There are many reasons why cars don’t break down as much as they used to. Better production standards, better technology, probably a better educated pool of mechanics. Even if you do end up stranded on the side of the road, there’s a cell phone and AAA. Concepts that didn’t exist for me as a beginning driver.
During the past 30 years, I’ve left my share of cars on the shoulder, walked to strange homes to use the phone, watched tow trucks wrench my vehicle into the air.
I’ve prayed a lot.
One night, a friend and I pushed a Toyota Corolla station wagon through the worst neighborhood in Omaha.
Thankfully the memories are hazy and distant (see paragraph two above), and I can laugh at most of them, though a couple still make me shudder.
Steam pouring out of the steering column. Watching the Corolla speed down an abandoned side street like a runaway roller skate. These are funny…more or less.
Locked down on a sub-zero highway in the middle of a blizzard doesn’t bring much of a smile. That happened just outside Kansas City, the Corolla again, its gas line filled with slushy, freezing gas.
And then there’s Carl.
My wife and I were driving cross-country in our Toyota MR-2, a two-seat, mid-engine sports car that has been fairly dependable with a couple exceptions. Back before our son was born we often adventured into strange locales, so when we found ourselves stranded in a wasteland populated by little more than dirt roads and Quonset huts, we were lucky to find a smelly old diner with a working phone. The place didn’t have any discernable name, though it apparently sold food with its beer and cigarettes.
Our brand new AAA membership counselor advising patience and good cheer, we tried not to look around. We told the lady where we were and, rather than hang around and wind up as part of the barbeque out back, we high-tailed it back to the car.
The nearest mechanic was 40 miles away, but eventually the truck from Pete’s Center Stop ground to a clanking stop beside us.
Now when I write that no one was around, I mean no one. Atomic testing grounds empty. So when this puffy, hulking guy with Tiger Balm smeared in his hair came around the front of the truck, it wasn’t like we had a choice. His blue service station shirt had an embroidered patch identifying him as Carl.
I’ll take the sociopath with the lazy eye and greasy hair for $500, Alex.
Carl ignored us completely as he slung a rusty log chain toward the underside of the Toyota. Not a word, not a nod, it was like he was alone on the range collecting scrap metal. He paused in his salvage job long enough to mumble to himself before hoisting the little car into an almost vertical stance.
“Get’n the truck,” he barked without looking at us.
The cab of Pete’s Center Stop rescue rig smelled worse than the restaurant.
I slid across the bench seat, gifting Gina with the door. There were no seat belts. Our driver was like a lawn sprinkler, spattering us with sweaty drippings as he lurched into place behind the wheel.
When he didn’t pull out onto the road, I started getting queasy. Carl just sat there staring straight ahead, like he was estimating the mileage to the dark line of distant mountains.
Thinking I might get the show on the road with some conversation, I nodded at the breast pocket on the Pete’s shirt and said, “You’re Carl?”
“Nope,” he grinned.
Then he slammed the truck into gear and we shot forward. I was real queasy.
As the engine caught and roared ahead, he laughed a real live maniacal laugh, pokes a stubby thumb into the logo on the other part of his sweat soaked shirt and said, “I ain’t Pete, either.”
Of course, this is when the electric locks thumped down.
Thump. Just like a horror movie.
Turns out Not-Carl-Not-Pete wasn’t a crazed killer. Just a fat creep in the middle of Nowhereville Nevada who we were unlucky enough to spend an hour with. We never learned his real name, but while making up for those first minutes of silence, we spent the remainder learning everything else about him. He had two ex-wives, a rich brother he didn’t like, a boss who made him work holidays, and a penchant for Mad Dog 20/20.
I still like to think we came out of it barely alive.