By Garfield “Chuck” Chatman
Spokane, Washington, USA
After difficult separation from my wife, I decided to go back to Spokane, Washington, where I had been stationed in the Air Force, since I had loved it there. I was living in South Carolina, and left with a shoestring budget. So many things went wrong on the 4,000-mile trip that I often I thought that I wouldn’t make it.
I was driving through Utah outside Salt Lake City. I am an African American and my car broke down unfortunately near a prison, on a weekend. With little money to get the parts I needed in a small town on the Sabbath, I walked to a gas station right off the highway and found out that the part I needed was a dealer item, and every dealership was closed until Monday.
I walked back to my car and tried some temporary methods to fix it so I could at least make it to Salt Lake City, about 20 miles away, and failed. I was on a interstate highway and the likelihood that someone would stop for me, a black man, was slim. Especially since there were signs declaring “Do not pick up hitchhikers” because of the close proximity of the prison.
But a man stopped and offered to help. I was a little skeptical and a little fearful, but I really didn’t have much of a choice. This gentleman took me around to several salvage yards in search of the needed part. We finally found one, returned to the car and found that it would work, but I needed a nut and bolt, so he took me to a hardware store. He then offered to follow me as far as Salt Lake City to be sure I would make it at least that far, but the repair held until I reached Spokane.
All of this took the better part of five or six hours, but he took the time out of his day to assist me. I offered to buy him lunch or pay him gas money. No. I asked if I could I get his name and address so that when I got to Spokane and get on my feet I would send him some money, but he refused that, too, saying that if I made it to where I was going it was thanks enough.
I have never forgotten his selflessness, and I try to help others as he helped me. If he hadn’t stopped who knows where I would have ended up, maybe a resident of Utah instead of Washington state as I planned, or homeless, or worse. He changed my life, yet wanted no thanks.
I have lived a life of trying to do the same ever since. Race didn’t matter. He just saw someone who needed help. I don’t even know his name, but he changed my outlook on life. It’s the first thing on my mind when I hesitate to help someone.
Available in The Best of HeroicStories, Volume 1.
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2 thoughts on “A New Start”
I too, once broke down in Utah near a prison. The people there are awesome! I’m so glad things worked out well for you, too.
I was traveling home from Alaska to Missouri in January of 1974, after my discharge from Air Force and being stationed at Elmendorf AFB in Alaska. In one of my less sane moments, I decided to drive home. I was traveling through Salt Lake City, Utah, when a massive snowstorm that came out of nowhere began to dump heavy, wet snow everywhere. Traffic was traveling at a snail’s pace, when suddenly the car in front of me slid off the the road into a ditch. I stopped to help, and discovered a very pregnant woman and numerous young children. No way could I leave her there, so I offered to drive her somewhere for help. I had my young dog with me, and the back seat of my car full of stereo equipment (that I refused to ship for fear it would be stolen); somehow, we managed to cram the little kids on top of the equipment, put her and the youngest child in the front seat, and headed out for help. She asked me to drive her to her husband’s place of business, and I agreed; she had been on the way to pick him up from work. It took some time to get there due to the heavy snow and the traffic, and then we arrived — at the Utah State Prison! I nearly fell over. Her husband was the Mormon chaplain at the prison. Since their vehicle was in the ditch, I offered to drive them home, but asked for directions to the nearest gas station so that I could get the chains installed on my back tires. He said he would take care of it, and told me wait at the car. Lo and behold, a few minutes later, a tall gate slid open, and an ancient but massive tow truck drove over and backed up to my car. Three men, all in prison garb, hopped out, hooked the cables to the back of my car, lifted it up, and installed my chains. Once the chains were installed, I thanked them, and they then hopped back into that massive truck and drove back into the prison, where the gate slid shut again. They were extremely polite, very professional, and refused to take any payment. To say I was astonished was the understatement of the century. After that, the entire family loaded themselves into my car (my poor dog was confined to the back window!), and I was able to easily navigate the roads with the chains on my car, and delivered them safely to their home. It was the most incredible experience I’ve ever had on any road trip I’d had before that, or since then. The kindness of the chaplain to take care of getting my chains on, goodness of the prisoners who did the work and refused any monetary compensation… well, it has made my day ever since. I’ve told this story many times over the years, and it’s always well received. And I will never forget the great experience that I had that day, in spite of what Mother Nature threw at us! Utah is a beautiful state, I enjoyed my trip through there even with the snowstorm, and I will always carry good memories of my wonderful experience there.