The man from Michigan

On the 28th of November 2012 I sat in Melbourne airport, forlorn and exhausted, homesick already for a country I’d only just left and had only known for two short weeks, saddened by smallness and saddened by familiar, and clutching an overstuffed pink backpack carrying everything I couldn’t leave behind and a handful of Michigan souvenirs I’d bought at the airport there some thirty hours before. I wanted to see my family, but I didn’t want to go home. More than that though, I didn’t want to be in Melbourne airport.

I was quite, quite sure that the gate I was waiting at was the one flying to Hobart, although the screens that displayed the information said something quite different. I waited, tried to catch a glimpse of somebody else’s boarding pass without seeming too suspicious. I didn’t want to talk to anybody. I didn’t want to make small conversations with people whose journeys felt ordinary, who had been to Melbourne for the weekend to catch a show, to go to a wedding, to go to a work conference. I didn’t want to talk to Australians at all. I only wanted to talk to Americans, to people who Understood.

I didn’t know it’d be like that.

Because I was tired, and because I was heartsick and soon-to-be time poor I hauled my sorry self and my pink backpack over to the vending machine in the corner and bought myself a block of Cadbury’s chocolate, sad even that it was yummy, real Australian Cadbury’s, not the waxy strange American version (they put wax in chocolate. No joke. And when I looked at them strangely and asked why, they looked at ME strangely and said “you DON’T have wax in chocolate?” Real wax wax. Paraffin wax. No joke).

Because the departure lounge was crowded, and because my old seat was taken, I sat down with a slump and a sigh in another seat, near an old man with a kindly smile who looked at my chocolate and my overstuffed backpack and said “You look like you’ve just been on a Great Adventure; either that or you’re going on one.”

I looked at him again. He was a tall man, and his hair was white-turning-yellow, like a newspaper left in the sun, and his bushy eyebrows waggled when he smiled at me again. I smiled back. “Just been on one, actually. And you? Have you come from anywhere interesting?”

And that’s where it started, right there.

He told me he’d been to the States, and I said that I had too, and he told me he’d been to Michigan, and I told him I had too, and he told me he’d been in Michigan for Thanksgiving, and I told him I had too, and by that time the smallness of Melbourne had opened up into the wideness of memory, and we talked like old friends about the snow that almost was, and the unseasonable blue sky that day, about his experiences in the Buick factory in the city of Flint, that I’d driven through just a few days before. I laughed, and said I hadn’t seen him, although I probably should have waved.

He told me the story of his adopted daughter, adopted from Flint, Michigan, who went back with him and met her birth family for the first time, about how strange it was seeing a face so familiar on someone people he’d never met, about how her mannerisms were so similar to this sister she’d never known. I rejoiced with him, and felt that belonging, that sense of coming back to family, that love, that grief for the lostness. I felt the story there with him, right there at Melbourne airport.

I feel that story today, which is why I’m remembering the Man from Michigan. I’ve been meeting family – my own family that I didn’t know – family that look like me, that think like me, that share a history, and can explain huge chunks of who I come from that I didn’t even know about. It makes me feel like I’m the one who was adopted, the one returning to Flint, Michigan.

It’s a lovely feeling, and a happy-sad feeling at the same time. I don’t know how to explain it. All I know is that I’m holding tightly to the hand of the God who put me in Flint, Michigan for Thanksgiving weekend; the God who put the newspaper-blond man at the airport.

I wish I’d taken his photograph. I don’t even know his name. If I did I’d call him up and tell him I’m holding his hand right now too. I don’t think he’d mind.

I’m glad the Man from Michigan was there that day. I’m glad for the God who puts people in airports just when we need them. I’m glad for the God who allows flesh-and-blood people to be His hands and feet.

What about you? Have you ever met someone you think just must be an angel? Someone you don’t know who’s managed to impact your life? Have you been that person for somebody else?



Lost, in story

Grade twelve. Seventeen. Mid July winter night and cold, cold, cold. I’d stayed up too late the night before, hadn’t been home in two days and the wind whipping my skirt around my legs bit into my psyche like a rabid dog’s teeth. Truth is I was so glad to see the bus door open I didn’t care about anything else. Kylie Oakley was sitting at the back. She used to live at the top of my street, was in my class in grade five. I hadn’t seen her for a while, years in fact. I gave her a small smile, she looked at me funny, and I thought maybe it’s been so long she didn’t recognize me any more. I didn’t know she had family in New Norfolk still. Friday night. Must be visiting for the weekend.

I pulled out my book and nestled into the warmth of the contoured seats, lost in story and only vaguely aware that the bus was going in a different direction to normal, was parking outside some old building on the other side of the city. Lost in story. I didn’t think.

Lost in story, then in sleep, and later in winter darkness thinking that this road was awfully long tonight, longer than normal, that I couldn’t see snatches of the river through the reeds like I usually could, and the sudden, chilling thought that Kylie Oakley wasn’t visiting back home for the weekend. She was GOING home. To Dover.

I’d never been to Dover. My parents didn’t own a car, didn’t drive, so we never went further than the city and back on the same old bus on the same old route that I knew so well, and never once took a detour to old sandstone buildings on the other side of the city.

When we drove past the sign for Castle Forbes Bay I knew…KNEW…I’d done the wrong thing. Maybe sleeplessness and cold and lostness-in-story will always be the wrong thing, but we soothe ourselves otherwise all too often with soft velour contours and the comfort of warm. With nothing else to do and the knowledge that I was wrong, I got off the bus.

I kept my voice bright and cheerful when I spoke to the driver. “I seem to have gone in the wrong direction. When’s the next bus back into the city?”

He chuckled. “Wrong direction eh love? Ah, next bus back isn’t till Mond’y mornin’”

I smiled politely at him, I could inquire about hotels, but I had no money and was too young for a credit card. All I wanted was food, and I couldn’t even afford that. I clutched my schoolbag and my book. I was lost in story still, but suddenly one of my own doing.

Over near the now-shut shop was a public phone, so I called my Mum and told her I’d be staying down in town for the weekend, and called my boyfriend and asked if I could stay at his house, whatever time I got there. The wind whipped my skirt around my legs again, but I tried to keep my voice steady while the tears froze on my cheeks.

Nothing else to do. I hitched my schoolbag over my back and wrapped my thin cardigan as tightly around myself as I could, and started walking back towards the city. I prayed. I sang songs, worship songs, pop songs, whatever came, as loudly as I wanted to keep the fear at bay, and to tell you the truth I kind of enjoyed the adventure until the first car drove past and ignored my outstretched thumb, as did the second, and the third. Nice cars, all of them, and I hated them for ignoring a forlorn teenager in the rain on a deserted road, and wished all hell on their heads if I never made it home again.

By the time a car finally did stop, some half hour later, I was soaked to the skin and sobbing with gratitude. It was an old white ute, twin cab I think they call it, with three burly men in the front wearing grimy coats, and a slab of beer and a shotgun in the back. I told them my pathetic story and they laughed like drains until they wiped their noses on their sleeves and asked me to pass them a beer each.

They offered me a beer too. I said no. I didn’t drink, and I wanted to keep my wits about me. They didn’t say where they were going, but the car was warm and heading to my precious north again, towards the city. Too tired to think, I prayed in my head, and tried to answer their questions politely. They asked me about my book, and I told them about the story, about the author, about early 20th century literature, losing their interest quickly, but desperate to keep them thinking about me as a person, and not just as a seventeen year old girl trapped in the back of their car. I tried to calculate how fast we were going, how easily the doors opened, what was on the side of the road and how much I’d hurt myself if I jumped out. They were friendly though, and hurled their empty beer cans at speed signs before politely asking me to pass them another one. I stuck with them. There was no other choice.

It wasn’t until they pulled off the main road that the panic set in. Dirt track, down to nowhere, ute parked in the bushes and in the dark. They three men talked quietly among themselves for a minute, and when one opened the door and got out I grabbed my bag in one hand and my door handle in the other. I wasn’t strong enough to fight, my only choice would be to run, but for now I waited. I shifted my leg, leaned forward to see what the dirty white thing on the floor was. The sky cleared momentarily and the moon shone in the window. It was a child’s toy, a once-plush thing in a red dress. A lamb.

I felt the words rather than heard them. A snatch of a song I loved. A bit of the bible I’d read only recently. “Behold, the lamb of God”.

The third man came back to the car with something in his hand. He passed it over as he sat back down again, and the three men took in turns to bubble the creek water and inhale. They passed the bong back to me more than once, happy to share, although I happily declined. I kept my eye on that lamb, the presence of angels strong.

After their bong they turned the ute back around and drove back up that dirt road, then headed north again. We all fell quiet, listened to the football on the tinny transistor, I handed them beers as they asked.

I didn’t realize it until the paddocks started giving way to houses, and the houses gave way to suburbs, and one of them said “I reckon it’s been about twenny years since I’ve been to the city”. They asked me for directions, and I led them into the city and out the other side, down the highway, tears of gratitude again streaming down my face and not anywhere near enough time to thank them enough. They dropped me off at the bottom of my boyfriend’s street, and laughed and waved again as they turned around to drive the hour or so back home.

Behold, the Lamb of God.

We just never know who’s gonna be the ones giving us a hand.

What about you? Have there been unlikely heroes in your life? Good Samaritans? Drunk men doing the work of angels? I’d love to hear your stories.

Hobart and Southern Tasmania