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‘He’ll beat you home’

“He’ll beat you home. You can pass him at Hardee’s in Muscle Shoals, and by the time you get to Russellville, he’ll be standing in front of Walmart.”

I’ve heard that countless times. If you’re from Franklin County, you likely have too and know they were talking about Harold Dean Trapp, the deaf man in the hard hat who hitchhiked from Spruce Pine to the Shoals.

When I was a boy, my mother worked at Speedy Pig. Most nights after closing, she stopped at the Chevron. If he was there, she would give him a ride home. Because of the media’s portrayals of hitchhikers, many people were scared of him, but by the time I could drive, I knew Harold Dean was harmless. 

I loved to pick him up, especially if I had someone in the car with me who never had. It cracked me up to pull over and watch them get nervous.

The bag Harold Dean carried was usually full of snacks. Over the years he offered me chips, candy and almost every kind of soda. I declined until a friend told me, “You need to accept whatever he gives you. That’s his way of saying thank you.”

The next ride I gave him, I thought, “Maybe she’s right” and waited on an RC or Snickers. Instead, he pulled out a half-gallon tub of goulash. 

I was puzzled seeing it. He was more puzzled when I took it. 

I got home and set it on the kitchen counter. Amanda asked, “Where’d that come from?” I said, “Harold Dean gave it to me.” She said, “You’re lying!”

I’ve heard many guesses as to why he thumbed around. I don’t know, but I think it was part of his purpose. Our community had someone in it who gave us a daily opportunity to practice gratitude and kindness. 

Because of Harold Dean, I’ve pulled over for countless others.

I have carried people to the hospital, to work, to the gas station and back, but the strangest lift I ever gave was to a man on Highway 24. He didn’t want to get in my truck. He jumped in the bed, and off we went. I looked in the rearview mirror to see him standing, holding his eyes open with his fingers, facing the 70 mile an hour highway. I can’t tell you why. I stopped in Mount Hope, and he ran into the woods before I had time to ask.

So yes, there are risks in picking people up, but there are also risks in not. Harold Dean told me he had been hit by a car three times. I would hate to know someone was ran over after I passed them with an empty seat beside me.

The deaf man in the hard hat recently passed away. I would have loved to have talked to him about life and God – to ask him if he knew his purpose – but our communication was limited to writing in his notebook and pantomiming, so we never got to have that conversation. But I can promise you this: If there’s a Highway to Heaven, Harold Dean beat us home.

Stults is a performing songwriter from Russellville.