Not 40 miles from where I picked up my rental car in Cardiff, Wales, I unexpectedly bumped into my most memorable travel experience of this passing year.
It was one of those rare incidents that open a traveler's eyes to the goodness of people. For while you expect pleasantries or at least competence from the hotel clerks and waiters who deal with tourists regularly, you don't head into the countryside planning on a lesson in human nature taught by guys who change tires for a living.
Having driven in the Irish Republic earlier this year for more than 700 miles on the left side of the road and the right side of the car, I felt confident in climbing behind the wheel for a three-day look-see around Wales in late October.
Maybe I was too confident, because an hour from the rental-car garage, I bounced the passenger side tires against a curb on a four-lane highway.
My traveling partner, Rich, and I had just missed the exit for a historic railroad attraction. Trying to correct that, I started to turn into another off-ramp and realized it was not the correct one. Quickly steering the car back onto the highway, I smacked the wheels against a curb used to define the exit.
Feeling the front tire running flat, I slowed to a stop just down the highway, and Rich and I unloaded our two monster suitcases from the tiny trunk in order to get to the jack and the spare.
We put the luggage onto the grassy shoulder, but then I decided to move the car forward a few dozen yards, in order to not block cars coming onto the highway. While Rich and I jacked up the car and then struggled to free the flat tire, two schoolboys came along and brought our suitcases down to the car. Act of kindness No. 1.
We could not get the wheel off the axle. So I walked across the highway and up the exit _ the one that did lead to the historic train attraction _ toward a gas station sign. But this was a petrol-pumps only station, and the woman there directed me around the corner, to "Paul's place."
A quarter-mile later I was standing in the office of a large garage bearing the sign "Paul Hughes." I explained the problem with the tire, and a man picked up a microphone and paged "Richard" several times. I expected a fellow in a tow truck, but up drove a teenager in a two-door car smaller than mine.
Richard drove me to my car, wriggled the flat tire, tapped it slightly with a rubber mallet, wriggled it again, then clobbered it with the mallet and finally lifted the wheel free. "These alloys rust in a short time, and this wheel was rusted on," explained Richard.
He quickly replaced the flat with the full-size spare and then pointed out "a very bad bulge" in the rear tire on the passenger side. "Very dangerous _ you can't drive far on that. Too dangerous," warned Richard.
He told us that the Paul Hughes garage did not replace tires, then gave us directions to a nearby tire store.
"How much for changing the flat?" I asked Richard.
"What did they tell you in the office?" he asked me.
"They never mentioned a price," I answered.
"Then there isn't one," said my new best friend.
"Well, take something for yourself," said my traveling partner, holding out a handful of one-pound coins, each worth about $1.50.
"No, no problem there," said Richard.
"C'mon, for your time and your work."
"Not necessary, but thanks. Follow me back across the highway _ wait for me to go first, to make sure it's clear both ways."
And with that, Richard got in his car, Rich and I stopped looking at each other and got back in our car. Good deed No. 2.
We took the exit we had been aiming for originally, and Richard turned left and out of our lives, while we turned right and then, a little ways down the road, right again, into Merthyr Tyre & Exhaust Services.
Clad in the red coveralls that Merthyr (pronounce it mur-theer) Tyre workers wear, boss John Meaney heard our story, checked our tires, then was smart enough to do something I had not thought of.
Wiping some of the grime off his hands, John took my rental-car contract and called the office in Cardiff. He explained the situation, smiled and took down some notes before hanging up.
"You'll need to go to a different shop, which they have contracted with for repairs," said John. He then called that shop, to be sure they had our tire size in stock.
Although he was not going to make a pence for his troubles, he cheerfully explained how to reach the other shop. It involved driving around four roundabouts, or traffic circles.
Noticing my glazed look, John drew a map. He then slowly traced the route, noting which spoke to take to get from one roundabout to the next and finally the road to take to reach the other tire shop.
Then John gave me his card and told me to call if I had any trouble finding the place. On the card he also wrote the name of that shop's manager and his phone number. Good deed No. 3.
With Rich reading from John's map, we easily came to the KwikFit, a chain of repair and tire shops akin to a Midas shop. Terry Murphy, the stocky manager, was the fellow alerted by John, and within a few minutes Terry had my rented Rover on a lift.
To speed things, he helped one of his workers take off the spare and put it back in the trunk, remove the damaged rear tire and then put on two new tires.
While filling out the paperwork, Terry explained that although the car had just over 11,000 miles on it, that was more than half the expected life for the tires. In other words, while the decorative metal rims were only scratched when I hit that curb, there was enough pressure transferred to the tires to blow out the one and damage the second.
Knowing that it had not been some drastic driving error that caused the damage made me feel better. Best of all, because I had bought the "peace of mind" insurance from the rental company, I paid nothing for the new tires or the work to put them on.
All told, three men spent part of their workday picking up after me; two got nothing for their time and the third earned only whatever his company's national contract with the rental company paid.
Rich and I, meanwhile, had lost two hours of our touring time but gained an uplifting reminder about the work ethic and everyday kindness. Of course, you don't have to travel to re-learn that, but the lesson makes a trip even more memorable.