Guests in the Night

Guests in the Night

From A 3rd Serving of Chicken Soup for the Soul

Guests in the Night

Love cures people—both the ones who give it and the ones who receive it.

Dr. Karl Menninger

It was a family adventure trip. My wife, Judith, our two-year-old daughter, Leila, and I had rented a small camper and were traveling through Baja California. The day before our return to San Diego, we parked the camper near a beach for one last night in nature.

In the middle of the night I was awakened by Judith poking me with her elbow and yelling at me to get up. My first impressions were of noise and banging. Fairly disoriented, I jumped down out of our little loft-bed, and standing stark naked, faced the windshield.

What I saw woke me quickly out of my half-dazed state. The van was surrounded by masked men banging on the windows.

Having watched a lot of adventure movies, I always wondered what I would feel and do when confronted with danger. Well, I leapt right into the hero’s role. I felt no fear—time to “save the family.”

I dove for the driver’s seat and turned the ignition. The camper had started perfectly at least 50 times that trip. Now it tried to turn over, sputtered a few times, and died. There was the sound of breaking glass, and a hand reached in through the driver’s side window. I smashed the hand. (Nonviolently of course! Actually, my lifelong inquiries about pacifism didn’t stand a chance in the energy of the moment. I’ve often thought that I’m glad I didn’t have a gun because I probably would have used it.)

My hand was bleeding from the broken glass. I figured I had one more chance to start the car. Having played hero successfully a thousand times in fantasy, I never doubted I would do it. I turned the key. The engine sputtered to life . . . and died. Then someone jammed a rifle into my throat. I remember this thought: “You mean I don’t save the family?” I was really quite surprised.

One of the bandits, who spoke a little English, was yelling, “Money! Money!” The rifle still at my throat, I reached under the driver’s seat and handed one of them my wallet through the broken window. I was hoping this was the end of it.

It wasn’t.

Releasing the latch through the broken window, they opened the door. The man with the rifle pushed me hard and sent me sprawling onto the floor. They entered the camper.

They looked remarkably like Mexican bandits from a grade-B movie. They had standard-issue bandannas over their faces. There were four: the one with the rifle, one with a rusty carving knife, one with a huge machete and one unarmed. I was half surprised they weren’t wearing bullet-filled bandoleers slung over the shoulders. Maybe their weapons were really props from Central Casting.

While one man held me to the floor with the rifle against my neck, the bandits started tearing the camper apart, yelling in Spanish.

It’s interesting. While I could do something (or at least had the illusion of being able to do something) like start the car or save the family, I felt no fear, although there was adrenaline to spare. But as I lay naked on the floor, cold steel against my neck, I started feeling quite helpless. Then I felt afraid. I began to shake.

Now this was an interesting situation. I was just about to get pretty in tune with my fear; in fact, I was only a moment or two from losing it. In a fleeting shred of self-consciousness, I reminded myself that this might be an excellent time to meditate and seek guidance. I remember breathing into my heart and asking God for help.

I heard quite clearly this passage from the 23rd Psalm: “Thou shalt preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies.”

These words were met inside with a resounding, “Huh? . . . I don’t get it!”

Then I saw an image of myself, serving the bandits a feast. I thought to myself, “I’m living in a reality where bandits have attacked me, I’m resisting, and it’s a generally bad scene.

“Well, what if this wasn’t so? What if they weren’t bandits? What if they were old friends of ours, come to visit us out of the cold desert night? What if I were glad to see them, and welcomed them as I would honored guests? What if I prepared a table for them?”

While one aspect of me was busy fantasizing horrendous scenes of rape and murder, a clear, quiet space opened inside that was intrigued by this new possibility. These too are children of God. How many times have I declared that my purpose is to serve others? Well, here they are!

I looked at the bandits from this more heartfelt awareness. “Wait a minute! These aren’t bandits! They’re kids!”

It was suddenly apparent that these “bandits” were quite young, obviously inexperienced and rather inept. They also seemed nervous. Their violence and yelling seemed more a product of their fear than their power. Also, in their thrashing about, they were making a terrific mess of things and losing a lot of the good loot. In a rather bizarre flash of insight, I saw that “serving a table” in this moment meant to help them do a better job of robbing us.

I turned to the young man who spoke English and said, “Hey, you’re missing some of the best stuff! Under that pile over there is a very nice camera.”

He gave me a peculiar look.

He yelled something in Spanish to one of the other young men, who found the camera buried where I had pointed. “Thirty-five millimeter . . . takes great pictures!” I offered helpfully.

I spoke to the English-speaking man again. “Your friends are making such a mess, you’re going to miss things. I’d be happy to show you where all the good stuff is.”

He looked at me strangely again. My responses were clearly not matching his script for bandits and victims. As I pointed out other items and their hiding places, his suspicion gave way. I offered to get things for him and his friends.

The next thing we knew, it was show and tell. “Nice guitar!” I demonstrated a few chords. “Who plays? Here, do you want it? . . . Sony Walkman, headsets, batteries, some tapes! Who wants it?” I thought about the Native American giveaway of the giveaway. I realized that given our respective access to money, it seemed right somehow that they should receive our goods, a kind of balancing of wealth. I began to enjoy the feeling of gifting them. I tried to think which of our possessions they would most enjoy.

Although my out-of-role behavior was clearly hav– ing some impact on the scene, it was not yet a total transformation. The young man with the carving knife seemed particularly erratic, perhaps drug-intoxicated. Every few minutes he pushed me or yelled at me. His English vocabulary seemed to consist of: “Drugs! Booze! More money!” He found a bottle of Lomotil (for diarrhea) in a kitchen drawer. I tried to convince him that he didn’t want the pills, though when he became violent about it, I must confess the thought, “It serves you right” crossed my mind.

My English-speaking “friend” increasingly began to play a calming role with the others.

Well, I’d given away everything I could think of. I looked toward the back of the van where Judith and Leila were huddled, wrapped in a blanket. Judith, of course, was having her own inner adventure, managing her fears of rape for herself and kidnapping of our child. Leila, who in her whole two years of life had never encountered someone who wasn’t “good,” kept interjecting things like, “Daddy, who dese nice men?”

I thought to myself, “What’s next?” Then I found myself spontaneously asking, “Would you like something to eat?” The English-speaking young man translated. Four pairs of incredulous eyes looked at me as I proceeded to open the refrigerator. Now we had a cultural problem. As I surveyed the shelves of tofu, sprouts, yogurt and nut butters, I had that sinking feeling like when you’re hosting a dinner party and someone shows up on a special diet. It was obvious that we had nothing recognizable as food. Then I saw a nice red Delicious apple. “Okay, that’s normal food.” I took out the apple and held it out toward the man with the machete. This felt like an important moment. In most cultures, the sharing of food is a kind of communion, an acknowledgment of friendship, or declaration of peace. As I continued to hold out the apple toward him, I sensed him struggling for a moment, in his own way letting go of the roles in which we had met. For an instant
he smiled, then took hold of the apple. I flashed on the image of E.T. extending his light-tipped finger. As our hands met on the apple, I felt a subtle exchange of energy.

Well, we had given presents and shared food. Now the English-speaking man said we were going for a ride. Fear came back. I didn’t know where they were taking us. If they were going to kill us, this was as good a place as any. They didn’t seem competent enough to pull off a kidnapping and ransom. I suggested that they take the car and leave us here. We were in the middle of nowhere, but any- thing seemed better than going driving with them. We exchanged views on this several times, then all of a sudden they were back to threatening me with weapons. I got it. As soon as I switched back into fear mode, they became bandits again. “Okay. Let’s go!”

I climbed in the back next to Judith and Leila, and away we went. I had my pants on now, which further improved my state of mind. I flipped in and out of realities, at some moments, just driving through the desert. Then, seeing lights, I planned how I might open the door and push Judith and Leila out if we slowed down near people.

As we drove along, I asked myself, “What would I do if I were driving along with my honored guests?” Sing, of course!

Judith, Leila and I started singing:

Listen, listen, listen to my heart’s song.
Listen, listen, listen to my heart’s song.
I will never forget you, I will never forsake you.
I will never forget you, I will never forsake you.

Leila kept smiling her outrageously cute smile. She’d catch the eye of one or another of the young men. Several times I saw them trying to keep it straight. (“Come on kid, cut it out. I’m trying to be a bandit.”) Then they’d smile despite themselves.

They seemed to like the singing. We did. Then I realized I was failing to be a good host. They didn’t know any of the songs. I thought for a moment. Inspiration!

Guantanamera, guajira, guantanamera.
Guantanamera. . . .

That did it. They began singing along. The energy came together. No more bandits and victims. Feet were tapping and spirits lifted as we sailed through the desert night.

We passed through a village without a chance for my great rescue attempt. Then the lights faded away as we entered some remote, hilly country. We pulled down a dark, dirt road, and the RV came to a halt. Judith and I looked at each other as we both had the thought that they were going to kill us. We rested deeply in each others’ eyes.

Then they opened the door and began to get out. Evidently, they lived far from the scene of the robbery. They had driven themselves home!

Several of them said “Ad ios” as they exited. Finally, there was just my English-speaking friend. In halting English he struggled to communicate. “Please forgive us. My hombre s and me, we are poor people. Our fathers are poor. This is what we do for making the money. I’m sorry. We didn’t know it was you. You are such a good man. And your wife and child, so nice.”

He apologized again and again. “You are good people. Please do not think bad of us. I hope this won’t ruin your vacation.”

Then he reached into his pocket and took out my wallet. “Here.” He handed me back my Master Card. “We can’t really use this. Better you take it.” He also gave me my driver’s license. As one of his hombre s stared in amazement, he peeled off a few Mexican bills. “Here, for the gasoline.”

I was at least as amazed as his fellow bandits. He’s giving my money back to me! He wants to make things right between us.

Then he took my hand. He looked into my eyes, and the veils were gone between us. Just for a moment, we rested in that place. Then he said, “Ad ios”: “with God.”

Our bandit guests disappeared into the night. Then my family held each other and cried.

Robert Gass

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