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All We Need to Get By Is a Good Shepherd

A Topanga traffic incident has a life lesson to teach.

October 25, 2003|Frank Armstrong | Frank Armstrong works for a television production company in North Hollywood.

After brunch in Topanga Canyon last Sunday, my wife and I headed down to the coast in our beat-up 1970 Bronco. My wife reminded me again why she allows so much distance between her and any car in front -- "the Bronco does not have disc brakes." Our dog, Chauncy, rode with us, the sun shone, the ocean beckoned. Then.

We came upon a car stalled in our lane on a classic tight blind curve. A couple, who I later discovered did not speak English, were trying to move it. I jumped out and was joined by two young men, followed soon by others offering their help. Smoke was coming from around the automatic gear shift of the derelict vehicle, which was stuck in park. We could not get the car to budge. Vehicles began to back up quickly behind us, and traffic coming from the beach was barreling around the outer corner.

We quickly formed a plan. My wife parked the Bronco, and I went ahead and indicated to the oncoming traffic to stop. Others called a tow truck and guided the beachgoing traffic to go ahead.

For more than half an hour, we took turns letting our respective lanes of cars proceed. No major backups occurred and eventually a tow truck arrived.

The couple who had been in the car came over; the man shook my hand and looked at me kindly, saying "thank you" with his eyes, a language that speaks without words. The young men and I thanked each other and shook hands on a job well done.

My wife and I continued our journey to the beach. Venice glittered in the October sun and we had a great afternoon. But something had happened back on Topanga Canyon Road, and I can't let it go.

When I was directing traffic, there were three general responses: A few people honked, or stared sternly ahead. One man yelled at us, "Why don't you move it," but would not wait for our answer. To him, we were no doubt the dumbest good Samaritans in the land. No matter that a problem had been handled, there was going to be a small number of people who could not or would not recognize our effort, or be happy about being able to move safely down the road.

A second group of drivers yelled out offers to call the CHP or the AAA, and some even pulled over to volunteer aid. This group too was a minority, but larger than the first group.

The third group, the vast majority, followed our instructions and were not rude nor did they offer aid. Yet, because of their willingness to follow directions, there were no fender-benders and no head-on collisions. They trusted strangers to do right by them.

There was one hairy moment: A large, black SUV with a windshield darker than Darth Vader's mask drove right through my signal to stop (it would have been over me had I not jumped to the side) and nearly hit oncoming traffic on the blind curve. Had I been struck I would have been reported as a casualty in the B section of The Times, with perhaps a photo of me in happier days.

I thought about the different reactions of the drivers, and it seemed to me, without getting too dramatic, that a "good shepherd" motif was in place: I and the others directing traffic had been trusted to safely guide these people to a spot past the imminent danger. What mattered most was that we were competent and honest ("no ulterior motive, ma'am, just some folks with car trouble").

Americans in general, in my humble opinion, are like the majority of the drivers we encountered. All they ask is: "Please guide us safely, good shepherd, please be honest and competent, and we will travel the path you point to."

Sure, there are some people who will never be happy, and even more who will help if we just say the word, but it is that majority I gain hope from. They just need a decent, honest and competent shepherd to not lie to them, and to not send them foolishly into danger. Any takers?

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