There it was again. The noise of the vacuum cleaner in the sanctuary roared in my ears, but I was sure that I heard hammering. I stuck my head in the door and shouted at the Lovely Lady, beckoning her, when I finally got her attention, to turn off the motor on the noisy thing. She did, looking quizzically at me. “Did you hear something banging?” I asked. “No…can’t hear a thing over this,” she made a motion with her foot to get back to her work, but I held up my hand. There it was again, coming from the side door of the church sanctuary, where we were fulfilling our weekly task as the church custodians. Someone was banging on the wooden door. No one ever used that door. I wondered who it could be?
By the time I got to the door, the man was halfway down the steps, but I opened it anyway and asked if I could help him. He made his way unsteadily back up the stairs and stood there, swaying back and forth. He was quite obviously inebriated, but he asked what he had come to ask. “Can you give me some money? I need to get home.” It is a question that gets asked at the church doors across this nation a thousand times a day. I answered him honestly. “I don’t have any money, sir. I’m sorry.” I didn’t add the thing I really wanted to say. “…and I wouldn’t give you any if I did.” Typically, cash given to a drunken person only aids in making them more drunk. I’m not sure this man could have managed much more in that direction, though. He was definitely well past the point of caring.
He muttered something about no one wanting to help him and staggered off the church steps toward the highway. I stood there a moment, eyeing the man as he wove first one direction and then the other. I really had nothing in my pockets. The Lovely Lady and I didn’t just clean the church every week because we had servants’ hearts. We needed the money. With two children and a business which was barely scraping by, there just was never any extra cash after purchasing groceries and paying the bills. I was standing there in self pity, considering my plight, when I came to my senses about what the old man was doing. The highway he was headed for was a really busy one, the second most active port of entry into the state of Arkansas. Semi-trucks and cars streamed past, one after the other, every once in awhile one of them honking its horn at the fellow. He was struggling to walk on the shoulder, but was failing miserably, instead wandering into and out of the lane of oncoming traffic. I ran after him and pulled him toward the ditch.
“Can I take you somewhere?” He named a town miles away, but I didn’t have that much gas and told him so. He thought for awhile and then he had it! “Just take me down to the railroad tracks then,” the man said thickly. “I’ll hop a freight train and be home real quick.” I laughed out loud, but he was dead serious. What could I do? I couldn’t leave him to get killed on the highway. I turned him around and we walked back to where my old pickup truck was parked. With much effort, he pulled himself up into the cab and we started across town, in the general direction of the railroad tracks. As I drove, I thought about what I was doing. If the highway was dangerous, the railroad tracks were suicidal. I made a turn or two toward the north, hoping that he wouldn’t notice. He didn’t, falling over against me as I turned the corners. After a mile or two, I pulled to a stop and told him, “Here we are.” We were in front of the police station. It was the only thing I could think of. They would give him a place to sleep off the liquor and then, if he was still determined to ride the freight, he could find his way himself and wasn’t nearly as likely to kill or maim himself.
The man looked at the building and then at me. “Why you @#%&@! I’ll kill you for this!” I think it’s the only time anyone has ever threatened to kill me and it took me a little by surprise. I explained to him that I just couldn’t let him hurt himself and that at least he’d have a place to sleep for the night. He thought about that for a minute, letting his whiskey-pickled brain work its way around the thought. “Okay. Let’s get it over with.” It took a few minutes to explain to the police officer at the desk what was going on. They weren’t any happier with me bringing him to them than the man was himself, but they finally said that they would figure something out and I left. I never saw him again.
I look back on the occurrence, twenty-five years ago, and I still wonder. What did I accomplish? Why was he so angry with me? Why were the police unhappy with me?
I had done the right thing, hadn’t I? My only intent was to protect the man’s life. Wasn’t that what the police were supposed to do, also? “To Serve and Protect” That’s their motto. They just didn’t seem so keen on helping this old guy. I’m not sure I’ll ever figure out their response, but I’m pretty sure that I’ve finally got a little insight into the old man’s thought process.
The longer I ponder on the event, the more clear it becomes. He was happy with the way things were going. Unaware of his danger on the roadside, he would have gone his way without a care until that last sudden impact. He didn’t know, and he didn’t care. When I pointed out his jeopardy, he chose a different path, this one just as fraught with danger as the last one. Again, he would have been perfectly content for me to drop him off at the tracks, awaiting a chance to jump for the passing freight. Perhaps he would have made the leap. Then again, perhaps he would have fallen short and had the consequences of that foolish action to deal with. He was completely willing to put himself in danger, and may even have been unaware of the peril he was in, but either way, he certainly didn’t want me to save him. His angry reaction took away all doubt I might have had of that.
I continue to ponder on the strange event, realizing that there is more to learn. As much as I want to deny it, the old drunk is a picture of you and me. Oh, we may not be found in that inebriated condition, but we certainly are just as stubborn, and frequently just as bewildered. We think we know what we are doing, our befuddled minds assuring us that we have made good choices, and all the while, we are heading for a precipice, about to jump off.
You know, I seem to have a knack for explaining the obvious. I think this may be where I get off tonight. You will, no doubt, be able to work out the details of this enigma yourself. I will leave you with just one last thought. There is a Savior, who will not force you as this clumsy young man did to the old fellow many years ago. The current danger is clear and it is present. But, you get to choose.
I’m hoping you won’t choose the train tracks.
“There are far, far better things ahead than any we leave behind.”
(C.S. Lewis~Irish novelist and Christian apologist~1898-1963)
“How often I have wanted to gather your children together as a hen protects her chicks beneath her wings, but you wouldn’t let me.”
© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2012. All Rights Reserved.