President Clinton was recently asked by some of the African-American community to issue a formal apology because slavery was permitted in America until the Civil War, just 135 years ago. From my point of view, there never could have been any credible justification for enslaving people of any race. How politicians, clergy, and the man in the street ever rationalized such inherent evil and injustice has always mystified me. Had I been born black, I'm sure I'd have felt much more strongly about the issue.

The question of how much racial prejudice and bigotry still exists in America is pervasive. Conservatives generally insist it is overblown, while liberals usually feel it is common. Whites like myself find the issue easy to avoid. I put the matter out of mind.

Two weeks ago, I was driving home from Key West with my cousin. She is in her early seventies, and I in my mid sixties, so we are past our salad days. Four miles north of Del Ray Beach, doing 65 miles an hour on I-95, we hit a bump and I thought I'd blown my left rear tire. The car wobbled and vibrated badly as I slowed down and looked for the chance to pull from the middle to the right hand lane and off the road. In a few hundred yards we got safely off the highway to the shoulder, and I told my cousin to please get out of the car and wait in the grass as I changed the tire. I looked at the back of the car, smelled burning rubber, but found the tire was intact. The axle was lying at a strange angle, and I thought a bearing had given way. Our mechanic told me later the contol arm for the left rear axle had actually pulled loose. In any event, the car could not be driven.

As I ruefully gazed at the car, glanced at my watch to see the time was 5pm, and looked down the freeway for the nearest exit, I saw a van that had pulled off the road ahead of me. It was coming toward us on the wide grassy area that fortunately bordered the freeway at that point, and stopped just ahead of my car. Its driver, who might have been about forty, looked out and said, "I saw what happened. Get in, and I'll give you a ride to the nearest phone." I looked at my cousin, realized I couldn't leave her there alone, and considered the possible dangers of both of us getting in. We could wait until a police car came by. I thanked the man for stopping and driving back to help. The few words he said gave me confidence, and I locked up the car and helped my cousin in the back seat, then sat next to him in front. As we drove, he told me the next exit was a mile down the road. To my question, he said he'd been in the Air Force, but now worked for the post office. He took us to a convenience store and said he would wait while we called a tow truck. We found the number in my wallet cards, called, and the answering voice said she'd have a tow truck there in 45 minutes. As we returned to the van, the man asked what luck we'd had. I told him, and he drove to I-95, headed south to the exit past our car, turned around and came back north to drop us off. I quietly looked into my wallet and found a twenty dollar bill.

As I was about to get out, I said, "I realize this in no way can repay you for the help you've given me, but it may defray some of your costs and the time you spent with us." He answered, " Wait a minute, I can't accept money for helping someone out. Other people have helped me in the past, and this is in repayment."

We never exchanged names, but I owe him a world of thanks. Only he knows what he did, and he will probably never read these words of gratitude. In passing, I want to mention that he was black and I white, but both of us really were just human beings. I was in need of help, and he gave it. When people act like that and aid each other instead of looking for real or imagined differences, the world becomes a vastly better place. Skin color simply doesn't matter.

Back many decades ago when I was a Navy frogman, my swim buddy, Charlie Mack, was black. Underwater, we had to depend on each other, and race had no part of our relationship. Stripped of the externals we strive so hard to maintain, all of us are pretty much the same underneath. That's a lesson the human race finds hard to learn and easy to forget, but it's the kind of thing that will make and keep a nation great.

Forty years later, my unknown friend pointed out to me better than any presidential proclamation could that slavery was an intolerable evil, that good men show kindness to each other, and that we are far more united by our overwhelming similarities than we are divided by our few differences. I would like to share that knowledge with many people like myself who long ago forgot it.

Sam Orr sorr@metrolink.net
World Traveler
and Philanthrope
(Location Unknown)