditioner struggled to keep up. I had noted a little light blue smoke coming from our car, but I was suddenly startled to note a white cloud obscuring my entire view, save for the flashing headlights of a semi behind us. As I slowed down and pulled onto the shoulder, flames erupted from under the hood.
As I popped the hood and jumped out, we were greeted by a swarm of truck drivers, each carrying a fire extinguisher. While they battled the blaze, we unhitched the U-Haul and moved it a safe distance away, then returned for the articles packed in the car. But the flames and smoke soon grew too intense, and we retreated. Huddled with our Good Samaritans, we watched the flames consume the old Cutlass.
I turned away to see a man standing next to our U-Haul. He called out, “There’s a wrecker coming to tow the car to a station at the next exit. I can take you and your U-Haul to the station, then wait while you make calls and figure out what you want to do next. But you should know that a farmer nearby has offered to put you up for the night, since it will be getting dark soon.”
“Who are you, and who is this farmer?” I asked.
“My name is John and I’m a trucker. I don’t live here, I’m just passing through. The farmer’s name is Don Miller. I’ve never met him before. We were just standing next to each other on the overpass, watching the fire. As the smoke cleared he turned to me and said, ‘Those are just kids, and now they have nothing but that U-Haul.’ We wanted to help, and came up with this plan.”
It was well after dark when we arrived at the farm, but we were escorted in to a feast that had been set for us by Don’s wife Marilyn. We thanked John, washed up, then sat down and Don said grace for us. Overwhelmed, one of us asked “Why are you doing this?” Don replied, “We are Mennonites, and helping people in need is just what we think God calls us to do.”
The next morning Don took us into town, where a Ford dealer offered us a van equipped for towing our U-Haul to Chicago. When we told him we didn’t have cash or a credit card to secure it, he replied, “You are friends of Don’s, that’s all I need to know.” After delivering us to Chicago, Richard returned the van. Then Don bought Richard a ticket to Pittsburgh and said “Pay me back when you can.”
Back in Chicago, Diane and I marveled at how many strangers—truckers, a farm family, a car dealer—stepped up to help three travelers in crisis. We reflected on the risks they had taken, especially the truckers battling the flames, but also on the trust, born out of desperation, that we had put in these strangers. We promised we would try to emulate these people as we went forward into our adult lives—to offer help to those in need, to respond to vulnerability with trustworthiness.
This experience did not lead me to believe in angels, but rather that people could act like angels, and that I could do the same. I did not become a Christian that day, but I gained respect for what a life of Christian faith could resemble. The terror of that day faded quickly, but the power of the human response arising from those flames shaped the road I have followed ever since.