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Joseph Sabino Mistick

Joseph Sabino Mistick: The little thing that saved me amid 1968's chaos

| Saturday, April 7, 2018, 9:00 p.m.
In this April 3, 1968 file photo, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. stands with other civil rights leaders on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn., a day before he was assassinated at approximately the same place. From left are Hosea Williams, Jesse Jackson, King, and Ralph Abernathy. (AP Photo/Charles Kelly, File)
In this April 3, 1968 file photo, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. stands with other civil rights leaders on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn., a day before he was assassinated at approximately the same place. From left are Hosea Williams, Jesse Jackson, King, and Ralph Abernathy. (AP Photo/Charles Kelly, File)

You could see the orange glow and black smoke in the sky above Pittsburgh's Hill District and Homewood neighborhoods from my grandparents' porch. They lived on the hilly side of Wilkinsburg, looking out over packed rooftops to the west, toward the city.

In the summer, growing up there, the whole family would gather outside to watch a sudden thunderstorm. The sky blackened, trees swayed to the ground and the temperature dropped 10 degrees in minutes.

Even with lightning and thunder all around, we felt safe on that old wooden porch.

But 50 years ago, in those days after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., no one felt safe there.

You could tell that whole city blocks were burning just over the horizon. People were destroying what they could, in anger and frustration.

I was a commuter student at Pitt then, and it was not long before troop trucks arrived on campus, filled with National Guardsmen. Many had been students like us just hours or days before, but now they were in combat gear, rifles in hand, patrolling the streets around Oakland.

Every student who could go home left town, and on my way back to the Turtle Creek Valley, I checked in on my grandparents.

My uncles were there and the old folks were safe, so I hopped back into my old, beat-up clunker and left for the valley, with just enough time to make it before the 9 p.m. curfew that had been imposed.

There is an especially deadly stretch of Route 30 heading east from Wilkinsburg, between the highway's Ardmore Boulevard stretch and the Westinghouse Bridge. It combines blind curves, narrow lanes, no median, too much speed and darkness.

And that is where I ran out of gas.

As car after car rounded the bend behind me, each one screeched and swerved, barely missing me. I ran toward the traffic, waving my arms and shouting to get the cars to slow down, but they blew past.

Each time, I waited for the sound of a crash.

Finally, one guy stopped, a black man in a jalopy as broken-down as mine.

When I told him I was out of gas just around the bend, he shouted over the traffic, “Get back in, let's see if our bumpers match, and I'll push you to that station at the foot of the bridge.”

And that is what he did.

Out of danger, in the safety of the gas station, neither of us knew what to say. I shook his hand, and he pressed a dollar bill into my palm.

“For gas,” he said.

We both knew then that it had to be some kind of sign. But we had no words, and we could only stare at each other for a moment, trying to make sense of things, before he drove off toward the bridge.

There we were, two guys who were unable to do anything big, when big things were happening all around us. And that little thing he did saved me.

After 50 years, I still think of that night.

And I am still deeply thankful for the gift.

Joseph Sabino Mistick is a Pittsburgh lawyer (joemistick.com).

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