So there I was, cruising down I-93 in New Hampshire heading to work, approaching the Mass. border at 70 miles/hr. in heavy traffic, listening to the radio and envisioning myself at today’s 10 a.m. meeting. Suddenly, something under the hood went BAM!. The engine died, the windshield was covered in liquid, and smoke or steam – I couldn’t tell which – billowed from every crack and crevice. Somehow, I managed to wrestle the car to the side of the road and get it stopped without the aid of hydraulics and without hitting anything.
My first thought was of the cell phone, which I glimpsed on the kitchen counter as I left the house. My second thought was that I was going to be killed by someone aiming at the rear of my car while talking on their own cell phone. Next, I found the cleverly camouflaged button to activate the emergency blinkers.
It took split-second timing to get out of the car without having the door ripped off an impatient commuter. With the hood open I could see that engine was still there, but I was certain there was nothing I could do to make it feel better. With 18-wheelers blasting by inches away, safety was the first priority.
I waited patiently and vigilantly on the far side of the guardrail from someone – anyone – to stop and offer some airtime so I could call AAA. After nearly an hour, I concluded that there are no more good Samaritans. I had come to rest in kind of a dead zone on I-93. It’s a couple of hundred feet south of the state border, and a mile north of the last exit in Massachusetts – too far south for New Hampshire patrols, and, unless something big happens, too far north for the guys in Massachusetts to bother with.
The walk from my stopping point to civilization was not a pleasant one. I had to hack my way through tall grass and underbrush all the way to Pelham St. (about a mile as the crow flies, but my route was somewhat longer), stepping carefully over the incredible assortment of trash and junk that lurks just off the roadway. As I stepped over an intact bumper and grill from a Nissan, it occurred to me that I could have built myself a functioning automobile from the endless array of car parts lining my path. If only I had my toolbox… The bridge over Pelham St. was not designed for pedestrians, and had to be negotiated by walking sideways. I will be picking those annoying little barbed seed pods out of my clothes for the next week or so. Trust me – the signs at highway entrances warning that pedestrians, bicycles and horse are prohibited are not infringing on any right you might be inclined to preserve.
At the bottom of the southbound ramp to Pelham St., there is a little gas station which, as it turns out, is not affiliated with AAA. The owner – Abe (honestly) – reluctantly let me use his phone, but not until after he made several calls in an effort to locate a Michelin tire in an odd size for an older gentleman who already knew where he could get one but was keen on finding a lower price. If only I had access to the Internet, I could have ordered him one from TireRack.com and saved us all some trouble…
I have been a card-carrying member of AAA for many years, and have nothing but a puppy to show for it – but that’s another story. Abe finally handed over the phone and I called the toll free number. I noticed that my card had expired in July of this year, and in my second vision of the day, saw the new one resting comfortably on my desk back home. So many times I contemplated pulling my wallet from my pocket and exchanging the old card for the new one, but you know how difficult something like that can be in today’s busy world.
I was greeted on the phone by an automated voice belonging to a machine that was very grateful for my call – so grateful that it played about 3 minutes of soothing elevator music for my enjoyment before handing me over to a human being. Abe could not hear the music, which must explain why he was growing visibly impatient.
The AAA human obviously hadn’t been listening to the music either. She made every effort to be pleasant, but there was tension in her voice that I could hear even over the air wrench blasting away in the adjacent repair bay at the gas station. I told her that my car was disabled inches off the busy Interstate highway.
“Oh dear,” said the AAA lady. “Are you in a safe place?”
I looked at Abe, who glowered back at me. “Yes,” I answered without absolute conviction. “I’m off the highway at a gas station.”
“Oh, good. How did you get there?”
“I walked,” I answered, letting the story end right there.
“Oh, dear,” she said.
I provided my membership information upon request. On the other end of the line, I could hear the lady type and then mutter something to herself in exasperation. She did this several times before saying, “Our computer is so slow – I can’t find your record. I’ll have to call you local club to verify your membership. Please hold.” The hideous music started again.
The gas station where I’d sought refuge must be the last in the country to offer full service at the pumps. This fact spared me Abe’s continued frown, as just then things got busy outside and he went to lend a hand.
Several minutes passed. I began to perspire. Abe and the AAA lady came back into my life at precisely the same moment – she offering apologies and assurances that everything was falling into place, and he in pained disbelief that I was still tying up the phone.
“I need the phone,” said Abe. “Now.”
“Maam, I’m tying up a business phone and I really need to get off the line.”
“OK – you just stay right there and the driver will pick you up.”
“Thank you. Bye.”
I pressed the off button and, always considerate, wiped my sweat from the earpiece before handing the phone back to Abe. “I’m sorry to be so long. Thank you very much – you’ve been a big help.”
“No problem,” replied Abe. He took the phone and put it back into the charging stand.
I went outside and found a level section of wall to sit on, inches behind a black Nissan Sentra emblazoned with for-sale signs. Big white numbers on the windshield advertised the price at $4600. I thought about asking Abe if he’d take Mastercard. After all, I knew where I could get a spare bumper and grill, and I could still make the 10 o’clock meeting if my credit was good. I decided against it.
Forty-five minutes later, a flatbed truck decorated with shamrocks and flashing lights pulled in to the gas station parking lot. I walked up to the truck and opened the passenger door. “You’re looking for me,” I told the driver, a young man who appeared barely old enough to drive.
“Yup. Get in.” Short and to the point.
Without prompting, I described the exact location of the car and suggested a strategy to get to it.
“OK,” said the driver.
I noticed that he was not wearing his seatbelt. Foolish, I thought, especially for someone who spends part of his day retrieving cars which have suffered fates far worse than mine. I’d bet that ambulance drivers are a bit more cautious. To set a good example, I reached over my shoulder and pulled the seatbelt across my chest. There was a problem, however, as there was no buckle evident on the seat. I scooched around – my back against the door – and started rooting around in the crack between the seatback and the cushion, looking for the buckle. The truck started to roll ahead slowly when suddenly and to my astonishment, my door flew open. The only thing that kept me from falling out was my death grip on the unfastened seatbelt. The driver jammed on the brakes and the truck lurched to a halt.
“Hey! You workin’ for a living now or what, dude?” said a voice just outside my door. The voice belonged to a friend of the driver who just happened to at the gas station. In a fit of quick thinking, he decided he’d say hi to his buddy by jumping on the running board of a moving truck and opening the door that was, at the time, supporting my entire weight. My heart was thumping too loudly to take in any of their conversation.
My next recollection is of merging onto the highway. When the driver spoke again, it was to say, “That it?” He was pointing to the opposite side of the road, where my lonely car sat in peril.
The driver pulled into the left lane, flipped some switches which I presumed turned on more flashing lights, and slowed to turn into a median crossover marked Authorized Vehicles Only. I was not about to question his authority under the circumstances.
When we reached the car, things didn’t look good. The poor beast had bled out most of its vital fluids – enough so that it might have been appropriate to call in a Hazmat team. The driver quickly hoisted the car onto the flatbed. I made one more attempt to find the seatbelt buckle before giving up.
“They tell you about the surcharge?” he asked.
“I’m not sure,” I said. “What’s the deal?”
“You get 3 miles free. Then it’s $4 a mile. Cash.” he replied. Three miles would get us back to Abe’s place, but leave me 20 miles from home and 15 from work. I obviously wasn’t going to make the meeting (no great loss, since the topic involves shutting down the company in 6 weeks), so I directed him to head north to my local repair shop. “Cheaper than a taxi,” I quipped. He gave me an odd look.
I kept my mouth shut for the highway portion of the trip. When we got to the end of the exit ramp, I thought I’d give small talk another try. “Interesting view from up here. My head’s two feet above the ground in my car, and I saw all kinds of things I never knew were right there next to the highway. Now I know what all those SUV drivers are looking at.” The driver turned and looked through the rear window at my car, emergency flashers still blinking but with less vigor, then he looked at my head, and finally, he nodded. I was breaking through…
As we pulled into the repair shop lot, the driver perked up. “I was just up here last night,” he said.
“Really!?” I replied, my tone begging him to go on.
“It’s gonna be $60,” he said a while later as he winched the car from the truck, neatly depositing it between two other cars that were waiting for surgery of some sort. I had $62 in my pocket, and wondered if tow truck drivers should be tipped.
I held on to the $2 lest I be picked up for vagrancy, and gave him a different sort of tip. “Thanks,” I said. “You really ought to wear your seatbelt.” If he was offended, he didn’t show it.
I dropped the key off with Chuck, my faithful mechanic. Chuck has always amazed me with quick, practical, low-cost repairs, and I felt confident that he’d come through once again. “What happened?” he asked.
“I’d guess I blew a heater hose.”
“I’ll call you,” said Chuck.
I walked out of the garage and, though it was late in the lunch hour, passed the sub shop where $2 might get me a slice of cheese and some ice cubes. The weather was quite reasonable for this late date, so the 3.39 mile (I looked it up on Yahoo Maps) walk home promised to be pleasant. What I failed to consider was that most of that walk was along a 55 mph stretch of road where the traffic created a painful, tear-generating headwind. I had to look down most of the way, revealing yet more roadside garbage. There were numerous political signs, and I’d have to conclude that supporters of non-winning candidates are too despondent to retrieve their signage.
At long last I arrived home, desperate to use the facilities. The dog greeted me with a look that said, “I need to go outside right now.” Since he’d been holding it for at least as long as I had, he got to go first.
With nothing else to do, I sat down to write this little memoir before the memory was lost. I did not know how the story would end until the phone rang while I was struggling over the wording in the previous paragraph.
“Your water pump was blown right off the engine.”
“Yeah. Looks like your timing belt let loose and it took out the whole front of the engine block. It’s a zero clearance engine,” said Chuck.
He didn’t have to translate – he was telling me that the engine was damaged beyond repair. “So that’s the end of that.”
My beloved 1996 Subaru SVX, one of just 14,257 sold in the US and 25,000 on the entire planet has, as they say, bitten the dust. After almost 200,000 miles, we’ve taken our last cruise together…