Mud, MLK, and Me

A few nights ago, I did something really absent minded.

I had just pulled in the driveway from a run as the sun was setting, it had been raining but I didn’t realize how much.

I was trying to use my headlights to get a better look at something in the backyard so I thought it was worth pulling forward into the grass to get a bit closer.

I live on top of what I thought was a gradual slope, but last night I learned differently.

When I was finished I proceeded to turn around, only I couldn’t. I kept sliding further and further down the muddy hill until I had descended into my neighbor’s property (an empty few acres he is trying to sell) and found myself hopelessly stuck in a muddy field spinning out in circles while my rear-wheel drive pickup did little else than get me into deeper, and deeper ruts in the mud.

I was so embarrassed, “Why did I think this was a good idea, how did this turn out so badly, so quickly?” I wondered.

Aside from feeling awful I had made muddy tire tracks in my neighbor’s property, I looked up to find I was well over 500 feet from the nearest pavement, at an angle with a row of trees blocking my view.

This is my only vehicle, and my wife just gave birth to our second daughter, I couldn’t afford to leave the truck stranded in the backyard before the field dried, that could take weeks!

I hopped on the phone with my insurance and they sent out a wrecker right away. As the rain was beginning to turn to snow, and my post-run high was being replaced by deep shivers in my damp workout clothes, the wrecker operator took one look and said, “No way. Sorry man, can’t help you.”

He called back my insurance company and drove off.

I dreamed all night of trying to pull that truck up that hill, but like the fabled myth of sisyphus, every time I would reach the top, I would slide back down and find myself completely hopeless.

I woke up in a mood reflecting my restless night’s sleep.

I started making calls again, and finally was connected to a guy, Steve, who said he couldn’t promise anything, but he’d love to come try to help.

Steve pulled up and immediately set to work, listening to my suggestions, working with me, and trading turns trying this angle and that. Somehow, Steve was able to get us out of the initial rut! I couldn’t believe it, I thought that would be impossible. It took us about an hour, but we were at least out of the mud.

For the next hour we tried to inch our way up a few feet at at time. We would summit one tiny ridge, only to slip back on the next rise and fall to the base of the hill again.

He had a winch, so we were just trying to get into a close enough distance to where we could get a line connected and pull it up.

He left and bought some extra cable. We kept breaking it under the tension, improvising new knots, pulling, and breaking it again. We probably did this for an hour, inch by inch.

Turns out Steve lived for 15 years in the same city I’m from, where my entire extended family remains to this day.

Every time I wanted to give up, Steve wouldn’t let us, remaining hopelessly optimistic, correcting my hopelessness with belief we could make this happen.

About five hours in, we started making some really good progress, inches turning to feet, the winch getting closer and closer. And I realized, the day nearly gone, hands frozen and face feeling numb, that for the first time all day something interesting happened, I actually believed him that we were gonna get out of there!

Finally, we got the truck into straight line towing distance. We connected all the chains he had and got the truck back to the pavement.

We chatted on top of what had become our Everest, two warriors celebrating our own private victory of some intimidating enemy, it seemed.

Steve grew up in rural America, dirt poor as he said. His father worked himself to the bone to make ends meet for the family. He said, “I was raised to treat everyone the same, and that was with absolute respect and dignity. It didn’t matter if they were a nobody, or super famous and rich. Everyone deserved the same dignity. You know, sometimes, when I’m out here working, people don’t see me like you, they think I work for them, that they’re entitled to boss me around and demand immediate solutions.”

I told Steve I didn’t grow up like him. I always had much more than I needed, went to great schools, and had many incredible opportunities from athletic outlets to travel. What’s more, I told him that until very recently, I too looked at people like Steve and saw someone who worked for me, that I was entitled to his help. I grew up privileged, white, and honestly ignorant.

I said to him,

“It’s pretty crazy, many of our forefathers hated each other, fought each other. But here I am, completely dependent on you, a neighbor and friend to get me out of this ditch. I was stuck, upset, helpless, and alone and I needed you. But you showed up, you listed to me, and you stayed until this job was done. The other guy just left, didn’t even try.”

Steve is a black man, probably six feet tall, lean, and used to working with his strong hands. I’m barely 5’7″, white, young, and helplessly lost at anything to do with cars, stuck in the mud or not. He should have seen me and after trying a few minutes to help told me the ground would dry and wait until then, just like everyone else.

But he was filled with love, compassion, and a genuine desire to help his neighbor. He has every reason to be mad, upset, and dismissive of so many things in this country, especially someone like me.

But he loved me without condition.

As he drove away I thought about tomorrow as the nation stops to celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King. He rejected a nation that only saw race and not the whole person. A nation where one type of person felt entitled to manage the affairs of another, even the timetable of their freedom! Where someone like me, in seeing a black neighbor didn’t see the story of strength, resilience, and dignity I’ve come to learn in the last few years.

He saw a nation where people like me owned our horrible past, and honored the dignity of our black neighbors as they have always deserved. He saw a nation where black men and women enjoyed the same access to privilege as their white neighbors.

We have so far to go in this nation, and sometimes it feels like we’re even going backward.

Today, in some small way, those words of Dr. King that have been buried into my psyche were manifested as I gratefully acknowledged the deep respect I had for my neighbor who saved me, and the love and respect I received from someone who had no reason to offer it to me.

Steve taught me how to break straight through the racial tension in our communities.  Someone who could have hated me, could have written me off without ever saying a word, chose instead to love anyway.

That’s the kind of person I want to be.

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