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NJ MapOn any given Saturday or Sunday morning, in the days before GPS, my family and I would find ourselves on our way to visit Aunt Bea and Uncle Harold, Cousins Dorothy and Charlie, or some other beloved relative. Dad always did the driving, and Mom usually had the directions, written on a small piece of colored paper, in her own naturally calligraphic handwriting.

On one occasion or another, when an unforeseen detour took us out of our way, or when a cutoff had been missed, we would need to stop for directions. This was something I secretly loved. (Even the free Texaco or Esso road maps were no match for a real person. It was “people” before “technology.”)

Mom or Dad would spot somebody working on his car, or walking her dog, and Dad would pull over, roll down his window (yes, actually hand crank the window), excuse himself for the bother, and ask for directions. This was when the character act would begin and I, in the back seat, would be fascinated.

The local would stop what he or she was doing, walk over to our car, and in a friendly, neighborly, kind, and interested manner give those ethereal, timely, ever-so-valuable gifts to get us back on course. They were given very generously, with thoughtful detail, in the idiosyncratic style of the personality of the character we were fortunate enough to meet.

Usually Mom didn’t write a word, and even though we were out of our element, Dad would remember every detail.

“So you’re heading up to Waterton. Got family there?”
“Yes, we do.”
“Well, you’re not too far off course.”

This was the pre-amble to the coming gem.

“Okay, you’re on Route 72, Hartsville. You take this for about four miles. At the apple orchard you make a right. You go about another two miles, over the bridge over the railroad tracks, and you make a left turn by the old blue water tower onto Throckmorton Lane. That takes you into Waterton Township. In a couple, three miles the road curves past a dairy farm and an old electrical supply warehouse with broken windows. A little after that, the road becomes Main Street, and then you’ll come to Downtown Waterton. You’ll see the red brick post office on your right.”
“Great! I know where to take it from there! Thanks!”
“Sure enough. You take care now.”
“You too. Goodbye.”

We’d pull away as our guardian angel resumed his or her life as if we had never been there. I would get a little sad when my father would say, “Goodbye” to the Good Samaritan, because I realized that we would never see that nice guy or lady again. We never knew the names of the men or women who helped us, never got to know them, and were never able to pay them back for their kindness. (You were just expected to do the same when another lost traveler asked you for help.)

I would absorb the accent, the cadence of the speech, the grammar, the posture, and various other distinguishing characteristics or marks. (“I wonder where she got that scar.” “What did his tattoo mean?”)

As nice as those folks seemed, you didn’t make friends over brief interactions like these, even though as a young boy I wished I could meet and be friends with everyone in the world. But that was a part of life back then. You didn’t “friend” someone on Facebook, or snag an e-mail address, from a two-minute interaction in the 1960s and ‘70s. It has been said, “People come into your life for a reason, a season, or a lifetime.” And so it was.

Armed with valuable information, we went from feeling like lost sheep to wise souls in a matter of minutes, but like the tape recorded instructions to Mr. Phelps on the old “Mission: Impossible” television show, the directions turned to smoke as we found our way and went on with the rest of our trip. Upon arrival there was nothing remaining of the gift we had received; it vanished into thin air. It seems fitting that those momentary friends would give us such a valuable and essential gift that was as intangible and fleeting as they, themselves, were.

Today I try to savor every moment, every chance encounter, and especially those people and gifts that might too soon be gone without notice.

So, please, ask me for directions! And stay awhile!

By Keith Douglas Kramer
Photo by Keith Douglas Kramer

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