Feather floating through the air

Sometimes help not only comes when you least expect it, it can arrive in the most unlikely of forms. At least that was my experience three weeks ago when returning to my home airport of Piedmont Triad International (PTI) from a 3-day Florida trip.

It was 10 pm, the end of a long day, so I was eager to get home, ready to sleep in my own bed. When I’d driven into the parking deck before the trip, I’d turned into a space at the end of a row and zipped through to the opposite, empty space ahead so my SUV faced outward, ready to escape home when I returned.

Back from Florida, I found my vehicle, tossed the baggage in the back, then climbed in and pulled from the space. As I drove across the parking deck to the other side, the vehicle fought me, determined to veer right while I held the wheel straight. Only then did I notice the cockeyed slant of the dashboard, the SUV listing to the right like a boat filling with water. Letting a slow, tired breath escape, I pulled into the next open space to get a visual on what I already suspected: flat tire.

Out of the vehicle, I trudged to the passenger side where the lifeless front tire laid deflated much like my hopes of getting home quickly. Earlier, I’d approached the car from the driver’s side, the flat tire hidden from view. Changing a tire is never fun, but it’s worse late at night when you want to get home and into bed.

My last flat tire had been the year before during a nine-day getaway at a beautiful mountain cabin in West Jefferson, NC. Generous friends had loaned me the cabin to work on my novel. Sometime on the last full day of the stay, my tire had liberated a nail from somewhere along the route to the cabin, most likely at the nearby house that had been under construction. I didn’t discover the flat until the next morning after the vehicle was loaded for my return trip home. After extracting the entire contents of my stay from the SUV hatch to access the spare, I found it soft as well. No flats in the 4 years prior had left me complacent, neglecting to check the spare tire’s air pressure.

Back at the parking deck at PTI, I knew this time my spare should be fine but I still wasn’t thrilled about the delay and effort of changing tires. I climbed in the car to phone my wife, to let her know to expect me later than planned. She could have picked me up, postponing my exertion until the next morning when I was rested and clad in more suitable clothes, but as attractive as the idea seemed, rousing the kids from cozy beds on a school night wasn’t an option we cared to take.

As I hung up with her, the side of a massive white truck filled my rear view mirror as it crept past the back of my vehicle before stopping off to the right of me. Peering out my rear passenger side window, I read the words PTI Airport Authority on the white truck’s door. From the time I’d eased from my parking spot, to the moment I’d pulled into the second one, eyeballed the tire, and called my wife, was less than five minutes. It seemed strange that an Airport Authority truck would arrive so quickly.

I slid from my SUV to the ground and walked toward the back of white truck just as its door opened. My mind expected to see a burly guy in overalls lumber from the truck, more like what I’d seen on occasion when a tow truck had arrived to cart off a disabled vehicle. A shapely pair of tan legs emerged instead. The owner of the legs, a petite brunette in her thirties, if I have to guess, had to leap down from the truck seat. She wore denim shorts, a polo shirt, and the biggest, warmest smile I’d seen in a few days.

“Looked like you needed some help,” she said.

An image flashed across that active screen of my mind, one of this small woman wrangling my tire from the wheel lugs as I idly watched. I shook the thought off, and started to tell her I could handle it, but she bee-lined to the back of the truck where she slid out a large metal canister. Compressed air.

“If it’s a slow leak, you might make it far enough to get some sealant or have it fixed.”

Relief washed over me. Perhaps changing a tire before bed was not in my destiny.

The compressed air only filled the tire halfway, so she and I walked down two flights of stairs to a utility room where they kept a large compressor. Mary Anne—as I later learned—had started to carry the heavy canister the whole way, but I couldn’t let her. I must have outweighed her by 90 pounds or more, so she agreed, probably to ensure my ego wouldn’t get bruised.

The whole time we walked, Mary Anne was cheerful, continuously smiling, enjoying herself. Her smile radiated until one crept onto my face and stayed. I’m sure my previous expression had been a gnarled frown, angry at the flat.

Her demeanor wasn’t what you’d necessarily expect from someone working a night shift. Was she excited about life in general? Did she get a boost from assisting stranded travelers? Or did she hold a secret to life and beyond that other people don’t possess or have long forgotten? As we talked, my mood elevated. Light-heartedness replaced the frustration I’d felt before. I was re-energized, viewing the world through changed eyes. I understand that it’s part of her job responsibilities to assist people in need, but I believe she is the type person who’d stop to help people regardless of her job.

We filled the tire the rest of the way and I thanked her before she shifted the truck in gear and drove away into the night.

As I drove toward the parking deck exit, I couldn’t shake the sensation that I’d just been visited by an angel, those entities sent from the heavens to help and guide us. As I eased into the ticket booth bay to pay for the parking, I tried to remember if I’d ever even seen an Airport Authority vehicle in the 12 years I’d been flying from PTI. How had Mary Anne appeared from nowhere so quickly to help? Had she been staking out the vehicle with the flat tire, ready to assist whenever the owner came back?

I felt the urge to ask the parking booth attendant about her, inquire how well he knew her so I might discover the secret well from which she drew her enthusiasm for life. But fear held me back. I worried my curiosity might be misinterpreted, that I’d come across as a stalker of sorts.

Instead, my mind wandered, imagination filling the gaps. Suppose I had asked and just received a dull-eyed stare in response, followed by the words, “No one named Mary Anne works here.”? Would this rigid container I call reality have shifted, acquired new dimensions and bizarre slants that would forever change my perceptions, prevent them from returning to their original, limited form?

I don’t know the answer. But this I do know: angels exist. Whether they’re direct from the heavens above or appear via a more circuitous route doesn’t really matter. I simply take comfort knowing they walk among us, roaming this earth to help travelers in need on their journeys through life.

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