I’ve been on the road in the tractor trailer for the past week: Iowa City to Boonton, NJ where I carried a brand new Iowa law graduate’s stuff down into her parent’s basement; to Brooklyn, NY, where I delivered a poet to a warehouse with a view overlooking both the Statue of Liberty and lower Manhattan; to Wilmington, MA where I unloaded a hospital administrator’s things into a warehouse with a view of nothing; to Kittery, ME, where I delivered an orthopedics researcher and his wife to their retirement home in the woods. Then I moved a writer and teacher friend and his family from a prep school in Andover, MA, my old home town of sorts, back to Portland, ME, to the same house I moved him out of three years ago. Yesterday I took a break and went clamming with my mom and dad and brother and niece out on Little John Island in Yarmouth, ME. It felt a bit like prospecting for gold that you could eat.
The law student bickered good-naturedly with her little sister most of the time we unloaded; the poet was already in Brooklyn and we tried to grab a quick lunch together but the timing didn’t work. Up in Kittery everything went flawlessly, and the orthopedics researcher, who had a beautiful woodworking shop we packed up, told me that he couldn’t have asked for the packing to be any more meticulous, and it made me feel a surprising rush of pride and pleasure, as if my own Dad had told me he was proud of me.
After my brother and I moved my friend back to Portland, he and his wife took me, my brother, and his wife out to dinner. My friend and my sister-in-law both lost their fathers to cancer in the last six months, and they talked about their dads, about pain and morphine and hospice doctors, and about the boxes of papers and other things their fathers left behind that they still have to go through.
Of course, many other things happened, too, among them this: At mile marker 119 in the low mountains of central Pennsylvania, the tractor’s engine made a muffled explosion sound and then lost almost all power. After calling a mechanic friend and, per his instructions, checking to make sure the turbo wasn’t spewing engine oil out the stack (very, very bad), I limped into a truck stop a couple of miles away, opened up the hood, and found out that a large hose leading to the turbo had lost a clamp and come entirely loose at one end.
I have almost no mechanical aptitude, and I’ve learned to ask for advice quickly in situations like this. I turned to the truck driver fueling up next to me and said, “How good are you at guessing hose sizes?” and he said, “What?” and I said “How good are you at guessing hose sizes?” and that got him curious and he walked over to my truck, took one look at the hose hanging loose in the engine compartment and said, “That’s a 4-inch turbo clamp you need. It should cost you about nine bucks and it’s a good idea to have one or two extra on hand in case of emergencies so go in and buy two.” Mechanical aptitude in truckers is as common as book smarts in professors, and sadly I’m more professor than trucker.
The driver was right, it was a 4-inch clamp I needed but not a turbo clamp. An off-duty mechanic heard me asking for a turbo clamp, thought it was strange that a guy who looks like me would be asking for one, and said he wanted to go out to my truck and take a look. Within a minute he came back and said “You don’t need a turbo clamp that’s your air-to-air” as he disappered into the back to get a couple. This is what it feels like to be a stranger in a foreign land — turbo clamp, air-to-air clamp, all of it a strange language I have to pretend to understand just to pass as an adult. When he came back out I thanked him profusely and told him I really didn’t know a thing about trucks and he said, “Okay if I go put it on for you? Only take a minute.”
And then he went out and worked on my truck for 20 minutes. He didn’t just have to replace the clamp, of course: the hose already on there was the wrong size, or it had gotten badly stretched from the pressure blow-out when it slipped; the clamp on the other end was so corroded it was beginning to fail so it had to be replaced, too; one of the new clamps broke in his hands as he tightened it down. When I thanked him and told him how long the fix would have taken me — hours probably — he said “that’s what mechanics are for.” I tipped him a twenty dollar bill but he tried to wave it away so I put it under a couple of sockets in his tool kit.
And then I was on the road again. As I drove across Pennsylvania and the shadows deepened to black in the valleys, the mechanic’s help, his general decency, felt like the final point in a long argument about the goodness of people everywhere. It’s a point that’s lingered now for days.