Small, Midwestern Town
Blazing Hot Summer Day
I was traveling the state as a sales rep for a gift company and found myself in a small town which happens to be the hub of several railroad lines. Trains are a way of daily life in this town. They race along the South side of town, where flashing red lights and striped arm-guards drop to keep cars, trucks, tractors and combines safe while the miles of cars race on their way.
It's also the confluence of several major highways and the county seat.
It's a busy place as small Midwest corn-towns go.
Mid-week I arrived in town in the early afternoon with windows rolled up tight against the killer humidity and searing heat; a typically relentless summer day. As I passed through an intersection, left-turning on my green light, I noticed a young girl sitting cross-legged on the median between the intersecting highways. She was holding a cardboard sign. She was road-worn and dusty in a pair of shorts and a simple tank top that needed washing. Her hair was a bit of an unbrushed mess.
The sign said she was looking for a ride to the next town.
My inner voice whispered to me, "Pick her up."
This would be the appropriate time to interject: my step-dad was in law enforcement. My son is a cop. Since the time my kids were little there's been a clear family understanding: we don't let mom use sharp things or hot things without supervision because she hurts herself.
I've very little finesse. Big math confuses me. I'm a bit of a klutz.
All this to make the point: I'm not the kind of gal who picks up hitchhikers.
Completing my turn, I caught one last glimpse of her in my rear-view mirror and my inner voice whispered to me again: "Pick her up."
I'm sure my brow furrowed. At least a wee bit.
Pick up a hitchhiker?
Out here, hundreds of miles from my home?
Pick up a hitchhiker?
"Yes. Go pick her up."
And this is how the conversation went:
Me to God: Look, I swear I hear you telling me to go back and pick that girl up. I am pretty darn sure that's what I just heard you say. Twice. The thing is, God......picking up hitchhikers isn't really a great idea. It's summer, she's not freezing to death. And I am pretty sure picking up hitchhikers is one of those things women who are traveling alone on the road are not supposed to do....
Go pick her up.
Go pick her up.
"Ok, here's the thing. It's hot out. Maybe I'm hearing you right, maybe I'm not. Maybe I've got a little sunstroke or something because it seems really, really weird you'd be telling me to go pick up a hitchhiker. But that's what I'm hearing. So I'll tell you what I'm going to do. I'm going to keep driving down to the next big intersection and I'm going to do a big loop and get back to that highway. And if she's still there.....I'm going to pick her up. You hear me, right? I am GOING to PICK UP A HITCH HIKER if she is still there. I am. I'm GOING to pick her up. So, yknow....if this is a bad idea and I've got this all wrong....please....do something now. Because I'm turning right here....and I'm going to do a big loop....and if she's there. I'm picking her up."
Go pick her up.
And as you can guess, there she was.
And now she had a guy with her. She looked to be early 20's as I got closer.
He looked to be a bit older. He was road-worn with scraggly hair and tattoos on his face.
"You didn't mention anything about this guy that she's got with her......"
Pick them up.
So. Against everything I knew to be wise and sensible, against what I absolutely knew would be the express advice of my children and perhaps the entire state highway partrol department, I crossed the street, parked my car, got out, walked to the edge of the road and waved to them.
The young man saw me waving and, leaving her sitting in the intersection with the sign, crossed over to my side of the road. He smiled and said hello.
"Honey, what are you guys doing sitting out in the middle of the road?"
He said, "We're trying to get to the next town."
"When's the last time you had anything to eat?"
Yesterday, he told me.
"See the hotel over there across the parking lot? I'm staying there tonight. Go get your girl out there in the road and you two meet me in the lobby of that hotel."
He smiled and said, "Thank you very much, ma'am. We appreciate it."
And that's how I met Tucker and Randi.
They met me in the lobby of the hotel where I was planning to spend the night and after a quick game of almost-20 questions I realized they hadn't eaten, had no place to stay and very little money. They were a couple of tired, hungry kids.
"Here's the deal," I told them. "It's miserably hot out tonight. If you guys will have dinner with me and tell me your stories, I'll get you a room here in the hotel so you can get showered and get a good nights sleep. Is it a deal?"
I bought them a room, sent them off to get cleaned up while I showered my own layer of road dirt out of my hair, met them in the lobby and we headed off in my car to find dinner. We settled on a grocery store buffet deli, filled our plates and sat down to eat and talk.
Fortunately, the buffet was quiet that night because Tucker and Randi were clearly "not from here" and drew the stares of just about everyone we met. Tucker's hair and tattoos were enough to make mothers hold on to their daughters hands just a little tighter when we passed. Oddly, I felt myself going all "mama bear" over it. It made me mad. How did folks know these weren't my kids and how dare they look at my kids as if they were so very different.
That killer mother-instinct gets it's feathers ruffled pretty easy, I guess.
Tucker and Randi explained they were "travelers". You can substitute the word hobo if you're from a generation closer to mine. They were homeless, jobless and hopping trains, riding all over the country. He was from Texas. She was from Louisiana. They'd crossed paths when he was doing his "traveler" thing through her hometown and, captivated by his carefree spirit and unencumbered lifestyle, she dropped everything, threw a few clothes into a bag and waving goodbye to her mama, left her home to travel with him.
Earlier in the day of the afternoon I spotted Randi sitting in the intersection, they'd been riding a coal car through the countryside when, apparently, someone spotted them and reported it to the railroad. That day, instead of roaring along the South side of town, the train had slowed to a stop and the two of them were removed from the rail car by the local police with instructions to get out of town as fast as they possibly could or they would throw them in jail for criminal trespass.
Which is exactly what they were trying to do when.....well, enter Debbie and her little inner voice.
As agreed, Tucker and Rachel unfolded the stories of their lives for me. I don't remember many of the details, I was just honored they'd share those details with me. They had families. There was some dysfunction. Honestly...the details didn't matter. I just knew I was supposed to pick up these kids and take care of them for a night.
I did that the best I could.
We chatted and laughed and had a really good time over dinner.
We went back to the hotel, said our goodnights and headed off to our appointed rooms.
The next morning I met them in the lobby, handed them a bag full of granola bars and other snacks I'd picked up for them, hoping it would help them get by until..........well, I wasn't sure what the next day and the next day and the next held for them but I knew this: they were not alone. God spoke to me and told me to pick them up. He had his eye on them. I hugged them both, promised to pray for them and because I had a sales call to make in the direction opposite of where they wanted to go, we all went our separate ways. Last I saw of them, she was sitting in the intersection again.
With the sign.
I prayed they'd get a safe ride.
Maybe some crazy lady who listens to God and does what he tells her to do.
This past week I was cruising an online financing website, just sort of wandering around because it's an interesting site some friends have used for creative projects and I happened across a post about an independent company seeking financing to produce a documentary about modern-day hobo's who ride the railways by stowing away on trains.
My thoughts went back to Tucker and Randi as I opened up the page and there, staring back at me were photos of....Tucker and Randi. The proposed project was actually a posting from several years back, the project had been financed in full, the documentary has been produced and will be available through Amazon in early December. And Tucker and Randi were several of the "travelers" featured in the piece.
I watched the trailer and sure enough, there they were.
It was filmed later in the same year I picked them up. They looked Scruffier than the day I met them.
Surrounded by...gotta be honest....some pretty scary looking friends.
In some really scary looking places.
Seriously, the scenes in the documentary trailer broke my heart. The kids looked tired and hungry and uncomfortable. I watched it several times, the same way I watch Gone with the Wind, every single time hoping that pretty little girl won't jump her pony and break her neck. I watched, just hoping maybe the story would brighten up a bit with a happy ending for Tucker and Randi.
My copy is on order. .
It should arrive before Christmas.
So, what to conclude about the whole thing.
I've asked myself many, many times: why would God tell me to pick up a couple of hitchhiking kids? What difference did it make? Why would he lead me out of my comfort zone and (seemingly) risk my personal safety to do something that I knew would make my kids and most of my friends think I'd totally lost my mind?
I don't have a grand answer, other than......he asked me to do it and I did. It was a lesson in obedience for me. I have no idea what, if anything other than a hot meal, a clean bed and some chat with a crazy lady, it meant to those kids. Honestly, I didn't have Bible verses on my mind when I picked up them up. I just knew it was something I was supposed to do and I tried to just be in the moment and roll with it. I do, however, find evidence that it was the right thing to do at the time, in my Bible in the book of Matthew 25, staring with verse 35:
35For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in,
36I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
37“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink?
38When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you?
39When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
40“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
I explained to Tucker and Randi exactly why I picked them up that afternoon, over our dinner that night. I told them of my hesitation, I told them about God's voice in my heart and I told them about my personal faith and how it sustains me every single day of my life. I made sure they understood God had his eye on them and I promised that I would pray for them from now on. Both of them had their own experiences with faith and the church. We talked about that a bit as they shared their stories with me. Tucker was a bit estranged from his Dad. Randi's mom was real worried about her and she felt bad about that. There was some substance abuse. Some wrong turns. These kids had been traveling as stowaways in rail cars for a long, long time. Very doubtful they even remember me.
If God whispered in my ear, I'll bet he whispered in the ears of many others who blessed them along the way the best they could, too.
The last thing I told Tucker and Randi was that I would be one of their praying guardians.
I am today and will continue to be. They're my heart-kids now, even if I never, ever see them again.
It's a promise I made and I'll keep it always.