By Buzz McClain
Something happened this summer that has stayed with me for a month and a half. It was a small thing, but as they say in the field of education, it was a learning moment.
I took my 10-year old son Luke and two of his friends to our cabin by the river for an overnight stay. Tyler and Trevor are at that nutsy cuckoo stage where everything is funny; and they are, by and large, action-oriented kids. That said, I think Tyler watches too much TV, plays his video games too long and listens to his iPod a bit more than he might.
But who am I to judge? I remember doing my homework while simultaneously watching the entire primetime offerings of whatever TV station was on. But of course, at our little cabin there is no TV, no DVD player, not even a GameBoy. The entire place is wireless – as in, having no wires. For entertainment we dig fishing worms.
In any case, after a very, very hot day of cavorting in the river we adjourned to the bonfire and for some reason I just could not get the massive pile of wood to burn, no matter how many old copies of my wife’s Us and Hello magazines I piled under it. Realizing we required advanced technology, we made the quick trip into town to the Dollar General for lighter fluid.
Coming out of Dollar General with our hands full of bottles of flammable accelerant and medieval foam swords (come on, you cannot go into Dollar General with three boys and not come out with foam swords), I saw a young man snapping shut his over-burdened panniers on his 10-speed bike. He picked up a well-worn map from the ground and carefully inserted it into a plastic holder on his handlebars. He was wearing compression shorts and a nifty old-fashioned shirt that tied across the placket with laces, pioneer style. He was not, as they say, from around these parts.
He mounted up and pedaled to the parking lot exit which drew him near our truck. And that’s when I asked: “Where you headed?”
He grinned and said, “Berlin.”
Well, I knew there was a story there, because we were a good, oh, 10,000 miles from Berlin, Germany and as far as I knew, they haven’t finished building that bridge across the Atlantic.
“Where are you staying?” I asked. It was near dark, and if he was camping he was going to be pitching his tent with a flashlight, as there are no public campgrounds for miles.
“Oh, I’ve got a little tent,” he said. “I’m not sure where I’ll pitch it. Somewhere.”
“Well,” I said, “you can do that, but we have a cabin not far from here that has a spare bed and a shower.”
There was a slight pause while he took this in. “A shower?” He said it in that disbelieving way you do when you hear something that’s too good to be true.
“Follow us. It’s about half a mile.” I rolled up the window and as we pulled onto the road I noticed how quiet the three boys had become.
They were stone-faced in shock. In fact, there were tears in Tyler’s eyes.
“What’s up, guys?” I asked.
“Dad,” Luke struggled to say, “he could be a serial killer.”
“Mr. McClain, we just saw ‘The Dark Knight’! He could be like the Joker!” Trevor said. “He could kill us in our sleep.”
“Guys, guys! Calm down. He’s a guy on a long bike trip. He doesn’t need any help. He didn’t ask for anything. And he doesn’t want anything. But he’s been on the road a long time, and a soft bed and a hot shower will feel good. Sometimes you trust your instincts about people.”
The boys were not convinced, not by me, anyway, but by first-hand exposure to Russell.
As it turned out, Russell was an artist from British Columbia, from the area way up near Alaska, and he’d been biking more than a month. He was on his way to New York to catch a plane to London where he would buy another bike and pedal to Berlin where he hoped to receive a commission for an art installation.
He specializes in oversized mixed-media mandalas; imagine symmetrical snowflakes made up of photographs or fruit or tiny army soldiers – he’s done them all. I know this because he showed me impressive photos of his work on his iPod touch, a gadget I hadn’t touched before that.
He had the 32-gig version, and that baby could fly. Really remarkable fluidity. Not that I want one for my birthday or anything.
As it happened, Russell was at the Dollar General because of his iPod. “I’ve had the worst day of the trip,” he said. “My iPod fell out of its case, got caught in the spokes, snapped off at the headphone jack and sent me into a ditch and broke my sunglasses. I was getting new headphones and sunglasses when we met.”
Russell said the highlight of his day was our home cooked meal and cold beer, plus getting our bonfire started to the delight of the boys. What can I say, he’s Canadian, he can start fires.
But as the fire burned down to a warm glow in the dark I found Tyler sitting alone on the swing near the woods. He was crying.
“Is it because you still think Russell is going to kill us in our sleep?” I asked. (May as well just lay it out there, right?)
“No,” he sniffed. “I just want to go home. I can’t explain it. I want to watch something.”
“We’re watching the fire,” I pointed out. “We’re catching fireflies. We’re throwing glow sticks. This is better than TV.”
“I just want to watch something,” he repeated. “I want to go home.”
Taking Tyler home – three hours away – was out of the question, but he was sobbing like there was no end in sight.
And that’s when I remembered Russell’s iPod touch. “Come with me,” I said gently.
We found Russell in the kitchen. “Say Russell, can Tyler check out your iPod?”
“Sure,” he said. “Here. I’ll boot up a game you can play. This is a cool one with race cars. If you turn the iPod the screen turns too. See?” Tyler put the earbuds into his head and was lost to us for at least 45 minutes. When he finally relinquished the iPod to Luke and Trevor he’d recovered from his previous misery.
Long story short, Russell’s day was saved, Tyler’s night was saved and three boys learned that sometimes you can give something to someone who doesn’t need anything, not knowing they might give you something back.