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It was late in the afternoon of New Year’s Eve, 2004, and I was stranded on the icy stretch of road between the Outaouais towns of Plaisance and Papineauville. I was travelling alone from Ottawa to my cousins’ chalet near Mont Tremblant, and with Quebec’s liquor-store workers on strike, I was hauling most of the party supplies.
A half-hour earlier, I was motoring down Route 148 when my Volkswagen Golf suddenly stalled near a roadside poutine stand. With much cursing and spraying of WD-40 I managed to revive the (expletive deleted) vehicle, which a few minutes later gave up the ghost for good on the gravel shoulder.
With hazards blinking, I took stock of the situation. The road was deserted and I was still several kilometres from Papineauville, where any garages were undoubtedly closed. My cellphone was taking cues from the VW. I was beginning to wonder if I should have stayed at the poutine stand.
Just down the road, glowing windows — and strains of Bachman-Turner Overdrive’s “Takin’ Care of Business” — beckoned from a modest country home. I rang the bell three or four times — the folks inside were clearly in fine Dec. 31 form — before a stocky, beer-toting 20-something opened the door.
“Hey, buddy!” he cried, to which I responded with a feeble, “Bonjour . . . parlez-vous anglais?”
He nodded, introduced himself as Johnny Gauthier, and let me in.
A break in the BTO allowed me to explain my predicament. Johnny immediately suggested we get my car into the driveway, so he called to his cohorts and a group of young men — along with Johnny’s father, the grey-haired head of the household — donned winter gear and set out into the snowy Friday evening.
Ten minutes later, exhausted, I called my wife, Angela, who had made her way to Tremblant a couple of days earlier. Neither of us were thrilled that she would have to retrace her route for more than two hours in the snowy darkness.
“Thank you so much,” I replied, “but a cab would be fine. I really don’t want to impose and . . . ”
Now that was an imposition.
I was dumbfounded. My first instinct was to turn down the offer. “That’s very kind, but I couldn’t possibly . . . ”
But Saint Étienne, as I now think of him, would have none of it. “How long do you need it?”
“Well, till Monday, I guess . . . ”
At this point, the exchange felt surreal. I watched in elated shock as my disembodied fingers dialled the chalet’s number.
“Hi — have you left yet?” I asked.
“Clearly not,” Angela replied. “Is everything okay?”
“Everything’s unbelievable. Guess what: You don’t have to pick me up.”
“Why? Did you get the car started?”
Stunned silence followed. Then, “Well, you obviously can’t accept it. That’s crazy.”
And that’s when I realized I had to take the truck.
“Look,” I said. “When somebody shows this kind of faith in someone they just met, their offer can’t be refused. I mean, would I lend a complete stranger my car for three days? No way! So you have to wonder: Why is he doing this? He’s doing this because . . . ”
I put my hand over the receiver and turned to Johnny, who was standing nearby. “Is your father always this generous?”
I repeated Johnny’s words into the phone, adding, “And do you really want to drive here right now?”
Still incredulous, Angela relented.
I walked outside with St. Étienne and Johnny to the shiny red pickup, which was quickly filled with bottles from the trunk of my German-engineered nemesis. I handed several bottles to the Gauthiers, who seemed very pleased, and for a moment it felt like a straightforward exchange.
I shook their hands, climbed into the cab and pulled out of the driveway. I felt jubilant, grateful and extremely lucky. My faith in mankind — especially in rural Quebecers — was at an all-time high. But I soon realized that to truly repay St. Étienne I would have to emulate his kindness. Granted, I doubt I’ll ever lend a stranger my car for the weekend, but I will help those in need whenever the opportunity arises. It’s hackneyed, but the adage that “generosity is its own reward” really hit home on that late-December night.
Later that evening, after regaling my relatives with the tale, I Googled “Étienne Gauthier,” just to see if I could learn a bit more about my new-found hero. Far down the list, one hit mentioned the “other” St. Étienne (St. Stephen in English).
Was it just a coincidence that he’s the patron saint of headaches?