Have you ever been “touched by an angel?” I listened recently to a sermon about angels watching over us, and as the pastor recanted a few of his experiences I was reminded of one of my own.
I was a young adult woman, fresh out of high school — but a hick from the sticks in every literal sense. I had made friends with a wild and crazy gal I met at my first job in the big city, forty miles from my small town home. She was fun and had lots of friends. It was a pretty crazy place to work too. The exact kind of job, and co-workers, my dad would have forbidden me to be part of had he known. After the crumbling business folded my new gal friend asked if I wanted to move to Phoenix with her. I remember digging in my pockets and coming up with what I thought was enough gas money to contribute to our travels and said, “Sure, I’ll go” (like Jenny in Forrest Gump, only not to San Francisco).
So off to Phoenix we went. We couldn’t stay long however, as my sister was getting married the very next month and had asked me to be her maid-of-honor, so after making a few acquaintances, finding a place to live, and securing a couple of decent part-time jobs, my friend and I hit the road back to Wyoming (having no idea of the peril which lie ahead).
We left Phoenix in a hidalgo-like dirt storm. A dust cloud a mile high was waiting for us to make the city limits and then it pounced on us like a playful cat on a clueless mouse. The roadway disappeared in a consuming brown-out. I strained to keep the tail-lights of the car in front of me in view, trusting that whomever was in the lead knew where the road was. It was a harrowing twenty minutes. Gradually the brown cloud dissolved into cottony white. The dirt storm curtsied off and a blizzard took center stage. The roadway became slick and icier by the minute. Cars, trucks, semis, all began sliding around, and some slipped off the highway.
Being a Wyoming girl, I put the car in a low gear and tanked slowly through the obstacle course of fast, slow, and out-of-control vehicles, finally making it over the pass at Flagstaff and to the other side, thankfully unscathed. It took us all day, but we finally arrived at Gallup, New Mexico late that evening. Our plan for a two-day trip was still possible, although the next day would probably be a really l–o–n–g day. We spent the very last of our money (earned from part-time jobs in Phoenix) on a room for the night, saving just enough back for a tank or two of gasoline and perhaps one stop at a McDonalds.
The next morning when I turned the key in the ignition, my alternator light was on, on the dashboard. The car seemed to run okay, so when we went to get gas I asked the mechanic to have a look at our issue. He reported the alternator was in need of replacement. He suggested we drive to Albuquerque, where we could probably get it fixed that afternoon. He said we’d be fine as long as we didn’t run any electrical stuff. No heater. No radio. No headlights. Soooo, off we went on a wing and a prayer and thank God arrived safely, just as the mechanic had promised we would, at a Chevron station just inside the city limits, and right off the Interstate.
It had to be a Chevron station because my parents had given me a Chevron credit card with strict instructions that it be used ONLY for an emergency! We pulled the car into the parking lot and went in to talk to the mechanic. He had one of the men pull it into the bay and check it out. Sure enough it could be fixed easily and quickly, but they wouldn’t be able to get the part there until the next morning. I offered to go fetch the part myself and bring it to them, if that’s all they needed to get it done that day. He said the parts store wouldn’t have it themselves until the next morning, and as soon as they got it they would run it over.
My body broke out in a sweat. Worry billowed up from my bowels until the ache in my stomach was surly manifested all over my face. I turned around trying very hard to “be cool”in a very crowded waiting room. My friend stood across the room, the two of us trying to read each other’s thoughts through the laser beams in our eyes, afraid to utter a single word that would reveal our desperate vulnerability.
The reality was, we didn’t have money for another motel room and neither of us knew a single person in Albuquerque, NM. We needed to discuss our dilemma, and come up with a plan, but where? We stepped outside and found a secluded corner of the parking lot where we could sit on a curb and quietly bounce ideas off each other. Maybe we could sleep in the car? I suggested. But what kind of neighborhood was this? The door locks were defective on the old Dodge Colt and if we locked them it would take more mechanic work ($$$) to remove the door panels to get them unlocked, otherwise we’d be forced to climb in and out of the windows for the rest of the trip home, in the cold and the snow. Maybe the owner of the garage would let us sleep in the car inside his garage if we swore an oath not to leave the car or touch anything?
As the sun sank lower and lower in the southwestern sky so our desperate situation grew more and more crimson. We were two young, unarmed, dirt poor girls in desperate straits and a long ways from home, without a viable plan. Those were the days before cell phones, before bank ATMs, and before things could be charged to a credit card over the phone. Even if we called our parents, there was very little they could do, but worry.
When we re-entered the waiting room late, late in the day, still mostly without a plan, and by that time it was almost totally cleared out. That’s when a man approached us. I guess he’d probably been sitting in the waiting room the whole time, but we hadn’t noticed him. He was tallish and slender built, a bit older than us, early thirties maybe, handsome, but not overly so, the kind of handsome that made him blend in rather than stand out.
He offered that we could stay with him and he’d bring us back to our car in the morning. Of course we thanked him very much, but vehemently declined his offer, assuring him we had plans. He let a little while pass and then he approached us again, saying it wasn’t safe for us to sleep in our car in that neighborhood. Had he somehow overheard us? We looked briefly at each other in an almost naked moment of stunned silence. He assured us that he was offering the safest option. Something about him lent us to trust him, a little, although we remained guarded and aloof.
I don’t remember the exact moment that he finally persuaded us, or even the words he used, but I’m sure it had a lot to do with the owner of the station bringing out the keys to lock up shop. We two helpless girls relented to his offer and followed him out to his vintage Porsche 2-seater with a stick shift, covered in gray primer. We squeezed into the passenger bucket seat and off we went…off into the sunset…off and away from the bright lights and the big city…away to the uninhabited burbs of the suburbs…to a shabby looking single-wide trailer truly in the middle of literally nowhere. What the hell were we thinking?
We pried ourselves out of the car and hesitantly sauntered behind him to the door of his trailer, which stood all by itself out there in the dark and quiet outback of New Mexico, and although rugged and weather-beaten on the outside was surprisingly immaculate on the inside. I remember being impressed that he had a very nice stereo system and a comfortable pit group of sofas. His place was very orderly, and minimalistic, not the typical bachelor pad you would expect. It was neat and it smelled good. It actually smelled like nothing – not like sweaty socks or musty closets or last night’s cooking, or anything.
He gave us a tiny tour and showed us the room where we’d be sleeping, and the bathroom where we could shower if we wanted. It looked clean and comfortable. And then the three of us sat in his living room and made small talk. We talked about what we all did for a living. He was very vague – making us to imagine he maybe had some career in the CIA or secret service or something.
It finally got to that time of night when it seemed rude to stay up any longer. Carol and I slipped back to our room. I don’t know about her, but I laid on my side of the bed peering up at the darkness, with worry and thoughts playing red-rover-red-rover in my imaginations. Was he a serial killer? Is this how I die? Why was he being so kind to us? In my anxiousness I prayed to Jesus, and somehow in my heart also felt my grandma praying for us as well, as I often did when I was young and in a tight spot. An uncanny peace snuggled in around me.
I guess I finally dozed off towards morning. I remember waking up and seeing a glimmer of daylight peeping through the windows. I thanked God that we’d been kept safe all night, and nudged Carol to see if she was awake. We both got dressed quickly and I peeked out the window to see what the desert looked like in the daylight. The Porsche was gone. Oh no. Where did he go? What if he didn’t come back? Or, what if he did come back and he brought others with him? Maybe we should try to make a run for it? That’s just crazy…where would we go? Before I could even put a period on my racing thoughts his car roared into its parking spot and our host reemerged, dressed business causal, like he was returning from work or something, and with a grocery sack in his hands.
He came inside and when he saw us standing there, greeted us benignantly. “You’re up?” “I thought I’d make us some breakfast before we went to get your car. The garage doesn’t open until eight.” Oh my gosh, was this guy for real? Even though he had given us no reason NOT to trust him, I still couldn’t help but be a little guarded, and at the same time exceedingly grateful. He made us breakfast burritos. They were the first breakfast burritos I’d ever eaten in my life and they were fantastic. As soon as we ate them he ushered us out the door.
We piled into his car (in his really cool car that he skillfully drove, if I hadn’t mentioned that already) and we zipped back to town. Upon arrival at the service station we found our car sitting outside in the parking lot. Our host parked beside it and went in before us to check on the repair. He returned to let us know the car was fixed. We went in to take care of the bill and get the keys. When we returned, there he was leaning on his car, waiting to see us off. We thanked him over and over again for his extreme kindness. My heart truly swelled with gratitude (and relief). I asked him how in the world we could ever repay him for all that he had done for us. He simply responded, “Someday, someone will need you as much as you needed me…pay it forward,” and he waved goodbye to us as we drove away.
His name was Robert Ortiz…one of a hundred Robert Ortiz’s in the Albuquerque phonebook in the 1980’s. I have looked occasionally for him ever since. Often wishing to find him. But then, the bigger part of me is happy to let him forever be the “angel” that he was, and trust that I shall see him again someday when I can tell him how I repaid him.
I wish I could say this was the only bump in the road and the rest of the trip was uneventful, but more peril lie ahead.
The roads were a terrible mess through Colorado and Denver, icy all the way from Cheyenne north. The sun had long ago set in the sky when we ran almost out of fuel at Douglas. We dashed into a gas station (about one or two o’clock in the morning) and searched the cracks and crevices of the car for change, under the seats, in the ash tray, in the glove-box, every nook and cranny, until we came up with about $2.00. We thought that should get us home (gas was pretty cheap back then, and a Dodge Colt could go a hundred miles on a gallon of gas just about).
I went in to pay and Carol pumped. But Carol wasn’t paying attention (maybe she dozed off?) and let the pump go over about 10 cents. We knew we didn’t have another dime to our names so we quickly screwed on the gas cap and raced away as thieves in the night with 10 cents worth of stolen gasoline in our tank. We kept expecting a cop to come out of nowhere and pull us over but he never did.
We got back on the highway and just about five little miles down the road I lost control of the car on an icy bridge. We ricocheted like a rocketing pin-ball back and forth across the railings of that bridge all the way to the end. Carol screamed the whole time, “We’re gonna die!!!” And at the end of the bridge, the car shot into the barrow ditch in a cloud of powder white snow. Moments, no, more like seconds later, a semi-truck blew past us, leaving a plume of white in its wake – certain death had we not landed off the road.
When we realized we were still alive, patting all the parts of our bodies, we turned the key on the stalled car to see if it would start again. It did, thank heaven, but try as I might to find a gear and get us going, it wasn’t budging. We got out to see if we were stuck in the snow and found a tire had blown out, and the car was dented all the way around. (Oh man, my dad was going to kill me).
I went to the trunk to retrieve the spare, but couldn’t get the trunk open. Both back corners were mashed-in causing the truck lid to be jammed shut. Just about that time a pickup truck came by, a very nice 4-wheel drive rig, actually, with fog lights and expensive wheels. He slowed and stopped about a hundred feet past us. We watched as he took his rifle off the back window rack and lowered the barrel out the driver’s window, as he then began to slowly back up towards us. Carol and I scrambled for the car screaming, and that’s when we heard him say, “Oh hell, its two girls.”
He got out of his truck, apologized for scaring us, introduced us to his wife, who was sitting right next to him, and then helped us pry our trunk open to get the spare out. He changed our tire, God bless him and explained that he was a National Guardsman. He and his wife were on their way back to Casper after a meeting.
He apologized for scaring us with the gun, but explained that just last week someone in this very stretch of roadway had faked an accident and killed the people who had stopped to help them. The authorities hadn’t caught the perpetrators yet. Some of the other details of his story were pretty disturbing, and an eerie chill washed over us.
Once the tire was fixed the man said he’d follow us to make sure we made it to Casper okay. I begged him to just go on ahead as I was scared to drive very fast and didn’t want to hold him up. He insisted, so we set out together. After several miles of me feeling totally guilty for him to have to drive so slowly, I rolled down my window and waved him by. He obliged, disappearing into the darkness. But then, ten miles later, there he was again, on the side of the road. We slowed down and stopped to see if he was waiting for us or what. He said he had a blowout himself and had to change his tire. He told us to go on ahead and he’d see us down the road. Sure enough, a little while later there he was again, going out around us and disappearing into the darkness.
Carol and I finally made it to her apartment about 4 o’clock that morning. We were exhausted. I believe I knelt down and kissed the frosty pavement of the parking space in the parking lot of her building, and might have fallen asleep there from exhaustion if it hadn’t been so bloody cold.
The next morning as I dug in my purse for the keys to my broken car, so I could go check-in with my sister, there, tucked way down in the very bottom was a $20 dollar bill. What? Where did this come from, I thought? When I told Carol about it, she looked in her purse, and behold there found a $20 bill also. We both scratched our heads and surmised that it had to have been Robert, in Albuquerque. He had to have done it after we fell asleep at his house. Neither of us ever heard him come into our room. OMGosh, he was in our room while we slept (creepy), but he tucked money into our purses (tears). How did he do this without either of us hearing him?
Was Robert an angel? He was certainly a mysterious stranger, with an undercover life, who appeared out of nowhere in our most desperate hour. And his last words to us, “Do as I have done for you,” sure goes a long ways to making the case.
And our National Guardsman…was he an angel too?
Do not forget to entertain strangers, for some have entertained angels unawares…..
I wish I could say this was the only harebrained adventure I’d ever set off on, but it wasn’t. In fact, there were so many that there is probably not enough blog space on WordPress to confess all of them to you. My life is an avalanche of dumb-ass stunts that God has miraculously retrieved me from. When I get to heaven I am certain I will owe my guardian angels big time.
As stupid as I have been in my life, I cannot be so foolish as NOT to thank God upon every cringe-worthy remembrance. I must thank Him for His mercy. I thank Him for the hands that have led me safely home thus far. As I look back over my life, and see my Savior’s tender care, I shall trust that where ever my path may weave from here, He’ll lead me safely home. Praise the Lord.
Soooooooooooo….what’s your story?