In the early seventies, it seemed almost every kid rode their bike to school. I remember standing in the front of my elementary school staring at the bike rack loaded with well over 100 bicycles of every type imaginable. Some kids were lucky enough to have new bikes with banana seats and monkey handle bars. Others rode older bikes with saddle seats and faded paint. And then there were a few kids like me that were too poor to own functioning bicycles.
I say “functioning” because my family had plenty of bicycles, but none of them were in working order. My older siblings’ bikes had been sitting in the garage for years with rusty chains and flat tires, and at ten-years-old, I had long since grown out of the bike I had gotten for Christmas when I was five. And so every day I walked back and forth from school while the other kids flew past me on their bikes.
Buying a new bike was out of the question, because my family was dirt-poor. But I was nothing if not resourceful in those days, so late in the year as we neared Christmas break, I somehow managed to patch the tires of my older brother’s bike, and then I begged my mother to let me ride it to school. She was worried about my safety on such an old bike, but a brief demonstration of me riding it around the driveway convinced my mom that it was indeed road-worthy and she reluctantly agreed to let me take it to school.
There was only one teensy little problem with the bike. It had no brakes. Well, technically, it had them, but they didn’t even kind of work. But I withheld that little fact from my mom because I thought it might somehow hurt my chances of getting her permission to ride it.
So off to school I went. My plan was to ride carefully and slowly, and then drag my feet on the ground when I wanted to stop. What could go wrong? And, in my defense, the plan worked fabulously the first day.
It was on the second day, though, that I literally ran into trouble. I was cutting through the corner-lot Chevron when a car suddenly pulled out in front of me. Swerving to avoid that car, I plowed right into a brand new, straight-off-the-lot Cadillac that was parked at the gas pump. To my horror, I saw that I had taken a chunk of paint off the door, leaving a small dent in its place.
I apologized profusely to the owner and then finished my ride home. In those days, in a small town, parents usually found out about everything sooner or later, so I figured I’d better go ahead and fess up to my mom right away.
When my mom asked me why I didn’t brake when I saw the car, the truth about the faulty brakes was soon revealed. My mom immediately grabbed me by the arm and marched me back down to the service station where we found the Cadillac owner.
The owner listened quietly as my mother apologized and then he gave me the biggest Christmas gift any stranger has ever given me.
He forgave me.
After assuring my mom that all was forgiven and that no payment was necessary–get this–he even praised me for my honesty in telling my mom. This, from a man who had just bought a top-of-the-line car.
I wish I had gotten his name. I wish I could tell him how much that one act of kindness impacted a young boy. I wish I could let him know how his generosity helped me understand what mercy is.
But there is no way to do that now. Instead, I have to content myself with paying it forward. I’ve had a few chances to do that over the years, and let me tell you, it’s hard to do and it always hurts. I don’t know how that man made it look so easy but whenever someone hits my metaphorical Cadillac, I try to think of that Cadillac owner and the Christmas gift he gave me.