What is a Life Worth?

Apparently about a hundred bucks.

As a gift card for a local burger joint, too

Last year in January and February, we had a lot more cold and snow than this year. A blizzard roared through one Saturday, and after it quit I went out to hang out with some friends. While I was out, the winds kicked up, the temps plummeted to about 8°F (below 0° with the wind chill), and snow started drifting across most of the roads. By the time I headed home shortly before 1am, things got messy.

I live in a rural area. The wind rips across the corn fields unimpeded, and the population and traffic is low enough in our county that the state’s plowing policy is to aim for 75% clearance. In effect, this means, “You’re on your own, folks.” Also, when climbing out of the Illinois River valley, the hills can turn sketchy quick.

I’ve lived here long enough to get a feel for which roads get the most care, so I gambled on a secondary route home. I also knew the north-south roads would be the worst, and I chose the one that would have the best chance of being clear.

I chose poorly. Once I crossed the county line, road conditions went to crap. A thick layer of snow covered the road about a half mile short of the next town, and when I spotted a pair of flashing taillights up ahead, I stopped.

A second later, this dude comes walking toward me. He’s tall and skinny, wearing nothing but jeans and a hoodie. I get him into the van to get warm, and he tells me his car’s stuck in the snow, maybe partly on the shoulder but mostly on the road. He lives in the town just up ahead, but there’s no way we’re getting through that way.

What’s more, he was getting ready to walk home. He has no phone. In my head I’m thinking this is how a lot of horror flicks start. But he’s about a buck fifty soaking wet, and he’s half frozen, so he’s less than a threat. He uses my phone to call his wife, and we discuss to another nearby town with a Walmart, where his wife can pick him up.

I tell him no way should she be coming out in this mess. I’m too stubborn to grab a hotel room or crash in the car somewhere, especially with a stranger in tow, so I tell him no worries, we’ll try the other route around to his town and see how the roads look.

Back down into the river valley I go. I circle around to my original route and up the hill, which is at least lined with trees before it levels out and cuts across the fields. Turned out it wasn’t such a bad climb after all. A little snow, but no drifts and no ice.

Now this guy, picture a skinny Tommy Chong with long hair—like, past-the-shoulder-blades long—and you’ve got the idea. He was on his way back from a gig with his band, and he works for a music shop in Peoria. Lots of “right on, man” in conversation. We talked about our jobs, our families. Cool dude.

So I get him to town. He lived just off the main drag, and the walk from his stranded car to his house would have been a little over a mile. Again, in sub-zero winds, wearing just a hoodie.

Yeah, he’d never have made it.

Even if he’d had a Tauntaun, it would have frozen before he reached the first marker. We did pass a squad car parked in a bank’s driveway to watch the road, but unless that officer was there the whole time and happened to see him walking by, he’d have dropped from hypothermia and I’d have been reading his obit the following week.

We agreed he was very fortunate. I don’t normally drive that way home, and if I’d been five minutes later, he’d already have left his car. If I hadn’t been stubborn enough to hang out with my friends that night, I wouldn’t have been out there at all. To me, that’s just dumb luck.

To him, it was a bit more than luck. He told his wife God sent him an angel. (Yes, me. Weird, I know.) He called me his angel a couple times, too, and insisted he’d do right by me and buy my wife and I dinner sometime.

I kept thinking, Let’s not make this weird, brother.

I tell him it’s no big deal, I live another ten miles past his town, so either route home still takes me past his place. Even if they didn’t, what am I going to do, flip him the bird and leave him to die? I’d have at least gotten him to a safe, warm place like the 24-hour Walmart or a hotel lobby.

So I get him home. Weeks pass. A thank you note from the guy shows up at work. He closed the note with, “I still owe you!” The Burger Barge gift certificate in the photo above was folded into the page.

Hey, great! My family digs burgers. I throw the card in my notebook and promptly forget about it for the next couple of months.

Summer comes. Kids say they want burgers. Hey, I got this gift card… To the Burger Barge!

My wife and I discussed how much might be loaded on the card. I joked ten bucks. She said maybe fifty, but we settled on $25. We ordered appetizers and let the boys go nuts on burger selection (these guys can eat when we let them). Bill comes to something like $80, and we hand over the gift card.

The waiter comes back, hands it back to me, and wishes us a good day. I automatically hand him my card to pay the balance, and he refuses it.

“You’re good, man. The gift card took the whole thing.”

Well that was unexpected. Jump ahead to this past January, and we used the rest of it. The whole thing was probably around $100.

Not too shabby for a night’s work. Like I said, apparently a man’s life is worth about a hundred bucks.

I kid, of course. Here’s the thing: I’m sure his life’s worth a lot more than a hundred bucks to his wife, who was waiting for him at home that night, wondering why he was so late and fearing the worst. I’m sure it’s worth more than a hundred bucks to their children, even if they are adults themselves.

I’m also sure he could have spent that hundred bucks on better things. I can’t imagine he’s making big bucks working for a music store and doing gigs on the side. That’s a lot of gas and groceries for he and his wife. Or a decent cell phone for next time he’s on the road.

I appreciated that he thought enough of my effort to send me the card, of course, but I’d have been just as content had I never heard from him again. I didn’t pick him up for the reward, and I wouldn’t have been shocked if he never got around to that dinner he’d promised while he was just happy to not be dead on the side of a road. For my side of it, I don’t think I could have lived with myself if I’d turned around and left him there, only to read about him in the paper.

What it comes down to is the value of a human life is what we put on it. With all that’s happening in the news these days, it’d be good if more of us remembered that.

About Mike Oliveri

Mike Oliveri is a writer, martial artist, cigar aficionado, motorcyclist, and family man, but not necessarily in that order. He is currently hard at work on the werewolf noir series The Pack for Evileye Books.

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