Who were those masked strangers?

January 19, 2014 

Some people talk about strangers doing random acts of kindness. I call them Lone Rangers.

Before the woman he saved from a runaway stagecoach or the grain farmer he kept from being bullied off his land by some bad hombres could thank him, the masked man had disappeared. The television hero taught a whole generation -- mine -- how it's supposed to work: Help someone, then vamoose.

I've run into a few Lone Rangers in my time.

Like the mom in the bleachers at my bantam league baseball game at the Highland VFW. I played outfield/bench for F&M Bank. They gave the stars uniforms that fit so they'd look great as they rounded the bases. I and the other "little guys" got leftovers. Pop said there was room for another player in my uniform.

To make it work, I had to tuck in my big flannel shirt so the "Bank" in F&M Bank was below see level. I doubled over the pants at the waist and cinched them tight with an old belt Pop had punched a couple extra holes in. The elastic at the knees was still pretty good, so the legs puffed out in the middle. On windy days, I felt like a kite.

One game, when I was taking practice swings, the old belt snapped.

When the ump said "batter up," I worried about "pants down."

I strode to the plate and tugged. "Steeerike one!" the umpire called. Dare I swing? Tug tug. "Steeerike two!" What would happen if I ran to first base? Would the pants come along? I was sweating buckets.

Somebody in the stands behind home called "time out" and talked to the ump.

Tug. Tug.

The ump sent me behind the bleachers while the pitcher and everybody else stood there wondering.

"Here," said a woman I didn't know, handing me a plaid, cloth-covered belt that matched her pedal pushers. "Put this on."

I took it, slid it through the loops, racheted it to the smallest hole and scrambled back to the plate.

After a couple of balls, I swung with all my might, smacked a dribbler just out of the third baseman's reach and ran like the wind to first. I didn't get many hits that summer, but I'll never forget that one.

I wore the lucky belt the rest of the game, which we lost. Afterward, I took the plaid belt back to the nice lady in the stands and thanked her.

"You're welcome." She headed for her car with the Alton Box Board team's catcher at her side. She was his mom.

I learned a few lessons that day.

Thank you, plaid belt lady.

One weekend, I just had to get home to Highland from college in Carbondale. None of my usual rides were going home. I put up notes all around campus. No takers.

"Why don't you just hitchhike?" my roommate from Chicago said.

"Yeah, right. What if I get picked up by an ax murderer?"

"I'll take good care of your stuff," he said. Ha-ha.

I was desperate. I made myself a sign on a pizza box. HIGHLAND BOUND. And took off down the main drag, sign and right thump up.

A thousand cars passed me by, but finally a big Buick pulled over. The 50-ish driver in a shirt and tie said he was heading to St. Louis and wouldn't mind the company. "Hop in."

I figured ax murderers don't wear ties but, just in case, I peeked in the backseat for weapons. Turns out he was a cleaning products salesman from St. Louis, but Southern Illinois was territory. There was small talk about college, my major, his trunk full of soap. Somewhere around Pinckneyville, he gave me the lecture.

Didn't my mom ever tell me how dangerous it is to hitchhike?

She did.

Didn't you read about the ...

I did.

He told me he occasionally picked up a clean-cut student on his way out of Carbondale, just so the kid wouldn't get picked up by a bad person.

Before I knew it, he was dropping me off at the square in Highland (so Mom wouldn't know I hitchhiked). It was out of his way, but he didn't mind.

"Do me a favor and don't ever hitchhike again," he said as he drove off.

I walked the seven blocks to my house. I never hitchhiked again.

When I was cub reporter in Corpus Christi, Texas, my editor sent me to a school board meeting in Round Rock. I was taking notes feverishly, hoping to ace one of my first stories. All of a sudden, the board members started speaking Spanish.

I had a couple of semesters of Spanish in college, but I didn't understand a word of their fast-forward Tex-Mex. I panicked. There goes my story, my career, my life ...

A man sitting nearby saw I was in trouble. He slid into the chair next to me.

"They are messing with you," he said.

He translated and I wrote.

I got the story. And, when I got back to the office, I told Guile (GILL-ee) Gonzalez "hi" from Jorge. Guile told me he was a good guy and was sure he gave me the right stuff.

Forty year later, I'm still in the business.

Gracias, Jorge.

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