Wow, the third article in a row of new materials! That’s a first in a long time. This week I’m sharing a story I wrote for my writing circle. It’s about an incident that occurred on our way to State College, Pennsylvania. Our prompt for our May meeting was to write a short story using the fortune contained inside a fortune cookie. Rather than order Chinese take-out, I bought a box of fortune cookies and gradually ate them until I found a fortune I could write about. That fortune is the title of this article, “Luck will be yours when you least expect it.”
Here’s the story:
Last Saturday, we left Madison for our first out-of-state driving trip since the beginning of the pandemic. The Red Rover, our red F-150 with a covered box, contained a cooler with Wisconsin cheese curds and a dozen frozen brats for our The Eldest. There was a tote with the Christmas lights that decorated the Lake Farm Park pavilion nearly twelve years ago when she married the Son-in-Law. We are attempting to repatriate the stuff she left behind after bouncing back home after graduating from high school. Like after her first college degree, then a stint in AmeriCorps on the southside of Chicago, and other various ventures. For him, there were a couple of cases of New Glarus beer and the chili vinaigrette that he discovered at the Dane County Farmers Market a few years back.
With this booty, a box of pandemic sanitation supplies, and a quantity of snacks, we pulled out of our driveway at 6:30 AM. It was cool and overcast with a few sprinkles of rain, good driving weather. Our destination was State College, Pennsylvania, 738 miles to the east. We estimated the drive would take twelve- or thirteen-hours including stops to use the restroom, fill fuel, and stretch our legs. Our route would take us through Chicago to I-80 across Indiana, Ohio, and half of Pennsylvania.
Driving slowly through several miles of road construction in eastern Indiana, we were attentively listening to Tom Hanks read Ann Patchett’s book “The Dutch House.” In an instant, red alerts and warning bells appeared on the dashboard. The engine temperature gauge showed maxed out hot, and the check engine light was on. With the flashers engaged, I pulled over to the side of I-80. Semis and cars whizzed by at a speed that impelled gusts of air that shook our vehicle. We felt like we were being sucked into a vortex. I had little occasion to open the hood of the Red Rover so consulted the manual in the glove compartment to locate the latch. When I finally opened the hood, I detected the smell of antifreeze and could see liquid splattered on the lower part of the engine. What to do? My first emotion was panic, my second was to consult my traveling partner. We were both anxious about our predicament.
I found the number for roadside assistance and after short wait was connected to someone who could help me, I hoped. She used her computer to locate our position and she asked if we were safe.
“No.” I said. “We are in a construction zone and traffic is down to one lane.”
“Oh, my,” she replied.
Then began the process to find us some help. About this time, an Indiana State Trooper pulled behind us with his lights flashing. The traffic then slowed down to the posted 45 miles per hour.
Trooper Tony came to the passenger window and asked, “What seems to be the problem?” We explained the truck overheated and the engine alerts came on.
He asked, “If we add some water to the radiator, will it go? We’ve got to get you out of this location, it’s not safe.”
I said, “I have a gallon of water and will give it a try.”
The gallon of water gushed through the leak near the front of the engine onto the ground. Trooper Tony called for a tow truck while roadside assistance checked for a place to get repairs at 1:30 PM on a Saturday afternoon. In the meantime, a worker from the road construction crew came by to see what was going on. She and Trooper Tony then made numerous phone calls looking for someone that could make repairs. Either shops were closed, or the mechanics left at noon. In the interim, roadside assistance continued to report they were not having any luck locating service. We appeared to be out of options. It looked like we might be stuck in northeastern Indiana for at least the next couple of days. This would delay seeing our daughter in person for the first time since Christmas 2019.
Soon Tim from Grates Wrecker Service in LaGrange, Indiana showed up and took a look under the hood and declared, “You have a major leak.” And then he said in a calm and soft voice, “I’ll get you out of here and see what the problem is and get you back on your way.” That was about it, a man of few words.
Tim told us to climb up into cab of the big tow truck then took us on the strangest journey. First, we soon discovered that Red Rover broke down about half mile before the end of the construction zone. Second, the next travel plaza was just two miles beyond where we stopped. When Tim pulled into the travel plaza, we thought he was going to unload Red Rover, collect the towing fee, and leave us to find service.
Nope, with few words he continued around back of the travel plaza. There he unlocked a gate that led to a county road that circumvented the need to travel fourteen miles to the next I-80 off ramp. Soon, the tow truck was zipping down the back roads of LaGrange County. After about ten minutes, we pulled up to the Grates Wrecker garage on the south-side of the village of LaGrange. The parking lot of the large white garage was filled with vehicles, large and small, in various states of disassembly and rust. Nearly every square inch of space was covered with discarded vehicle parts, torn apart engines, and heaps of old tires.
Tim unloaded Red Rover and lifted the hood. His diagnosis was a broken water pump. He didn’t think the engine was damaged but couldn’t be sure until the water pump was replaced.
Tim went into the garage to call the parts store and came back with good news, “They have a water pump in stock. I’m going to get it, be back in a little while. Make yourself at home.”
Earlier, we asked to use the rest room. The calendar hanging there was from 1981, the first term of the Reagan Administration. The interior of the garage was a replica of the exterior, there was stuff everywhere. Just inside the front entrance was a desk that was piled with papers about three feet thick, most of them weathered. The walls were covered with old calendars and newspaper articles held up by thumbtacks and nails. The remaining space contained faded pinups ripped from Playboy. Peering into the shop, I wondered how they found anything, like tools to do their work.
While Tim removed the malfunctioning water pump and installed the new, we chatted about the complicated, new-fangled engines. They weren’t like the old days when guys did their own mechanical work under the shade of a large, old tree. He shared a couple of wrecker stories, one about a guy that plowed his new Ford F-150 into a back of another vehicle stopped on a county road. The guy admitted he was distracted by something alongside the road.
After working for about a half hour, Tim completed the installation of the new water pump. He said, “Start the engine.” After the engine warmed up, Tim declared the job completed. I settled the bill; it was fair and reasonable. I was helpless and he was helpful, he earned his pay.
After about a four-hour delay, we were back on the road with Tom Hanks’s soothing voice reading to us.
Trooper Tony, the women from the construction crew and roadside assistance, and most of all Tim, restored my faith in humanity. All four showed kindness during a difficult time for two stranded motorists. They didn’t know us and could have been jerks to people that were messing up their day. But they didn’t, they did their jobs to the best of their ability and showed compassion and empathy to two people in distress. My cynical old self didn’t expect it but I am eternally grateful it happened when I least expected it.
Folks, that’s my story. One thing to add: while I was trying to figure out what was going wrong with Red Rover, I was standing at the side of I-80 in the tall grass. After we were back on the road is when I discovered that ticks were also waiting in the grass for unsuspecting targets to get their meal blood. I picked off several before they had any of my precious O negative blood. The rest of the trip was uneventful and we had a great time.
Oh! If you ever find yourself in need of a tow truck or a mechanic, contact Grate Wrecker. You won’t regret your decision.
Until next week, happy travels!