About Melvin – Detours in Life

On a Saturday morning when I took the dogs to the state park, I noticed an elderly man sitting in front of the gas station with a pile of duffle bags and knapsacks. When I went by again in the afternoon, almost 3 hours later, he was still there. He didn’t have a sign. He didn’t appear to be asking for anything. He was just sitting there by the road. The third time I saw him, I was on my way to the grocery store. I saw my neighbor talking to him. I decided to get him a sandwich and ask him if he was trying to get somewhere.

On my way back home, I stopped and introduced myself, told him I was from the neighborhood, and asked him if he needed a ride somewhere. He said he was trying to get to Sauk City, WI, which is west of town, or find a place with a reasonable hotel. I had been planning to go to Stoughton that afternoon to visit my folks, but that’s south of town, in another direction. He declined the sandwich and a drink. I told him I don’t know Sauk City that well, but that I’d talk to my neighbor and come back in a while.

When I headed home, I learned that my neighbor wasn’t home. Rats! I thought about getting the guy a taxi, but that would probably cost a fortune. The hotels that I know in the area are business hotels and are pretty expensive. Besides, he seemed to be trying to get to Sauk City. I checked the map and realized that it’s only about a 20-minute drive, so I pondered offering him a ride myself.

Could this elderly gentleman be part of a set-up? Could he be a danger to me? I thought of all the things that could go wrong. And then I thought, what if he’s just a busted up old man who is trying to get to a safe place and he just needs a ride? He’d been sitting there for hours. Probably hundreds of people had driven by.

I decided to offer him a ride to Sauk City. It would take about 20 minutes to get there, and then he’d be off the street. When I arrived back at the gas station, he didn’t see me arrive. So I went inside and asked the clerk if he knew anything about the guy. He said he knew absolutely nothing. I texted my sister and told her what I was doing, so somebody would know where I was going.

Then I went back out, drove over by the old man, and told him that if he trusted me and his things would fit in my back seat, I was willing to give him a ride to Sauk City. He accepted my offer and then we spent a few minutes dismantling all of his bags from his luggage rack and loading them into my truck. I realized that he probably had all of his belongings with him and his load was quite heavy. He was tall and thin with a rough gray beard, and his clothes hung off him, somewhat like a scarecrow. His load would have been heavy even for a much younger, stronger man.

I told him that I don’t know Sauk City well, other than the part along Highway 12, so he’d have to direct me. That’s when things got interesting. I’d thought he was trying to get to someone or someplace specific in Sauk City, but he hadn’t been there before, was just going there because someone had recommended it to him. He was looking for an affordable place to stay. So we continued on.

I didn’t know what we’d talk about in the car for 20 minutes, but he started jabbering like someone had put a quarter in him. He was a veteran of the Navy, of the Vietnam War era. He’d been an electrician. He told me of the places he’d been and friends he’d lost while in the Navy. He revealed some very specific memories. His narrative was both fascinating and frustrating because he was talking so fast I couldn’t get half of what he said and I was trying to focus on our mission of finding him a place to stay. He had seen and done a lot in his many years. I wondered to myself how a U.S. veteran had ended up traveling that way with all of his belongings. I wondered where he’d been and where he was going. But I knew that merely giving someone a ride didn’t entitle one to know everything about him, just what he cared to share.

As he talked he revealed that he’d started in Pennsylvania, and had been at the airport in Chicago and maybe Madison. He must have flown halfway across the country to end up in Wisconsin. I mentioned that he must have veterans’ benefits (hoping he was taking advantage of them). He said yes, but not again until the 1st and this was the 29th. He had a few days to wait until he got paid again. He said he didn’t want to carry too much cash or he might get robbed.

When we arrived in Sauk City, the first hotel we found told him they had just one room left, one with a Jacuzzi, for $170 per night. Clearly too much. They told him to check farther down the road at a motel, so we did. That motel had a “VACANCY” sign displayed and looked more affordable. There weren’t many cars in the lot, so it looked promising. Yet the guy at the desk turned him away and said they were full. At this point I was starting to wonder if an old black man would be able to find a room in this small town. After all, the “VACANCY” sign was lit. The next place we went, another motel, also turned him away. The guy there told him there was a dog show in town, so they were full up. That might explain why the motels seemed empty. If everyone was at the dog show during the day and came back at night, the rooms could be full. We tried following another “MOTEL” sign, but didn’t find anything. So we started to head back toward Madison, with two more towns to stop in along the way. He nodded off for a while – he must had been really exhausted and felt safe enough to let his guard down for a while. In the first town we only found one motel, which looked nice. But nobody was in the office and a “SORRY” sign was displayed. In the next small town we couldn’t find any places to stay, so we ended up at the Beltline in Middleton again, not far from where we started.

The man had gotten very quiet. He was no longer telling stories of his time in the Navy. I think we were both starting to wonder if we’d find him a place to stay. It was Saturday evening and hotels and motels were filling up. The man told me that a cop had offered him a ride earlier and had mentioned a Road Star motel. I thought I knew where that was, so I headed that direction. The hotels I saw along the way, like a Hilton and a Marriott, were too expensive and I kept going. I thought about him refusing a ride from a cop. I suppose that could be quite a risk for an old black man from out of town. The local deputies I know would genuinely be interested in helping this man, but how could he know he’d be safe with a cop? I asked him where he was ultimately going and he said he’d like to end up somewhere on the west coast. Finally I realized that he had a long way to go yet. But he’d already made it halfway across the country.

By this time our journey had taken way longer than 20 minutes, more like 2 hours. I was starting to wonder if we’d find him a place to stay. I didn’t feel like I could take him home, and I didn’t think he wanted that anyway. I didn’t know of a safe place for him to go if we didn’t find a hotel. I was tired of driving around in the car for 2 hours on a beautiful afternoon. I was getting tired and hungry and cranky, yet I had been through way less than he had. I hadn’t heard back from my mom and needed to let her know that I would visit on Sunday instead. I offered him a snack and he said no thanks. I must have looked pretty discouraged, because he said something like, I bet you’re wishing now that you hadn’t gotten involved. I figured that this may be the most important thing I had done in a very long time, and replied that I wasn’t going to put him back out on the street.

We found the Road Star hotel, which advertised $65 per night. It looked promising, although a little rough. The old man struggled to unfold himself and climb out of the car, as he did every time. He shuffled up to the entrance. Not long after, he came out like someone had lit a fire under him. He said that a black man and a Hispanic man in the lobby had said they were going to kill him. Good grief! I got out of there fast. To my knowledge, this wasn’t a bad part of town, but I didn’t want to take any chances.

I didn’t know where to go next. I don’t have a smart phone. I’d texted my sister and asked her to find a hotel with a vacancy for us, but she had missed the point. The man mentioned a Super 8, probably one that he’d seen on the far east side of town, the other side of town from where we’d started. As we headed east, I saw a Super 8. He wanted to stop there, so we did. He came back out and said they had one room left, and he could afford it, but they required a debit or credit card. He’d told them he was a veteran, which seemed to help. I said maybe they’d take my card, and he urged me to hurry in, as another car was pulling in and he really wanted that room. I thought this could be a scam, but we handled it well. He paid cash for the room. I gave the clerk my credit card as a back-up. They didn’t need to charge anything to my card. She gave him a first floor room.

Next began the massive effort to unload all of his bags and get them to his room. He insisted on carrying some of the bags, which took forever. There were three small steps, and on each step he had to put the bags down to climb up, then pick up the bags again. He was incredibly strong considering his frail appearance, but very slow. He appeared so vulnerable. Although I’ve had issues with my back, knee and shoulder, I felt incredibly young and strong next to him. As we were carrying his things inside, a couple was walking by and asked if we wanted help. He said no. I was glad to see a white woman with a black man being friendly to him.

Once all of his bags were inside, he seemed nervous about having me help carry them into his room. I told him then that I didn’t even know his name. He said it was Melvin, and asked me my name again. I think he’d mentioned his name earlier in the car when he was talking so fast, but I’d missed it. I thanked him for his service and his stories, and wished him well on his journey.

On my way out, I stopped to use the restroom in the lobby. I spoke with the clerk, explained the situation and made sure nothing would be added to my credit card. She understood the situation and reassured me. Then I ran into the couple – the white woman and black man – on the way out. I thanked them for offering to help him and they said they’d keep an eye on him.

And then I prayed for Melvin to have a safe journey and land in the perfect place. I spent a good deal of time thinking about how a U.S. veteran can end up homeless on the street corner with all of his belongings, while hundreds of people drove by, not stopping to help. Melvin seemed to have a lot of pride, and was very self-sufficient, considering. He didn’t want food or water or money from me. Giving him a ride may have helped with what he needed in that moment, but it probably didn’t do much for him in the long run. I hope that just having someone listen and help and care meant something to him. I tried to offer him the help he wanted without overstepping bounds.

I also realized that I need to learn more about available resources for the homeless and veterans in this area. Maybe if I’d known more, I could have helped him more effectively.

This whole experience left me feeling incredibly grateful for all that I have, and at the same time somewhat inadequate as a nation taking care of its veterans.

A few days later, I discovered that the sandwich I’d offered Melvin was still in my fridge. I thought of Melvin and prayed that he was safe and well on his way to where he wanted to be. If you see a lanky old black man by the side of the road with a long fuzzy gray beard and a tall stack of black bags, be kind (maybe offer him a ride). And please tell him Jenny says hello.


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