It’s nearly midnight and I’m thundering a mile a minute across the high, empty desert of central Arizona, singing loudly and pounding the steering wheel as the music from my new cassette tells me to Shout! Shout! Let it all out! And I was, because come on, they were talking to ME!
I’m on my way back to Phoenix from Flagstaff, having just spent Thanksgiving Day with my parents and cousins at my aunt and uncle’s house. I’m 17 and I couldn’t stay in Flagstaff for the whole weekend with my parents because I had a new job to be at the next morning.
I’ve had my driver’s license for just over a year and this was my first long-distance solo trip. An hour earlier my uncle was admonishing me of the perils of the black ice that could lurk on the surface of overpasses waiting to snatch at the inexperienced wheels of a boy from sunny Phoenix and that thought, along with many other what-ifs, kept creeping around in my head. Alone, I sang loudly to hold them back but I was keenly aware of their glistening eyes peering out of the dark just behind me.
It’s cold, in that surprisingly harsh way the desert can be with scarce resources to trap heat, and even though I have the heat cranked the window is too cold to rest my hand against it, and it’s wet, with a chilly mist settling in the broad arroyos. All I’ve got is a thermos of coffee for a sword and a stack of cassettes for a shield to help me in the battle to stay alert on the empty highway.
And there they were.
My headlights plucked out the car on the shoulder, hazard lights flashing, three heads turning to look my way. In the thump of a heartbeat my foot lifted ever so slightly off the accelerator and a quart of adrenaline spilled in my gut.
What if they’re killers what if they’re rapists what if they kidnap me what if it’s Chester the Molester what will my parents say what will my uncle say I shouldn’t stop for hitchhikers what would Jesus do what would a Boy Scout do I’m trustworthy loyal helpful friendly courteous kind obedient cheerful thrifty brave clean reverent surely killers wouldn’t possibly work in packs maybe they are girls that like awkward teenage boys what’s the right thing to do should I stomp my foot back down on the gas all flooded through my head in the next heartbeat as I shifted my foot over to the brake pedal and slowed behind them.
I stopped a few car lengths behind them and watched as two men and a woman got out of the car and started towards me. I relaxed a little – they looked safe. They were smiling. They looked like me. They wore clothes I would wear.
They were white.
I rolled my window down a few inches as one of the men walked up and began to talk to me with a German accent. They were visiting the States and their rental car had stalled.
I said I would help them.
They grabbed a few things from their car, none of which looked like guns or rope or knives or rags soaked in chloroform, so I unlocked the doors and let two in the back seat and one up front with me. We drove twenty minutes or so down the highway and I let them out at the 24-hour truck stop in Cortes Junction, which in 1985 was just a handful of buildings that seemed to have been left accidentally near the turnoff to Prescott.
30 minutes later the road wound down off the high desert plateau. I ejected Tears for Fears telling me Everybody Wants To Rule The World as the chilly mist hugging the ground higher up was replaced by radio stations from Phoenix and the night was pushed away by streetlights and neon signs. I was home. I was safe. I made it.
I told my parents what I’d done when they returned a few days later and told my uncle when I saw him a month later at Christmas. They all were concerned and a little angry, but they all understood, too, and even then I knew that they were concerned not because I had done something wrong but because they cared about me and my safety. I was part of their tribe and they protected me.
Looking back thirty years later I like to think that I would have helped whomever had stepped out of that car, regardless of their color or race, but I can’t say that with any certainty. I’m certain that my foot continued to hold the brake down, though, because what I saw in front of me was familiar enough for me to feel safe.
In 1985 I didn’t really know anybody that wasn’t white. When I look at my high school yearbook there are few people that don’t look similar to me. A couple of Asians, a few Hispanic, one or two that were black, and Norman from somewhere in the Middle East. It wasn’t an intolerant community – I don’t think the “whiteness” was by design – but that part of Phoenix in 1985 was pretty homogenous. My parents had friends of all sorts: Filipino, Japanese, African and Apache. We even had the son of their Saudi friends stay with us for a year when I was in 6th grade. The only reason I didn’t like him was that he had a better bike than I did and could do that weird trick of turning his eyelids inside-out which, for some reason, made him popular and me jealous.
It wasn’t until two years later, when I was in Basic Training, that I made my first black friends. As I went through college and then came in the Army full-time I made friends of all sorts of races and nationalities: Guamanian, Samoan, Hmong, Hispanic, African, Persian, Korean – you name it. I don’t really think of them that way, though – they’re just whatever their name is. They’re just Peter and Alexander and Zanthia and Maritza and Mi.
When I think about it now I realize that fear has its place. The fear I felt as a young, inexperienced driver that cold November night was appropriate and served me well by making me drive more slowly and cautiously, something teenage males aren’t exactly known for. The fear I felt being out on that high desert plateau by myself was valid, too, because if I’d had car problems I would have been stranded; there were no cell phones in 1985 to call for help with. The fear pumping through my gut as I stopped behind the other car was legitimate, too – I had no way of knowing the intentions of the people in the other car. The fear, expressed as concern, from my family was appropriate, too – they were protecting their own, as they should. The fear of another race or color that may have caused my foot to slide back over to the accelerator and leave stranded people by the side of the road, though, was born from a limited world experience and I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to leave that fear in my youth, tucked in a shoebox with memories of the Bogeyman and trolls living under bridges.
Our opposable thumb that allows us to grasp a log and use it as a tool makes us a primate. Using that log to control fire makes us Homo sapiens. Gathering others like us around the fire makes us human and forms our tribes.
Holding the log high, a torch to push out our circle of light, turning from the fire and stepping into the darkness, discerning which eyes are predatory and which eyes are pleading for refuge and bringing them to safety – that is when we become leaders.