2: Warily We Roll Along

2: Warily We Roll Along

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Miracles and More

Warily We Roll Along

I could not have made it this far had there not been angels along the way.

~Della Reese

The ink had barely dried on Joe’s discharge from the Navy when we rolled out of the driveway in Fortuna, California and headed for home sweet home in Philadelphia. This little adventure took place in 1986 when we were driving our old Pontiac LeMans, which was ugly, faded, and lacked both air conditioning and a radio.

At least the old girl was reliable… mostly. We had both chosen to ignore the quirky little hiccup sound that happened occasionally on hills. But after about three hours on the road, still in northern California, we noticed that the odd little engine hiccup had developed into a full-blown cough. The car lurched its way up every hill, teetered at the top, and then wheezed down the other side. Clearly, we weren’t prepared for the streets of San Francisco, let alone a cross-country trip over mountain passes.

In San Francisco, the car did that thing that cars do, behaving perfectly on hills for two different mechanics. With our attempts to repair the car thwarted, we set off again on our trip, pretending not to notice the road rage of the drivers forced to follow us on single-lane mountain passes. To remedy this, we flipped our daily routine and began driving from midnight to daybreak so as to slow down fewer of our fellow travelers.

That kept us out of heavy traffic, but still didn’t solve the problem. Our crippled engine continued to wheeze its way over hill and dale.

One morning, as a huge hill loomed ahead of us, we pulled over to let a peppy little vehicle pass us. Much to our surprise, the driver pulled over behind us.

As he stepped out of his vehicle and headed in our direction, all I could think about was how long it might take the highway patrol to find our bodies.

“Hello,” the driver said with a smile. “Looks like you two are having some car trouble.”

“Just a little,” Joe said. “That’s why we pulled to the side. Sorry for any inconvenience.”

“Don’t worry. I think I can help. My name is Tom.”

Joe got out of the car, and they shook hands.

A few minutes later, Joe stuck his head in the window.

“Annie, have you got a pencil?”

I rooted around in the glove compartment and plucked the stub of a pencil from between the folds of our road map.

“Will this do?”

“Perfect,” he said, and off he went toward Tom, pencil in hand.

Tom grabbed the pencil and shimmied under the car. A few minutes later, he emerged. By this time, I’d joined Joe on the side of the road.

“That should do it,” Tom said.

“Do what?” I asked.

Our new friend explained that the fuel system of a Pontiac LeMans engaged two separate fuel lines. One hose carried gasoline to the engine; the other siphoned off the excess and returned it to the tank. This saved gas when it worked, but the design was flawed. As the car aged, the tubing deteriorated, and the siphon hose wound up extracting most of the fuel needed to fire the engine up a hill. The warmer the engine, the more pronounced the problem.

“I plugged the siphon hose with the pencil. That should take care of the problem,” Tom said.

“You’re a genius!” I exclaimed.

“Not really,” he said. “But I am a retired automotive engineer.”

We wanted to pay Tom, buy him breakfast, walk his dog — something, anything to show our appreciation — but Tom would have none of it.

He just laughed and offered to follow us for a bit to make sure we were okay. After a while, Tom waved as he headed toward the exit, and we tooted our horn in thanks.

Later, Joe told me that while chatting with him, he’d learned that Tom wasn’t just a retired automotive engineer. Tom was part of the original team that designed the Pontiac LeMans, and he knew his way around that engine like a heart surgeon knows his way around a chest cavity. And there he was driving along behind us that morning, realizing that we might be having trouble with hills. What are the odds? The hair on the back of my neck still stands on end when I think of it.

We traveled home without any further worrying. Along the way, we enjoyed the excitement of Las Vegas, the vistas of Yosemite National Park, and the majesty of Mount Rushmore — all because an angel in our path knew exactly what to do with an old pencil stub.

~Annmarie B. Tait

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