Michiana Chronicles: St. Elmo's Tire
It all started so innocently. One of my kids just got a job in Fort Worth, Texas. And February felt like a great time to help him move, a chance to get out of the cold of northern Indiana and enjoy some warm southern hospitality for a week or so. My son went on ahead with his dog and a suitcase. I waited a few days for him to get the keys to his new place, then rented a full-size mini-van, filled it with the makings of the new apartment, and aimed the steering wheel south.
How was I supposed to know we had picked the worst week in decades to make the move?
I’m figuring things are going to get dicey when the snow clouds roll in over Champaign. Even though I’m only a few hours into my journey, I book into a hotel for the night and end up being forced to stay for two. From the horrified safety of my room I watch news reports of freak blizzards in Texas and massive muti-vehicle crashes on highways across the Midwest and south. I’m glad I stayed put.
When the skies clear for a 24-hour lull between storms, I get back on the road again. I’m making good time through southern Illinois, just passing the small town of St Elmo, when I hear that dreaded rhythmic thumping from the back right of the car. Th-thump th-thump th-thump th-thump th-thump. I coast onto the narrow snowy shoulder and get out to look. Sure enough – a totally flat tire. Checking the back of the van, I discover that while the rental company has provided me with a spare tire, they have not included a pump to inflate it. In essence I have two flat tires. I’m stranded like a ship on the rocks. I send out an SOS.
Half an hour later, like a ginger-bearded angel in high-viz yellow, the local tow truck driver walks out of the mist towards my crippled van. I sit in the cab of his truck while he gets my vehicle pulled up onto the flatbed. A local country station is playing on his radio, and a voice advertises a car dealership. The floor of the cab is littered with lights and chains. This is a hard-working vehicle. Then he jumps in next to me, throws the engine in gear and we’re off, swaying down the highway. We have a high old time. Over the roar of the engine, he tells me about an English guy he met in a discussion on the internet. They have been teaching each other insults from their own countries. I am impressed at his vocabulary. We talk about the terrible weather, about cars, about the dangers of impulse shopping at WalMart, about California where he used to live. It is often hard to hear, so I smile a lot and yell agreement wherever possible. He tells me about the twenty-car pileup that took place yesterday on the road where I just broke down. Worst he’s ever seen. Apparently, I am the third car today to have a tire ruined by leftovers from that accident. Most of all, though, we talk whiskey. And the joys of sharing a bottle with friends and family. My favorite bourbon is called Leadslinger’s, he says. Red Zinger? I yell back over the roar of the engine. No LEAD… SLINGER’S… he bellows. The company’s got a great connection to veterans, and the whiskey goes down fine – not like that cheap rubbing alcohol people like to drink. I promise I will try some when I get home.
We drive the highway for a while, then double back on country roads to St Elmo. At the garage, I sit in a waiting room lined with old pictures and a beautiful array of Lionel train cars. There’s a restroom with a toilet seat emblazoned with the words PUT ME DOWN, and a coffee pot at the ready. Everyone is friendly, but they look at me like I’m a distant foreigner, which I am. Meanwhile they put my van up on a lift, and get the spare inflated for me. You’re gonna have to go to Wal Mart for a new tire, my friend says with a wink – this one’s ruined. It’s just twenty minutes down the road – you can’t miss it, he says. I pay at the desk, then point my van south again – to Wal Mart, and Texas.
It’s a funny thing about Saint Elmo. Saint Elmo is the patron saint of sailors, of all those braving the elements to rescue others - broken down and stranded - or to reach a distant shore. Like the Spice Islands. Or Fort Worth. That night, l lie in a hotel bed somewhere in Arkansas, dreaming of a diesel powered ship captained by a ginger bearded pirate in a high-viz yellow oil slicker. He is yelling about Wal Mart, and pulling from a flask of Leadslinger’s.
For Michiana Chronicles, somewhere between Fort Worth and Elkhart, I’m Andrew Kreider
Music: "St. Elmo's Fire (Man in Motion)" by John Parr