There we were, four hunters sitting in a western Iowa diner, our one truck broken down and waiting at a nearby garage to be fixed, maybe in a day, maybe in two.
It was a November morning in the mid-1970s and we were on a quick trip, hoping to bag enough pheasants to get us through the coming winter. But all of that was in jeopardy as we waited and groused about time slipping away.
The waitress who had taken our breakfast orders for three days couldn't help but hear us. Then, to our surprise, she offered a solution. Take my car, she said. It's an old, beat-up four-door sedan parked out front, with the keys in the ignition, ready to go. Just bring it back when you're done.
She said she lived nearby and could walk home that afternoon and back the next morning. Maybe the truck would be fixed by then. We looked at each other in amazement. Finishing our meals, we dropped what was, for us, a big tip and walked out the door. One of us headed straight for an early 1960s model and jumped behind the wheel; the others piled in, and off we went.
We had been given a reprieve, the kind strangers so often provide — the kind that guaranteed our trip would be memorable.
Now, instead of moping around a motel room, we could hunt pheasants on a sunny fall day.
Soon we were cruising the gravel roads and rolling hills of Iowa, stopping to ask permission to hunt the many draws, grass terraces and fields of corn that held the roosters we were seeking.
Around midafternoon, we stopped by the garage and were told the truck would be done by day's end. Everything was working out. We laughed at our good fortune.
At dusk, we returned for the truck. While three of us cleaned birds, the fourth drove to the carwash, gave the borrowed car a good cleaning, then headed to a service station and filled the car with gas. It was the least we could do.
That night, we took the car back to the diner and parked it. Then we celebrated our luck and got a good night's sleep.
The next morning, we checked out of the motel, and headed out for our last day of hunting. But first, it was off to the diner to see our benefactor.
She was there, all right, working the counter and booths just as she had been every other morning.
We sat down, ready to thank her for her generosity and perhaps haul in some compliments for cleaning the car so well and filling it with gas.
But that's not what she said.
"Guys, why didn't you take my car?'' she asked, adding that it hadn't been moved since she parked it the day before.
One or two of us clumsily explained that, in fact, we had taken it — or at least we'd taken a beat-up four-door with a key in the ignition. The others did a quick calculus about the one we'd used, perhaps reported stolen, and what might happen if the local sheriff found the people responsible.
By now, others in the diner were listening to the exchange. Suddenly, we weren't so hungry anymore.
Gulping down our coffee, we declined breakfast, paid the bill, thanked the waitress again and left.
Then we headed north past the county line toward Minnesota, thankful for Iowan generosity, but still puzzled about how things could have happened as they did.
Dennis Lien is a former newspaper editor and reporter and an outdoors enthusiast.