“I have found out there ain’t no surer way to find out whether you like people or hate them than to travel with them.” – Mark Twain. I love the way he goes from “like” to “hate,” and I’m about to tell you a true story.
Clarence and I decided to take the colossal road trip over lunch one early summer afternoon. A cross-country round trip from Albuquerque, NM to Syosset, Long Island, NY. Something in the neighborhood of a 4,200 mile round trip in a 1970s Datsun 200SX. Clarence’s Datsun. He was from Syosset, and most of his family still lived there. He was going home for summer vacation and needed a co-pilot for the trip which he intended to drive in two days, non-stop, a total of 30-some hours. I was born in Copaigue, Long Island, NY and had not been back there since my family moved to Wyoming in 1958. The idea of visiting some of my relatives that still lived on Long Island intrigued me. As we talked about it more, I found myself getting excited about the idea.
I was Clarence’s supervisor in a credit card collection department for Citibank. It wasn’t well perceived by upper management for a supervisor and a direct report to be going off on a vacation together, but we ignored the warnings. Months of planning ensued. We would visit the Indianapolis 500 Car Museum, and we would detour to Hannibal, MO, and cross two items off my bucket list. Clarence agreed. His wife and infant daughter would fly out ahead of us, and the idea was that they would have a car while we were there. I’m not sure why they didn’t just rent a car, but somehow Clarence was convinced that having his own car there was a better idea, mostly because of limited funds, I suppose, myself included, and we could drive in to the “City,” instead of taking, as Clarence described it, very dangerous public transportation.
Clarence is black. I would have said “was,” but he is still, as far as I know, alive, and a man of color, an African-American. I’m one of those whites “not of Hispanic descent” which continually bothers me, but we won’t get into it here. Anyway, I tell you that Clarence is black for reasons you will discover later. The departure date arrives, first weekend of September. The car has been serviced, a white job with black striping, and a white guy and a black guy ready to head out for parts known, parts unknown, and parts a long ways away. Clarence’s wife and daughter are on the plane and will arrive in New York later that evening.
A Nissan 200SX is technically a sports car. This one was an automatic. There is really no back seat in this two door model, and it is what is known as a hatchback. We stuffed our suitcases in, and carefully positioned the cooler of beer directly behind the seats in the center, easily accessible from the co-pilot seat, and off we went.
We made good time, switching drivers on the Will Rogers Turnpike, a toll road outside of Stillwater, Oklahoma. It was around ten o:clock. Needless to say, we weren’t driving the speed limit thus far in our travels. We were pushing the car 95 to 100 miles an hour because Clarence had installed a radar-detector, and thus far it had worked well. I started my driving shift and pushed the car up to 90, rolling along while Clarence was going to catch some shut-eye, before he took over again in the early morning.
Fifteen minutes later the car stopped moving with the accelerator pressed to the floor. The engine was screaming, but the car was just rolling. I rolled it over to the shoulder. Clarence woke up. “What the hell happened?” he said.
“I don’t know,” I said, “it just stopped moving.” We had been on the road less than a day, and I had already broken the car.
“See if it starts.”
The car started right up, but when I slipped it into drive, it didn’t go anywhere. It was pitch black outside, no moon, billions of stars twinkling in the sky.
“It’s the transmission. SHIT!” Clarence then decides to tell me that he has been having trouble with the clutch slipping, but didn’t think it was going to be a problem. Slipping for months. This car has over 100,000 miles on it, I just notice on the odometer, and he doesn’t foresee any problems driving it 4,000 miles without a break.
“What the hell are we going to do now?” I asked. Here we are in the middle of nowhere Oklahoma, can’t see any lights in any direction, and we don’t have any cell phones or a CB radio. We’re doomed.
Clarence answers, “I gotta pee.” He opens the car door and heads out into a dark field. I know this sounds cliché, but he was less than twenty yards from the car and I could only see him when he smiled. It was that dark out.
“Clarence, shit, there could be a coyote sneaking up on you right now with a bead on your pecker, and you wouldn’t even see him.”
He zipped up quickly, and with his head darting from side to side, ran back towards the car. He was from New York, after all, coyotes and other wild animals that live freely in an Oklahoma field hadn’t come to mind. I had to pee, but decided to wait.
Clarence got back in the car and said, “Well, I’m going to have a beer,” and drew out a dripping cold Coors from the cooler in the back.
“I’ll have one too,” I said, and he handed the one he had opened to me and got another. We sat there laughing about the coyote incident. I noticed that Clarence had locked his door. Like a coyote could get to him through an unlocked car door.
Within seconds of the first sip, an Oklahoma State Trooper, sirens and lights ablaze, whipped across the median and pulled up behind the Nissan.
“Hide the beer,” I screamed.
I rolled down the window and waited for the officer to approach the car. After a few minutes, watching him through the side mirror, he came up behind the car with a flashlight, checking the plates, and whatever contents he could make out in the back through the hatchback window. He leaned over and shone the light into my face, and then in Clarence’s.
“You boys been drinking tonight?” The first thing that came out of his mouth. We shook our heads “no,” and satisfied, or so it seemed, he asked us why we were stopped on the Will Rogers Expressway?
“Car broke down,” I answered. “We think it’s the clutch or transmission.”
“Mmm,” he says, and then makes me prove it. I start the car, put it in gear, and the engine just revs. “What’s in the cooler?” he asks.
“Cold drinks.” Clarence answers too quickly.
“Well, let me take you boys down to the service island a couple of miles up the road, and we can call for a tow truck.”
I am now sitting in the backseat of a police car for the first time in my life, and I don’t like it much. It seems only a few minutes before we pull into a convenience store/gas station in the middle of the highway, accessible from both eastbound and westbound lanes. We at least could have walked here if we had needed to. The trooper asks us if we want something to drink or eat, while we wait. He’s going to call somebody he knows in Stillwater who can help us with our problem.
I get out of the patrol car and use the rest room, free of dangerous animals.
To Be Continued…