[Front matter: My Dad wrote this one about a breakdown my family had in Arizona. I was present at the time and helped a bit to remember the conversation.]
It’s an hour before the sudden winter darkness will overtake us. We’re off on the side of the two-lane blacktop road, sixty miles out of Kayenta on the way to Flagstaff. The ramparts of ravaged Black Mesa rise in the south not a mile away and what little traffic there is consists of Native Americans, who get their coal from the mine for free, hauling flammable rocks back to their homes. Christmas is three days away .The back of the car is jammed with presents. There’s green stuff running out of the engine into the red sands of Navajoland like some sickly holiday metaphor. A conversation I’d had years earlier with an auto mechanic is slowly coming back to me.
“We changed all the belts and hoses, like you wanted, except that one there,” he’d said, pointing with disdain into the foreign-made guts of the engine compartment. “You’d have to take the engine out to get the clamps off. I can’t understand why anyone would build a car like that.” He sniffed.
I’d taken the Isuzu in for an evaluation, wanting to know if he thought we could pull a dory to Idaho with it. The Snake River is a 2,000 mile turn-around for us and the Trooper was showing its age with radical mood swings. Lately she had refused to idle below 1,800 rpm. She could maintain a brisk walking pace up most hills, but that was without a trailer. Trusting her to haul clan, baggage, and 16’9” of wooden watercraft to Hell’s Canyon was a leap of faith. Performing the motorhead equivalent of sacrificing a calf, I’d had the mechanic adjust the valves and replace the belts, hoses and plugs. That was six or seven years ago. As for the “impossible” repair, I’d gone down to the auto parts store and bought five feet of ¾ inch heater hose, tossed it in the back and figured I’d probably never have to deal with it.
My left arm is the only one I’ve got that will bend in all the right directions to enable me to feel the blown hose. I diagnose a two-inch aneurysm in the heater core supply hose brought to rupture by the stress of the holidays. It dribbles two ounces of 180 degree antifreeze over my fingertips. I pull back reflexively which takes the hide off a couple knuckles. No matter, I need a plan more than a flawless outer layer at this point. The cell phone doesn’t work. What about Gerry’s birthday in Tempe tomorrow? It would take a tow truck an hour to get here, cost a fortune. Where would they take us anyway, Mexican Water? There’s nothing there. Would insurance cover it? Not likely. I wonder if that hogan back there has a phone? It’s getting dark. Shit. Shit. Shit. “You’re going to have to fix it,” I tell myself. “Have to.” Hurry. I pull my emergency tool kit out of the back, find the length of hose.
I come from a family of car-fixers. My father, who instilled in me the working knowledge of this nation’s most indispensable machine, would have been astonished to learn that there are motorists out there who know nothing of motors. This ignorance could leave one helpless in the face of greedy mechanics or, as is common for some reason in our family, breakdowns. This is a disaster I’ve been anticipating.
By snaking my hand through the tangle of wires and tubes around the carburetor I can get under the intake manifold, between the starting motor and the bell housing and just graze the head of the hose clamp screw with one finger. I must force the back of my hand into a cheese grater of spring clips that hold the brake lines to the firewall. A pound of flesh is what I’m including in the estimate. Everything is slick with sprayed coolant and oil the Trooper has been leaking out the rear main seal for decades. There’s dust embedded in the goo from Diamond Creek, Lolo Pass and Cabeza Prieta. There’s grit from Elephant Hill and Ft. Scott, Kansas. Sand from Goblin Valley and Paradise Flats. The magic carpet has been grounded by faulty maintenance. I don’t blame the Isuzu, still giving it everything it had. It’s my own damn fault.
By the grace of God, I’ve got a stubby Phillips screwdriver and a further miracle allows me to engage the screw after dropping the tool in the dirt only 3,000 times. Each time I have to extricate my battered limb, crawl under the car for the screwdriver, and position it in my hand just so, because I can neither change my grip or see what I’m doing once I’m started. Then I re-insinuated myself into the vehicle’s entrails with the screwdriver poised like an ovipositor, deeper and deeper, till my shoulder jams against the distributor and my face is mashed on the fender, standing on the tiptoes of one foot. It must look as if the car just got me in its jaws and is waiting for the venom to take effect. I get a quarter turn on the screw and drop the tool. Another quarter turn and I managed to hold it in place and get another, then drop it three times in a row.
It’s starting to get cold. Unaccountably, I’m in my flip flops, Cholla Bay, the bottom of our projected loop, is still 600 miles off. My toes are numb. My left hand looks like a baggy full of hamburger and road tar. We’re not going to make the party at Brad’s. I get another turn and drop it. When I straighten up there’s Samuel Manymules standing at the opposite fender. He says, “Having a picnic?”
I laugh in spite of our predicament. “We pulled over to watch the sunset and I thought I might as well replace some hoses while we were stopped. This is such a pretty place.” Which, in fact, it is, though it’s harder to notice nowadays with the abandoned gas stations, overgrazing and sprinkling of Phase One Trailer Blight. Wind blows all the time. It’s blowing now.
“You going to need a tow truck?” he asks. “I hope not to,” I say. “I’ve got the parts to fix it, but I need to hire a left-handed Chinese dwarf to install them. You know any?”
“Noooo,” he says drawing in out while he considers. “I know some short people but no Chinese.” He speaks Navajo-English with its hard consonants and drawn out vowels. It has the punctuated rhythm of rap music but I can actually listen to a native speaker without comprehension and enjoy it. It’s more lyrical.
“Might need some water if I ever get it back together,” I say. There’s a gallon of antifreeze I carry around with us but that’s it. The system holds two. There’s a couple of partial Nalgene bottles for drinking. “Never leave home without enough water to get to the next spring afoot, you idiot,” I remind myself. “You live in a desert.”
Samuel asks his wife if they still have water. They do. She is sitting calmly in the idling Chevy S-10 full of the firewood they having been cutting, looking straight ahead. She will do this for the next two hours without comment.
Samuel grabs a flashlight out of his truck and plays it over the battlefield. No bulb on earth is going to enable me to see through the intake manifold but I am grateful. Maybe he could ride me to Tuba City if these efforts fail. “I used to drive a wrecker on this road,” he tells us. “Four years. You see all kinds of things. People hitting horses, cows, sheep, each other. Falling asleep. One night I walked up and down this road till dawn looking for four fingers this lady had got torn off in a roll over. She had her hand out the window, I guess. Never did find one. I was so tired, I was seeing fingers everywhere. Crawling under bushes like worms.”
I’ve got the miserable hose clamp off now, and also the easy one on the end I can see, but the hose is stuck to the fittings with eighteen years worth of tenacity. I vigorously wrench it back and forth the two degrees it will move and take the last of the dermis off my knuckles. Blood, oil and coolant mix in my veins. I am brother to internal combustion, at one with my rig. I measure a new piece of hose against the old one, cut it off with a multi-tool I’d been given as a free promo from an equipment rental company.
As it turns out, the Japanese hose clamps will not fit around the outside of the American heater hose, which is a thicker walled, more manly hose. It’s close but not quite. You can’t disengage the tightening mechanism completely and reassemble it around the fitting like the Gringo ones either. This is a show stopper. Maybe there’s something that would help in the bottom of the leave-it-in-the car box, I think; something in there with the dead AA batteries, shreds of map, tire inflator and dried-out diaper wipes still reeking of that awful “fragrance” they put on them. There are relics of a thousand adventures in the crannies of the Trooper and I might find anything; a piece of mystery hardware from Hidden Splendor Mine or wire from Imogene Pass, enough bread and cheese crumbs to sustain me in a hike to Bitter Spring. If history could fill the gas tank, we could drive this outfit to Anarctica nonstop.
We brought our daughter M. home from birthing center at LDS hospital in Salt Lake in this car. They handed me a $100 bill as encouragement to do a one-night stay again when we came in to have the inevitable next one. One-nighters are a big money maker for the hospital. This was Utah. They want your birthing business.
Her brother R. was three and had barely gotten used to having a back seat that was big enough for a fella to spread out in. He eyed the lump of new protoplasm with some suspicion. “Are you going to stop crying now, Mom?” he’d asked. Later he learned to shift gears in this car, as did his sister. It’s freighted with so many milestones, no wonder it’s slow.
We took our first bank loan to buy the Trooper, used, with 25,000 miles on it. The credit manager was astonished that we didn’t show up on any rating service. “Everyone’s rated,” he said, “You don’t exist.” Back then we lived in one of the most beautiful and empty places on earth –actually we still do, but this was the old Torrey, Utah, the good Torrey, before the hotels and B&Bs. We haunted the canyons in the Trooper, occupied the Aquarius Plateau. The Isuzu would go anywhere and that’s where we went. When the road turned to single-track, we’d put the kids on our backs and walked. I carried R. on my shoulders into the Maze, but it was the Isuzu that delivered us to the bottom of the terrifying Flint Trail and waited at Lizard Rock with the life support systems at ready and battery charged. The Trooper was just that, before the SUV thing went over to the dark side; a simple, practical, durable, slow-moving, good-natured, unstoppable brontosaurus of a car. I wasn’t just trying to fix it, I was trying to give back to an old friend in need.
From the bottom of the car box, I surface with—glory hallelujah—a one-inch helical hose clamp. Just one. Damn. There’s two ends.
Samuel turns his truck to point the headlight at us. It is now completely dark and quite cold. “You need a jacket?” he asks. “I got anudder one in the truck.” “Thanks,” I say but the stress is keeping my core temperature up. “I just got in the habit of seeing if everyone was OK out here,” he says. “It’s a long way to anywhere. I haven’t drove the tow truck for a long time.” “What do you do now?” my wife L. asks him.
“I’m a potter,” he says “I make pots.” Of course. “We been driving around all over out on second mesa and up there,” he nods toward Black Mesa. “We get a load of wood and I gather what I need for my glazes. The minerals.” I regard him anew. “The glazes?” I ask. “Yeah, he says. “I make my own glazes from what I find around here. Out by Kaibito, Ganado, all over. I get clay too, down by the river, there’s a few spots that’s pretty good, but those pots was breaking, a lot of them, you know, in the kiln. Costs a lot to fire the kiln. Now I mix it with half the stuff from the supplier, off the truck. It’s one thing that makes my pots different. For the market, you know. People like that. It’s native.” He laughs.
I’m thinking of the roadside stands that sell “Indian” jewelry and rubber tomahawks when I ask, “How’s business?” “Pretty good,” he says “I got “Best of Show” in Santa Fe last month. Sold that pot for $3,000. The lady that bought it, you know, she slept under my table the night before the bidding. It didn’t even start till nine, but she wanted to be sure she was first. I thought that was a little bit nuts. She was from Norway... or Sweden or someplace. She said my pots were so beautiful, they made her cry. My pots made her cry. I thought that was pretty good.” He laughs again.
There is blood dripping off the elbow of the arm that has the hand that’s trying to ratchet the hose clamp down, but I’m focused momentarily on Mr. Manymules. Why is he being so nice? Why isn’t he out in the hot tub with a glass of white wine? I offer him an escape route. “You don’t need to spend all evening out here in the cold with us, Samuel, “I say, “We’ll get this figured out.” Though I’m clueless how. “Let’s see if you get going,” he says.
I am able to use a socket wrench to tighten the “impossible” clamp, but it will only move the screw one click at a time, 24 clicks per revolution. Usually the ratchet handle clatters through the engine compartment to the dirt between clicks. It is maddening, but my rage is contained by the cold clarity of necessity. R. cannot believe that I haven’t flattened the Trooper into a steel wafer with whatever was at hand by now, but...where would we be then? “Temper, temper,” I repeat like a mantra. “We must persist at the task at hand.” Finally, the clamp seems to snug up. I can’t be sure.
For the visible end of the hose, my strategy is to modify one if the original hose clamps with Fleet’s multi-tool, tweaking the mechanism here and there to gain an added fraction of capacity. I will have to remove the tightening screw altogether, which means the retaining nut, the size of a tic tac and gravel colored, will be free to fall into the churned earth below the car in the pitch black. R. has the cool LED headlamp that Gary gave me, focused on the arena. L. has a flashlight. Samuel has a 12 volt Navajo substation lightsource.
Right about then I have this thought that maybe I know why Samuel is out here, holding his flashlight in the cold, with his wife patiently idling in the Chevy. I think I’ve got it. There’s “Revival” signs along this highway year long and the big blue tents of the evangelicals are a common sight. Missionaries crawl the ridges. The Rez is a great place to hunt for lost souls. I’m thinking maybe Samuel is counting on a heavenly reward for this miserable evening. I wonder if he’s been waiting for an opening. I decide to give it to him. Next time I drop the wrench, I say, “Makes you wonder how hose clamps could be a part of God’s plan.”
“God’s plan?” Samuel says right off. “You guys religious?” I admit that we are not. I am sorry for this at the moment. I would beseech any higher authority to fix this car, but none has proven adept at auto mechanics. “We are kind of non-religious, in fact.” By this I hope to shorten the inevitable sermon.
“You know,” begins Samuel, “My Grandmother wanted me to learn about the white man’s religion. She said the religion of the Dineh must not have any power any more because look how things are going. I went to different religious schools my whole life. Catholic, Jesuit, Methodist, I went to them all. My Grandmother, she said I had to go to all these schools to learn about the white man’s religion. To see what’s there. To see what gives them power. I went clear through high school. I went to them all. I came back and said Grandma, I know what’s there. Now I know. Nothing. There’s nothing there.” I can see his backlit profile in headlights, looking away. “Religion is poison,” he says. “Poison that makes you blind. Like bad alcohol.”
He was positive about this. “You live your life as best you can,” said Samuel, “You get old and die. What’s the matter with that? You die like a dog or a deer. What’s the matter with that? Why do you have to make it any different than that? It’s nuts.”
There is the empty wind, the starry fullness of the reservation’s night sky. “Nobody wants to die,” I finally say.
“Well, that’s tough,” says Samuel Manymules. I don’t have any argument.
“I did see something once,” he says “Something like a spirit or a chindi, I don’t know. My cousin and I were out at my uncle’s old house one night, nobody’s lived there for years, you know, and we’re hearing this sound that’s not like the wind, like giant bee or something. My cousin wanted me to go outside to see. He was scared. I was a little too, but I don’t believe all that stuff so I did. I walked out of the house about from here to the road, that far. This thing comes from behind me, brushes my leg, shoots off about thirty feet that way, faster than anything can go. Stops, turns around, comes right at me. I couldn’t move. I’m like a tree. It went right by me again, then it was over there, instantly. This thing was like a piece of the dark. It didn’t have any shape, you know, wasn’t very big either, like dog sized. As big as a dog, but I could see the bushes right through it in the star light. You can’t see through a dog.
My own skin is crawling. I’ve forgotten about the hose.
“I didn’t know what it was. I just stood there with this thing shooting all around me. Stood there for a long time. Sometimes it would stop for a second and I said this one time, ‘Go ahead and kill me if that’s what you’re going to do. Go ahead. I’m getting real tired standing here.’ Then it started shooting around again. I just sat down after a while, crossed my legs and sat down. Stayed like that for hours with this thing shooting all around me. Finally it left. My cousin, he was sure I was dead. I’d been out there so long it was almost morning. I was out there all night. That’s the only thing that ever happened. The only thing I can’t understand.”
I go back to my clamp. The night is darker still and more inhabited. I think I’ve about got it done though and I’m trying to replace the various tubes and wires I’ve knocked off in my frenzy. I’m sticking vacuum hoses on any vacant fitting and twisting green wires together with white ones. I throw all the tools and trash in a bag and toss the oily mess onto a heap of Christmas presents in the back. The motor starts right up and fires on a small majority of cylinders. In the daylight I will find the loose vacuum advance hose without which the engine will scarcely run. There is no stream of coolant visible, but the thermostat isn’t going to deliver any juice to the heater till the engine warms up, so I can’t really tell if it’s leaking. No time for that. I’ll just have to keep one eye glued to the gauge. You can never let a Trooper get too hot. Its aluminum cylinder head will warp. Then the whole engine is toast.
Samuel and his wife follow our sputtering rig into Tuba City. We burn a half tank of gas going 60 miles. Something’s not right but it’s running. We pull over to thank the Manymules at the gas station. Her tells us where he lives, offers us a place to stay but I’m taking this oil-soaked road show to a motel. “Come by in the morning if you need a mechanic or parts, I know someone who would open up,” he says. “I make pretty good coffee.”
“I can’t thank you enough,” I say. I’m afloat in a sea of the milk of human kindness, buoyed by the relief of disaster averted. “That’s one heck of a good man you have there,” I tell his wife. “I know,” she says. We wave goodbye. I drive off into the glittering sprawl of Tuba City, wondering whom it is I need to thank for the many roots of compassion.
Copyright 2010. No part of this writing may be reproduced without written permission from the author. Image credit: Wikipedia/Creative Commons.