Peace and grace be with you Snyder, wherever you are.
How a chance meeting changed my mind about how we find faith.
I was driving a 24′ truck filled with props for Anaheim Ballet’s annual performance of The Nutcracker. The prop truck broke down at around 11AM, just outside Barstow, California.
It took Budget Truck Rentals nearly seven hours to find a tow truck to haul me into town. By that time, all the places that could have made the needed repairs were closed. Of course they were. It was bloody Sunday evening. It took them another four hours to find a tow truck operator to haul my lame 24-foot load of ballet props and me the rest of the way to Laughlin. I spent most of my wait time at the coffee shop across the street.
I ordered a grilled cheese sandwich, which was so greasy that I was sure it would catch fire if I put a flame to it. Then I tried a piece of their pie. It was inedible. Then it was down to the coffee that tasted like it had been filtered through old cardboard. At least it was hot. I choked it down and asked for more. The waitress served me so many cups that we got to a first name basis. Toward the latter half of my protracted stay, “Trudy” instructed me on the proper way to pronounce the city name.
“Oh, honey. It’s not BAR-STOW,” she grinned. “Say it like ‘barstool’ as smoothly as you can.”
“Bahstool,” I mimicked.
“There’y are. Now you sound local.” She topped off my cup and hustled away.
Oh, Good God, please no.
It was eleven in the evening when the heavy-duty tow truck arrived. Snyder slid down from the cab. He introduced himself with a short nod. “Snyder.”
I shook his tanned hand: firm, bony, and rough from a lifetime of manual labor. His eyes, still bright, held the frame of hard times and hard thoughts. Wisps of shoulder-length blond hair floated in the breeze around his stained ‘flame’ trucker’s hat. The crop of stubble on his chin completed what I imagined was the requisite look of a “long haul tow truck operator.” But he had that edge of oddness that, at the time, I couldn’t place.
There is no such thing as stereotypes. We only have stereotypical thoughts.
I tried to return his firm grip and ended up wincing. I nodded back. “Ray.”
“I guess we’re going to Laughlin,” he said, giving my crippled truck a once over. “It’s gettin late. Best get going.”
My first impression was, “Okay, this guy looks weird, but he acts like a pro.”
There was also a kind of weariness as he hooked up the truck. He’d been at it for a long time. Did I sense fatigue, or was there a greater burden? I reflected that this was probably the only life he knew. For that moment, I envied the simplicity. The peaceful nature of it; the certainty of existence. I paused myself.
There I go again with stereotypical thoughts. Could I ever be happy as a late-night tow truck operator?
We got underway. Outside was as black as pitch. Even the moon was dark. Snyder’s face reflected in the ghoulish green glow from the dashboard lights as he slowly sped up to highway speed. The engine growled as it hefted the weight of a fully-loaded 24-footer in tow.
I looked outside and could barely make out the black on black shapes of rocks and mounds of more rocks that sped by. It was just Snyder and me for the next five hours.
The gentle drone of the tow truck’s ten wheels whining against the pavement was all it took for fatigue lull my mind into the twilight of sleep. It had been a long day, and I was bone tired. But I didn’t want just to fall off to sleep and leave this guy to drive alone. I sipped on some Red Bull I brought with me and searched for some topic that we could share, some subject that could strike up a conversation. Snyder beat me to the bell.
His thinning hair glinted in dashboard green as he grinned. “I saw a UFO once,” he said.
I imagined all kinds of topics, but not in a million years did I expect this. I held back a sudden pang of dread.
Oh. My. God. Not THIS.
“Wow!” I nodded enthusiastically. “Really? Where?” I didn’t need caffeine-laced sugar water (with a dash of niacin) to stay awake. An image of a trapped mouse came to mind. Instinct edged me toward the door, but where the hell was I going to go?
“Out there, in the desert,” he nodded over the dashboard. “I was alone.”
I’ll bet you were.
“Man, that must have been something,” I forced down panic and calmly thought about anything I might use to protect myself. The empty can of Red Bull was all I had.
“They were great big bright lights… like balloons,” he continued.
From there, the conversation wound into more earthly matters; how nobody believed him about his close encounter, his ex-wife (divorced after an episode of ‘doh-mestic violence’), his kids (who hated him ‘on account of the booze’), and his struggle to keep a job (driving trucks). I was surprised by how much Snyder shared and how awake I became. And I don’t mean “awake” as in sleepless. As I listened, my intent grew more sincere and the weariness I sensed earlier, strode out in plain sight. This man led a simple but extremely painful life. And he was looking for something.
Listen to him, a voice in my head urged. And I did. I think we talked about his entire life leading up to meeting me. We talked about how he had to serve some time for a serial of petty crimes, nearly killed a man once, and almost got killed. He spoke about how he started driving. Yeah, it was the only job anyone would give him, but it turned out that he was reasonably adept at driving these long distances without the need for sleep. He’d been a “mighty mite” tow driver for the past six years.
Then, as we neared Laughlin, we came to the crux in the conversation. The fact is, this is when I finally realized my role in meeting Snyder, and Snyder’s role in meeting me.
He joked about not seeing his kids. He joked about not seeing his wife, and about getting so inebriated that he couldn’t remember how he got the bruises on his face. But he couldn’t joke about his faith.
When our meandering conversation landed us on our faith, Snyder became less fluid and joking. I took the initiative and spoke a little about my journey through faith; being raised by an ardent Atheist, indoctrinated into the Nichiren Shoshu sect of Buddhism by my uncle, discovering Jesus later in life, and (at that time) teaching Sunday School.
“Faith comes to a willing heart, Snyder,” I concluded. “That’s what’s so wonderful about Jesus. You don’t need to ask for forgiveness. If you feel it in your heart, it is freely given.”
Snyder sniffed. “The Lord doesn’t want to have anything to do with me anymore; Jesus don’t care about guys like me.”
There was no air of jest in his voice. Tension played like a chord from his heart: a dark song that rose with the weariness I sensed in him earlier and resolved into deep sadness. When Snyder said those words, he was as serious as sin, as serious as any man could be. I wanted to talk him out of his despair. But I didn’t know where to start. In Snyder’s mind, he saw no need for grace; he was beyond hope. He had no feel for faith; peace was a distant memory like thinning vapor. He knew with certainty that he was beyond salvation.
I have met people who were suffering from denial of self-forgiveness. This man’s suffering was so profound that he was on the threshold of giving up.
Okay, Lord. Now I understand. Time for some freewill ministry.
One thing was certain. I didn’t feel sorry for him. But I could see the coin of opportunity laid out bare. I took it and drove back into the conversation.
“Man, Jesus DOES care. He doesn’t judge your faith for past sin. He doesn’t keep score. Open your heart, and His love will fill it.”
Snyder snorted. “Naw. I’m too far gone for that.”
“Jesus will never give up on you, brother. You may live your entire life and never feel an ounce of love again. But all the while, the Lord will be waiting for you to come home. He knows your pain. And he knows what will give you ease. I’ll bet that if you remember what peace was like, if all you have to offer is the memory of one love, a long time ago, the Lord our God will see it and open his arms. At that last moment of life, your last breath, he will be there. You’ll hear his voice and see his face. Then you’ll be saved.”
I stopped talking; internal frustration and my own memories were welling up in my eyes. Snyder was quiet too. We rode those washboard hills just before you reach the outskirts of Laughlin in total silence.
At about 3am, we finally pulled into the parking lot at the Riverside Casino. He unhooked the trucks, and we said our goodbyes in the predawn freezing cold air. I can’t be sure, but I felt there was something different when we shook hands for the last time. His grip was firm but gentle. And I thought I saw tears in his eyes.
“I hope you’re right,” he said.
You and me both, brother.
Years later, I’m reflecting on the notes I kept from that night. It makes me think of my own transformation into faith.
The experience taught me that some people never understand; some people simply do not want to believe, and some people ache for someone to tell them that it’ll all be okay. I also realized that for some folks, the ache is the only reality they know. When it comes to “simple lives,” sometimes pain has a way of stripping away everything else. Our sense of existence, our world reality, is through our perception of personal anguish – about things that happened before, dreams that never came true, and despair that nothing will ever change. Many of them, and I think Snyder is among them, have just enough insight to realize how badly they want their faith back.
I pray for all Snyders wherever they may be. I pray sincerely that perhaps one day, they find grace. But I’m also thankful for that chance meeting and the peace it gave me. I’m also thankful to remember a valuable lesson from the ever patient Father Everman: The Lord will always recover a willing soul.