Westward we drove, Arthur and I spelling each other at the wheel of my '55 Ford convertible. We were both new civilians, just discharged from the infantry at Fort Benning, GA. Arthur was headed for a good job in Alaska, via San Francisco, and had agreed to split expenses for the trip. We chose the route across the Great Plains and through the Rockies, a thousand miles out of my way, because we wanted to see this part of the country. At 20 I was not anxious to return to Los Angeles, where I would have to find a job before trying to get into college in the fall.
In 1962 the Interstate Highway system had yet to compress and homogenize the vastness of the West. We drove narrow National Highways that were well maintained but built to a different scale than the mighty concrete ribbons that would link the coasts by the end of the decade.
Somewhere in western Nebraska, three or four hours before an April dawn, Arthur pulled off the road and woke me up. He snored in the backseat while I breathed in the cool night air and watched bugs splatter on the windscreen. The Ford ate asphalt until, far ahead in the darkness a flashing red light appeared. I took my foot off the gas pedal, watched the speedometer needle drop. A good thing; a speed zone sign, partially obstructed by a tree, announced a town. I braked to 15, the limit, and drove carefully past fields of corn and wheat. I stopped at the light, noticing the two-story red brick courthouse on the corner.
Past the intersection I crawled down the unlit blacktop until the darkened houses dropped away, and the rising moon illuminated pastures dotted with livestock. I eased down on the accelerator. Instantly a siren wailed. I glanced in my mirror and caught the patrol car's headlamps and flashing red light as they came to life.
"You were speeding," said the cop through my window. "It's 15 mph in town."
"I thought the town ended about a mile back," I replied, flustered.
"Naw. You'll see the 'resume speed' sign a ways up ahead," he said. "I've got to cite you, but I'll give you two choices. You can plead guilty and pay the fine now, or you can appear before the magistrate and plead not guilty."
I opened my mouth to say that I would take my chances with the magistrate, but before any sound came out the officer continued. "If you plead guilty, the fine is $50, plus a dollar a mile over the speed limit. That would be, oh, $63," he said.
I drew in a breath. The Army had screwed up my mustering-out pay, and the fine represented nearly half the cash I carried. "What if I plead not guilty?" I asked.
"Well, that would be your privilege, and it would then be my duty to impound your vehicle and take you into custody until the judge is available to hear your case," he said, a touch too smoothly for my taste.
"Put me in jail and Impound my car for a traffic offense?"
"I have that authority. You can ask the judge, if you decide to go that route."
"And when might I ask him?" I asked.
"Probably not much over a week, soon as he gets back from his hunting trip," said the officer. "Assuming that he isn't delayed."
"And what happens if I'm found guilty? Is it the same fine?"
"Same fine. Plus court costs, including the expense of your confinement. You're looking at several hundred dollars, I 'spect."
"I don't have that kind of money with me," I said.
"Then you'd have to work it out. Dollar a day in the county workhouse."
Pretty nifty setup, I told myself, steaming mad but maintaining my composure. The cop probably worked nights only, protecting citizens from dangerous speeders like me. But he had me dead to rights; I followed him back to the courthouse. "Put cash in this envelope, sign the form, then put it through the mail slit in the door," he said, and watched me do it. I simmered until Nebraska lay far behind.
Approaching Cheyenne, Wyoming, the land became rough and wrinkled and rose toward the Continental Divide. Long before we crossed the summit of the Lincoln Highway in an April snowstorm, the Ford's pneumatic wipers, vainly trying to compress the thin air of that rarefied altitude, fell comatose. Every few minutes I had to stop and scrape the windshield.
We descended from the Divide as snow faded to rain, then mist. At Green River the sun broke through, and for half an hour I enjoyed spectacular views of snow-capped mountains. Speeding down a long stretch between worn-down, mile-high buttes, the Ford crept up toward 80 mph; gently I pressed on the brake pedal.
My foot went to the floor. Our speed increased. The front end began to shake, and I fought the wheel to stay on my side of the road, grateful that there was little traffic. I struggled against the panic welling in my chest as we bounced across a dry wash at the bottom of the butte, the speedometer pegged at 110. Arthur chose that moment to sit up in the back seat. "What are you doing?" he said, grumpy with sleep.
"No brakes!" I shouted, sweaty-palmed but exhilarated, sure now that I had things under control. Gravity slowed us as we rolled up toward the far summit. Near the mesa the speedometer dropped below 20, and I was tempted to stop. We were miles from nowhere, however, and there were no cars in my rear view mirror. Somewhere ahead, I knew, was a service station. I shifted into second and used the engine as a brake down the next slope, hoping that it wouldn't blow the head gasket.
After roller-coastering up and down a half-dozen buttes we rolled into Little America. On billboards for a thousand miles in every direction it advertised itself as the world's biggest truck stop. A kindly mechanic hoisted the Ford on a rack and examined the underside with a flashlight. "Brake line's burst," he announced. "You boys are lucky to be alive."
They stocked truck parts, he said, but none for cars. It was early on Friday evening; the best that the mechanic thought we could do was to wait until Monday, call the Ford dealership in Salt Lake City, about 125 miles ahead, and get them to put a part on the next eastward-bound Greyhound. "There's probably a bus Monday afternoon," said the mechanic. "If they don't have the part in Salt Lake, you might could try Cheyenne. Or they'd have one in Denver, for sure," he added.
Arthur and I exchanged glances. His ship sailed from early Wednesday morning. If we didn't get back on the road until late Monday, there was little chance that we could reach San Francisco in time.
The mechanic must have seen something in my face. "Or maybe I can fix the line good enough to get you to Salt Lake," he said.
He wrapped the line with thick silvery duct tape, sealed it in epoxy, suggested that we get some dinner while it hardened. "That ought to hold," he said. Should last you to Salt Lake, even if you have stop a few times to add brake fluid." He gave us a gallon can, almost full. I offered to pay him, but he shook his head. "Can't take your money, boys," he said. "Good luck."
We ate dinner. The line burst the first time I touched the brakes.
For twenty more miles we slowly climbed uphill at the head of a line of honking motorists, then plunged into a frantic race to the bottom as I prayed over the Ford's head gasket and its transmission. Half an hour before sunset we limped into Granger, Wyoming, on the rim of a worn-down mesa. Years later I learned that we were not the first Ford to seek mechanical solace in Granger. Fords competing in the first transcontinental auto race stopped here in 1909 for repairs. They carried spare parts.
We knew none of this as we rolled into the lone service station. When the attendant had put the car up on the rack for a look, he repeated the wisdom of Little America: call Salt Lake Monday, hope that the dealership has a brake line and would ship it up on a Greyhound.
Arthur and I conferred. If he missed his ship, he'd lose his new job. But he had money enough for a bus ticket to San Francisco, and undoubtedly a westbound Greyhound went through Salt Lake daily. In the morning, he said, we would have to decide whether to risk driving a hundred miles in weekend traffic without brakes, or split up. That was easy: I would drive no further without brakes. "Then I'll hitchhike down to Salt Lake," he said. "Even if the next bus is Sunday, I'll make San Francisco in time."
That would leave me with under fifty dollars for gas, food and the brake repair. "Maybe my dad could wire some money to Salt Lake," I said. But I had sent part of my paycheck home every month that I was in the Army; another reason that I had so little now. I thought about pawning my camera, or finding some kind of temporary job in Salt Lake. Maybe I was not meant to go to college this year, I thought.
Granger's only lodging was at the other end of its main drag. Arthur and I grabbed a few essentials from the trunk and hoofed it, three-quarters of a mile or so, watching the coppery sun sink below the mesa, turning rocky outcroppings, trees, brush and more than a few unidentifiable objects into silhouettes.
The hotel was squeaky clean and dirt cheap. We shared a one-bed room, toilet down the hall, bath downstairs, on our chest-of-drawers two thin towels and a basin of water that by morning would grow a thin layer of ice. But we were warm under flannel sheets and a buffalo robe with an embroidered label claiming that it had been sewn in 1888. The bed was wide, and I hardly knew that Arthur was in it.
We went to sleep at 8:00. Drifting off, my mind's eye returned to the last moments of sunset. Among the myriad mesa silhouettes, one shouted for my attention. There was something familiar about it, but I could not discern what it was.
I awoke about midnight. The silhouetted object that I had seen as the sun went down was an auto laying on its side — a '55 Ford. I lay half awake until daybreak, then gazed shivering out the window as detail slowly emerged from the twilight. A mile out, give or take, was the rusting carcass of a '55 Ford!
After breakfast, I borrowed a crescent wrench from the café and with Arthur hiked across the prairie through a riot of wild flowers. Grouse scattered before us, prairie dogs whistled, a hawk wheeled overhead. I was too anxious to enjoy the show.
At 50 yards I saw that I was mistaken. The hulk was a '55 Mercury. Made by Ford, I recalled. Many of its parts would fit my Ford. Scavengers had taken all four wheels, as well as many other small parts, but three brake lines remained.
At the station, the owner scratched his head in wonder when I handed him the parts. He installed a line, filled the brake reservoir, watched amber fluid drip through a crack. The second line's test yielded the same result. The last one held, held again when I pumped the brakes on a full reservoir, and was still working when I sold the Ford in Los Angeles nearly a year later.
"Where'd you get them lines again?" asked the station owner, and when I pointed out the hulk near the horizon, he shook his head. "Lived here since I was in short pants, and we don't take kindly to people using our mesa as a dump. But I don't recall seeing that car out there before. Must have been dropped off recently."
I thought about the tall weeds growing through the Mercury's rusted chassis, the bird nests in its headlamp wells, but held my tongue. "What do I owe you?" I asked, anxious to get back on the road.
"Seems to me, something like this happens, you must be living right—the good Lord looks after you," he replied. "No charge for my labor, but if you ever decide to go to Las Vegas, give a holler. I'll come down and bet along with you, dollar for dollar."
For the next thousand miles, until I dropped Arthur at a San Francisco wharf, I reflected on life's improbabilities. Even when Justice sleeps, I decided, one can hope that Mercy will appear in her place. Or that she will dispatch a message via Mercury.
© 2000 Marvin J. Wolf
FROM Marvin J. Wolf
On this page are true stories, magazine articles, excerpts from books and unpublished works, short fiction, and photographs, each offering a glimpse of my life, work and times. I'll be posting weekly. Your comments welcome. © Marvin J. Wolf. All rights reserved.