I should have known better. I should have known better than to try to redeem airline tickets booked for a vacation in the San Francisco Bay area by using them to go to my mother’s funeral. If you’re from the east coast (like my husband) it might make sense to fly to San Francisco when you need to be in Los Angeles but Californians know that these two cities are more than 400 miles apart, the distance from Baltimore to Boston. But someone how in the aftermath of my mother’s unexpected death, protesting was beyond my reach so here I was, sitting on the side of I5 with the sun burning away my peace of mind.
Just moments before I’d been driving Lil’ Bucky, our friend Stuart’s lovely mint green Taurus a tad too fast on a hot hot day on a hot hot road and kapow! the right front tire blew. I had driven Lil’ Bucky the entire month of July the previous year, in the scorching heat in Redding (where the natives say it is hotter than Iraq in the summer) without incident, so even though the car was old, I was lulled into thinking I could keep up with the big boys on the big highway until a loud kaboom! landed us on the side of the road, our hearts beating wildly. Now I was simply grateful to be alive and not road kill flattened by the semis whooshing by.
My husband lives to make me laugh so it was into this tense, unhappy scene that he interjected some humor. I don’t know how he does it because I don’t think it was intentional, yet his timing was perfect. One minute I was a bundle of nerves, the next bent double with mirth because socks and underwear were sailing through the air. Sam had simply opened the back of the station wagon and given his suitcase a swift yank–conveniently forgetting that he had failed to zip it shut after extracting a lovely pair of plaid shorts on arrival at SFO. Most of it landed in a big lump but the small stuff went airborne–then landed with a funny little roll, roll, hop, roll over the gravel strewn road. I am glad he is not left-handed, because everything would have gone out into traffic, as it was he merely flung it out over the shoulder where his belongings narrowly missed the irrigation ditch that lined the highway.
It was too much for my little body. I gulped for air as I bent double snorting like a hyena.
Then our predicament hit me. Isn’t it enough, I wondered, that my mother had died that Wednesday, less than 48 hours before, just days before we were to leave on a second honeymoon? The morning she died the doctor told me she might have only a few months to live. He didn’t say a few hours or a few day or even weeks, he said MONTHS! I was so unprepared. All our focus had been on my sick father, not my mother.
Now the pity party was in full gear. I had gotten up at five AM to catch this flight to SFO. I had said we should just let the tickets go and fly to LAX but my husband said the drive would be nice! I was dressed for the flight, in long pants, a long-sleeved shirt and heels and was already feeling the back of my shirt stick to my back. It was like being in an oven. Was this really necessary, God? Remember me, Betsy, the one you claim to love?
But now the sight of dear Sam kneeling beside the car, his stylish plaid shorts stretched tight across his behind got me laughing again. Where was the camera?
In a few minutes the spare was on and we were ready to find a service station that could sell us a real tire, not the little tykes version that was clearly stamped on the rim “do not drive over 45 mph.” We were not going to attempt I5 with that baby, so I suggested we make an illegal u-turn across the highway, CHP-style since the last exit was about a mile back and the next one was–who knows where? I thought I remembered passing a sign a few hundred feet back that said, Next exit thirty miles.
But before we did something stupid. No, something else stupid because driving near eighty on a hot road in an old car had already been plenty stupid, for that matter so had flying to San Francisco when we were going to Los Angeles! I decided that I should check out the dry, sandy-looking median strip to make sure it was clear of obstacles. I crossed the busy freeway during a gap in traffic and studied the ground. It looked fairly smooth, so I waved my husband, who was now behind the wheel, over.
There he sat. Did he not see me? Several large trucks rummed past. I waved again but the car failed to move so during the next break in traffic I scooted back across. The car would not start. It would not even turn over or make any sort of encouraging noises. Sam popped the hood while I called AAA.
After a long wait a nice-sounding lady answered the phone. “Where are you?” she asked.
“I am not sure. We are on I-5 about half-way between San Francisco and Los Angeles.”
“I need to know the name of a town.”
“We aren’t near a town. We are in the middle of farm country. There are orchards on both sides of the road.”
I thought perhaps knowing the name of the exit behind us would be helpful, so I got out to the car and began walking down the shoulder of the freeway in hopes of seeing the other side of the freeway sign, which was about 500 feet down the road on the north-bound side. Now the sweat was pouring down. I had walked about 200 feet when I heard, from what seemed like heaven, a voice booming, “Return to the car!” What? I turned to saw a familiar black and white car, yes, the California Highway Patrol pulled up behind Lil’ Bucky. The officer was using a megaphone; now he repeated his command: “Return to the car.”
I walked back.
“What on earth are you trying to do? the young crew-cut officer demanded. “Walking in this heat! The next exit is more than twenty miles away!”
I cocked my head and gave him a withering look. “I am trying to figure out where we are so AAA can find us,” I said, pointing at the back of the sign across the road.
“Oh.” Now he understood.
“You are about a mile south of route 198. Here let me talk to AAA.” I handed him the phone. He explained where we were and then said, “They will be here soon.”
“You are leaving us here?” I asked. “In this heat?”
“They will be here soon.” Obviously this man was not a member of AAA.
I climbed behind the wheel of the car so as to squeeze into the tiny vanishing patch of shade while Sam positioned himself in the patch of shade in the back seat directly behind me.
My cell phone rang. “This is AAA, we still don’t know where you are. We need the name of a town . . .”
“Bring it up on Google map,” I said in an icy tone of voice usually reserved for small misbehaving children. “Bring up California, find I-5, zoom in on the section of road about half way between Los Angeles and San Franciso. Look for I-198!” Now I was shouting. “We are going to die if you leave us here much longer.”
The woman hung up. I looked at Sam. His face was beet red and I my stellar memory, which is not my friend in these moments, recalled his heart attack ten years ago.
I prayed. I remembered passing Harris Ranch a few miles back and saying as we cruised past, “I’ve always wanted to stay there . . .” I wondered how long my cell phone could last.
“Sam would you see if you can get Harris Ranch on the phone?
“Ask them if they have a room.”
“They do?” “Ask how much it is.”
“They have a room with a queen sized bed for $120.00.”
I am the family tight-wad but as I weighed the options, death from heat stoke on I-5 or $120 for an air-conditioned room with a pool?
We booked a room. Then I got an even better idea. “Call back and see if they can come get us.”
Sam gave me a look that said, don’t make me do this.
“We can ask,” I argued.
I heard Sam explain, “Yes, we can see your palm trees from where we are. Yes, on I-5 on the shoulder, south bound, about a mile from your place. Green car. You can’t miss it.”
They were coming! Within 15 minutes a white van pulled over in front of our car. My cell phone was also ringing, “This is AAA, we still don’t know where you are . . .”
I handed the phone to the driver of the white van. “Could you please tell this lady where we are?”
“Nearest town?” I heard him say, “Madam, we are not near a town but the nearest town, Coalinga, is about twenty-five miles away.”
By the time we got to Harris Ranch my phone was ringing again, this time a tow-truck dispatcher was on the other end reporting that they were on their way. When I told them that I had first called AAA two hours before, the dispatcher expressed concern: “Are you serious? In this heat?”
At this point I made a crucial decision. I usually take care of things like getting cars serviced and dealing with repair shops, but Sam and I had recently learned about the Life Model and when we had evaluated our maturity we learned that I needed to learn to receive; while Sam needed to learn to do hard things. Such a priceless opportunity!
“You take care of it,” I said, handing him the phone. “I am going swimming!”
Two hours later he was back with a wide grin. The tow truck driver had recommended a small shop owned by a charming hispanic family who replaced the flat tire and reset the fuel-off safety switch that had been triggered by the blow out. He knew he was not in Fairfax County when they asked him if he wanted to buy a new or used tire. A teenage boy had smiled shyly at him and offered him grapes while the men worked on the car. When he signaled that he like the grapes, the largest bunch he had ever seen appeared, wrapped in a bag to take home. “Try these,” urged Sam, “they are the best grapes I have ever eaten.” Though spoken English, hand gestures and smiles he made friends while I swam laps in the astonishingly beautiful pool and then napped.
Maybe God did love me after all.