Stefan packed his ‘Jack Bauer‘ bag that Sunday night with methodical care, checking off the items as they found their places in its’ confines.
The jumper cables; the tire pressure gauge; the Leatherman multi-purpose tool; the portfolio of Mapquest print-outs; the bottle of ‘lead-substitute’ for the gasoline he would consume; the Garmin and it’s power cable; the phone charger, and, of course…..Magnetic Mary. The sandwich; the pear and the breakfast-bars were ready in the refrigerator, and he allotted space for them in the center of the coiled jumper cables. He counted, then recounted the wad of fifty and twenty-dollar bills, and divided them into three roughly equal, smaller wads. Dispersing these among his wallet and two of the pockets of his jeans, he reached for the old poplin jacket he would be wearing.
The ten days or so since his test-drive of the Rambler had passed like so many months. After an attempt to make the trip the prior Friday had been made impractical by a nearly forgotten commitment to drive his mother-in-law to a medical appointment, he had had to call the seller and reschedule to Monday. He was glad he had left a substantial deposit on the car, as, even while he was in Syracuse, others had stopped to look at the Rambler even as he was adjusting its’ mirrors for his test run. He did not want time to erode the details of the bargain that had been struck.
He had considered impinging on the good graces of his fetching spouse to accompany him to Syracuse, and to follow him back, but her work schedule; her obligations at church and in her mothers’ garden, along with her discomfort on long trips which did not allow for frequent stops, made this option impractical. A second option, that of renting a car in Cleveland and dropping it off in Syracuse was indeed feasible, but when its’ cost, added to the fuel he would need to purchase for it, and the ridiculous deposit he would need to leave was considered, he had opted for option “number three’:
He had opted for the bus route which would take him to Buffalo for a 30-minute layover and a change of buses before continuing to Syracuse.
He had purchased the ticket the night before, after waiting in a line that contained only him for fifty minutes while the lone ticket agent had her lunch. He had held his vexation in check as he listened to the rules of the bus-line; the admonition that the ticket was ‘non-refundable’; and the procedures regarding luggage. He would need to arrive an hour early, 4:00 a.m., for the 5:05 a.m. departure to be ensured of a seat, refundable ticket or not.
It was dark when he finally left the station. It would be dark when his wife returned him there at 4:00 a.m. the next morning.
He placed the ticket in the interior breast-pocket of the poplin jacket, and retired to bed at midnight. He would need to rise at three a.m., and he hoped he could sleep. The sleep he did get was fitful, filled with half-dreams of ‘dealer-trade’ road trips past; of manually-shifted antique autos he had owned and loved; of the Rambler he had owned when he met his wife, and of the Rambler he had owned when they married.
“You look at where you’re going and where you are and it never makes sense, but then you look back at where you’ve been and a pattern seems to emerge.”
(― Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values)
He dreamt also of working again with his hands; of setting points; gapping sparkplugs; adjusting timing, fuel mixtures and idle-speeds; and of weekend drives down country roads to share experiences and swap stories with the owners of other ancient vehicles, whose perceptions of “value” were, like his, measured in the heart instead of an auction value. (Old Mustangs and Chevelles, though old, are legion…they are less the expression of an inner value than they are the donning of a silk-screened t-shirt or the acquisition of a tattoo. They shout not: “This is me!!”, but rather: “Me too!!” They are worked on only to sell, and purchased only to show.)
“The place to improve the world is first in one’s own heart and head and hands, and then work outward from there.”
(― Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values)
The alarm ended his reverie, and he kissed his wife awake. As she drove him downtown to the bus station; he thanked her repeatedly, between gulps of his coffee. She responded, repeatedly, by making him promise to eat at least three times on the trip back. He punctuated the final promise with a peck on her cheek as she deposited him at the station entrance. He would call her from Buffalo during the layover, to make sure she was up in time for work.
He slung his bag over his shoulder, patted his chest for his ticket, and stepped through the door to the counter. Three or four buses were leaving, and he was directed to the proper line for boarding:
There was little, if any conversation; small talk; or banter of any kind, even to ask someone to “save their place” in line if they needed to use the restroom or to get a coffee. They would simply claim their ‘turf’ with their bag and leave. “Social media”, thought Stefan, was big on technology but small on ‘social”.
He initiated some small talk about the destinations of those in front of and behind him, but any responses were not followed by mutual inquiries as to his. He sat down Indian-style, and scanned The Weather Channel on his Windows Phone for the forecast in upstate New York. Upon boarding, he claimed a window-seat, claimed the aisle seat next to him with the ‘Jack Bauer’ bag, and settled in.
The ride was uneventful, and noteworthy only for the setting of the air-conditioning, which would have allowed a deli owner to transport a large bundle of gefilte fish in the overhead luggage bin all the way to New York City in a state of perfect preservation. As the sun came up, he resolved that it would not be prudent to nap or doze, as many young ‘fellow travelers’ were using the restroom behind him with the alarming frequency of people three times their age. He passed the time monitoring the progress of their travel on his GPS, and reading a 1962 Road & Track issue he had brought along because it had a road test of a Rambler.
He had already eaten his sandwich and fruit by the time they hit Buffalo:
He spent the twenty minutes stretching his legs, and perusing the aisles at a truck-stop next door for things he might use on his trip home, like a plastic cup-holder, or even a unique key-chain. He found nothing unique, and walked back out into the blessedly warm morning air. After a small amount of idle chatter with other riders about how cold it was on the bus, they re-boarded and rode on. It was 8:30 a.m., and he surmised that they would be in Syracuse at around noon. He texted the seller, who had agreed to pick him up at the station in Syracuse, that he was only slightly behind schedule.
As he gazed out at the landscape around him and the passing cars beneath his vantage point on the Greyhound, he was amazed at the number of drivers ‘texting’ as they drove. At 65 m.p.h., he decided that, at least in this usage, ‘social media’ was indeed ‘anti-social’ in the risk it presented.
At slightly after noon, he alit from the Greyhound and answered the toot of the horn from the seller’s car in the parking lot. In fifteen minutes they were at the seller’s home. They settled at the dining room table and consummated the deal. The cash was counted, the paperwork signed. Stefan was particularly thankful for the seller’s agreement to allow him the use of his plates on the way home. The seller was a ‘car-nut’ too, and had a beautiful ’55 Chevy pick-up truck in his garage, with wooden slats in the bed so pristine in their varnished glory that a person could eat off of them. They traded some stories of cars they had owned and purchased out-of-state, returning home either with no plates, or with paper 30-day tags which had blown off in the wind. Their shared spirit of their love for cars was bond enough for his promise to mail the plates back immediately upon his return home.
At slightly after two o’clock, he realized he needed to start back. He wanted to be home at around nine p.m.. He placed the jumper cables and the lead-substitute in the trunk, suction-cupped the Garmin to the windshield; and affixed Magnetic Mary to the flat metallic expanse of the dashboard. The car started immediately. The gas tank was only slightly less than half full. He tooted the horn, eased into first gear, and was off.:
He decided to take the same route home that he had taken in, ten days prior, in the Cavalier.
Stefan smiled as the Rambler easily attained 65 to 70 m.p.h. on the highway once he had worked his way through the suburbs of Syracuse. He was ecstatic with the way the sun accentuated the chrome and aluminum trim on the car, and the way the wide whitewalls set off the powder-blue hue of the sheet metal. The rush of air through the front vent windows and the gentle moan of the old engine were a symphony, and it simply didn’t matter to him that the radio was presently not picking up a signal. After almost an hour of this bliss, he decided to exit the highway for fuel.
At the end of the exit ramp, the red ‘BATT’ and TEMP” lights both came on. The car died.
The car started again easily enough, but he noted a slight roughness to the idle as he glided into the gas station. Surely, a full tank of ‘premium’ would help to work out any corrosion or water which might have, understandably, given the cars’ age, accumulated over time. After all, the original 57,000 miles traveled by this vehicle averaged out to only slightly more than 1,000 miles per year. As passers-by smiled and asked him about the car, he shrugged off this slight ‘glitch,’ and concentrated instead on the gallons he was pumping, so he could judge the accuracy of the fuel gauge.
Noting the gallons pumped and the position of the needle on the fuel gauge in the notebook he had brought along, he resumed his odyssey. Other than an occasional ‘shuddering’ he sensed through the seat of his pants; his hands and his feet; the Rambler seemed to be perfectly at home at over 60 m.p.h.. He motored on, admiring the countryside and appreciating the long-forgotten sensation of lazily gripping the wheel with his left hand and draping his right arm over the seat-back of the bench seat as if he were on a couch in a living room.:
And then, it happened….
The car began to buck, and lurch, and hesitate with alarming intensity. It was as if he were repeatedly turning off the ignition and immediately switching it back on. The sensation was that of the car crashing through heavy wooden fences, moving through them only by virtue of the force of its’ weight and momentum. He pulled off to the berm, and noted the red lights, ‘BATT” and TEMP” come on again. He noted he could restart the engine, but that it would not idle without repeatedly ‘feathering’ the gas pedal. He got out of the car and opened the hood. He inspected the connections of the spark-plug and coil wires, and removed the distributor cap to inspect it for cracks and the rotor for wear. All seemed normal with the electrics.
He turned his attention to the fuel system. He removed the air cleaner. The fuel bowl had a transparent front cover and he noted an adequate fuel level in the bowl. However….the fuel in it was bubbling, percolating, even. He directed his attention to the in-line fuel filter, and noted that there was but a small amount of fuel in the bowl. As the same filter was in use on virtually every air-cooled VW he had ever owned, he was used to the level being higher.
Out came his Leatherman. The pliers therein enabled him to quickly remove the clips holding the filters’ ends to the fuel line so he could remove it. It seemed rather new. He emptied it out onto the roadside, and performed a ritual last utilized decades ago, putting its’ stem to his lips and blowing through it to ensure he could feel the force of his breath through the other end of the filter onto his palm. Satisfied it was not clogged, he replaced it. The car started; even idled normally, and he was soon back up to sixty m.p.h. on the thruway.
Another fifty or so miles, and he noted the temperature gauge starting to climb. He knew he had enough coolant, and decided that the Rambler needed to rest. He exited and stopped at a Burger King for a meal. The car died again at the end of the exit, and he again had to ‘feather’ the throttle to get it into the parking lot. As he drank his shake and ate his meal, acknowledging with nods and smiles the comments and ‘thumbs-up’ gestures from fellow patrons, he reflected on the problem. Was the Rambler ‘bridling’ at the length and the average speed of his trip, after being used for decades only for parades and Sunday drives? He thought not. The seller had spent considerable money ensuring the ignition components; tires; alignment and suspension were all inspected thoroughly, and replaced as needed. He decided that the issue was debris or corrosion in the ancient fuel tank being dislodged by the velocity of his travel, and interfering with either the fuel pump or the carburetor inlet valve, or even the jets in the carburetor.
He finished his meal, and got back on the road. Another 50 miles on, and the lurching commenced anew. The afternoon was dwindling, and he again used the Leatherman to perform the cleansing ritual of the filter. He was alone on the road. Tension was mounting. He emptied his bladder alongside of the fuel from the filter into the grass along the berm. He said a ‘Hail Mary’ and crossed himself as he checked the mirror before re-entering the roadway. He had broken down many times in many other older cars. He was resolved that improvisation; gumption; and faith would overcome these maladies.
After all, …..they always had.
When not idling or at an intersection, the car, under power, ran well enough. When the temperature gauge began to climb, he would turn on the heater and set the blower motor to ‘high’. The added radiation of heat from the heater core invariably brought the needle back down to more normal ranges. He crossed himself and smiled. He was actually beginning to enjoy the tribulations; to welcome the trials. He knew in his heart that the car was sound in the basic structure of its’ drive-train. He had faith in it, and, he was gratified to rediscover some faith in himself.
He could not help but enjoy the countryside as it rolled beneath his whitewalls:
His wife began to call. He let her know where he was, and that he expected to be home by 10:30 p.m. or so. He alluded to a ‘few glitches’ but assured her everything was ‘copacetic’; that he loved her, and would call her when he hit the Ohio border.
As the day wore on, he and Mary shared the vistas’ changing hues as the sun lowered in the sky:
As he neared that part of his plotted route which would cut the northwest corner of Pennsylvania onto the main highway in Ohio, he decided that a change in course was warranted. The interstate through northern Ohio, he knew from his recent trips, was periodically marked by long, ten to fifteen mile long stretches of east and west lanes of travel merging onto one side of the median or the other as construction ensued in the lanes opposite.
This meant no berms. He would be unable to perform any filter ‘ritual’s, and would risk either blocking traffic, or worse….causing an accident in the twilight hours as drivers behind him misjudged the speed of his lurching vehicle. However stubborn and self-confident he might be, Stefan wasn’t foolhardy enough to risk the life and limb of those around him or, (now that he finally thought about it)….his own.
He stopped at a small town just long enough to stretch, and to re-set the Garmin. He set it not only to avoid ‘tollways’, but all interstates altogether. As darkness fell, he began to travel south into Pennsylvania. The route would take him some 70 miles to a state route which would connect with a ‘straight shot’ into Ohio and then home . Berms would abound. Texting drivers would travel unhindered by any of his breakdowns.
The calls from his wife became more frequent. He made the mistake of confessing that, at the point of one such call, he didn’t know if he was still in New York or had finally entered Pennsylvania. He explained the reason for his diversion and assured her he would call her from the Ohio line.
As towns became more frequent, the stop lights and intersections necessitated a dance on the pedals; left foot on the clutch to shift into neutral, and a quick shift of the left foot over to the brake, so the right foot could remain free to feather the gas pedal and avoid stalling.
“Is it hard?’
Not if you have the right attitudes. Its having the right attitudes that’s hard.”
― Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values
When Stefan finally crossed the state line, it was after 11:00 p.m. The road was dark and straight. An occasional, poorly marked ‘detour’ made the ‘dance of the feathering throttle’ even more difficult, especially when it involved making three-point turns without power steering in the middle of a country lane. A knot of tension began to grow at the base of his neck that felt like a softball. (His wife’s calls invariably came in the midst of one of these maneuvers).
The mosquitoes and other insects he had killed were beginning to seem as thick as whitewash on a fence from Huckleberry Finn when careless oncoming drivers would not dim their high-beams. He came to regard the few dozen deer he surprised (or had they surprised him?) as tail-less, antlered monkeys sent by some wicked witch to fly into his path and to intercept some cache of rubies hidden in his trunk without his knowledge.
He kept going; doing his dance and checking his gauges until, at last he rounded the final corner to the street where he lived. It was after midnight. His wife was on him before he could even get out of the car, hugging him; kissing him; telling him how worried she had been all through the night.
He shut the door and returned her embrace. He knew in his heart no other result could have been possible. He had done it before, and now he knew why. The Grace of God, as truly endowed upon us through the Holy Spirit, does not function to calm us or to remove affliction from our hearts, but rather, to remove our hearts from our afflictions.
The Rambler was his; was home and was the source of a peace he had not felt for a long time.
He promised himself he would share it.
“Peace of mind produces right values, right values produce right thoughts. Right thoughts produce right actions and right actions produce work which will be a material reflection for others to see of the serenity at the center of it all.”
― Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values