800 Miles to go before I sleep

I never made it to the Adam Lambert concert, instead setting off on a sort-of epic journey to rescue a broken-down car.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Originally published in my old ‘Hundred Mountain” blog in Summer 2010. You can tell by the technological references. But I think the journey still resonates. Not sure if Ed is still around at U-Haul. (You still there, Ed?! May all blessings yet accrue to Alonzo.)

By Douglas Imbrogno

My cell phone rings in my pocket. It’s Monday morning. Why is my cellphone ringing in my pocket on Monday morning? I’ve taken the day off from work for today is ‘Adam Lambert Day.’ My wife and I and our 15-year-old daughter are headed to Columbus to see Adam Lambert perform. My daughter is – how shall I put this? – an Adam Lambert scholar. Should you need to know where he’s at in the world at this very moment, she knows. Should you need to know his current haircut, she knows.

My wife and I are also fans of Lambert’s vaulting, son-of-Freddy-Mercury pipes. His admixture of Liza glam and cabaret cool. His smooth politeness (one of the most gracious of ‘America Idol’s’ top cats ever). But my daughter is abashed to be going to his show with us. Her best friend canceled when cheerleading camp called. My daughter warns us we will be shocked by Adam’s on-stage behavior. We will be uncomfortable. We Will Not Be Able to Handle It.

We think we will.

She thinks not. Then, she adds, there are the Glamberts, the crazy fans (not like her). Crazy, obnoxious Adam fans. She doesn’t like them. We assure her we will stand far away from where she stands. I tell her, however, I may be compelled to buy a pink-fringed cowboy hat that lights up with illuminated letters: ‘GLAMBERT.’

She gives me a look that is the facial equivalent of sour milk. I give her a broad smile.

Still, my phone in my pocket. Why is my phone ringing? I flip it open. “Dad? says my 20-year-old boy. He is 20, yet I still think of him as my boy, though he is turning into quite the man.

“Dad?” he says and my Parent Sense (a variant of ‘Spidey Sense’) tingles. You can always tell something’s amiss when there’s that lilt at the end of the sentence when your kid calls.

My son has been at the 2010 Bonnaroo in Tennessee, toasted by four days of sun and music with three friends, jazzed by the Dave Matthews Band, Neil Young, and lots of groups whose names I am too old to run into in those places where my musical sensibilities hang nowadays.

“Dad, the car broke down,” he says. “We’re at a Taco Bell now, waiting for a wrecker. I don’t think it’s going to run again.”

This would be the new used Honda we just bought him, the one to replace the car he wrecked one day last month. The one I just bought for him, laying out $3,000 in crisp bills into the hands of this guy in a McDonalds parking lot in Elkview, West Virginia. This guy was selling his old Honda on Craig’s List after he broke up with his girlfriend. “It was her car. I don’t have a use for it anymore,” he tells me, squinting through the reflective sunglasses he never removes. I think he means he doesn’t ever want to be reminded of her again.

But there you have it, this is how we hang in West Virginia. Thousands of dollars handed over in a parking lot for the old girlfriend’s car. My wife and I have had to add $1000 more dollars in fixes to the car to quickly get it ready to take my boy and his three friends to the Land of Bonnaroo, nearly 100,000 musical soulmates in a Tennessee field.

But now the damn thing’s sitting on an interstate ramp, where its radiator cap has melted (says my boy) and the engine has, like, smoked. And, like, feck, I say, to quote the Irish. Feck! Feck! Feck!

“Oh,” I tell my boy. “Oh, God.”

“Sorry to have to tell you,” says my boy.

And I am knocked off my game, losing my parental equilibrium. My head swims. OK, the first thing this means is: Goodbye, Adam. I won’t be seeing you tonight. The next thing it means is instead of heading north to Columbus, I will be heading south to Tennessee.

Let’s consult my trusty iPhone GPS. How far away is Chattanooga, Tennessee from my front porch? 388 miles. Let’s round it off, OK? 800 miles there and back.

So, 800 miles to go before I sleep.

Parenting, I am reminded, as if a parent ever needs reminding, is not for wimps …

Chattanooga, here I come.

47 Peanut M&Ms Later…

Should your offspring’s car ever break down nearly 400 miles from home, I have a bit of advice. When you go to rent a U-Haul truck to haul his sorry-ass car back home from some godforsaken wrecker shop on the backside of Chattanooga, Tennessee, do NOT try and be parsimonious with the U-Haul fees by choosing to make the trip down and back in one day.

Which, should you want to run the numbers, amounts to about 800 miles, 17 hours behind the wheel, 47 Peanut M&Ms, four sandwiches, 3 Red Bulls, two liters of Limeade, a triple cappuccino and one large box of Boston Baked Beans candy.

It’s time like these when I think: my wife and I should have had more cats instead of having kids. Then we’d only have to worry about fleas, the rising cost of vet bills and kitty treats – and that morning hairball on the duvet. What was I thinking? Actually, I wasn’t much thinking when my boy called from a Tennessee Taco Bell to say his new-used Honda had expired.

Thinking, no. Cursing, yes. Fulminating. Fuming. Sputtering, too. Taking the name of several gods in vain. The car was inhaling oil on the way down, my boy says, the temperature gauge was rising. But he didn’t stop. Didn’t turn back. Gotta get to Bonnaroo, baby! (Didn’t I give him the temperature gauge lesson, I ask myself?) The mechanic says the engine block has probably warped. It’ll cost thousands.I don’t know these guys. I gotta get that car back to my mechanic, who specializes in Hondas. What’s a parent to do in that situation?

“I’ll come get you,” I tell him.

But, no, he and his three Bonnaroo buds had been in a convoy with a friend driving a pickup with a narrow jump seat. They’re coming home with him, leaving the dead Honda at the wrecker shop.

But wait. The friend has two other people with him. That means seven of you in a pickup?

“Me and Daniel will ride in the back,” says my son.

No, it’s not safe, I say.

“We’ll lay down flat. Dad, we’ve been in the sun for four days, we haven’t showered. We’re coming home.”

Take the Greyhound, I say.

“Dad, we’re all starting to argue. Things are getting bad. We’re coming back in the truck.”

And so they do. Afflicted with sudden onset, full-bore PFO Syndrome (Parental Freak-Out Syndrome), I spend the next seven hours fretting that the phone will ring with a call from some drawling state trooper. Instead, sometime after 2 a.m., the living room curtains illuminate with the headlights of a vehicle turning in our cul-de-sac.

I leap to the door, soothed by the arrival in my driveway of a pickup hauling the stinky, frazzled, bedraggled butts and precious cargo of a half-dozen local families. Two bodies pop upright from the bed of the truck. My son is neither one of them. What the….

Oh, wait. He’s behind the wheel. They’ve been trading off during the seven-hour escapade. Kids keep squirming and leaking out of the truck, looking like crumpled Kleenexes dropping onto my driveway.

I stand on the porch, arms crossed.

“You know,” I say to them, “20 years from now, the trip you took today will be a legend.” A pause. “Tonight, though — not so much.”

My son assures me that the pleasures of laying flat in the bed of a pickup truck while cruising north on Interstate 75 for hours upon end are underrated.

“With the wind whooshing by, it’s kind of peaceful,” he says.

“I slept,” says his buddy, Daniel, a soldierly grin crinkling his face.

And so they all depart to their various homes. My son, thank goodness, heads for the showers. Their Great 2010 Bonnaroo Odyseey is done.

Mine, alas, has not even yet begun.

U-Haul here I come.

There and Back Again

I decide I will retrace their journey to go get the dead Honda on that Friday. That is why I’m the first customer through the door at 7:30 a.m. at the U-Haul on Hal Greer Boulevard in Huntington. I decide I will not do the math in my head on how much all this is costing me while the friendly U-Haul Man starts toting up the fees. There’s the daily fee for the Ford U-Haul. There’s the 30-some cents per mile after the first free 100 miles. There’s insurance for the truck, should you drive it into a church bus at mile 645 of your ill-thought-out, 800-mile, one-day Biblical journey to There and Back again.

I will need to pick up the car dolly in Tennessee, he tells me. Oh, yes, and you should probably have insurance for the car dolly (do you want the $33 coverage for $5,000 or the $66 coverage for the $10,000?) in case you veer it into an 18-wheeler hauling Doritos while changing lanes.

You might also like our ‘Going Postal Insurance,’ in case you, like, lose it in the sweltering heat of a Tennesee summer and decide to ram your U-Haul into the rear of a state trooper because The Man is pissing you off with all his laws and rules, and besides that you’re not allowed to whack your son for whacking two cars in the space of one month because that would be, like, child abuse. Right?

I made that last one up.

We thought that the used Honda, found on Craig’s List, was a steal at $3,000. But once we got it home, it started stealing from us — hundreds for a new exhaust system. And, uh-oh, the driver’s side window had worked on the test ride — why is it NOT working now?! Dang-fecking#$$@! What do you MEAN that National Tire says the two front tires need replacing?!

“Hey,” says my wife, who in general is a model of equanimity and equilibrium, a natural Buddhist. “It’s just money.”

Me, I have to meditate several dozen hours a month just to get to the place she’s at when she rolls out of bed in the morning.

Before I leave for the U-Haul that Friday, I tell her to keep an eye out for any roving bands of Gypsies coming through town. Didn’t you used to be able to sell your children to the Roma? We could get some of our costs back on this Honda episode were we to sell my son, I think.

It’s a thought …

Not a single, not a double, yes, a triple cappuccino is called for here. |
Photo by Trent Erwin on Unsplash

A Triple Play

There is no proper way to prepare for 800 straight miles of driving in one day except to get good rest the night before and to wake the next morning and make a triple cappuccino. I freely admit it: I am a cappuccino-aholic. The turbo-charged triple cappuccinos I make on special occasions with my beloved powder-blue Francis Francis Italian espresso machine are not for the faint of heart. Actually, heart palpitations have been known to occur. (Youngsters, do not try this at home without adult — preferably, Italian — supervision.)

Which is to say, I was already wired by the time I opened the door about 8 a.m. that Friday to hop into the big ol’ brute of a white Ford truck I had rented that morning from U-Haul, togo rescue my son’s dead Honda Civic in a wrecker yard in the Chattanooga hinterlands.

You know, Chattanooga is a really fun word to say. Try saying it right now — Chattanooga. Chatta. NOO-gah. This would be about the total amount of fun I would be having this day, I reckoned.

NOTE No. 1 TO U-Haul CEO Edward J. Shoen: You guys charge people extra if we do not return your vehicles uber-clean and washed down along with a full tank of gas. So, how is it that when I opened the door to my freshly rented Ford, an impressive puddle of coffee sat in one of the cup holders? And the cabin stunk of the heap of cigarette ash clumped on the driver’s side carpet? Just saying, Ed. Can I call you Ed?

I was too eager to hit the road and be done with this day’s arduous mission to head back into the U-Haul office and complain to the otherwise helpful young gentlemen behind the counter. I mopped up the coffee with paper towels, opened the windows to air out the cabin and headed south.

Note No. 2 to U-Haul CEO Edward “Ed” J. Shoen: Dear Ed, listen, I know times are tough and all. I know you need to cut costs. And I know U-Haul has a relative monopoly on human beings renting things with wheels to go get other things with wheels that no longer work. So you have nearly absolutely no reason to consider the following plaintive cry. But Ed, this 2010 Ford truck? It had hand-cranked windows and no cruise control. Now, I am not being a dilettante here – but this is straight out of 1977. First, do you know how wide a Ford truck cabin is? You cannot just lean over and hand-crank down the passenger side window to, say, air out the stinky cigarette smell from the truck you just rented from the company that, for instance, pays the salary that puts you behind the seat of that Lexus you’ll be driving home tonight to your gated community, Ed. By the way, does your Lex have automatic windows? You don’t need to answer that, Ed. More importantly — and in all seriousness, just between us — no cruise control? Isn’t the point of U-Haul to, like, haul stuff long distances? Why would you buy a fleet of trucks without that function, which the good folks at Consumer Reports remind us is not just a convenience but a safety feature for long-haul driving. Can you bring this up with somebody there?

I am five miles down the road, adjusting to the notion I will have to pull over and park to roll up or down the passenger side window to freshen the cabin’s aroma and that my right foot is going to be very tired 800 miles later that day, when I look down and realize my new rental has no CD player, either.

Note No. 3 to U-Haul CEO Edward “Ed” J. Shoen:

Oh, Edward.

David Byrne was there when I needed him.

‘I put the wheels in motion…’

Fortunately, I have my iPhone and a set of ear buds. I dial up “Stop Making Sense” by Talking Heads and soon have dialed down my crankiness as the Rev. David Byrne and his funky bandmates lift my spirits with what could be the soundtrack to this roadtrip: “What a Day That Was.”

“I’m dreaming of a city
It was my own invention
I put the wheels in motion
A time for big decisions …”

My decisions for the next few hundred miles are small, straightforward ones. What to listen to next on the iPhone. (Frank Sinatra, Luka Bloom, The Decemberists, The Pretenders.) When to stop and “make water,” as a Moroccan pal used to say in his imperfect English. Whether to eat the egg sandwich I’ve brought in one gulp or portion it out as I cross over into each new state. And whether to pull off at exit 130-something on I-75 to check out what a billboard assures is “The South’s Largest Adult Store.”

Well, now, that would be something to see, no? Shouldn’t I take a respite, a break from this gargantuan undertaking a hundred miles down the road? I mean, that’s a significant tourist attraction. We should all see the world before we dance off this mortal coil, yeah? The largest adult emporium in the South must be quite a sight. Aren’t I stressed? I might need to sit down and rest in a bit.

Finally, there is exit 130-something. I pull off. Been driving for awhile. I see nothing. Corn fields. A truck repair shop. I really don’t have the time to visit the South’s largest adult emporium. I have miles to go before I sleep. I am a Man on a Parental Mission. Plus, who needs the distracting, potentially negative karma of some depressing warehouse of frantic male desire. WWED? (What would Ed do?)

I re-fill the U-Haul’s yawning tank.  Man, this thing is a thirsty monster — which turns out to be my real mission for pulling off at exit 130-something. Plus, one ice-cold Red Bull. I need to top off my caffeination edge. I am a road warrior. I am U-Haul man, hear me shift. I will go to my grave, or at least my bed tonight, without ever having seen the South’s largest adult emporium.

Instead, now that I am back on the road, I start seeing all these new billboards: ‘See Ruby Falls.’I’m down with that. It has been decades since I’ve seen a ‘Ruby Falls’ sign. They cheer me up, it’s a pure hit of Americana. I have never actually seen Ruby Falls or even know where it is. And who was Ruby?

Pondering such imponderables, I don my yellow sunglasses which turn everything the color of sunflowers. I roll down the window (but not the passenger side window) and crank the volume on Colin Meloy of The Decemberists belting the ineffable “The Wanting Comes in Waves.”

You can see for miles and miles from the high perch of a Ford truck cabin when you top the mountains, heading into the high heat of summer Down South. I begin to feel like Toby Keith. Minus the 12-gallon hat. And the support for that year’s kooky conservative.

Take me away. |Martin Bjork photo from unsplash.com

‘Non sono contento…’

There are many reasons to ♥ an iPhone. For instance, being able to update your Facebook status with a photo of the devilish Pentecostal church sign you just saw while waiting at a Sheetz for your egg-and-Swiss sandwich to be made.

Or the ability to document stray thoughts to yourself with the phone’s excellent audio recorder, such as: “Yo, Self, I want to say that your decision, Self, to drive 800 miles in one day to haul your son’s broken-down Honda Accord back from Chattanooga via U-Haul Ford truck was not one of your brain’s bright shining moments. I’m just saying, Self.”

Or checking your Italian ‘Phrase of the Day‘ app whose following entry is something I wish to tell my son’s Honda to its face once we meet again: ‘Non sono contento di come ti sei comportato.’ TRANSLATION: ‘I am not pleased with the way you have behaved.”

Then, there’s the ability to get one’s often directionally-challenged Self all the way to the nether regions of Tennessee by hauling down a map from satellites in outer space. I’m talking iPhone GPS, which since its advent in my life has led to a dramatic diminishment in the life-threatening behavior of mis-unfolding the directions as you drive with one hand while manipulating with the other the accordion-fold kabbalah of a map of the Southeastern states.

NOTE TO SOON-TO-BE-16-YEAR-OLD DAUGHTER: The previous description is for literary and descriptive purposes only and has never actually taken place, like, literally, in any car under my command, ever, in my life. And good luck with your forthcoming application for your temps.

Yet as with many things in life (alcohol, marriage, birth) there are upsides and downsides. The upside: the cool, pulsating blue jewel on my tiny iPhone screen successfully led me to the outer burrough of Chattanooga and within striking distance of the U-Haul shop where the car dolly awaited that I would hitch on to haul the Honda back home.

The downside: I had not foreseen to mount the iPhone on the dashboard or pay for one of the expensive apps that talk you through the directions so you can drive with two hands. Which is why I was back to map days, holding the wheel with one hand and the iPhone with the other, squinting at the blue dot and what it was trying to tell me about where to turn next as I hunted down this U-Haul outpost.

NOTE TO SOON-TO-BE-16-YEAR-OLD DAUGHTER: This is a work of fiction and all incidents described herein are a product of the author’s imagination. Who should have stopped to study his iPhone. But that’s why this is a drama.

My tension had diminished in the previous hundred miles on the Chattanooga approach due to the soothing guidance pouring through my iPhone ear buds of the Buddhist monk Ajahn Sujato talking me through a loving-kindness meditation. This was useful for coping with all the aggressive driving going on around me while dashing south on busy Interstate 75, a kind of slightly slower American Autobahn, but minus the blutwurst.

NOTE No. 4 TO U-Haul CEO Edward J. Shoen: Hey, Ed. It’s been awhile since we talked. Hope you are well. Listen, I have three words for you (four if you don’t count the hyphen): ‘Dash-mounted talking GPS.’ It’s a winner, Ed. U-Haul’s position as a market leader in rentals to aggrieved long-haul Dads would be indomitable with such cutting-edge technology. Of course, first you might want to get around to cruise-control and lose the hand-crank windows on your Ford rental trucks. Can you bring this up at the next board meeting?

Alexander the Great, solving the issue of the Gordian knot. More on Gordian knots here.

Gordius: About that knot …

So, all of a sudden there’s a huge long bridge over some Tennessee river in front of me. Almost immediately after that my GPS shows a set of turns that looks like a Gordian knot, a veritable Buntline Hitch, upon exiting the bridge.

I successfully manage the bridge, then the nasty turn-off, then …. WTF?! I’m confronted with a roundabout.

Now, anyone who has ever driven long distances in Europe has encountered the roundabout. Since I’ve driven in Europe several times, I had roundabout experience, but it had been a decade ago. Obviously, some ex-pat Limey has achieved a position of some importance in the Tennessee Department of Highways.

As experienced Roundaboutians are aware, when first encountering one, the Self pauses, especially if it is an American Self which did not grow up with roundabouts (not to mention blutwurst or kipper and deviled kidneys.)

The Self ponders: What the heck am I supposed to do here – and who goes first?

I have to say: the volume level on one’s roundabout cognitive dissonance cranks even higher when one is driving with one hand and trying to scan an iPhone GPS with the other. I nearly sideswipe an EED-jit (if you’ll excuse my Irish) who suddenly appears in the roundabout beside me in a sedan, though I am sure the police report —would it have come to that—might well have had something to say about who the proper eed-jit was.

Rattled and in need of a nap, I finally pull the Ford truck into the lot of the U-Haul station, concluding the first 400 miles of this journey. I turn off the motor, resting my head for a moment against the steering wheel. I owe a thank-you to Mr. Christopher, the Catholic de-frocked former patron saint of travelers.

I open the door and the cool air-conditioned cabin exhales its icy comforts out into the blast-furnace heat of a Chattanooga June day.

I look up and there stands Lou Gossett Jr.

My Man.

Lou, how ARE you?

Seriously. Lou Gossett Jr., is standing in the parking lot of this Chattanooga U-Haul. Or maybe what the Lou Gossett Jr., of an “An Officer and a Gentlemen” would look 25 years after the cameras stopped rolling and the film’s young star Richard Gere went off to become one of the Dalai Lama’s peeps.

This guy, a lean, gimlet-eyed, Gossett-look-a-like in blue jeans and a dark shirt, has skin resembling blackened beef jerky, lightly oiled. He looks to have been baking in the Tennessee sun for the last 50 years. Since he is the go-to-guy at this U-Haul for car dollies, he has me squarely in his sights, scanning me closely like radar.  (“You’ll want to see Alonzo,”  the woman at the U-Haul counter had said. )

And here’s Alonzo, seconds after he had rolled out from underneath a trailer and stood to face me.

“Help you?” Alonzo says.

And less in the remark but in his appraisal of this frazzled white guy is written about 200 years of history. Alonzo is one of those guys that knows what’s going on, has always known it. Maybe he lives in a middle-income black neighborhood in Chattanooga or — depending on U-Haul’s pay structure — a lower middle-income borough somewhere. But wherever he tosses his sweat-stained shirt after work, I bet his yard and house are neat as a pin and he maintains his late-model car in pristine working order. I’ll bet he can fix a washing machine when it breaks.

I’ll also bet that for much of his career he has had to deal with frazzled white-collar guys in a hurry who couldn’t fix a washing machine if their lives depended on it. He has forever been calming them with his amiable, no-nonsense, can’t-rattle-me demeanor. For while he shares Lou Gossett’s thin mustache, he has none of that character’s angry vibe. Quite the opposite, he exudes pure equilibrium. This is the guy, I think, who should be running U-Haul. (No offense, Ed. I like you and all, but just think how cool it would be to have the U-Haul CEO be named ‘Alonzo’?)

I give him the scoop. Car dolly. Hauling a Honda 400 miles back home. I tell him I’m a little crazy-anxious about hauling a car that far. Never done this before. Don’t want to screw it up, you know (ha-ha-ha).

“This heat makes everyone a little crazy,” says Alonzo, wiping his forehead with his sleeve.

He doesn’t smile, but does cock an eyebrow.

“We’ll get you fixed up. You bring your truck around, now,” he says, donning some work gloves.

A few minutes later he has joined truck, hitch and car dolly, bouncing the hitch up and down noisily to make sure it’s secure.

“Now, you’ll want to pay real good attention,” he says stepping back to the car dolly. I hunker down beside him, resisting the urge to ask if wouldn’t mind coming along with me on the ride back home just to make sure I don’t do something brainless? (“Hi, honey! I’m back! This is Alonzo, he’s going to stay with us tonight!”).

As it is, Alonzo walks me through how you roll the tow-car up onto the two-wheeled dolly. How you strap and crank this webbing tight onto each of the car’s front tires. How you hook a set of bulky chains to the front axle, in case, God forbid, the car should roll off the dolly and into traffic behind you.

I try and absorb the info. I wish to do right by Alonzo.

The bus appeared to be from ‘Our Lady of Sorrow Dominican Republic Mission School.’ 

The bus behind me

Within an hour, I am back on Interstate 75 headed north, hauling my son’s black Honda behind me. The windows are down so I can look back and see nothing is amiss.

I notice a yellow school bus behind me with a sign over the windshield that says ‘Our Lady of Sorrow Dominican Republic Mission School.’ The bus is full of Dominican girl students. With the window down I can hear them singing. I think it’s “This Little Light of Mine,” though in the traffic roar it could just as well be “Kumbaya.”

The bus is tailing me a little too close for comfort. I look back and — Oh dear mother of god! — the Honda is now swerving wildly, one tire popped free of its dolly webbing. No-no-NO!!!

I see the webbing begin to loosen off the other tire from the wildly arcing car. I pray the axle chains will keep the car hooked to the truck.

Then I hear a metallic POP! In my rear-view mirror, I see scores of little Dominican faces stop singing. They look up in wide-eyed horror as the runaway Honda breaks loose from the dolly and …

No, wait. I am still hunkered in the U-Haul parking lot beside Alonzo. He stares at me curiously.

“You gonna be alright, son? Now, listen, I am not going to let you leave this lot until you are sure you understand how this works. Okay?”

“Okay!” I say.

I ask him to run through the whole process again. After he is done, I say, would you mind showing me this part of it again, please? If Alonzo sighs inwardly at my chowderheadedness, he does not show it.

“You’ll do just fine,” he says.

I am having a bromance with Alonzo.

NOTE No. 5 TO U-Haul CEO Edward “Ed” J. Shoen: Guy named Alonzo, didn’t get his last name, who works in the Chattanooga U-Haul lot? You know, the one near that frigging roundabout? Whatever you’re paying this guy, Ed, he deserves more. Can you bring up a pay increase for him at the next board meeting when you raise the issue about adding automatic windows, CD players and dash-mounted talking-GPS to your Ford trucks? Thanks, man.

On the road again

Image by Raw Pixel from unsplash.com

With a handshake, me and Alonzo are parted. I head off across Chattanooga rush-hour traffic. I notice what various U-Haul staff had warned me about — that without a car to hold the dolly to the road, it shakes, rattles and clanks mercilessly, thumping loudly when it hits any bump or rut.

When the road gets particularly rough, it sounds like I am hauling a set of metal trash cans behind me. Twenty minutes later, I am more than glad when my iPhone GPS guides me into the back lot of a AAA wrecker shop. This is where my son’s Honda was hauled and given its death sentence (DIAGNOSIS: suspected warped engine block from excessive heat).

A tattooed lady in the front office cheerfully accepts the three $20 bills I’ve previously negotiated via phone for the privilege of the dead vehicle simply sitting in their garage for four days. I see the Honda when I enter the garage. A skinny white guy with a stubbly face looks up from the innards of a Chevy missing its engine block. He resembles what chicken gristle might look like were it to stand up and assume human form.

I explain my mission. And also that I need help getting the car onto the dolly and attached to my U-Haul truck.

“Alright, let’s get this over with,” he says, eager to get back to his business.

I am seriously missing Alonzo.

Chicken Gristle Man calls the tattooed lady, another office woman and a fellow mechanic to the car. I put it in neutral and altogether now we get behind the car and shove it out of the garage toward the dolly. It takes three tries for all of us to roll the car up onto the dolly and into place. Whereupon Chicken Gristle Man says “Alright, you’re good to go,” after briefly pulling one of the wheel holders into place. He and the others disappear into the garage and roll down the garage door down.


I am alone in the lot. I am most certainly not good to go. All of Alonzo’s hand-holding to the contrary, I would also rather have the affirmation of a seasoned, grizzled, gristly AAA-wrecker guy that I have properly attached this vehicle to the dolly.

A host of Dominican school girls’ lives rely upon me getting this right.

I dash back in a side door and interrupt the fellow, whose head is back inside the Chevy.

“Whattya’ need?” he says.

“I just want to be sure I’ve got this right,” I says.

I feel miserable and angry once again at Peggy Duffy. She was the pretty classmate in high school who led me to drop auto shop in favor of the study hall she was in so I could look at her with Moon Pie eyes. Damn it,

Peggy Duffy! I could be changing out timing belts and single-handedly attaching car dollies with confidence were it not for her cute brunette bangs and full sensual lips.

The wrecker guy snorts. Gathers up the lit cigarette he has perched on a nearby shelf and legs it out to the dolly where he tugs. Points, checks, connects. Then stands up.

“Didn’t they give you any schooling on this at U-Haul?” he says cantankerously.

“They did, but I want to make sure it’s all correct.”

Chicken Gristle Man strides off, a contrail of cigarette smoke tracing his path back to that Chevy. “Alright,” he says, “now get the hell outa’ here and on the road.”

I think he means it with affection and love.

The road goes ever, ever on…

There comes a point driving 800 miles in one day hauling a dead Honda homeward when your consciousness begins to resemble that of a certain person. A person who has gone without sleep for several days on cocaine while the Columbian drug lords who’ve taken you hostage march you mercilessly through the jungle, lashed by whips to keep you stumbling down the narrow mountain path despite your feeble-minded exhaustion. And if you stumble, you tumble into the 800-foot gorge below and are never heard from again.

I hit this point about mile 697, somewhere in the late-night darkness of Interstate 64 after the turn-off from I-75 at Lexington, Ky. Problem was if I stumbled or fell asleep or strayed into the next lane, I would not disappear. I’d end up in in the local news: “U-Haul truck hauling Honda crashes into Dominican Mission bus, all perish. Film at 11!”

So, it was only through an act of will, intense concentration and yogic eyeball exercises that made me look like Rodney Dangerfield that kept me focused on the white center lines dashing by through the night.

Also, there comes a point in the consumption of massive infusions of caffeine when the drug seems to shift into reverse. It starts to make you tired as your body says, ‘Whoa, Charlie, that’s a wee bit too much, now. We are hereby refusing further stimulation. All systems on overload. Shutting down. Yo, Self, your endocrine system is taking a siesta …”

More stressful yet, I was in a race against time. My mechanic had promised to stay up until I got back to his small Cabell County shop, to help me offload the car from the dolly. I was not at all sure I could do it alone since the engine was dead and I had to do a gravity roll off the dolly into his lot, located up an alley.

But it was now 12:05 a.m. and he said he could wait only “a little longer” as we communicated via phone.

Then, in the wilds of eastern Kentucky, somewhere between the towns of Mt. Sterling and East Jesus, Kentucky (just across from West Jesus), the signal dropped out on my iPhone. I was alone with my addled thoughts while still more than an hour from the end of this infernal haul. I glanced up at my rear view mirror.

Who was tailgating me! There was a car RIGHT on my bumper, out here in the middle of nowhere. Damn it, WTF?!!

Oh. Wait. That was the car I was hauling. It was the Honda. It’s OK, man. It’s cool. It’s you.

Dude. You’re tailgating you.

Home, home at last

In the end, I got the Honda home without offing myself or any innocent Dominicans. The garage door was up and bright fluorescent light spilled  into the alley from my mechanic’s shop, a sight for sore Rodney Dangerfield eyes.

I eased the U-Haul into the lot. The dashboard clock read 1:45 a.m. He and his partner, who have handled countless late-night deliveries of comatose vehicles, came outside. They studied the dolly. These guy are members of the same karass as my dear friend Alonzo . We had the car off the dolly and nestled in for the night within ten minutes.

I had succeeded. After nearly 16 straight hours behind the wheel and well over 800 miles, through stick-to-it-iveness and moxie, willpower and determination, several Red Bulls and double cappuccinos, I’d successfully snatched, eagle-like — commando-like, even — several thousand pounds of steel from the fetid suburban swamps of Tennessee and humped it all the way home in a single day.

Note to Tennessee Tourism Division: Spot me some poetic license here — isn’t that a great line? ‘The fetid suburban swamps of Tennessee.’ No, really, I loved your state, although it was hot enough to keep lasagna warm on the sidewalks. And I missed out seeing the South’s largest adult emporium, not to mention Ruby Falls. Do you have tour packages? And what is it with those roundabouts? Is that really necessary?

I heaved a satisfied sigh. Took several deep breaths. Several more with my buds. Then, I left the shop and said good evening to my magnificent mechanical friends, veritable Lords of the Honda. Wrench Kings they are! Transmission Titans!

I set out on the last of the day’s labours of Herakles. For I had now to cross town, returning truck and car dolly. The now empty dolly bounced madly up and down along the potholed backstreets of Huntington. Gawd, what a racket! It sounded like I was hauling a washing machine on its side. Clank-thump-CLANK! Rattle-THUNK–clank! Rattle-CLUNK-CLUNK!

I turned up a street where some of Huntington’s finest upscale houses are to be found. This being the kind of neighborhood where an English Tudor mansion sits on one corner and a Spanish villa the color of a desert sunset on the next, there were cobblestones, too. They cranked the volume up on the dolly past 10 to 11. It was now 2:30 a.m. I was sure I was waking up people as I drove a-clanking past their bedrooms or was generating some interesting special effects in the dreams of sleeping people.

A few streets later, I hit the low-income side of town. These streets were alive with people on sidewalks, on porches, in the shadows. I had my window down as I passed by.

“Hey, U-Haul!” a man cried as I clanked on through.

“Man!” someone else said, laughing. I ignored the jibes, the cruel taunts, focusing my eyes straight ahead. I could taste the finish line.

This is the approximate quadratic equation for correctly backing up a truck hauling a trailer into a parking space.

Quadratic parking

I got to the U-Haul lot, crowded with vehicles plus a large white propane fuel tank. I pulled in. Backed up to straighten the vehicle. Uh-oh! The car dolly had gone all jack-knifey on me while backing up.

I got out. Damn! The trailer was almost at a 45-degree angle to the truck. Have you ever really considered the complicated physics of the relationship between a truck and trailer while backing in reverse? It’s complicated, OK?

I got back behind the wheel, looked in my side-view mirrors. Let’s see — if I turn the steering wheel left, that would mean the trailer would go right. Right? Wrong! Some funky physics were going on here that my road-addled brain could not figure out. I’m sure there is a formula for this somewhere:

If truck = X, then trailer equals y-squared, dependent on the quadrilateral forces exerted by the angle of backing truck hitch in relation to some frigging 5th dimensional force that only Werner Von Braun could figure out while on LSD.

Moments later, I found myself piss-offedly trapped in the corner of the lot, trying not to accelerate accidentally into the big white propane tank and thus end my journey and life in a glorious fireball.

I was tempted.

I could just imagine the scene in the morning when the U-Haul guys arrived to find a jack-knifed truck and trailer completely blocking the lot. “Oh, hell, another late-night dunderhead drop-off…”

The Rule of the Final Inch!

The 800-mile Man

I got out again. Took some deep breaths to clear my head from my earlier deep breaths. I could figure this out. Was I not Rescue Dad? Was I not The 800-Mile Man? I had reached that most important moment, a la Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn: The Rule of the Final Inch!

I would not be deterred.

Summoning the last of my dwindling super-powers, I gently, inch-by-careful inch, figured it out. After triumphantly un-jacknifing the trailer, I pulled the truck and rig into a neat parallel line beside some other trucks.

Well done, sir! A moment of deep satisfaction. Now, I could get into my car parked on an adjacent lot and head home to a well-deserved rest.

Then the dammits began anew. I suddenly recalled you had to return the truck with a full tank of gas or suffer a fiscal penalty. “Dammit!” I sputtered in the truck cabin. “Dammit! DAMMIT!”

Note to Men: When you are really upset, are you a ‘3-Dammit!’ Curser or a ‘4-Dammit!’ curser? My father was a ‘4-Dammit’ Curser, the last in the series the most explosive. That was the one in which you had to most watch your head as in his frustrated fury on very rare occasions threw things. Not at you, mind you. But things flung in fury — I seem to recall a piece of wood arcing across the family room — are equal opportunity ka-thunkers.

Instead of heaving something, I heaved the last great sigh of this interminable day. Carefully, I backed up the truck and dolly. I struck off, clanking again into the night, in search of a gas station.

I topped the tank. Returned to the U-Haul lot.

I pulled the truck and dolly in neat and straight as a pin this time.

I breathed out any last poisonous vapours from my soul. Cleaned up the cabin much cleaner than when I’d got it, thank you, Ed. I got out of the truck, locked the door and deposited the truck key into the drop-box by the office door.

I unlocked the door to my own beloved Honda Civic Hybrid and shifted off into the empty streets of Huntington just as the clock turned 3 a.m.

It was a Zero-Dammit drive back home.

You May Also Like

Leave a Reply