Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Angels in Pocatello

I was very proud of my car, that first year in Baltimore. I had no idea of its gas mileage, its reliability, or even the true number on the odometer. Those things were not important. As a matter of fact I had never really thought about them as factors in the purchase of a car. Irrelevancies like licenses and insurance never came to mind either. The car was important because I owned it; none of my friends owned a car. It ran.

This car was a true work of art. Above a dirty mottled and graying green body, its formerly vinyl top rusted into a convincing facsimile of a coral reef. The less said about the body the better…I had learned to park by the crash method. (Into brick walls, not other cars.) It didn’t have a muffler, unless you counted the coffee can that I’d wired to the exhaust pipe with a coat hanger. Listening to it start up at seven a.m. on Sunday mornings was a religious experience: ka-POW! whum whum whum…It had to warm up for ten minutes before it would go anywhere.

One warm and humid June morning, my friend Laura and my husband Ralph and I emptied the contents of the car into the neighborhood dumpster, and got in to drive to Portland, Oregon, 3,200 miles away. We planned to do this in two days and seven hours, fifteen minutes less than our previous best. We were well provisioned: A bag of hard-boiled eggs, two loaves of bread, a dozen apples, Snickers bars, and enough money for gas and coffee. The coffee was the only weakness in the plan. We made stops for only one reason – for gas. Any other out-of-car experiences necessarily occurred within the ten minutes it took to fill up the car, pay for the gas, and pull out of the gas station. Ding ding!

We were used to these trips. We made them at least once a year to visit family, celebrate holidays, and to earn some money over the summer. They were, for the most part, uneventful, though from time to time we made unplanned side trips. Once, Laura and I got too interested in a conversation in German and ended up traveling 300 miles toward Texas at 2:00 in the morning. And there was one late evening that had a sort of nightmare quality where Greeley, Colorado kept showing up in the headlights no matter what we did. These were unusual events, however. It’s hard to get lost when most of the trip consists of pointing the car west and then trying not to fall asleep while driving towards North Platte. (It didn’t seem to matter if we did drive off the road in Nebraska – the surrounding countryside was just as flat as the road.)

We were passing Pocatello, Idaho, practically in Portland’s back yard, and feeling that fatal end-of-trip lassitude that comes too early in a journey of this kind. As we watched Pocatello float past us at 75 mph, I said, “God, I’m glad I don’t live in Pocatello.”

Whang whang whang CRASH!

At the time, we didn’t know what had happened. We found ourselves standing on the gravel shoulder of the highway, staring at our smoking car while cars full of westbound travelers whizzed by. As we stood there, speechless, a Jeep pulled up behind us. Out of it jumped a short, muscular man, who threw himself under our car for a brief inspection, leaped to his feet, and pointed to his car. “Get in.”

We got in.

Thinking about ax murderers, highwaymen who prey on helpless music students, and other shady characters, I asked him his name and where we were going.

He was George de Tillot and he was taking us, along with a large potted plant, as a gift to his wife. (We learned later that he had been one of the few French aviators to survive World War II and that his name was really pronounced duh-tee-YOH, but since this was Idaho it was now dee-tillut.)

The double-wide mobile home lived on an acre of dust and was kept company by a large RV, a boat, and a sedan. As we pulled up, Arletta deTillot opened the door. “Look what I’ve brought you!” her husband shouted as he handed her the plant and gave her a resounding kiss. She took one look at us and disappeared into the house, only to reappear a few minutes later with a stack of linens.

As Laura and I made up our beds in the RV (we had been segregated by gender, first thing) and Ralph supposedly was doing the same thing in the house, we speculated about our condition. Are they crazy? Can we trust them? It looks clean. They seem nice. We had been given instructions to make up our beds and then come into the house to wash and have drinks before dinner. Dazedly, dutifully, we finished our beds and presented ourselves for pre-dinner talk.

The talk, over beer, sodas, and bourbon, was about the car. The chief of police was a friend of George’s. George had called him and asked him not to tow the car, it was not abandoned. He, George, would take care of it. Then he had called the mechanic in town (another friend) and asked him to tow the car to his garage and call him with an estimate of the damage. These things would all be done very soon. We had nothing to worry about. We were their guests until the car would be fixed.

I don’t recall any questions about who we were and what we did and why we were so far from home. Gently, in conversation that continued over dinner (meatloaf, mashed potatoes, and peas), and then in the living room over coffee, they extracted the particulars from us. Laura and Brenda are music students. Ralph is a concert pianist. We are traveling from Baltimore to visit our families in Oregon. No, we don’t have a credit card. Actually, we have no money at all – just enough to get to Portland.

They repeated, you have nothing to worry about. Go to bed, get some sleep. Tomorrow we’ll see what the mechanic has to say, and you can do some sightseeing around Pocatello (!). Ralph, our piano is your piano – we would be pleased if you would take this opportunity to practice your regular hours.

Off we went to bed, not much more informed than we had been about who these delightful people were, but no longer worried that they were relatives of Norman Bates.

The next day, we learned that the car was seriously damaged. Something called the “universal bolt” had “sheared off,” and we were lucky that the entire drive train of the car hadn’t ripped through the body and killed us all. How much would it cost to repair? Oh, impossible to tell…it will take several days…don’t worry about it.

Several days! We can’t stay here several days!

Of course you can. Do you have calls you wish to make? We will lend you our car, so you can drive around and look at things. We will be happy to have such distinguished musical guests. You can give us a concert your last night here, to pay for your room and board. We will pay for the car’s repairs, and you can pay us back when you can.

But George, we don’t have any money. We don’t know when we can pay you back.

That is not a worry. Let me tell you a little story.

I believe in angels. Long ago, I was an aviator, flying for France. Most of us were killed in that war. I had many…experiences. I was lucky to live. When I needed help, people helped me. They refused any payment or obligation, and would only say that I must pass on what I had received. After the war, when I came to America and married Arletta, we decided that we would always help people who needed help. So you are not the first, you see. This is a good location. People fall off the highway all the time.

But George! You trust perfect strangers in your house, with your car! Isn’t it dangerous? Don’t you worry about people stealing from you?

How can they steal? We are giving! One couple did take our car once. We never saw them again. But year after year, dozens of people, only one bad lot…we are blessed. We have friends all over the world now.

George, how can we ever repay you?

I will tell you exactly how to repay me. Pass it on. Help others. And when you drive through Pocatello again, you must stop and visit and play for us.

We sat over our cups of coffee, looking at the angel in jeans and a plaid shirt.

That’s about all. The car was repaired, I don’t know how. George’s friend must have rebuilt the engine. We did add a muffler, greatly diminishing the drama of Sunday mornings. The car ran fine for several trips after that, trips that always included a visit to Pocatello and our angels, until the day Ralph drove the car west, away from Baltimore, and me.