How often do you pass people panhandling by the side of the road and wonder, “What’s their story?”
I found out in a most unusual way last weekend.
After working a few hours at the office Saturday, I decided to grab a bite to eat around 1:30. Most of the drive-through places around town were at least six cars deep in what I can only call the “Swap Meet Bump.” I was looking for something with a short line, since I was on “scanner duty” in the newsroom and might need to respond to breaking news at any moment.
I pulled into the Wal-Mart parking lot when I noticed an older woman holding a sign near Jack in the Box. I glanced over quickly, just long enough to read the words “Need money for gas.” In my mind, I figured it was someone just passing through, trying to get on to the next town.
Later that afternoon, I heard three fire departments and medics called to a house fire on Heritage Creek Drive. I hopped in the car and headed down U.S. 81/287. I could see the smoke from Decatur.
When I arrived, I saw a pickup already destroyed by fire and a small house that was quickly headed for the same fate. I watched the firefighters work to extinguish the flames, which had even spread over several acres behind the home.
Meanwhile, I saw the home’s occupants sitting on what appeared to be the concrete foundation of a mobile home.
I went over to see if the two would visit with me. Joe Applewhite offered up the story of what happened without me even having to ask. He and his wife, Patricia, had just come home from a grocery trip to Decatur when his truck apparently caught fire, which then caught the home on fire.
Then Patricia said something that made me pause.
“When it comes to gas and medicine, we do a little panhandling,” she said. “We stand out with a sign that says ‘Need money for gas and medicine.'”
That’s when I realized she was the woman I had seen outside Wal-Mart just a few hours earlier.
Patricia went on to explain that Social Security helps pay for electric and gas bills, but sometimes it’s not enough to pay for items such as gas and medicine. When they run out of money for those items, they seek the kindness of strangers. She said they were able to collect enough money Saturday to buy $167 worth of groceries and gas for the now-charred pickup.
The good news is they had renters insurance, and the home’s owner also has insurance on the home. They hope to find a new place to stay soon.
Several neighbors stopped by to check on the couple. I saw one shake Joe’s hand while discreetly slipping him folded-up cash.
Sometimes it takes the kindness of both strangers and friends to get by when times are tough.
THANK YOU, DPS
I’d like to commend our Department of Public Safety highway patrol officers here in Wise County. They are always extremely helpful to reporters at wreck scenes.
We cover most of the serious wrecks, so we encounter these officers fairly regularly. Over the years we’ve tried to establish a professional working relationship with them. We understand they are there to do a serious job, and they understand we are doing the same. The few issues we’ve had over the years have been quickly and professionally resolved.
I was reminded of how well that relationship works this weekend when photographer Joe Duty and I covered a wreck involving a tanker truck that went off a bridge just inside Denton County on Sunday. A different set of DPS officers covers that area, and they apparently don’t encounter media at wrecks that often, judging by our conversation which went something like this:
Joe: I’m Joe Duty.
Me: I’m Brian Knox. We’re with the Wise County Messenger.
Trooper: The what?
Me: The newspaper in Decatur.
Trooper: How did you get down here?
Joe: A Denton County deputy said we could park at the top of the hill and walk down here.
Trooper: You spoke to a deputy?
Us: Yes, sir.
Trooper: How did you hear about this?
Me: We heard the Greenwood/Slidell Fire Department dispatched to the wreck on the police scanner and followed them down here. They are in our coverage area.
Trooper: You guys do what you need to do, but when we get heavy machinery down here, stay out of their way.
Me (in my head only): OK, we’ll try not to get run over the same as we’ve tried not to get run over the past 13 years covering wrecks together in Wise County.
Me (out loud): Actually, we’re about done here. Could you tell me anything about the wreck? What happened?
Trooper: It’s still under investigation.
Me: Do you have a phone number where I could reach you later to follow up?
Trooper: You can get the accident report in 10 to 12 days.
Me: OK, we’re done here.
Joe had a much different encounter with a DPS trooper Tuesday morning at the scene of a wreck near Paradise. The officer offered to let Joe sit in his vehicle while he told him who was involved and what happened. He even said if we needed any more information to call him.
So for all the DPS troopers who take a few moments during their investigation to provide us – and in turn our readers – with information, thank you for your public service.
Brian Knox is special projects manager for the Messenger.