It was a beautiful afternoon as my dad and I returned home during my summer between sixth and seventh grade. When we turned on our street, we noticed a car parked just off the asphalt. A man and his daughter were walking away from it a little way up the road. As we drew closer, I realized I knew the girl. What I didn’t realize was that Dad was about to teach me an important lesson, one it would take me years to fully understand.
Dad slowed, pulled alongside them, and asked, “Car trouble?”
“Yeah,” the man replied, “we ran out of gas. The gauge doesn’t work and it catches me sometimes. We just live a couple of miles up the road so we’re heading there.”
“Well, hop in,” Dad said.
“We don’t want to trouble you.”
“It’s no trouble at all.”
I climbed over the seat into the back as they got in. He sat in the front seat I vacated and she got in back with me. She was a year behind me in school and lived a couple of miles from us. She was also one of the first girls I talked to on the phone. I always had to call her because they had a special phone plan that had free incoming calls but cost 15¢ each time they called out. We lost touch the previous year when I went on to middle school, so it was slightly awkward, but we still talked a little.
We were literally in sight of our house when we picked them up and Dad turned in the driveway. I thought he was going to drop me off before taking them home so I said, “You don;t have to drop me off, Dad. They just live up the road. We used to ride the bus together so I won’t mind the ride.”
“I’m not dropping you off. I just remembered I might have a can with some gas in it.”
My friend’s father quickly piped up, “For us? It’s really not necessary.”
“Nonsense,” my dad said, “It’s just sitting here and this way you won’t have to come back for your car.”
Dad went into the barn and emerged a moment later carrying the big gas can. He got back in the car and handed it to me. The aroma of gasoline filled the interior as we headed back to their car. Dad told me to put gas in their tank once we got there. I fumbled with the gas cap on the car, placed the nozzle in the opening, and upended the can.
“We really only live a little ways off so we don;t need much. Just a little will get us home.”
Dad looked at me and said, “Put it all in.” Then he addressed our recent passengers, “It’ll be easier for him this way. He can be clumsy and I don’t want him to spill gas on your car.”
This made me angry. I was pretty sure I could handle dumping a gallon or so without spilling any. I looked and their car and thought it definitely wouldn’t hurt much if I did anyway. Still, I dutifully emptied the can. I finished and made a show of carefully removing the nozzle to not spill a single drop of gasoline.
She gave me an awkward, “Thanks.” Her father looked to mine and said, “I’ll come back by in a couple of days and pay you back for the gas.”
Dad just waved his hand, looked him in the eyes, and said, “No, don’t worry about it. I’ve been stuck on the side of the road before and someone helped me. Someday you’ll help someone else down the road.”
He looked back at my dad with more gratitude than I understood.
“Thanks. Thanks so much.”
We made sure their car started then waved goodbye as they drove away. Dad and I returned home in silence. I wasn’t talking because I was still fuming about being called clumsy. I think Dad wasn’t talking because he hoped I was listening.
It was years before I realized what Dad did that day. I can see a few things now that my younger self couldn’t notice. I don’t know for sure, but it seems possible that family wasn’t doing great financially. The special phone plan obviously cost far less per month than a normal one. Whenever she and I talked there was a subtle undercurrent (that’s obvious to me now) of needing to conserve money. I also suspect they ran out of gas not because of the gauge, but because of the lack of a way to pay for it in the moment.
That’s all conjecture, of course, but one thing that isn’t (and is also clear to me now) is that my dad thought the same. That’s why he grabbed the big gas can. It’s also why he made me empty it in the tank. But the real beauty is how he explained what we did. According to Dad, we didn’t give them all the gas because they needed it, but because I was clumsy. He also provided an easy way for someone he thought couldn’t pay him back to avoid that particular embarrassment. Even more, Dad’s words subtly explained that Dad had been there himself and that he believed the man would be able to pay him back (though not directly) someday.
Dad made sure we filled the immediate need of fuel, but he also provided the essential need of dignity and respect. His graciousness gave a message of understanding and also hope. Dad looked past an empty tank and truly gave them what they needed.