The Musician

I love the holidays, and I’ve always been moved by the charity of people at this time of the year. Stories of generosity have a way of hitting me on an emotional level, and I always want to share them with others. My hope is that if a tale of giving can bring out the charitable side in even a single person, then it has done its job.

When I was a kid growing up, I had an uncle who used to read us the same letter every Christmas.  Written by a distant cousin, it told the story of how one late night encounter with a musician changed the way their family celebrated the holidays. Here is his letter:

Several years ago, my wife and I were traveling across the state with our first child through a snowy Wisconsin night. We had been visiting her parents for the holidays, and we were driving on a lonely stretch of highway. With an hour or more to go, we noticed a young man walking the side of the highway thumbing for a ride. My wife asked me to pull over and we offered him a ride.

The kid couldn’t have been much over twenty, but his clothes looked older. His old army coat was a patchwork of thread and cloth. His canvas bag looked as if it traveled around the world. The only thing that seemed in good condition was the guitar case he carried, which he placed with care beside him in the back seat.

We introduced ourselves, my wife turning to show him the baby sleeping in her arms. He thanked us for stopping. The snow had been a surprise, he said and laughed. He had been traveling across the country, playing his guitar and working on his music. His youthful face framed sad eyes, which seemed old in my rearview mirror. As we drove through the snow, he told us stories of the places he had been and the people he had seen.

He talked about a waitress he had met in Alabama, a preacher in Kentucky, a railroad man in Tennessee, a coal miner in West Virginia, and a auto worker in Michigan. Every person had a story, and most of them were grim. He talked about families that didn’t have money for rent and lived out of their cars. He told us about men and women who went without meals so their kids could eat. He talked about victims of natural disasters and factory closings, suddenly left with nothing and unable to provide for their families.

When we made it to the city limits, he asked us to let him out. He thanked us for the ride in a warm car. My wife, distressed by the way his baggy clothes seemed to hang on his body, asked him if we could give him money for dinner. He said no, shaking his head. And this part I will never forget:

He said, “My life on the road is of my own choosing. There are a lot of people whose circumstances have left them without anything. Everyone needs a little help sometimes. When I can, I use what little money I have to buy them dinner. I miss a few meals here and there, but it doesn’t matter. I can always go home again.”

With that, he shook my hand and left the car. Slinging his canvas bag over one arm and carrying his guitar in the other, he walked down a side street away from the highway. Whether he was on his way home or to another destination, we never knew.

That week, my wife and I went to the local supermarket and bought two sacks of groceries. We left them on the steps of a house that belonged to a family in need. On one of the sacks we pinned a note that said, “Everyone needs a little help sometimes.” It was the first of many anonymous deliveries we made.

The tradition continues.

My son, who now has a family of his own, tells the story of the traveling musician to his kids. Every Christmas, they set aside a week’s worth of groceries to give to a family less fortunate than them. Even in the lean years, when he was out of work, he said that he could always afford to give to someone else.

My son told me, “I miss a few meals here and there, but it doesn’t matter. I can always go home again.”

Kevin Wohler is a copywriter and novelist living in Lawrence, Kansas. During the day, he works at a digital marketing agency in the Kansas City area. When time remains, he likes to tell stories of the weird and bizarre. And sometimes, he writes them down for others to read.

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