My husband Jeff and I have driven south on I-77 to various parts of North Carolina about a kazillion times over the past 20 years. That’s the kind of math I do. Mostly together, although we’ve each made our solo trips as well. Back in the day when I was working a more traditional office job, we’d leave at the end of workday and arrive late in the dark of night. In more recent years of self-employment for us both (if one would want to refer to me as “employed,”) we’ve been able to leave whenever we want, since technology now allows almost a normal workday for his consulting business. It’s a route we know well (I only know it well because it’s one interstate, idiot-proof right up until the end) and have done in the darkness, the rain and snow, in old cars, new cars, and rental cars.
Depending on which relatives we are visiting, the drive can be anywhere from 7-9-ish hours. Sometimes people balk at that, especially knowing the serpentine West Virginia turnpike is included, but we love our hours in the car. That turnpike is my favorite part, and I’m the one who usually gets to drive it. The best trips are those taken in Red Snapper, the name of my 2015 Volkswagen GLI 6-speed. She’s not a youngster anymore, and neither am I, but we are bonded. There’s nothing like a road trip in the car you love. Jeff enjoys the drive, but he’s also a fan of flying anywhere. Me, I’d rather drive 8 hours than fly for one. The packing, the people, the pressure…to me, that’s an annoying way to travel.
Snapper and I took that very trip the day before yesterday, returning our granddaughter to her home after a week-long visit in Ohio. It was just the two of us in the car, my 7-year old grandgirl and me, and while we did leave fairly early upon awakening that morning, we had one stop about an hour from our house to see some extended family in their newly purchased home. From there, Kennedy and I had a fun, uneventful ride which involved plenty of car snacks (the key to any road trip) and a book series about fairies on Audible. Kennedy didn’t even take a nap the entire drive, and I assured her that I would not, either!
I prayed for safe travel, always have. Sometimes on these drives, I notice dozens of police patrol cars, waiting to pick off anyone speeding. My cruise control is always set for a particular number not too terribly far past the speed limit, so I’m not usually too worried about them. On this trip, I noticed very few speed traps. It was, however, the day after the fourth of July extended holiday, so I’m sure it was now a slower day to get back to a normal weekday presence. What I did notice, however, was the plentiful number of cars, from Ohio to West Virginia to Virginia and now North Carolina, pulled over and changing a flat tire on the shoulder.
About 30 years ago when I worked for the local franchise of Cox Cable, I worked with a woman whose husband was a police officer. One day on patrol on the nearby interstate, he pulled over to help a stranded motorist, and a distracted driver plowed into him with sufficient force to knock him right out of his footwear. I didn’t know the man, and I barely knew his wife, but that image has always stuck with me. I have considerable anxiety whenever I see people loitering near the side of the road, especially on the highways. Nowadays, people are standing around using their phones, not even thinking about keeping safe distance from the traffic whizzing by. I’ve been a broken record cautioning all the kids in our family as they obtained their driver’s licenses over the years to get far away from the vehicle and call for help. Some fervent prayers are said when I pass a person crouched and changing their own tire, without the benefit of flashing caution lights or much help.
We enjoyed the drive, popping gummy bears and sharing a Pop-Tart. We stopped to gas up and refill our snack tank as well with yogurt and granola, cheese and crackers near Tamarack, West Virginia. Kennedy was excited as ever about getting to both of the upcoming tunnels cut right through the mountains. As we neared the big hill (as my husband calls it) aimed to pass Mt. Airy, North Carolina, I said to myself (silently), “after all these years of uneventful trips, please don’t let us get a flat tire like all of these people! The last thing I want is to strand a 7-year old on the side of a mountainous road.”
Truly, rain or shine—and at least one time it was fully 8 hours of pouring rain—we had never had a problem on this drive south, nor the return trips north. Well, sure, there was the one time about 15 years ago when Jeff went alone, using my mom’s green minivan, and discovered he had no brakes as he slid down the interstate hill, but that was the only exception. He’s fine. He had to get to a service station and find a way to get his brakes fixed or replaced to continue. I remember being at a workday lunch, seated outdoors with my friend, when he called to tell me what was going on, but I quickly blocked out what might have happened.
My present-day internal prayer was answered, in a way. We did not end up with a flat tire. Instead, a semi-truck a few vehicles in front of us had shed his tire treads, or however that works, and that created a big problem for several vehicles. I saw the big black impediment flying first as it approached the car in front of me. With two full lanes of high-speed traffic and a narrow shoulder with a big valley drop beyond it, there was nothing to do but ease off acceleration and hold the wheel in both hands as the giant black rubber demon was spit from the rear of that vehicle, through the air and into the smiling grill of Red Snapper.
It felt like playing leap-frog with a car, as we heard (and felt!) the loud roll of an object beneath us giving us an ungraceful lift. I had been in the left lane, passing, so I kept both hands on the wheel until I could change lanes right. Kennedy just said, “what was THAT?!” but seemed unperturbed, and that’s the reaction I gave her right back, explaining what we had just hit. There was a sign for a rest area up ahead, and I planned to stop there and take a look. My tires felt fine, the steering wasn’t pulling to one side or the other, and no gauges were setting off alarms. As we approached the rest area, however, I could see that the exit ramp leading towards it was closed and blocked off. As we kept going, I knew we had some damage underneath, or were perhaps dragging a piece of the actual shredded tread, because I felt as well as heard a rhythmic dragging from the underbelly of Red Snapper.
We exited the interstate and headed towards a Marathon gas station, promised less than a mile ahead. The slower the vehicle went, the louder it was, and I gratefully pulled into the parking lot and told Kennedy to stay in the car while I looked at the damage. Poor Snapper’s jaw was fallen open, and the dragging I had heard was the shield, like a turtle’s thin under armor, ripped apart and dangling at various places. It had been riding along the road, and parts of it had been resting on the moving tires like they were sanding stones.
I was easily able to snap my little red car’s mouth shut again, but as for the thick, smelly, road-rash burned plastic shield, it was too big for me to handle. It was still too secure to pull completely off, but it couldn’t be left dangling. I opened Kennedy’s door and invited her inside the gas station with me. She unbuckled her seat belt from around the booster seat, reached for my hand, and I said, “we’re gonna fix this with girl power.”
Inside, I found a narrow store, smaller than most, but adrenaline told me we would make something work. I had been looking for bungee cords, but in their absence, found some good old sturdy duct tape. I’m from Parma, Ohio, and my dad was NOT talented in the household arts. I grew up in a culture of duct tape. I remarked to the young woman behind the cash register what our situation was, and she said that she had a special clearance table with zip-ties and bungee cords. “Oh! Then I will take both of those too, please!” When I asked her to cut the packages open for me, she reached into the right front pocket of her threadbare jeans and pulled out her own knife to do so. Girl power, indeed.
Back at the curb, with Kennedy standing beside me to supervise, I used a combination of my newly purchased tools to shore up the dragging parts of my car. It all felt pretty secure, but we still had a couple of hours to go. We hopped back in the car, shared a few good sprays of what she calls “handzitizer,” and were on our way back to Interstate 77 South—this time, staying in the slower lane. I called Kennedy’s dad and told him what had happened, just so that he could call some local body shop or dealership while it was still the workday. I wanted to have the car looked at before I pointed it back up north for 500 miles the next day.
We stopped one more time along the route, after hearing the drag return, and recommitted my support strategy. By the time we pulled in to see Kennedy’s parents and little brother Jackson waiting for our arrival, we were again dragging a bit. But we had made it, safe and sound.
“Better than a flat tire,” I thought to myself. More expensive, maybe, but if it kept us from being sitting ducks on the side of the road, still my preference.
I could have opted to try and have the car fixed while I was there, but Hurricane Elsa was promising that adding another day to my planned date of departure was probably adding two days or more unless I wanted to drive in constant rainstorms and high winds. Early the next morning, I showed up at the local VW dealer and asked for mercy. I told them what had happened and requested that they’d hoist Snapper up and make sure whatever was going on under there was safe and secure enough to drive her all the way to Ohio safely.
Without hesitation, they were ready to help. A small-framed young man with dark hair came around from behind the counter and walked out to look at the car with me. He asked for my keys and took the car right back to put her on the lift. While he did that, I chatted with the two other guys in the service check-in department. One hailed from Michigan, a word that many Ohio State University football fans won’t even say out loud (he told me Michigan claims Toledo, and in an earlier life I would’ve told him he could have it, but now I’ve got a nephew who lives there). The other jovial bearded dude was about to take a motorcycle trip to Willowick, Ohio, in a couple of weeks to meet his wife’s father for the first time. We joked, we compared notes on places we knew or had in common, and then I retreated to the waiting area so that I could text my progress to my family.
The waiting area was a small but colorfully appointed alcove with murals of various VW models painted on the walls. My eye was drawn to the image of a red car with a street sign painted above it: Happy Ave.
Ah, so my prayer had not only been answered, but with a little extra wink from my dad.
Instantly, my mind went back to another trip to North Carolina that I had taken, long before I was married at all, around 1990, to visit my best friend who was stationed there with her Marine Corps husband. That trip was taken in a white diesel VW golf hatchback, the one my dad had procured for me to drive in high school. It was becoming overheated in the mountains, smoke under the hood and red lights on the dash, when the small-town mechanic we managed to coast towards suggested only that it be towed to the Volkswagen Dealership in Winston-Salem. Still a kid in most ways, around 20 years old, I remember calling my dad, sobbing. “What should I do?” “I have to rent a car!” “It’s going to be expensive!”
Hap laughed. Chuckled, more aptly. I could picture his smile, and I knew he was actually somewhat delighted by my predicament, once he knew I was safe. When I mimicked the accent of the mechanic, and lamented at the time lost both on the way to the destination, and then on the way back to pick up the car, he simply said, “but look at all the interesting people you wouldn’t have met otherwise.”
Two and a half decades later, I would recycle that message as I delivered my dad’s eulogy.
Yep, Hap’s fingerprints were all over this.
Rather quickly, the tidy young man who had first taken care of me came back to hand me my keys. Everything looked in order, and they had been able to simply remove much of that plastic protector that had run the entire length of the car like a ribcage to protect the organs of Red Snapper.
“You’ll want to get that replaced as soon as you get home,” he cautioned. “And don’t drive too crazy on the way.” As I handed him my credit card, he waved my hand away.
There was a time I used to appreciate when a man would be so deferential to a young lady, making sure I was well taken care of in a situation like this. I realized now, I appreciated a young man being deferential to an older woman in that same way.
I drove myself home, a little slower than usual and with the music not quite as loud so that I could hear the subtle complaints of my car. Being restrained a bit reminded me by contrast of how much I enjoy the relative freedom of the open road, a sunny day, a scenic route, loud music, open sunroof, and a fast car. For all of his sacrifices for us, I know now that my dad had this same enjoyment; that’s why he drove as he did, and as much as he did. That’s where I get it from, I guess. I feel so close to him on those drives, finding myself grinning or becoming aware of a tear in my eye, depending on the song on the radio and the current view.
Toby Keith and Chris LeDoux sang, “Now our windshield’s a painting that hangs in our room…it changes with each mile like the radio tune…”
A careful 9 or so hours later, I was home safe and sound and cutting into a rotisserie chicken with my hubby. (Unrelated, Jeff has told me that if someday I don’t make it back home to him, he will probably eat rotisserie chicken about three nights a week.)
And just this morning, one of my sisters told me that back when we were kids, riding in a yellow Suburban we had nicknamed “the Looney Bin,” she had asked Hap about the thick black curls of rubber on the freeway as we headed to a beach vacation. Heck, we may have even been heading to the Carolinas! She said that he explained to her how perilous they could be when they flew off of the 18-wheelers into traffic. Something he was worried about on those trips, maybe.
I don’t pretend my dad has special powers up there, now.
But “Our Father” does.