I grew up in a time when thumbs had the power to convince someone to give you a ride. Hitchhiking is a rare sight these days, replaced by Uber, the reach of cell phones, and the widening grip of “stranger danger.” Concerning the latter, we seem to have become more fearful of those beyond our small circle. So much so that few will meet eyes with you in the neighborhood grocery store and seem hesitant to receive any gestures of kindness.
I relied on the kindness of strangers many times in my teens. A flat tire on the Taconic Parkway in New York led to a harrowing several-mile walk in the pitch black night. No lights on the Taconic and no shoulder either. And no one to see your thumb. Finally, I came upon a stranger’s house to ask if I could use their phone. This is in the day of the indestructible, black Ma Bell (combination phone and hammer) with the wound up chord that could stretch far beyond its original design. I was thankful.
Seems I always needed a ride. My mother didn’t drive and my father, a truck driver, was on the road well before sunrise, home late, and in bed by eight. I would rely on others and the parents of friends to get me where I needed to go. And it’s amazing what you remember. Once I heard a parent irritably ask her son about me—quietly but loud enough to hear: “How come he always needs a ride? Why don’t his parents ever drive?” I made believe I didn’t hear it. But, I never forgot feeling several inches shorter. Decades later I can still hear that voice and it still has influence.
Not having a ride limited my choices in a big way. I never wanted that for my sons and swore they would always be able to get where they needed. Funny how that turns out, because try as I might, so many times I needed to rely on others. For nearly three years angels by the names of Rhonda (God rest her soul) and Joe Blanchard brought my oldest to and from high school tennis activities. And so many parents have helped my youngest get to and from his baseball practices and training.
Whenever I can I volunteer and have told my boys if anyone needs a ride we would be happy to drive. And when those boys and girls step out of the car and say, “Thank you, Mr. Panepinto,” I always sincerely say, “You are very welcome.” And mean it.
Over 23 years into a father’s path, the ride takes a turn. At 18, my youngest smiled (or smirked) for his full license. Now he will carry the message and the responsibility, I hope, with seriousness and sincerity. If someone needs a ride, don’t ask questions. Offer it, do it, don’t ask for gas money for God’s sake, and be thankful we are able to get someone where they need to go. To me, the hardest task on a father’s path is teaching that life is a two-way street. The ride is one way we learn this.