Walking the Showrooms With Stefan: (Epilogue: Casting Out the ‘Devil in the Details’)

Stefan smiled as he got into the Rambler that morning for the drive to church.  His duties as Assistant Treasurer for the congregation involved a weekly session of checking account balancing;  the vouchering  and payment of invoices to vendors; and payroll.  Like his trips to work, this task was more enjoyable lately, as it involved driving his ‘new ride’.

The Rambler had, indeed been running fairly well.  He’d been driving it to and from work almost every day, except when rain was in the forecasts.  On one day, he had taken the route which consisted mainly of interstate, and he had again experienced the abrupt and violent hesitation and bucking of the drive-train, forcing him to the berm for a ritual purging of the fuel filter under the hood.

Since then, he had opted for the more direct and ‘scenic’ route, which took him through the Cuyahoga Valley and along side of the old Ohio Canal.  This picturesque and historic route wound lazily south from his home and, at no more than 40 m.p.h., was, except for an occasional ‘hiccup’ from the engine, free of mechanical drama.  He had begun to avoid the highways, and to spend his time in the technical threads of Ramble forums and conversing with mechanically minded acquaintances about the possible sources of  the problem.

This research had continued through both Pentecost and Trinity Sundays, and it was now almost a full two weeks since he had made his odyssey home.  Between drives to work and to local car shows and ‘cruise-ins’, he had adjusted and cleaned the carburetorand replaced the distributor cap.   He had run a modest amount of additives and cleaners through the fuel system, in the hope that the problem was moisture or corrosion related.   The car ran “well enough for government work”, but the occasional hesitations were troublesome.

As he arrived at the church, he was hailed by the janitor, a man Stefan’s age or a little older, and they both talked and smiled as he told him about the originality of the car, its’ mileage, and…..the ordeal of the 440-mile trip home from Syracuse.  It was early morning, and the rays of the sun beamed down on them like the ‘tongues of fire’ manifesting the Holy Spirits’ descending upon the Apostles.

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They talked for a while, and then each proceeded to his duties.  As Stefan cut checks; ran posting reports and ran envelopes through the postage machine, he felt a tinge of guilt.  The Rambler was basically sound.  His research; correspondence on technical forums; and, even his discussions with his more mechanically inclined brothers, all pointed to either a corroded fuel line allowing air to enter the fuel, or, a failing fuel pump.  He had priced the fuel pump, which was about a hundred and sixty dollars, as it was both a fuel and a vacuum pump, supplying not only fuel to the carburetor, but vacuum to both the wiper motor and the advance mechanism on the distributor.   His cheap Ukrainian heart recoiled in horror at such an expenditure.   He had yet to crawl underneath to check the condition of the fuel lines.   He had been lazy, rationalizing that his faith in the Holy Spirit would remove the Rambler’s ‘affliction’.  His laziness was based on the fact that the car actually did run “well enough”.

And then, as he left for the post office with the Church’s mail, tooting the horn at the smiling, waving janitor, he proceeded to the end of the driveway.

The car died.  ‘Affliction’ had reared it’s gruesome head, yet again.  He restarted the car, and limped on to the post office, and then home.  A sense of affliction spurred him out of his laziness.  Within minutes, the floor-jack was out, and the trouble-light glowed:

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His first examination was of the less expensive of the two probable sources of his problem….the fuel line.  Crawling beneath the car, he was surprised to find that the line, from a point only nine inches from the fuel tank, all the way to a point some nine inches from the fuel pump, was shiny and, ……new.

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His heart sank to the concrete slab beneath him, as he realized he would soon be one hundred-sixty dollars less affluent; at the mercy of  UPS; and, possibly at the mercy of the quality-control habits of vendors dealing in parts a half-century old.    And he remembered some quotes that had struck him in Pirsig’s ‘Zen’

“The test of the machine is the satisfaction it gives you. There isn’t any other test. If the machine produces tranquility it’s right. If it disturbs you it’s wrong until either the machine or your mind is changed.” — (Robt. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance:  An Inquiry into Values“)

“The real cycle you’re working on is a cycle called yourself.” — (Robt. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance:  An Inquiry into Values”)

And, he also remembered some readings on Pentecost and Trinity Sunday; how the Spirit is not an insurance policy against affliction, fostering confidence and calm, but rather is that part of the Holy Trinity which faithfully responds when those of faith are afflicted, giving wings to our hearts, removing them from our afflictions, instead of indemnifying us for our losses by removing the affliction.

He held up the trouble-light once more, searching the recesses around and beyond the perimeter of the fuel tank.   And then he noticed…..almost out of sight, mere inches from the outlet of the tank, was a second ‘in-line’ fuel filter.  He squinted through his bifocals and noted that, while it did not appear ‘new’, neither did it appear clogged or overly dirty.  He decided to remove it for inspection anyway.

Selecting two pairs of vice-grips from the peg-board on the wall of the garage, he returned beneath the tank and used them, with wadded paper as cushions to protect the soft fuel line from being torn by the teeth of the grips, to crimp the line on either end of this superfluous and redundant filter.  Using the screwdriver to loosen the clamps, it was soon off.

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Emptied of fuel:  blown through with his lips in the ritual repeatedly practiced on the trip home mere weeks before, it seemed to function properly.  Just as he was about to return beneath the car, he experienced a “Eureka!” moment.  He scarcely believed his eyes, but…yes,   it was true!   The white ‘cap’ on the filter had been toward the tank.  The ‘arrow’ (noted in picture above)  on the casing of the filter, he knew from decades of experience with old VW’s; Fords; Chevys and….Ramblers, was in place to instruct the mechanic on the proper orientation of the filter.  This filter, however prudently added, (perhaps out of concern for the age of  the car and how little it had been driven per year) , had been put on backwards !!

The physics of the situation ran through his head at lightening speed.  This mistake had required the fuel pump to over-exert itself;  i.e., to suction the fuel from the tank through the paper element before it could collect in the canister around the element and continue on its’ way to the engine compartment. It was as if one had to suck a soda out of a sponge, instead of out of a can.

Within minutes he had replaced it with the spare he had purchased a few days after driving the car home and placed in the trunk of the Rambler.  The white ‘cap’ was now toward the front of the car, and the embossed arrow on its canister was aligned with the proper flow of fuel.  The canister would now will fill directly from the tank, unimpeded by the paper element, and would from there be drawn as needed through the check-valve at the core of the filter.

The vice-grips were removed, and skidded across the floor.  The rear of the car came down with an urgency matched only by Richard Petty’s pit crew.

No one was home, but he did not even stop to close the garage as he backed down the driveway to test-drive the modification.  As he drove around the block, then onto the main street of his town, and then, to the highway entrance ramp, he was as giddy with joy as he remembered being when he had raced home to tell his dad that he no longer needed training wheels affixed to his bike. (He had finally noticed that they had loosened, and were, unbeknownst to him, no longer functioning to keep him upright in the corner at the bottom of the hill  which his boyhood home sat atop).

As he motored happily down the fast-lane, tooting his horn and waving to startled Prius and Caravan drivers, he realized that, had he not found this hidden demon in the Rambler’s tank, he would eventually have burned out not only the current fuel pump; but most probably, would have burned out any replacement fuel pump as well.   The engine felt powerful, as its’ ‘heart’ had been removed from the affliction of the demon filter.  Its’ evil configuration had been cast out, and the Rambler was now well-behaved; more civil;  less intimidating to drive, and….. ‘happy‘.

He knew that the change in fuel pressure would warrant a readjustment of the carburetor mixture screw, and he resolved to finally remove, clean and re-gap the spark plugs,  as he must have been running ‘lean’ for lack of adequate fuel to the combustion chambers.  He realized that this must have been the source of the temperature issues he had had to cope with on the trip home, as he had learned in ‘Transportation I” in high school, a ‘lean’ mixture will run hot.

So many issues, so simple a cause.

The original phone-book sized ‘Technical Service Manual’  he had gotten with the car could never have addressed the true affliction the Rambler had experienced.  (In fact, the chapter on testing the fuel pump might very well have resulted in a passing grade for this robust, if overworked component of the fuel system.)  No internet forum had any threads related to “locating improperly installed equipment”.   It was, Stefan mused, the Holy Spirit at work, responding to affliction by addressing the heart.

Both the Rambler’s heart, and,……his.

He decided to work on the carburetor and the plugs another day.  Today, he would wash the Rambler.

He looked up at the sun.  It was still morning.  He had cast out the demons in the heart of the Rambler, and had succeeded in using his heart to do so.

He felt blessed.  In fact, he felt full of ‘blessings’.

 

He decided to call his blessings:  “Legion”

 

 

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Walking the Showrooms With Stefan: (Part 3–Taking Delivery; Accepting Deliverance)

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’:

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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:

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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.

His Rambler.

He had already eaten his sandwich and fruit by the time they hit Buffalo:

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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.:

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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.

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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.:

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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.

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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:

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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:

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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.

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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

Walking The Showrooms With Stefan: (Part 2: The Zen of the Test Drive)

The weather was bleak on Monday, yet Stefan’s disposition was bright.  He was off today, and decided to call the seller of the Rambler he was thinking of buying and to tell him he would be there at about 4:30 p.m. .

He set the Garmin so that there would be no tolls; collected his gas-station coffee and a couple of Almond Joys , and set off.

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As Magnetic Mary peered through the mist and fog ahead, he noted the proximity of her sled to the mounted Garmin.  He’d been reading Pirsig‘s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values”  a philosophical tour d’ force on the meditations of a middle-aged man on questions of ‘values’ and conceptualizations of ‘quality’.   This deeply personal narrative of  one man’s effort to achieve a reconciliation of science, religion, and humanism was riveting.  Not since Maugham’s “The Razor’s Edge” had he been so moved by the recounting of a man’s quest to understand, by and through himself, the true nature of what is “good” …of the essence of ‘quality’.  Stefan was taken with Pirsig’s conclusion:  that the proper outlook by an ever-inquiring mind could indeed result in an inner reconciliation of the classical and the logical; of the artistic and the scientific; indeed; of the spiritual and the physical, by concentrating on the value of each to what, in the end, is “good”.  Today, for him, the icon  and the Garmin  on his dash were not at odds, but in harmony as they guided his heart and his mind through Pennsylvania to his destination.

He thought back over a decade to the pleasure and relaxation he had derived from long  trips on unfamiliar roads at the wheels of countless new cars he had driven to accomplish what was known in the auto business as “dealer trades”.   The first Acura Legend Coupes; the Audi S-4’s; the Porsche 911’s;  the Chevrolet 454 SS pickup trucks; the Monte Carlo SS’s; and even 3-cylinder Geo Sprints were all , to him, just regular one-day ‘vacations’ from prowling the dealership lots for creditworthy clients.  Especially so, when these cars and trucks were stick-shifts.

Most other salespeople preferred to have their ‘dealer trades’  done by retired gentlemen who received a flat hourly rate and a meal or two, which would be deducted from the gross profit of the sale before their commission was figured.  Stefan, even if he was not a cheapskate, could not comprehend why anyone would not want to drive one new car several hundred miles; and yet another new car on the return trip.   When he had sold the upper-price marques, if the model sold was rare, he even had occasion to hop on a plane or a bus to destinations  from where he would drive a very special car back.  He even had used big 3/4-ton pickups and Suburbans to tow vehicles back when mileage was an issue with the client, sometimes on dollies; and more than once, in an enclosed race-car trailer.

He was a ‘car nut’, after all.  And, for him, these trips had been “quality time’.  It had been too long.

By the early afternoon; he decided to have some lunch.

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As he proceeded through the northwest corner of Pennsylvania into New York, the radio stations became too mainstream for his liking, and he turned off the radio.  There was music in his head, functioning as the musical score to his thoughts of  road-trips past; of  chapters in his life he identified with cars he had owned; and now, with the recent move of his mother to nursing care, of his own mortality.   Like Pirsig in “Zen” , his mind danced from one sense-memory to another, not in any sequential order, but, rather, in  the form of a dialogue between his heart and his mind.   The minutes and hours elapsed without monotony or boredom as he drove further into the undulating Alleghenies.

And then, as he began to approach Jamestown, his musings were interrupted by a serendipitous milestone on a journey hardly half completed:

“Chautauqua“, indeed!  Precisely the term Pirsig used as the most appropriate description of  the sequence of chapters in “Zen”:

…”  I would like to use the time to talk in some depth about things that seem important. What is in mind is a sort of  Chautauqua — that´s the only name that I can think of for it — like the traveling tent-show Chautauquas that used to move across America …. an old-time series of popular talks intended to edify and entertain, improve the mind and bring culture and enlightenment to the ears and thoughts of the hearer. “…( Pirsig, p.17) .As used by Pirsig, the term evolves into  “at once a ghost story, a travelogue, a romantic adventure, and a series of philosophical observations intended to entertain and edify an ordinary audience.”  (Charles Pinkava, a teacher of critical thinking at MSU, where, as a teacher of rhetoric, Pirsig first became obsessed with the question:  “What is quality?”).
 

He smiled to himself as he realized that he was travelling through the geography and topography of the cradle of the Chautauqua Movement.  Begun in 1874 by a Methodist Episcopal minister and a local businessman, and originally intended as a summer training camp for Sunday school teachers, it soon developed into a diverse program of  lectures and open discussions on a myriad of topics, from classic literature to homemaking.  Its’ popularity was such that it soon went ‘on the road’, travelling the countryside, with lecturers such as Samuel Clemens and U.S. Grant.  Intellectual and moral self-improvement for the working and middle classes was the goal.  For those in rural areas far from the universities of major cities, they functioned to afford a ‘curriculum’ of  activities that aimed at intellectual and moral self-improvement and civic involvement.  They flourished into the ’30’s, supplanted at length by the science of motion pictures; affordable automobiles; and radio.

His route was pleasantly rural, and as he pressed on through and past Jamestown and beyond, his thoughts quieted as he admired the features of the landscape around him.  That the weather was still overcast and damp did not diminish its’ beauty.

“Sometimes it’s a little better to travel than to arrive” (Pirsig, in Zen)

As he glided past lakes; through small towns with names of Indian derivation, and around state parks, he felt truly tranquil.  Regardless of what would happen in Syracuse, the trip was already more than worth his efforts.

When he noted on the Garmin screen that he was about 20 minutes away from Syracuse, he called the seller to confirm his arrival.  Magnetic Mary continued her vigil, peering through the occasional fog and mist as the speed limits slowly declined and the intersections and traffic lights became more numerous.  At length, he made the final turn onto the road that was his destination.  He slowed as the voice in the Garmin counted down the distance to the address.

Mary seemed to take over just then, for as the Garmin heralded his arrival, the sun finally broke out as he beheld this picture:

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He pulled into the drive and parked.  He felt no fatigue nor need to pause and stretch, and he walked up the Rambler and shook hands with the seller.  The pictures he had received a week or so before were promising, but he knew from experience that pictures can hide flaws.

In this case, the pictures had not done their subject justice:

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He could hear the sellers’ remarks, and could hear his own responses to them, but his focus was on the car.  The shop manual; owners manual; jack and spare tire (original!) were all accounted for.  He lifted the hood, and smiled like a boy who has found a long-lost toy under a box of  sweaters  in his closet.

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 He checked the oil;  the tire pressures with the gauge he had brought with him; and the free-travel in the clutch pedal.  The seller handed him the keys.

He got in, adjusted the seat (reclining!) and the mirrors, and turned the key.  The engine started instantly, producing  the familiar sound of all in-line sixes, which he likened to that of  a gas-powered sewing machine.  Placing the column-mounted shifter into ‘neutral’, he plied the knobs and levers which actuated the lights; the turn signals;  the blower fan and the wipers (vacuum, not electric).  The needle on the temperature gauge began to move, and he knew it was time to drive.  With a smile and a nod to the seller, he eased into first gear; slowly released the truck-sized clutch pedal, and was off.

The sun shone ever more brightly as he turned off the street onto a country road to take it through second and on into third gear.  He was stunned at the lack of vibration in the huge; non-powered steering wheel.   He noticed that the clock on the dash did not work, but that the lighter did.   A mile or two of  60 miles-per-hour on that beautiful country lane, and he was sold.

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Stefan pulled back into the seller’s driveway, noted the incline and set the parking brake.  He then released it, to ensure it would not stick.  The car rolled back, and he reset it.  Another turn of the key, and the engine instantly re-started.  No ‘vapor-lock’ here, and he was satisfied with the state of tune of the carburetor and ignition system.

Ever the cheap Ukrainian, he posed a counter-offer to the asking price.  The seller declined.  The deal was struck, the deposit made.  The seller ensured him the deposit would hold until  he could work out the logistics to return for delivery.  He thanked the seller and got back into the Cavalier.

He decided to re-set the Garmin to allow tolls so he could return home before 10:00 p.m.  A final smile, nod and toot of his horn, and he was off.

The trip back was uneventful, but not boring, as this more direct route was different than the one he used coming in.  Twenty or so miles from Syracuse, and the skies became gloomy again.

As he was about to exit the thruway for gas, he noticed an old VW bus on the road ahead.  A day before, he would have slowed down, perhaps even followed it. on the chance it might exit soon so that  he could approach the owner and at least look at it; talk about it; and even feel him/her out for a deal on it.

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 But he did not slow down today.  Both he and Mary ignored the bus, pressing on  past Lake Cayuga, to get to his home on the Cuyahoga , where this Chautauqua would end.

As darkness grew he had his dinner.

 

It was especially delicious.

 

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