Eric Frazier

Would you help a stranded stranger?

By Eric Frazier

Attorney Victoria Jayne (left) holds the Bible for Marvin Jacob Lee during his first appearance Monday morning in Catawba County District Court. Lee is charged in the shooting death of Jefferson Heavner
Attorney Victoria Jayne (left) holds the Bible for Marvin Jacob Lee during his first appearance Monday morning in Catawba County District Court. Lee is charged in the shooting death of Jefferson Heavner Hickory Record

When you pass a motorist stranded on the side of the highway, do you stop?

I usually don’t. There’s so much craziness afoot these days, you just don’t know if it’s safe. I drive on by, stealing glances into the rear view mirror, usually feeling guilty and conflicted. Turn around, I tell myself. But I never do.

Jefferson Heavner was one of those guys who stops. He picked up the habit from his dad, who drove four-wheel-drive trucks when he was a boy. It became family tradition to go out after snow storms to help stranded motorists.

The 26-year-old single father was carrying on that tradition Friday when it cost him his life. Police say the motorist he stopped to help – identified as Marvin Jacob Lee, 27 – turned belligerent beside a Catawba County road and shot him.

And now, folks like me who don’t stop are all thinking: See, that’s why.

We don’t stop because we can’t be sure the situation will be safe. Who hasn’t heard of police officers and tow truck drivers getting sideswiped by passing cars as they help stranded motorists?

But what perhaps weighs even more heavily in my thinking is the uncertainty about whether the stranded motorists themselves will be safe – whether they will be “good” people.

They could turn out like the duo arrested by the Rowan County Sheriff’s Office in early January. A 19-year-old woman faked car trouble and flagged down a passing motorist, authorities say, so her gun-toting accomplice could run up and commandeer the man’s truck.

Better safe than carjacked, right?

And yet, there’s that lump of guilt you have to swallow as you drive past. It’s guilt not just over the possibility that you failed a “good” person who really needed your help, but also at realizing you are, in this one small way, giving ground to the negative forces pulling at the threads of our social fabric.

Our national “melting pot” these days seems to contain not a richly textured gumbo but a warring stew of conflicting ingredients. We’re pulling apart rather than pulling together. We need more people brave enough to reach out when others shrink back.

Those folks seem in short supply these days. Confronted with a changing world, many of us are retreating to what’s safe, what’s familiar. We’re not so sure anymore that we truly are all in this together. Everyday life feels so complicated that we default to driving on by, not getting involved, minding our own business.

But as any fitness instructor can tell you, muscle gains strength when you put it under stress, when you tax it with barbells or laps or miles. What makes us think character development should be any different? When we decline to volunteer for charity or help a civic group or aid a stranded motorist, we’re shrinking from the work – and risk – it takes to improve ourselves.

This seems obvious in the abstract. But when you actually have to step on the brake, steer off the road and approach a stranded stranger, the reality still tends to put a knot in your stomach.

Everybody can’t shrink back, though. We all want someone to fill the Good Samaritan role.

I’m sure I’ll think of Jefferson Heavner the next time I come upon a stranded motorist. At least once, I’m going to try to do as he would have done. After all, I know that someday I won’t be the guy whizzing by at 70 miles per hour.

The stranded stranger will be me.

Eric: 704-358-5145; efrazier@charlotteobserver.com

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