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Monday, February 18, 2008


Well, the trip was going fine. Sunday night, after dark, we crossed over the Mississippi River from Louisiana into Mississippi, had passed through Vicksburg, and were tooling along on I-20, headed for Jackson, where we would turn south and travel, not much further, to New Orleans. We were looking forward to crossing the Causeway---the 28-mile bridge just before New Orleans---and seeing the above-ground cemeteries (where if you were to dig a grave, it'd fill with water) and seeing Cajuns, etc. But, suddenly a loud spaceship landed on our car. That's what it sounded like.

"What is that?!" everyone yelled.

"That's our car," I moaned.

We had never heard a sound like that, a horrible noise from the engine, but the car still moved (the faster the louder) and so we managed to make it to the next exit, where there were gas stations, etc., and we parked by one of the stations. Meanwhile it was storming severely, with lightning and hail, the worst storm they had had in three or four years. We had passed areas where it looked like it had snowed---the roadsides being white---but it was hail instead; and in areas we had passed or would have come to, there was hail the size of baseballs that damaged cars, etc. I crossed over to one gas station store and asked the clerk if she knew of a mechanic's garage nearby. She wasn't from that area and didn't know. So I asked two black women in the parking lot. They said there's a garage in Bolton, which wouldn't be open until the next morning.

"Where's that?"

"The next exit up the hightway."

"How far?"

"About seven miles."

I didn't know if our car would make it, and with the violent storm, we tried the motel across the intersection, run by east Indians. For two beds, for all six of us, $45. I thought that was reasonable, even though we couldn't afford motels, and so there we stayed Sunday night, at Edwards, Mississippi.

The motel keeper told us he knew a good mechanic in Edwards, and gave us his phone number, but the telephone there was so screwy that I couldn't call him the next morning. In desperation I decided to try to make the trip to Bolton. Despite the terrible noise, we made it, and went to a Chevron station. It didn't have a garage, and the lady there didn't know of one, but she knew a very good mechanic and said he had just left there. She called his cellular phone, and he turned around to come back and check our car. Ten minutes later a white car with a black couple drove up---the mechanic and his wife. He had all his tools at the ready, and began to examine our car, taking off the belt, etc. etc. He said he had never heard a noise like that! Finally, after more than an hour of searching, he noticed metal in the oil and showed it to me---meaning that there was serious damage being done in the engine block itself. He listed three likely possibilities, saying that the most likely problem was the rod bearings. He realized we didn't have the money for such major repairs, nor was he up to doing them at the time. I asked him if we could possibly make it the 500 miles or so back to Branson. He said he didn't think so, but that if we took it very easy it might be possible. After more than an hour of searching and taking things apart and putting them back together, I asked him how much I owed him. He shrugged and said $20.

So, there we were, Monday morning, heading back towards Branson on I-20 in Mississippi at 50 mph in a very loud car. In twenty miles the car's noise changed three times---from the spaceship sound, to a muffled machinery sound, to a horrendous ripping-apart machinery sound. At Vicksburg we stopped at a park on the Mississippi River, near the bridge, between two elaborate casinos, to try to relax both us and the car. After Andy and I hiked down and got our hands wet in the famous Mississippi and climbed up on a crashed barge, I went back to the car. A man walked up to me and asked, "How far you goin'?"

"Branson, Missouri."

"Well...the way your car sounded when you pulled in here, you're never gonna make it."

I told him that the mechanic had told us that there's a possibility anyway, and he just shook his head. "You can't tell for sure without gettin' in there, but it sounds like your rod bearings. You won't make it to Tallulah."

The man was white, fairly tall, obviously poor, unkempt, with untrimmed gray beard, and a bald head beneath his dirty cap. What few front teeth he had left were rotten. Over in his little pickup truck sat his wife.

My wife Micki walked up, and we talked. The man said he could work on our car, but that his tools were at the pawn shop a half mile away, and it'd cost $62 to get them back out. We had $300, with the capability of another $100, and the thought of trusting this fellow and paying $62 just to get his tools out of hock was difficult for me. All-trusting Micki was letting me decide. The black mechanic had told us that it would cost from $200 to $400 just for labor to try to fix the car, if we could find a mechanic to do it. This poor fellow at the park said that he could work on it in the Wal-Mart parking lot, that they wouldn't care, and that it might take some lights (which were also pawned) because the job would probably last into the night.

I really had no choice; I realized that; and so finally agreed to go with the man to get his tools out of hock. Meanwhile he would have his wife stay and visit with Micki. He reached in the back of their pickup and pulled out a wheelchair, opened it up, and helped his wife out into it. His name is Jimmy, hers JoAnn. They looked old, a good ten or fifteen years older than me, I thought, but really he's only 60. JoAnn had polio and couldn't walk, but has a strong spirit. They're homeless, and came up to Vicksburg (where Jimmy used to live in the '80's) in the hopes of finding a place to rent. Meanwhile they're so broke that Jimmy---a former mechanic and trucker by trade---had to pawn his tools to buy food for themselves, mainly bread and bologna, and their much-needed coffee and cigarettes. He can no longer work at a regular job because he has emphysema bad and painful bone-spurs in his hands. JoAnn gets a meager disability pension because of her polio, and they've been trying to live mostly on that, in their little pickup cab, in the park until it closes at 5:00 p.m., and in the Wal-Mart parking lot each night.

We later found out that that morning a man had lost his brakes coming down the hill into the park, and Jimmy had fixed his brakes. In payment, the man, who was there for a birthday party, gave Jimmy's wife a piece of birthday cake and a coke, while Jimmy worked under the car not even seeing that.

The little truck stunk with cigarettes and some other unknowable smell as I went with him to the pawn shop, and when we got there we found it closed! Jimmy had heard they were going to be closed for a week, but thought it was next week, not this one. On a table under a roof behind the shop, guarded by a high fence, a rottweiler and a doberman, were Jimmy's tools and lights. We went back to the park, pretty down.

Jimmy and JoAnn then suggested to us that maybe we could rent a U-Haul to tow our car home, and told us where a U-Haul place was, but because it was miles away and our car was the way it was, Jimmy drove me over there to see about prices. It would cost a total of about $500 to rent the truck and tow equipment, let alone the gas to get home. It became no secret that I had a maximum of $400.

We went back, and Jimmy said that even with an inexpensive socket tool kit from Wal-Mart he should be able to do the work, and that would cost less than getting his tools out. So, we piled in our vehicles, and we followed them---people staring because of the noise---to the Wal-Mart parking lot. Jimmy laid his spare tire down for me to drive up onto to somewhat raise the front end of the car, and we went in to buy a tool kit, an oil pan, oil filter, oil, paper towels, etc., and I got $200 cash out of the ATM machine, out of which to pay Jimmy something for the work.

Under the car he went at about 1:30 p.m., and except for occasional coffee and cigarette breaks, and breaks to shake the blood back down into his hands, he stayed under there until 11:30 that night---working ten hours, surrounded by bolts, lying in small pools of oil, with oil spotting his clothes, even poured on his knee, with cuts on his dirty hands and even head. The storm had ended the night before and it was sunny, but the wind was very cold, and especially after sundown was downright uncomfortable. I kept Jimmy company for mainly moral support, since he was used to doing everything himself. About all I did was most the work of cleaning out the oil pan with gasoline (the pan was riddled with flakes of shiny metal), and take turns a bit at jacking up the engine to try to line the bolt holes up when he was putting it back together. Along the way, I had to buy a larger wrench and another light, besides my flashlight, that worked off the truck's battery. They kept their truck running to continue supplying juice for the light.

As it turned out, it wasn't the rod bearings, and so the car wasn't about to throw a rod. Good news. But we still wouldn't have made it home. The oil pump---a big metal box with gears and bearings---had broken. Both bearings had busted in half and the pump was chewing itself up and spitting metal into the oil and throughout the engine.

We needed another oil pump for an '88 Chevrolet Celebrity, 4-cylinder, with a 2.5 engine, in Vicksburg, Mississippi. Jimmy and I went to the auto parts store.

"Three hundred and fifty-one dollars plus tax, but we don't have one. We can order one for you."

My heart sunk. Our car was torn down, and couldn't be fixed. I didn't have that much money left.

"But I'm a nice guy," the parts man said. "If you go to the little machine shop behind the car wash..." And he told us where they might have the oil pump. It turned out that Jimmy even knew the owner of the machine shop ("He used to own the trailer court..."), and while we were there another man came in who used to be Jimmy's next-door neighbor! ("He used to be pretty wild when I knew him...both him and his wife," Jimmy said. "He once shot at his wife. And she once ran into him with the car.")

There was a peculiar, black-market feeling as we drove through the car wash to a little building full of machinists and machinery, so little that the office was in a trailer next to it. But the people were very friendly, the young white secretary was very nice. Jimmy asked the owner about the pump, and the man said, "I might have one." I thought to myself, you're kidding! But by and by here comes an identical oil pump, but not broken. I asked him how much, and he said $40 plus tax. I was elated.

The job of replacing an oil pump is a bit complicated, involving setting the timing, and so the nice people at this shop even got from their computer specific instructions, with a diagram, of how to do it, and the man carefully explained the instructions to Jimmy, who was very confident going back of how to do it. He said it was probably because of the timing being off that tore the pump up in the first place.

So, in the middle of the night, Jimmy crawled out from under our car for the last time. He handed me two bolts and said, "I couldn't get these back in, because the socket broke, so you'll have to do it when you get home." They're two of the seven bolts holding the air-conditioner unit on, and aren't crucial, and Jimmy told me where they go.

That day, Micki had bought a lunch for all of us and a big package of bologna and brought it to JoAnn. Jimmy didn't eat. JoAnn explained that he never eats during the job. I had spent probably a total of about $150 for tools and parts, including the pump itself. And I slipped the $200 cash to Jimmy, who didn't look at it in front of us. Moments later I went over to the couple in their truck and said, "What I gave you isn't worth all the work you put into that."

And Jimmy said, "Ah, heck, I was going to do that for nothin' for you folks."

We traded addresses (just a P.O. box for them), and they drove off to their storage unit so Jimmy could get a change of clothes, and that's the last we saw them.

Because there was still a much quieter but odd sound in the engine, and because we no longer had the gas money needed to continue our trip to the beach as planned, and because the weather forecast was terrible, with more storms coming, and because we couldn't all sleep crowded into our little station wagon as planned, I drove through the night, and we got home Tuesday afternoon. By the time we got home, the odd noise had disappeared and our car sounded fine. We needed, at Jimmy's behest, to have another oil change done now, because of what metal flakes remain, and he said to watch for possible leaks because of maybe not getting every bit of the old oil pan gasket off before putting a new silicone one on. We did have a couple drips here and there, but nothing severe. But because of this homeless couple in Mississippi, who asked for nothing, we got home without worries.

There are for sure angels in this world, and they're not always pretty, but to us they're beautiful.

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