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Can’t blame Dad for trying. He’s no expert mechanic but he certainly practices good car maintenance and knows his way around the most basic emergency procedures that tend to arise over the standard lifespan of a vehicle. He tried to impart some of that knowledge to his girls. But we were always more interested in being behind the wheel than under the hood.
Because when you grow up in Tulsa, road-tripping your way around Texarkana (and that one memorable summer vacation out west, all the way to Boise), driving was a joy. Driving meant freedom. Driving meant wide-open roads and singing at the top of your lungs and playing silly games to pass the time, hitting the occasional quirky roadside diner (even though you packed enough food for an army), stopping on a whim to read a historical marker if you felt like it, then still managing to catch up afterward with that same horse trailer you saw drive off in the distance when you pulled off onto the shoulder. And when night fell, there’d be long, quiet stretches with just the steady rhythm of wheels on road beneath you, the stars above, and the moon following your car as it flew down the highway with Dad at the wheel.
It’s because Dad was at the wheel. That’s the problem. What harm could come to us if Dad was at the wheel? Things could and did go wrong, sure, but Dad could fix it. And if it turned out Dad couldn’t fix it, then Dad would square us all away and then go find someone who could fix it. And he always did. It always worked out.
So when the time came that we started choosing our own destinations, I think we hit the road under the blithe assumption that if something went wrong and we couldn’t reach Dad, then we could always rely on the kindness of strangers. And time and time again, when the vehicle that had been our refuge and rocket and magic carpet one minute suddenly became our hulking, sullen, recalcitrant, or wounded responsibility the next, we did just that.
And I remember them all, the lady who gave me enough gas from her garage to limp to the next station, the cowboys who pushed our sinking car out of the sandbar just in time when Lake Eucha rose faster than we’d anticipated, the lawn crew who gave me a ride to the mechanic in New Orleans, the tow truck driver who happened by just seconds after I’d backed into a ditch on a dark and lonely stretch of road around midnight, the farmers who gave us hot chocolate and put us up for the night after we wiped out on black ice on a desolate stretch in Kansas. Despite my father’s sage advice to do so, I still hadn’t familiarized myself too well with those machines I loved to drive but then, why would I? Help always came when I needed it.
Until it didn’t. And of course it was on the hottest day of the year. At the busiest intersection in Tulsa. At rush hour. Maybe that’s why all the other drivers were just too surly to lend a hand.
My friend Patricia and I had pulled out of a parking lot and halfway into the right lane when suddenly her car died. After several failed attempts to restart it, we finally jumped out and pushed it back into the lot, away from traffic. We walked up the hill to the shopping center and thankfully, since this was the ’80s, there was a phone booth. I called the house and reached my sister.
“Hey, is Dad there?”
“Oh. How ‘bout Mom?”
“Uh … could you look across the street? Are any of the Hills boys home?”
“They’re all at practice. Why?”
“Do you have a car there?”
“Oh, great! Um … okay, here’s what I need you to do. Go to the garage and grab the extra jumper cables off Dad’s workbench. Then go to his office and get that book he’s always telling us to read, The Reader’s Digest Complete Car Manual and then come out here to 31st and Sheridan. We’ll be standing by Patricia’s dead car at the entrance to the mall. You can’t miss us.”
Chris showed up with our little sister in tow about half an hour later. Though we’d seen it done a few times, neither of us had ever jumped a battery before. (Hence the manual. I really didn’t want to blow anything up.) Chris pulled around to face our stranded car then jumped out and sized us all up like she was inspecting new recruits, then she handed out the assignments. She and I would handle cables, little sister would start the car when directed and Patricia? “You’re on book,” she said, handing her the manual. “Look up the battery.”
[flip, flip, flip] “Ahem, ‘The Battery. The Battery is located… “
“Okay, we do know that much, at least. Just skip to ‘Jumping the battery.’”
She did. And we did. In no time, Patricia’s little car was running again and my sister was following us back to our house. Because that’s what you do when you’ve had to jump a dead car for the first time ever. You get it home, have Dad give it a second look, and make sure it starts again.
Funny thing, as we came around the corner near our house I spotted a truck with its hood up. “Pull over!” I said. “Let’s ask that guy if he needs help!”
Turned out (I swear I’m not making this up), his battery was dead and he didn’t have his cables with him. So, fresh off our emergency rush-hour tutorial, we leaped out of our cars (sans book this time), eager to show off our newfound skills: [clip/clip, clip/clip] “Okay, try ‘er now!”
Once the truck was humming along we pulled the cables, waved off his profuse thanks, jumped in our cars and drove away, leaving him scratching his head and wondering how in the world he’d just happened to encounter this particularly giggly all-girl pit crew.
And I rested easy as I watched his reflection in the rear view. I’d actually gotten to help somebody else this time. Felt good. And maybe now my “road karma” was back on track. And if not? Well, there was always the manual, and my trusty crew.Published in