A Doug’s Purpose
Doug types too much...
December 30, 2018
I had the car stereo cranking a few days ago, belting out The Beatles song Drive My Car. I love their recording, but I was jamming with a cover done by The Donnas. If you’ve never heard their take on it, it is absolutely faithful to the original, right down to the guitar break. Except it’s sung by women and their vocals infuse their version with an energy I almost prefer. Apologies to the Fab Four.
Drive My Car sparked a flip through my mental Rolodex of memories about cars and mechanics for the remainder of my 20-minute jaunt to work.
In 1973, I was a senior in high school.
One late Saturday night I was driving through rural East Union, Maine on my way home from a date. I was not under the influence of anything except the curse of being a green driver. I took a bend on an unlit road and I was going too fast for the curve. I over-corrected. I ended up driving my Pontiac LeMans down an embankment onto the front lawn of a farm house.
I thought I might be able to drive my car out of my predicament, but the embankment was too steep.
Lights in the dark farm house came on. The front door swung open and an older woman in her housecoat stepped outside to give me the what for.
And she did. She never swore during her tirade, but it had the tone of cursing.
So there I was with my stuck car at the bottom of a hill with no phone to call for help. I asked the woman if I could use her phone to dial for assistance. Oh, no. She was having none of that.
The ruckus carried in the still night air and I saw lights come on at a house not too far away.
Then I heard a tractor start up.
Lo and behold, help arrived driving a John Deere. The tractor rumbled up, a 30-ish man hopped off, and without ceremony, began hooking a chain to my bumper hitch so he could pull me out of the ditch.
As he worked to secure the chain, the old woman on her front stoop escalated my emasculation. She got loud.
At which point, I turned to the guy with the tractor and quipped, “Wow. What a bitch.”
The guy nodded in acknowledgment and replied, “Yeah, that’s my mother.”
It’s not always good to be quick on the quips.
Thank God it was dark because I know I turned several shades of crimson.
He finished securing the chain and laughed. “It’s okay. It is what it is.”
I thanked him for helping me after he towed the car back up onto the road.
It was pouring rain. Pounding down. Unusual for Hawaii. I didn’t have an umbrella.
I was near the end of a 2-week stint training military folks at 2 of the bases on O’ahu.
I’d taught all day and then stayed late to entertain questions from a team chief. By the time I exited the building to get in my rental, the parking lot was completely empty except for my car.
I got drenched splashing my way through a run that culminated in me staring down at a problem.
My keys sat squarely in the middle of the front seat and the doors were locked.
Words were uttered out loud as I yanked uselessly on the driver’s side door handle. I don’t remember what words I said standing there weathering a torrent. You shouldn’t have to tax your imagination much to fill in the blanks.
I ran back inside and sought out the team chief who advised me to call the security police at the front gate. I did as instructed and informed the cops of my dilemma.
“Sir, up until about 2 weeks ago, we used to help people on base with these things, but recently we tried to help someone and we accidentally tore some of their door lining. Now we aren’t allowed to help anybody. But I’ll call a locksmith if you want.”
I stood under the building’s awning for the better part of an hour waiting for the locksmith who tooled up in a white van and parked beside my car.
I went out to meet Jerry. I assume that was his name – that was what was embedded in the locksmith logo painted on the side of his truck.
We faced off in the downpour like we were in some Clint Eastwood western. Jerry didn’t have an umbrella either.
Jerry looked at me and grinned. “What’s your name?”
“Okay, Doug, well, you owe me $65. In cash. And I’m gonna ask you to give me the money up front if you don’t mind, my friend.”
All of a sudden we were friends. I arched a Mr. Spock eyebrow which made rain droplets drip into my eye.
He didn’t skip a beat. “You see, my friend, when you watch me do this, you’re not going to want to give me the money. That’s why I need you to hand me the cash right now.”
I did as told. After all, we were friends at this point.
His grin got a little bigger as he whipped a slim jim out of his back pocket. He stepped to the door of my car and slipped the sliver of metal down into the door and back up. And the car was unlocked. In all of 2 seconds. Like a magic trick.
“You see what I mean? You wouldn’t have wanted to give me that money, Doug.”
He shook my hand and wished me a good evening.
About 5 years after that whirlwind $65 friendship ended, I came into possession of a used ’88 Buick Century. It was my work car when we lived in upstate New York.
The car developed a short in the electrical system. I went to more than one garage who confessed they’d met their match and couldn’t trace it down. A friend at work pointed me in the direction of a mechanic named Ralph.
Ralph lived in the country, working out of a small weather-beaten cinder-block shell of a building cocooned by autos in varying stages of haphazard decay. He was coy about shaking my hand until I dropped my co-worker’s name.
He found that electrical wire that was shorting out. He had to do a lot of tracing through the car, but he fixed what lesser people could not. He didn’t charge me for all the labor. For him, it was more of a puzzle to solve than a sale.
I started going to him for all my Buick needs. His integrity was solid. He didn’t gouge your wallet. If something could wait, he advised you to wait at the expense of his own profit margin.
Usually when I went to drop off or pick up the car, Ralph was outside buried underneath a raised hood. Those were the times when we would talk a bit. In the course of one of our last dialogs, I confided to him that I was an idiot when it came to cars. Ralph probably had already figured that out, but if he had, he’d kept it to himself.
I embarrassed him a bit. “You realize you have a gift, right?”
From under the hood: “I try my best.”
“No, you’re the best mechanic I’ve ever met. That’s a talent I wish I had.”
That’s when he came out from under the hood and angled his wrench in my general direction. “But you’re a writer. You write stories. I could never do that. I don’t have a creative bone in my body. Wish I did, but I don’t.”
“Oh, no, you’re an artist, Ralph.”
“Well, thank you for sayin’ that. I appreciate it. But don’t shoot yourself in the foot. Seriously, when I go home at night and wash the grease off my hands and sit down with my supper and a beer, I want to be entertained. So that’s what people like you do for me. Thank you for bein’ an artist yourself.”
I walked away from that conversation with a different attitude about my place in the world and about artistry in general. While the concept of “it takes all kinds” is something you hear a lot, sometimes it takes the exact right moment with the right person to lock something in concretely.
My Rolodex is rich and rife. Easy pickin’s.
I’m on to my purpose. It is what it is. Hope I did my job and entertained you for a couple of minutes.
Now, go crank up your stereo.
Beep-beep, beep-beep, yeah!