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Trapped at the Beach

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Click. I froze, my arm mid-reach toward the backseat car door handle, unable to believe what had just happened.

No! No! No! In denial, I bolted around the white Suzuki Vitara, trying each door handle, but was forced to face the reality of my situation when I found myself once again standing by the locked driver’s-side door, staring through the window at my car keys in the center console.

Up to this point, the day had been perfect. I was camping near Bodega Bay in northern California with my cousin Kat and some friends. After waking up to a beautiful coastal day and sharing a Spartan breakfast with my camp mates, I strapped my 9’6” surfboard onto my car while they organized their scuba gear. We hopped in our cars, and they drove to the nearby state beach, while I took the hour-long drive down the winding California Highway 1 to search out a place to surf.

I chose the locally famous beach Salmon Creek and was pleased to find the water charged with energy; colder water and faster waves kept me on my toes and made the experience stimulating. My home break in Santa Cruz had been mostly flat for weeks, and I was happy to find that migrating north was worth the long drive.

After three hours of adrenaline-charged surfing, I sat in my car on the imposing bluff watching the tide rise. Feeling fresh and peaceful, I looked forward to the afternoon I had at my disposal.

I pulled my small Suzuki onto the highway and began to scan the state beaches sprinkled along the beautiful Californian coast for a beach secluded enough to give me the relaxed afternoon I needed. I spotted the uncrowded Shell Beach and turned into the empty parking lot.

My mood was shattered when I found myself standing outside a locked car with my keys, my guitar, and my afternoon plans just three feet away, but completely out of reach.

Leaning against the impassable car door, I rocketed through the next three stages of grief.

First, I was angry. Today was such a good day! Why did I have to go and ruin it with this stupid move? Why did this have to happen while my AAA card was still in the mail?

Next, I bargained, wishing things were different. Why didn’t I put those keys into my pocket instead of tossing them into the console?

I reflected on how humiliating my situation was. My shame was especially potent, considering that two months before I had been in the same situation and had suffered the embarrassment of being rescued by my girlfriend and her AAA membership.

After five long minutes of grieving, I accepted my situation. Things weren’t about to change, so I decided I had best come up with a solution. I pulled out my cell phone to send a text message 


to Kat, hoping against hope that she might find a patch of service at our secluded campsite. When I saw the words “No Service” at the upper left-hand corner of my phone’s screen, panic shot through my body! This situation was turning out to be even worse than I had first thought.

Twenty minutes later, I had walked around the entire parking lot and up to the main highway, but my phone hadn’t picked up any hint of a signal. By now, more people were streaming into the parking lot to enjoy the sunshine and ocean air. Forced to formulate a “Plan B,” I began begging groups of people for assistance, asking for a coat hanger, a slim jim––anything that might help me break into my car. 

My despair built as I was met with heartfelt sympathy, but no tangible help. Knowing that other people were my only way out of this situation, though, I continued to approach each new group that walked by my car.

Eventually a group of college students scrounged up a flyswatter from the back of their station wagon, and I set about breaking into my car. I untwisted the wire, and bent the end into a hook shape. It wasn’t easy, but I managed to wedge the tool between the window and the door so I could try to manually lift the lock. Fishing for what was probably there, while unable to visualize the inside of the door, felt like bobbing for a single apple in a bathtub—blindfolded.

Concentrating on the task at hand, I had no idea how long I had been struggling with the flyswatter when a gruff voice interrupted my focus.

“Locked yourself out, huh?”

Straightening up, I wiped the sweat off my brow and turned to face the latest character in my adventure. He was average in his looks, but unique in the special interest I could see he had in my situation.

“Unfortunately, yes. And I have no idea what I’m doing here.”

“How long have you been working at it?” he inquired.

“Too long,” I answered.

He looked from me to the crooked remains of the flyswatter that protruded from the gap I had forced between the window and the car door.

“Do you mind if I give it a try?” he asked me.

“Of course not,” I told him. “If you know what you’re doing at all, you’ve got a better chance than I do.”

He introduced himself as George and wasted no time in attacking the inside of the door. Much more deliberate than I, he seemed 


to have a better chance of solving the puzzle than I had. There were a few instances when we heard the sound of the doors unlocking, but when we tried the handles, we were disappointed. It seemed that the trigger he was lifting only relocked all the doors in the car.

Sliding the makeshift slim jim from the door, he said decisively, “This isn’t going to work, my friend. You stay right here. I’m going to go talk to my wife for a moment.”

Where else can I go? I thought. I was out of options. With no cell service, no way to unlock the car by hand, and no AAA even if I managed to walk far enough to get some reception, I was beginning to realize how truly stuck I was. Even if I managed to call a towing service to break into my car for me, I didn’t have enough cash to pay for it. Despair was quickly becoming fear. Before I could really freak out, George returned.

“Come with us; we’re gonna take you 


to find cell reception so we can call AAA.”

Shocked, all I could manage in reply was “Uhh . . .”

“C’mon, let’s go,” he interrupted.

I managed to tell him, “Thank you so much for the offer, but I don’t have my AAA card with me right now.”

“Don’t worry about that. We’ll use ours.”

It took about an hour to drive to Bodega Bay, call AAA, and return to the parking lot. I was relieved to see my surfboard still strapped to the top of my car. Thirty minutes passed before the AAA tow truck rolled into the parking lot, and we used the time getting to know each other. They were both good people, living average but happy lives. I was astounded that taking time out of their day to help me with my problem didn’t seem to irritate them at all.

The tow truck driver spent a mere 30 seconds opening my car. When he left, George and I shook hands, and after telling me to stop thanking him, he and his wife, Sharon, set off again down the trail toward the beach.

Driving back up the highway to the campground, I reflected on the kindness I had experienced that day. For the first time in my life, I had been in a situation in which I had no option but to rely completely on the generosity of others. Humbled by my helplessness, I came to a powerful realization: true beauty is found in the small acts of kindness between people. Large donations to charity, missionary work, or even sacrificing one’s life to save another are all powerful ways to give, but the greatness of large deeds does not diminish the power of the small interactions that occur every day between ordinary people.

Jesus spent His life making both large and small changes in people’s lives. I’m not convinced that He saw much difference between healing a man’s blindness and refilling guests’ wine cups at a party. I don’t believe that there is a scale for giving. Charity can save a life, but so can a smile. What is important is that we give in a spirit of selflessness, like the woman who offered literally all that she had at the temple.

George and Sharon’s gift of time and energy changed the way I live and give. When I see someone struggling with a problem that doesn’t necessarily affect me, my thoughts turn to that day at Shell Beach and the selflessness of two strangers who took the time to help a teenager struggling to open his locked car. 

Nigel Sumerlin writes from Lincoln, Nebraska

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