It was a dismal car. Back in those days we called them lemons – the oddball car coming off the factory line plagued with one problem after another. And this one was painted yellow. It wasn’t a stretch to make that connection to lemon. Some days it actually smelled a little lemony.
My father bought it in the fall of 1972, bragging about how he got a deal on it because it had been a “dealer’s model.” When I asked about it he said that meant the dealer used it to let potential buyers drive it. If they liked it then they could order one to be built. I don’t know how things worked back then and don’t know how they work today. But it sounds to me like the dealer used it to drive back and forth to work. It had around 9,000 miles on it.
Shortly after buying the 72 Olds boatmobile 88 my parents divorced. Mom “won” the car in the divorce. I’ve been a little leery of “winning” things ever since, like Ed McMahon’s constant claims over the decades. My father always told me that nothing but air is free in life and that I should ignore anyone who said otherwise. I think Dad was very happy escaping with just his sporty Cutlass.
Over the next few years I had been in that car with my mother several times when it completely broke down on the road. Mom was horrible at judging when a car was acting up. As a kid I was terrible at it too, but having lived through many lemons in my ensuing years I’ve become quite attuned to the tell-tale signs of an “Oh shit!” that is eminently etched in the future. Back then not so much.
And it could be my memory acting up, I don’t know. But all the times we broke down together my memory seems to be lacking a little. And that’s odd for my memory. I usually have a great memory of my entire childhood. It’s last week that I can’t recall. Somehow all those memories of being stranded on the road with Mom are vacant or at least shmooshed together.
It must have been the winter of 74/75. And I don’t think we could have picked a colder, more blistery day. Mom suffered from depression, as I do. It’s not an exaggeration to say that from the day Dad left until the day she died there didn’t seem to be a single moment of calm collection in her life. Her stalwart, her rock was our older sister Sandy who lived 75 miles away in Indianapolis. Every time Mom’s depression kicked up she headed for Indy to mind-meld with Sandy. And I always tagged along.
This day it was late at night on a cold, wintery day. It was pitch black. We were about 20 or 30 miles away from Indy when the car decided to shutter and die. Very oddly we were in about a mile stretch of US 70 that had street lights. It was coincidence I guess because there was no off ramps there. The previous 45 minutes on the road had been pitch black and traffic free because it was snowing cats and dogs. These snowflakes must have been an inch wide. It was odd that we just happened to die in a lit area.
There was nothing else to do but walk to find a gas station or something. I told mom to stay in the car and I made sure the blanket was in the front seat with her. Since we were stopped in a lit area I assumed there must have been an exit or rest area ahead. So I started my trek through the foot and a half snow in the emergency lane. I soon got back into the pitch black and just walked and walked. I think only one or two trucks passed by as I walked for the next 45 minutes. And still after all that time there was no off ramp or little burg in site.
Just then a four wheeled pick up pulled up along side me, complete with the big roll bar and lights attached to it. Now those are pretty common to see now, but back in the 70’s they were a bit rarer. Being all of 13 or 14 years of age I was mightily impressed. There were two men inside it. I could see them when the passenger opened his door. He said “You must be John.”
Now it took a minute for that to soak in. Here i was 60 miles from anywhere that anybody knows me, and this guy in the middle of a pitch black snow driven night 20 miles from nowhere calls me by name. What are the odds? For a second, well maybe just a split second, I thought this might be God. I was a little dumbfounded. “How do you know my name?”
“We came across your mom a few miles back and she told us you were out trying to get help.” Well now I already knew all of that so I was wondering why they would stop on this cold snowy storm to tell me that. So I just stood where wondering. After what must have been a long silence the driver called out “Would you like a ride John?”
“Oh. Well, yeah. That would be mighty nice of you.” Then I realized that climbing into those big trucks was a little hard when your thighs and calves were numb from the cold. Finally I got into the back seat, and then hovered over the top of their bench seat. “I sure do want to thank you guys for helping me and my mom.” Back in those days I had a paper route and always had $20 or $30 bucks on me, so I started digging in my wallet.
“You don’t need to pay us, John. This is what we do.”
“I don’t know what you mean. What do you do?”
“Well, whenever comes a big storm we come out here with this big old truck to help people out. That’s how we came across your mom. And then you.”
I noticed they had a CB in the truck and were talking to one of their wives (I guessed.) She said that she had called the garage and they were sending a tow truck. Shortly after we ended up right behind my mother’s dead car, and I stayed in the truck with them until the tow truck got there. When I started to get out I told them that I wanted to give them something. Again they refused, and the passenger said “Just pass it on.”
As a dumb unsuspecting kid I thought all adults talked in code that we weren’t privy too, so I said “I don’t understand. What does that mean?”
“Well, it just means that whenever you see anyone in need, just remember this night. Maybe help them out.”
Unfortunately my mother died of cancer just a few short years later. She never got to grow old and never got to meet my children. And over the years I thought about that often, how those two gentlemen helped my mother and I. But never so much so when I was first married.
We had moved into a mobile home trailer park as newly weds, pretty flat broke and both of us still in college. I met the sweetest little old gal in the home right behind us. For anyone who doesn’t know mobile home parks used to be where people retired. She was no different. She and her husband had retired and lived there for many years. He passed away just the year before my wife and I moved in and she had no way to take care of things all alone. She was in her early eighties and couldn’t possibly cut the grass, shovel snow, fix furnaces or plumbing. She had children and grand children but they weren’t close by. So I happily did all of those things for her. Every time I talked to her I felt as though it was my own mother, as though she might have lived long enough to share this time together too.
Every time I cut her grass, or did some odd chore for her, I thought of my own mom. And my wife too. I thought if either of them had gotten old and alone, I’d want some one to help them out too. So I passed it on, and passed it on, and passed it on. Still passing it on. And still thinking of those two wonderful men who took their time to stop on a cold stormy night to help me and my mom.