I want to tell you an American story I just experienced on this Fourth of July 2020.
Yesterday I drove out to Mount Rushmore to cover the Trump rally and the fireworks extravaganza. It was a last-minute decision, but I decided I needed to go up and shoot the event as part of a film I’m working on about American journalism and democracy.
Four hours later, and 100 degrees later, my car blew up like a cartoon, where the steam comes out of the radiator. My poor car limped to a halt somewhere between Hot Springs, South Dakota, and Mount Rushmore. I was in the middle of nowhere. And I mean nowhere.
I had my two cameras and the rest of my gear in the back of my car and was still about an hour away. I called AAA. The truck would take at least an hour. And because of the coronavirus, the tow truck driver would not allow me to ride in his tow truck. AAA policy.
So, while my car would be safely towed to a garage in Rapid City (80 miles away), I was facing the prospect of standing on the side of the road much like Cary Grant in “North by Northwest,” ironically. For those of you who know the movie, the climax of the film takes place at Mount Rushmore. Thank goodness for me, there was no nefarious crop duster flying close by.
Somebody did come by, though. A pastor, Nancy, and her brother, Kevin, just happened to be driving by right about the time I was sitting there on the side the road. Pastor Nancy lived only about a mile from where I had broken down. Kevin was visiting from North Dakota for the Fourth of July holiday.
They offered to drop all of their plans, and take me all the way to Mount Rushmore, more than an hour away, to get footage I needed of the rally and fireworks show.
Picture the scene. I was stuck. No cell service. No car. All of my gear and the only option was to trust these complete strangers. I had no idea who these people were. Were they kidnappers or murderers, or were they who they said they were? I had no way of knowing and really had no other option. I put my faith in these friendly strangers, and hoped that they were the good people they claimed to be.
Without hesitation, Nancy and Kevin helped me load all of my camera cases into the back of their car. I hate to admit it, but before I got in the car I tried to take a picture of their license plate and text it to my wife. I also tried to drop a pin with my phone and send that to her as well. But without cell service, neither of the texts went through. So much for modern technology.
Despite everything we’ve all heard about not getting into cars with strangers, including all the lectures I’ve given my two college-aged daughters, I took a leap of faith, got in and closed the door. We were on the move. Kevin started driving toward Mount Rushmore. That was a good sign.
Along the way we got to talking. They are both very religious. I am not. They had the evangelist Joel Osteen playing on the radio in the background for the entire drive. Still, we found that we had a lot to talk about.
In fact, it was a great conversation. Nancy had moved down from North Dakota to retire. The community of Edgemont needed a pastor, and Nancy’s retirement was put on hold. Kevin is an emergency room physician’s assistant. We talked about the hardships of all of the lives he’s tried to save and the reward of seeing someone pull through. We talked about my job as a documentary filmmaker and we agreed on the need for quality journalism without a point of view.
The hour went by quick as the sun was setting behind the Black Hills. I was worried about missing the light and the event. I was told by local journalists in Rapid City that the nearby town of Keystone would be overrun and there would be no place to park or even stand. Because of the president’s event, Mount Rushmore itself was closed off. The closest anyone could get was downtown Keystone, where you could see George Washington’s giant profile in the background. We arrived at dusk, and Kevin scored an amazing parking spot. He even picked up the $20 parking tab. They were both dedicated to make sure I got the footage I needed.
That’s when I saw a sea of white faces, mostly dressed in some sort of red, white and blue regalia. Not one mask could be found, except on myself and Kevin. The combination of a big broadcast camera and the fact that I was the only one wearing a mask was a giveaway. There were lots of Trump flags and suspicious looks as I set up my camera on Main Street. I was constantly questioned: “Who are you with, Commie News Network (CNN)?” One man flat out challenged me, asking me if I was for or against Trump. He commanded his wife not to speak to me, even though she wanted to. Kevin stepped in and advocated on my behalf, disarming people along the way.
Nancy and Kevin had done their duty and got me to the event on time. They could have left at any time. Instead of just leaving me there, Nancy and Kevin offered to stay with me for the entire shoot. And then to drive me over to Rapid City afterward.
I found a crosswalk in between the crowd where I could safely distance myself. Nancy held my place, while I moved the camera around Main Street. Kevin graciously became my production grip, holding a directional mic as we moved around the crowd at a safe distance. During his speech, President Trump railed against the media. Two miles away on the main street of Keystone, I was that media. While he spoke, I recorded a loyal crowd, glued to every word on their phones.
After the speech and the fireworks, Nancy and Kevin helped me carry my gear back to their car, packed it up and then offered to drive me to a hotel in Rapid City in the dark on a winding two-lane road, even farther from their home.
Just as we were packing up, a violent storm blew right over Mount Rushmore and Keystone. Lightning was everywhere and hail stones fell out of the sky as Trump left the monument. It was surreal. Some might even say biblical. Now 11 p.m., Kevin, Nancy and I quickly loaded up and hit the road. They agreed to take me all the way to Rapid City, where my wife had remotely found me the last hotel room in the city. With the crowds and the severe weather, the normally short trip to Rapid City took another 90 minutes in the storm.
It was long after midnight by the time Nancy and Kevin deposited me safely at my hotel room.
I thanked them again as they helped me load my gear into my room. He said goodbye and they were gone, just like that. They faced another 90-minute drive back to their home after midnight.
I learned something this Fourth of July. America is complex and confusing. And it’s easy to demonize and dehumanize those who have different views than us. But underneath the labels we put onto each other, Americans can still be very good people. Nancy and Kevin were angels on Earth last night, this coming from a heathen.
There is a lesson in here somewhere. Maybe if we Americans could see each other as human beings we are, and not the labels we wear, we might be able to figure a way out of this mess and division we’ve created for ourselves.
Happy Fourth of July America, I still have some faith in you.
Brian Malone is a Colorado documentary filmmaker. He is co-producing a film called “News Matters” with Rocky Mountain PBS.
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