To celebrate the end of 2017, the clutch on our car decided to explode. We were on a day trip to Astoria on the Oregon coast when the car started shifting on its own (a feature that I generally disapprove of in a stick shift) before it got irretrievably stuck in neutral. The clutch’s demise was accompanied by a sad burning smell. And our plans to visit Astoria came to an end.
The stretch of road on which we stopped the car was heavy with fog – it was a plausible setting for a horror film. But by a stroke of holy good luck, a small park was nearby and the year-round caretaker was waiting in her trailer. We knocked on her door and she invited us into the warmth of her home while we called the tow truck.
The caretaker’s name was Angel. Fitting for the season, fitting for the circumstances.
We talked with Angel while we waited: about her family’s move to Oregon from Iowa, about her 4-year-old daughter (the child was there with us and thoroughly delighted to have other young people with whom she could play); about her husband’s work driving heavy equipment.
The tow truck arrived promptly and we shook the hand of a young man by the name of Matt. Matt didn’t take long to have our car winched up onto his flatbed. And we climbed up into the cab where, mercifully, there were two rows of seats and room for all of us.
We waved goodbye to Angel and her daughter and we started to drive back to Portland. And Matt, like Angel before him, began to talk.
I have clergy colleagues who say that, in social situations, they are nervous about admitting to what they do for work because, as soon as they do, their conversation partners tend to become nervous or guarded or otherwise clam up. But by and large, that hasn’t been my experience. When folks find out that I am a priest, it is as though some door or gate opens up. There are things that people want or need to say.
Matt talked with us about his sense of calling. He was only a handful of years removed from high school, but he told us that in the world of towing he had found something that he loved. He really liked automotive work; he really liked helping people; and he really liked big trucks. Being a tow truck driver had all of that.
Matt told us as well that he knew that he was in this line of work because of the Lord. “Who else,” he asked, “Could make something like this happen?”
The drive back to Portland took almost two hours. And so there was abundant time to speak – about faith, about the towing business, about Matt’s hometown of Longview, about Matt’s colleagues who called him by the nickname “Mater,” about his newborn niece whom he had never met but whom, he told us, he loved nonetheless.
As with our conversation with Angel, here was moment of connection and kindness, both simple and beautiful.
I am suspicious of the bumper-sticker theology that says, “Everything happens for a reason.” But I am willing to allow that there are some things – including some unwelcome things, like a car stopping working – that do happen for a reason. Our family was sorry to miss seeing Astoria. But we were – and are – grateful that we got stuck on the side of the road. We are grateful for having met Angel and her daughter and Matt, grateful for the time that we shared with them, grateful for the fleeting communion that came of a broken clutch.