I was 6 years old, growing up in Cleveland. It was Christmas eve. The traditional Slovak dinner was ready on the stove — mushroom soup and pierogies. My mom, my younger brother and I were waiting for my dad to get home so we could eat.
The waiting part was no surprise.
My dad was an alcoholic. During the Korean war, he enlisted and was assigned to a paratrooper unit. He was wounded during a mission. My mom said the experience changed him. He brought some demons home with him.
Those demons seemed to emerge during the holidays. My dad’s way of coping was to get off work from the butcher shop where he worked downtown and head across the street to a bar. His co-workers would have a holiday drink and go home. My dad would stay and drink until he couldn’t walk straight.
Maybe he was trying to drown those demons.
On this Christmas eve, he was at the bar and we were home waiting. And getting hungry.
Finally, my mom decided we would eat without him. After supper, my brother and I got into our new pajamas. We always got new ones for Christmas, the kind with the footies and cool designs like race cars or superheroes.
Snug in our sleepwear, we sat on the couch and waited. My mom got very anxious, afraid that something bad had happened.
Finally, headlights lit up the driveway. We looked out the front window. We could see a car, but it wasn’t my dad’s car. We could see two silhouettes in the front seat — a driver and a slumped-over passenger.
The slumped-over passenger? My dad. Someone had given him a ride home from the bar. Not the first time.
The driver got out, went around the car and helped my dad get to his feet and stagger to the front door. My mom opened the door. We got a huge surprise.
The man who drove my father home? A young black man.
Understand this: We lived in an ethnic neighborhood on Cleveland’s east side. I’d never seen a black person in my neighborhood. Many people in my neighborhood wouldn’t welcome a black person to their door. This was the 1960s. The civil rights movement was in full swing. There was a lot of racial tension in cities like Cleveland, even more so than we see in our cities today.
That black man had great courage to come to my house, not knowing how he would be received.
After they got my dad inside, my mom invited the man to have something to eat. I remember sitting at the kitchen table with him and my mom and my brother. I’m guessing it was the first and only time he’d had pierogies and mushroom soup.
Years later, I asked my mom for the details of what had happened that night. The black man told her that he knew my dad, saw him at the bar, realized that he was in no condition to drive, and decided to give him a ride home.
He could have found any number of reasons to avoid getting involved. It was Christmas eve. He‘d be putting someone drunk into his car — always a risk of a mess. He didn’t know my family and whether we would welcome his gesture or even appreciate it. Besides, my dad would probably just get drunk a few days later and be in the same predicament all over again.
Why bother with him?
There are so many ways he could have justified keeping a distance. But he didn’t. Instead, he thought about how my dad could end up killing himself after getting behind the wheel, and maybe killing someone else, too.
He could do something about it, so he did.
Doesn’t that sound like a parable? He saw someone staggering by the side of the barstool and stopped to help?
That’s not the end of the story.
Fast-forward a few months. My dad recognized that his drinking was out of control and joined Alcoholics Anonymous. He gave up drinking, started confronting his demons, and changed his life. My family had many good times with him over the years, times we might not have gotten if not for that courageous young black man.
And who knows how many other families were affected that night? There were a lot of people on the road on Christmas eve. How many other lives did the man save with his brave decision to give my dad a ride instead of letting him get on the road?
I never saw that young black man again. I think about him every Christmas eve, though. I’m thankful for what he did for me and for many others that night with his kind act. It changed so much – more than any of us can know.
I pray for him and for the courage to be like him.
Maybe you could, too.