Back in my Army days in the late 1960s I spent most of my tour of duty as editor of the Berlin Observer, which we facetiously called the only “free” newspaper behind the Iron Curtain. There was nothing free about it, of course – the canned editorials were sent down from Command, and we had to run all sorts of organizational drivel – but as a draftee I managed to escape the fate of being assigned to an infantry unit and found myself doing cool things like interviewing Creedence Clearwater Revival during their European tour and writing movie and record reviews for the troops stationed near the Wall.
On one occasion I interviewed Charlie the “Road Runner,” a double leg amputee American whose singular purpose was to make a trip around the world in his wheelchair and preach the Good News of the Gospel. Charlie was an entrepreneur – he depended on donations and good will to finance his travels – and when he found out I was editor of an American newspaper and could possibly gin up some publicity for him, he glommed on to me like a fly on stale meat.
Charlie liked Berlin so much that he hung out in the city for several months and called me constantly with requests for money, introductions, American cheeseburgers and magazines. Finally, he ended up in a German hospital with no money and few prospects other than his mission to spread the Good News, which he tended to do long after his audience had stopped listening.
He was starting to get on my nerves. One day I said to him, “Charlie, have you ever considered that maybe going around the world in your wheel chair with no money is not the best idea?”
He beamed back at me, unfazed. “It’s God’s will, that’s what it is. And you are an instrument of God, Roger. I know you’ll help me and Jesus move on down the road here.”
Well, I did, sort of. I managed to scrape together some donations and put Charlie on a plane to Frankfurt. He wanted to go to China, but I couldn’t figure out how to swing that. I told him he would probably get a better reception in Frankfurt. There aren’t too many Christians in China.
That was over 40 years ago. I have no idea what happened to Charlie. Maybe he’s still out there, running the roads. I thought of him recently when I saw a man with one leg panhandling at a traffic stop in central Phoenix. I had seen the man before, always around this time of year when the weather is nice, and always at the same stop. He had a cardboard sign that said, “Please help a homeless vet.”
Sometimes I avoid eye contact with panhandlers and don’t give them money. It bothers me when I do this, because I feel weak and think I don’t have the courage of my conviction that each of us ought to try to help others when we can, even if we’re not sure they “deserve” it.
But this time I gave the man some money, and on the spur of the moment I thought to ask him, “Where do you go when the weather gets hot?”
He grinned. “Seattle,” he replied. “Pretty nice up there in the summer.”
He reminded me of Charlie. Another road runner. He had crutches, not a wheelchair, but still it had to be a struggle just to move about and scrape together enough cash to move on with the breeze.
I mentioned this encounter to an acquaintance. “The guy was probably faking it,” he said dismissively. “They tie up one leg behind them so you think they’re a cripple and feel sorry for them. They’ll just spend the money on booze and drugs anyway.”
Maybe. The only thing easier than criticizing someone else’s bad behavior is rationalizing your own.
I grew up traveling the highways and back roads of the American Midwest with rock bands and have always felt an affinity with the road runners, healthy or crippled, deserving or not. There’s a little of the road runner in all of us, I like to think, itching to “light out for the territory,” as Mark Twain put it, yearning for a time when the world was young and filled with the possibility of hope, and no one knew the future.
Peace to their embattled souls.
Feedback? Send it my way: Roger.Hughes@slhi.org.
*The Drift reflects the views of the author, and does not represent the official view of SLHI’s Board of Trustees and staff.