From A Second Chicken Soup for the Woman's Soul

Plenty of Sunsets

My heart sank when I saw the yellow Volkswagen bug up ahead on the side of the road. The hood was raised, and a young man was gazing down at the engine with an air of hopelessness. Sure enough, my friend, Michael, stepped on the brake and said, “Looks like someone’s in trouble.”

I sighed with resignation. In our three months of traveling around the United States together, I had learned that Michael would never pass up an opportunity to help someone. Regardless of our personal situation (which, admittedly, was pretty carefree), he leapt at any chance to rescue stranded motorists, pick up hitchhikers and lend a hand wherever he could.

And there were plenty of opportunities to help. This was 1974, and we were part of the masses of young Americans who had taken to the highways, either hitchhiking or driving cars so old they ran on a hope and a prayer. One day in Utah, we picked up so many hitchhikers that there was standing room only in our Chevy van. Once we spent two days in Missoula, Montana, because a young family we picked up had no place to go. Michael knew someone who knew someone in Missoula, and before we left, “our” family had a place to stay and a new start on life.

I loved Michael’s generosity and kindness, but I thought he overdid it just a tad. “There are other people driving on these roads,” I’d point out. “Can’t we ever leave somebody for someone else to help?” He’d listen to me. He’d smile at me. He’d stop for the next hitchhiker.

Sometimes I got angry when he put strangers’ needs above my own. “But I wanted to see the sun set on the Pacific,” I once wailed as we pulled off the road and stopped behind a steaming vehicle. He laughed. “There are plenty of sunsets ahead for you.”

But today was different. It was the end of our trip, and we were actually in a bit of a hurry. We had left Florida that morning with the goal of getting home to Massachusetts for Christmas, and Christmas was just two days away. Not only that, but our beloved van was on its last legs. We had already stopped once that morning for emergency repairs.

That had been enough adventure for one day, I thought. I replayed the scene in my head. Michael had seen the billowing steam and pulled over to the side of the road. He diagnosed the problem at a glance, he grabbed a can and headed down into the roadside ditch. I grabbed a cup and climbed down into the ditch after him. We filled the radiator with swamp water and headed off again, thinking we were pretty smart. But suddenly, just a few yards down the road, we started shrieking and slapping our ankles. Michael swerved to the side of the road and we spilled out of the car. Ants! Tiny ants swarmed on our calves and ankles, biting us hard. We kicked off our shoes and socks and howled and slapped till the last little ant was dead. As we climbed back in, I said a heartfelt prayer that we wouldn’t have to go down into any more Florida ditches.

Now, as we pulled to a stop behind the VW, I made one last appeal. “Michael, please,” I begged, “can’t we please just get ourselves and this poor old van home in time for Christmas?” As he hopped out to check out the problem, he said, “We’ll get there, honey. Don’t worry.”

A minute later he was back with the young man in tow. “We need to get some help.We’ll get off at the exit right up ahead.”

When we pulled into a gas station at the foot of the exit, I waited in the car, sulking just a little at my defeat. Suddenly, I felt very strange all over my body. I looked at my hands and saw huge welts bloom at my wrists. I looked in the rear view mirror and gasped at the gray and red blotches swelling on my face. Hives! I felt a choking sensation, and started gasping for air. In a panic, I fumbled with the car door, got it open and staggered toward Michael and the mechanics. “Michael! Michael!” I called in a weak and panic-stricken voice.

Michael turned and his face filled with horror. He ran toward me, calling to the mechanics, “Where’s the nearest hospital?”

“That way. Two blocks down on the left.”

Michael started driving before we had the doors shut. I gasped and choked and struggled to breathe while he yelled, “Hang on, honey, just hang on! Just hang on.”

He raced down the street and swerved to a stop at the entrance of the hospital. I ran into the lobby and fell to the floor. I couldn’t catch my breath to call for help, but nurses came running and lifted me onto a gurney.

Within seconds, a gentle doctor with a gray beard was asking me questions. I choked out, “There were ants . . . side of the road,” and pointed to my ankles. He filled a huge hypodermic and said, “Just relax. You’re going to be all right. You’ve had such a bad allergic reaction you’ve got hives on the inside of your lungs.”

The shot he gave me started to work. Breathing comfortably again, I asked, “Would I have died?”

“You probably had about five more minutes,” he said.

Thirty minutes later, Michael and I walked out of the hospital and climbed back into the van. We got back onto the highway, and the first thing we saw was a sign: “Next exit forty miles.” I looked at Michael and burst into tears. If we hadn’t stopped for that VW and then taken the next exit, I would have died. I would have been forty miles from help and gasping for air.

Two nights later, on Christmas Eve, we pulled into my parents’ driveway. Through the snow-drifted windows, I saw my family in the warmly lit living room, laughing and joking as they decorated the tree. Before we went in, I hugged Michael and thanked him again, one more time, for everything. He hugged me back and laughed, “Didn’t I tell you you’d see plenty of sunsets?”

Cindy Jevne Buck

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