Folks just down the road from my home town had a lot to smile about last year when Kewanee was named the Friendliest City in America in the 2013 Rand McNally Best of the Road Contest. I was never quite sure of the criteria or requirements for the prestigious award, but thought it was pretty darn cool when Kewanee captured the kudos, all the same.
Finding a friendly place can mean a lot when you're a backroads warrior like me. Whether you're looking for a safe, affordable place to stay; some good, homestyle cooking; or a medical clinic that's open after hours, depending on the word of someone who really knows what they're talking about is always better than relying on the mixed and fancy messages out there on the internet.
Our most recent travel adventure quickly turned into a gut-wrenching misadventure when our trusty (?) old Ford Freestyle shuddered, gasped and gave up the ghost in the westbound breakdown lane of Interstate 40 near Winston-Salem, North Carolina. I got the car started again, and nursed it off the high-speed highway and into a Walmart parking lot where, with one more trembling misfire, it died once and for all.
"Now what?" she asked.
Now what, indeed.
It was Saturday afternoon. We were on our way back to Illinois after a week in North Carolina, where we visited friends and our beloved beach. And we were stuck.
Oh, and one more thing. Our young grandsons were stuck with us, as well.
Now, eight-year-old Cyrus and six-year-old John Patrick both show signs of becoming intrepid travelers one of these days. They've hit the road with the grandma-lady and me quite a few times already in their young lives. But trapped in an unknown parking lot somewhere in central North Carolina is no one's idea of a great place to be.
The first step was to find out just exactly where we were. I quickly realized that pulling into Sam Walton's place had been a much better move than, say, a rendering works, a tire factory or a poultry farm. We had access to bathrooms, air conditioning, snacks, and, most importantly, people.
That's where the friendly part came in.
I was the recipient of a blank stare from a teenage customer service employee, who was understandably confused when the doddering old dude in front of her asked if she could tell him where the heck he was, instead of normal queries, like the location of the cat food aisle.
"Y'all are in Kernersville."
I turned to see a pleasant-looking lady pushing a shopping cart into the line just behind me.
"Pardon me?" I asked.
"You're in Kernersville, between Greensboro and Winston-Salem," she said. "This is the new Walmart Neighborhood Market."
Her friendly response emboldened me, and I blurted out--for the first of many, many times--my tale of woe.
She replied with the first of many, many nuggets of useful information I received that day from the friendly folks of Kernersville, offering me the name and location of a nearby Ford dealership. What followed over the next afternoon, evening and morning, was nearly like a down-home Litany of Saints, as the good folks of Kernersville fought tooth and nail to see who could be the most happy and helpful.
Like Eleanor and Cliff, whose incredibly gracious and helpful response to my question regarding the location of the street leading to the repair shop recommended by the Ford dealer was to offer to give the grandma-lady and grand-boys a lift while I waited for the tow truck to arrive. There was Saint Jonathan, the hard-charging, can-do ex-marine who literally held our hands throughout our stay at the auto repair shop that was magically open on both Saturday and Sunday, plus offered to give us a lift--in his own car and on his own time--to the nearest car rental place if our vehicle proved unfixable and we needed to get back on the road for an upcoming doctor's appointment awaiting me in Chicago. There were mechanics with hearts in their toolboxes, who actually touched base with us without being bugged, and customer service guys who helped keep our grandsons entertained throughout the long afternoon in the waiting room. When it became clear the problem was not going to be solved by closing time, the car guys became heavenly travel agents, finding a nearby motel within easy walking distance with a pool, good cable, and easy access to pizza and other essentials.
Enter the angels.
The ladies running things at the nearby Holiday Inn Express were angelic, indeed, providing chocolate chip cookies for the boys and a hot cup of coffee for the old man. They offered sage advice on the best, closest pizza joint; dry towels for the pool; and helped the kids to an extra helping of eggs and pancakes the next morning. When the news came to light that the car still wasn't mended, they happily offered us an extended stay via a late check-out time, with one especially saintly desk clerk offering a lift to any place we needed to go as soon as her shift was over.
Finally, word came down that the car was done. While they had not been able to replace all the parts they deemed absolutely necessary, the car guys finally figured they had fixed the car well enough to get us home.
"Well, what do you think we were supposed to get out of this one?" I asked her as we sat in the waiting area while the last wrenches were turned on our car. This is the standard question we share whenever we've been through something a little challenging or otherwise dicey, as she is a big believer that every moment has a meaning, and that anytime one door closes, another one opens.
She smiled. Then she looked across the room, where there was a big, blue soda machine.
"The V Foundation" was the legend across the top of the machine.
Jimmy V refers to Jim Valvano, the legendary coach of North Carolina State University, whose team defied long odds to win the 1983 national championship. I've been a Jimmy V fan for a long time, both because of his coaching success and because of the inspirational way he lived--and ended--his life.
You see, Jimmy Valvano died of CUPS--Cancer of an Unknown Primary Source--the very same disease I battle in my spare time. On March 3, 1993, shortly before his death, he accepted the first-ever Arthur Ashe Courage and Humanitarian Award, and announced the creation of the V Foundation for Cancer Research, an organization dedicated to finding a cure for cancer.
His speech became legendary, and he closed by saying, "Cancer can take away all of my physical abilities. It cannot touch my mind, it cannot touch my heart, and it cannot touch my soul. And those three things are going to carry on forever. I thank you and God bless you all."
Finally, he announced the foundation's motto.
She pointed across the room.
"There," she said. "There's your message."
There it was, across the bottom of the machine.
"Don't give up. Don't ever give up."
The car was sputtering again by the time we reached home later that night. But hey, we made it, and met a lot of nice people along the way.
We learned something, too. And that's about as good as it gets.