Selfless act still a reminder of angels here on earth

Published 12:00 am Saturday, March 3, 2001

The traffic moved steadily and swiftly as it usually does on a busy interstate. Six lanes across, maybe eight, we traveled much faster than I wanted to drive.

With a precious cargo strapped into a car seat in back, I yearned to get the first leg of a long trip behind us. Atlanta was just ahead, and then there would be another couple of hours to Birmingham, also on heavily traveled interstate. We would spend the night in Birmingham and have an easy day on far more hospitable highways on they way to Natchez.

It was a Sunday afternoon, a beautiful sunny day, and all of the East Coast drivers must have been headed to the South’s biggest city for entertainment.

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Then it happened. From the lulling drone of traffic came a loud bang, and we felt a thud on the roof as the car began to shake. Within seconds I realized the back right tire had ruptured. I was in the middle lane and would have to move carefully to the side of the road. The problem was, the so-called safety zone along the side was not the width of a lane, and I could not get the car all the way to the inside of the line separating us from traffic.

We were just north of the big loop that encircles Atlanta, surely in the worst place on the worst day at the worst time to be sitting in a most precarious position. &uot;We’re in big trouble, aren’t we, Mimi?&uot; the small granddaughter said. How quickly a 3-year-old can assess a situation and get right to the point. &uot;Yes,&uot; I answered. &uot;Big trouble.&uot;

The cellular phone was useless. Traffic whizzed by, shaking the car by its hair’s-breadth proximity to the passing cars. I looked to both sides, ahead and behind. An orange cone stood beside the guard rail about 20 yards behind us. I got out of the car and ran for it, moving it in what I hoped would be a position to alert motorists in the left lane to move to the right. Summer sun beat down relentlessly on the highway. It was at least 100 degrees. I left the car motor running and the air-conditioner going for the granddaughter. Should I move her? She was on the side of the car most vulnerable to the traffic. The dilemma made me nearly crazy.

Outside on the hot pavement I began waving my arm at passing cars. Even if one had wanted to stop, it would have been difficult. A highway patrol car passed in the middle lane. &uot;At last,&uot; I thought. &uot;He’ll turn around and come to help.&uot; No such luck. In fact, he wagged his finger at me as in chastisement.

I was desperate but completely out of ideas. As I was about to give up hope of finding any help, a small red car, an older model Dodge, slowed and pulled into the zone ahead of us. The driver put the car into reverse and slowly backed toward us.

The young man, dressed casually in shorts and T-shirt, smiled as he approached me and said, &uot;Flat tire, huh?&uot; I was nearly in tears by then but managed to nod. &uot;Let’s get out your spare, and I’ll fix it for you,&uot; he said.

Calm and confident, he took out the equipment and the spare tire. Oncoming traffic continued to cut us little slack even as I waved as best I could to alert drivers. This young man risked his life, taking off the old tire and replacing it with the spare.

I was at a loss for words. I offered to pay him for what he had done. He refused, shaking his head, and said with a lovely smile that he was glad to have a chance to help someone that day. Reluctantly he told me his name but gave me only a general address, east Atlanta.

I know he was a real person. Still, I also know I met an angel. It is easy to imagine his beautiful dark face illuminated by a heavenly light. He will always be to me the epitome of that selflessness we all seek but rarely achieve. I think of him often.

Joan Gandy is special projects director for The Democrat. She can be reached at 445-3549 or by e-mail at joan.gandy@