Saturday, February 2, 2013

American Heroes

“No man needs sympathy because he has to work, because he has a burden to carry. Far and away the best prize that life offers is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.” 
Theodore Roosevelt 


I'd just considered adding a ten dollar bill to my outstretched hitchhiking thumb, when the North American moving van honked from behind me.  I grabbed my computer bag and my backpack and ran for the ride that waited fifty yards down the shoulder of Florida Highway 331, headed south from I-10 and DeFuniak Springs towards the beaches of the Gulf Coast a half hour away.

I tossed my bags up to the helping hands of the two man crew in the cab.  The driver is Michael Underhill, IV, of Beaverton, Pennsylvania.  Somewhere in those productive years known as one’s thirties, Mike owns his truck and was in recent years named National Driver of the Year for North American Van Lines.  A friendly and talkative fellow, Mike is third generation in the moving business and third or fourth generation military.  There was a strength and confidence about Mike, and I wasn’t surprised to hear that he had spent three and a half years in the United States Marines.

Chris was a young fellow, the son of family friends who were also in the moving business.  Mike was taking Chris on board his operation, giving Chris a chance to learn the business from another point of view.  Chris’ own dad had been Driver of the Year just prior to Mike.

I was happy to know that Mike wasn’t just headed to the coast, but he, too, was then going west on Florida 98. His destination was the house of a Navy man and his family, transferred from San Diego to Pensacola very nearby to the Ft. Walton Beach Greyhound station where an early evening bus would be my way to Beaumont, Texas. 

Mike would make me a deal.  If I would help him and Chris unload the items for the Navy man, he and Chris would then take me right to the door of the Greyhound Station.  Bully.  A Square Deal.  Rotary’s Four Way Test.  Neighborliness.  The Good Samaritan, for sure.  But it gets better.

I shared with Mike and Chris the interesting sometimes crazy nature of my itinerary, especially the events that led me to thumb a ride on this fine day.  I was a highlight entertainment at the Florida Chautauqua in DeFuniak Springs on Friday afternoon and again on Saturday evening.  In between, I drove 700 miles to Beaumont, Texas, arriving at 1AM Saturday, ready to deliver a keynote address to the North American Rotary Large Club Conference at 11:30AM.  After the speech, I drove my car to the Greyhound station in Vidor, Texas, and my customer arranged for a colleague to fly me back to DeFuniak Springs in his Beechcraft airplane, just in time for my Saturday 6PM performance.  Worked like a dream.  Now, I had to get back to my car in Texas for the drive home to Sewanee. 

I explained to Mike and Chris that my Uncle George Prager, after a tour in Vietnam, hitchhiked from San Diego back to the Midwest.  I had grown up with this lore, and, as a result, spent much of my college years hitchhiking across the country, sometimes for romance, sometimes as just the best way to get across the country for $10.  I said that when people asked me if I was scared of the crazies or frightened on the open road, I said no, and that I wasn’t going to be a part of letting the crazies win on this point of people helping people. 

I related that once, after several hours in the dark and cold winter on the side of Interstate 70 in the middle of nowhere Ohio, I had promised the Good Lord that if He just sent me a ride, an angel of any type, I would promise to pick up hitchhikers when I had the chance.  I didn’t even own a car, so it was an easy promise to make.  The ride eventually came, as it always did.  Ninety-nine folks out of one hundred were just delightful, some plain, but most evidencing the wonderful variety of personality and character that is all about us.  The one or two scrapes weren’t really that bad.  Only once did I have to quickly say, “You can let me out right here.”

I confessed to Mike and Chris that I had broken that promise to God.  I will occasionally pick up a hitch hiker, especially if it is one of those obvious situations of a break down or someone who has run out of gas.  When I’m travelling alone, the typical hitchhiker is likely to get a ride, if my passenger seat isn’t packed full of books, maps and computer bags.  But these days, my passenger seat is always packed full, and whether it’s because I’m going too fast in the far left lane or because the hitchhiker just looks a little too desperate, a little too dirty, I’m just not likely to offer a ride, my first and most important job being to make it home safely to wife and daughter.  I had earlier told Mike that I was surprised he picked me up, as so many trucking firms, frightened by the liability implications, have forbidden drivers to be the angels of the road that American lore might lead us to believe they are.  (Non sequitur: My sister Joy’s favorite karaoke song is Janis Joplin’s “Me and Bobby McGee” where “Bobby thumbs an old diesel down.”)

Mike then proceeds to give me a brotherly lesson in the wonderfully uplifting dynamic of man’s faith in his fellow man.  You see, Mike says that his experience is that that guy who looks the worst, who needs a shower and a shave, he’s also likely the guy that just needs a chance, a hand up as firm as the hand that helped me up into that cab.

Mike shared story after story of guys he had picked up hitchhiking, who he in turn had given a chance to work on his truck as part of his crew.  It’s rather simple work, as I discovered.  The customer’s items have all been inventoried and stickered.  As items are brought down the truck ramp, an inventory number is told to the customer, who, in turn, checks the number off the inventory sheet and instructs where he would like things stacked.  Mike likes his guys to reassemble any furniture or other items that had to be taken apart to ship.  Ours was a little job.  In half an hour several dozen boxes, plastic bins and Navy duffel bags were unloaded.  A desk and appliances were the biggest items and a dryer panel had to be reattached.  No drops, no errors, and as Mike said, most importantly, nothing missing.

So, Mike says he’s probably picked up somewhere north of a hundred hitchhikers.  There’s nothing out of whack here.  Mike is married with children at home.  Whatever his motivations, Mike is really just giving these guys a chance.  Some turn out bad with problems of drugs or alcohol that can’t be tolerated, though Mike strikes me as the kind of guy that would even try to help a guy find help there.  Some of the guys Mike has helped, some of the guys who looked and smelled the worst and who seemed at wits’ end for what life had given them and for what they’d done themselves, well some of those guys got on their feet, got good jobs, sometimes in the warehouses and freight yards that are such an important part of Mike’s trade.

Mike’s grandfather, Michael P. Murvihill, Jr., a World War II veteran, is still alive.  Grandpa Mike was a member of the 82nd Airborne Division’s 508th Paratrooper Regiment.  In an effort to blow up a bridge behind German lines, Mr. Underhill and 49 of his fellow Americans began their mission.  Forty seven men died.  Two were taken prisoner by the Germans.  Mr. Underhill accomplished the mission, blew up the bridge, and by some means was taken in by Italian troops, who changed sides towards the end of the war, eventually making his way back to his regiment.

Mike’s service as a civilian likely lets him enjoy freedom and opportunity a great deal more than his three plus years of order-taking as a Marine.  Freedom and opportunity vouched safe by the sacrifices made by his grandfather, his Vietnam era vet father, and by all who have served.

In his own way, the way he lives his life today, Mike is helping to make this the country we all hope it will be;  where being helped doesn’t necessarily mean enrolling in some government hand out, instead opting for a hand up and a hard day’s work that comes as part of the self-respecting deal.

Good man.  Good ride.  Pass it on.