In this Guideposts Classic, Efrem Zimbalist Jr. recalls a difficult day that taught him a lesson.
- Posted on May 7, 2014
Would you believe four flat tires on one car in one day? Well, listen to this.
Back in 1953 I was planning an easy little trip from my home in Connecticut to Pennsylvania. I had four brand new tires for my car. And that was no ordinary car–it was (and is ) the motorized love of my life.
It’s a 1934 Packard, a tan and chocolate brown beauty, with long sleek lines and highly finished grillwork up front. The top lets down, and there’s a sturdy running board on either side of the chassis, which rests on gleaming wire wheels. More about those wheels later.
Life was unsettled for me back at that particular time. Emily McNair, my first wife, had died of cancer. Emily and I had bought that Packard together. It had been an old wreck of a car sold to us by a New Englander with a thick Maine accent.
In 2001, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I wasn’t a good candidate for chemo. I took tamoxifen instead and gave my trouble to God—just as Dr. Peale suggested in his book, "Thought Conditioners". Since then I’ve remained cancer free. -Guideposts Magazine reader
We had hired a mechanic to restore it, but Emily died before the car was finished. So there I was with our two small children, Nancy, 7, and Efrem III, 4. And the Packard.
I withdrew from acting for a while to give myself time to heal, and in the interim I began composing music.
I come from a musical family. Mother was a beautiful soprano known on the opera stage as Alma Gluck; and my father, a celebrated violinist and composer, was then director of the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.
Now my first work was going to be performed! It was definitely a thrill, the prospect of going down to Merion, on the Main Line outside of Philadelphia, to hear it presented,
I’d written a motet, a choral work sung without instrumental accompaniment. It was based on a sacred text, Psalm 150, an unusual sort of composition for me since I wasn’t all that religious. At the time, that is.
But I’d put my all into that piece, and it was one of the numbers to be performed on a Sunday afternoon program of religious music by a very distinguished group. My father would be in attendance, too.
The plan that Sunday was for me to drive down to New York, park the Packard, then continue by train to Philadelphia, where I would meet my father. Together we would make the short commute by train to Merion. But if I had known then what awaited me. I might never have ventured out that Sunday.
I drove a short distance down Route 202, following the Aspetuck River, then turned off onto Route 37 for a shortcut into New York. There were dark clouds overhead, but the day started off happily.
“Tah, dah, tah, tum, Praise ye the Lord ... Praise Him with the timbrel and dance, dah, dab, dah, dah,” I sang, lustily, snatches of my choral work that soon would be magnified by many voices. “Oh, Prai-i-i-se Him upo-o-o-on–” POW! My left tire. My new left tire.
“What in the world?” I exclaimed. “I just bought those tires.” The flat had come just as I entered the small town of Sherman, Connecticut, and it posed an immediate dilemma for me.
There were two spares sitting grandly in the side-wells along the running boards, but they were there mostly for show. They were old and couldn’t be trusted. So I ran around trying to find a service station–one open on Sunday. The one I finally found had to call Litchfield, 22 miles away, and have a tire delivered.
Well, I figured, that’s okay. I’d allowed an extra hour and a half traveling time.
Annoyed over the delay but glad that I’d started out early, I drove the Packard back onto the highway. “That tire shouldn’t have blown. What bad luck,” I brooded. Soon, though, I was humming to myself and fantasizing about the reception I’d get for my motet.
“Praise Him with the sound of the trumpet: praise Him with the psaltery and harp ...” HONK! HONK! Someone waved at the Packard. (The Packard always gets a lot of attention.)
The dark clouds had now opened up, and rain pelted down. Then I heard a second Pfffft, flop, flop. My right rear tire!
“This can’t be happening!” I said out loud. There I was, in the middle of a downpour on the Saw Mill River Parkway. Straining under the Packard’s weight, I began jacking up the car; but the jack broke and splattered me with mud. My temper smoldered.
With good leather shoes sinking in the ooze, I tromped off to find a farmhouse and a phone. A wary woman answered my knock. Through the cracked door, she stared suspiciously at my wet suit, the hair plastered to my forehead, the splotches of mud on my face and clothes.
“Strangers ain’t allowed here,” she said brusquely. Slam went the door. Click went the latch. Precious time was lost as I persuaded her through the door to call a service station to come and fix my flat. By this time my head start had eroded
The tire changed, I was back at the wheel, sitting damply on the leather seat, spinning down the Saw Mill, trying desperately to make up for lost time. And then, the third tire went. The Packard limped into a nearby service station.
Through clenched teeth, I called my father in Philadelphia and told him to go on to the concert without me, I would meet him as soon as I could get there. Dad tried to soothe me, but it was no use.
Back in the car, my blood pressure was boiling. My moment of triumph had been lost, all because of those miserable tires. I no longer puzzled over the oddity of their going flat. I was too infuriated.
And so, when the fourth one blew, I was a dangerous man. I banged shut the door of the Packard. Not even the rain could cool me off. And where was I this time? On the Henry Hudson Parkway. I could see the city, but I couldn’t get to it.
Cars whizzed past, barely missing the Packard, parked precariously on the shoulder just at the end of a curve. No one stopped to help; people only honked and yelled warnings and shook their fists.
But I was too angry to give up. I was going to complete this trip if it killed me! Then I heard it, a chug-chug-sputter-sputter, and a jalopy, driven by an old white-haired man, pulled up behind me. Off went the engine, and the man’s head slumped against the steering wheel.
Minutes passed, nothing happened. Still seething, I stomped over to the old car and asked gruffly through the window: “Hey, what are you doing here?”
When the old fellow looked up, I caught my breath. I hadn’t expected the serene, compassionate gaze that met my angry glare. His face was almost, well, beautiful; and although he must have been near 80, his eyes seemed ageless.
In a feeble voice, with frequent pauses, he explained, “I’m a little tired, and I thought I’d take a rest.”
“A rest!” I yelled. “On the Henry Hudson Parkway?” Could this man be pulling my leg? I wondered. I was beginning to think I was going gaga.
“And what are you doing here?” the old man asked in a singsong voice.
“I have a flat tire,” I snapped. “In fact, it’s my fourth flat tire of the day!”
No reply. Then, after a long wait, he said, “There’s a garage a mile and a half down, at the next exit. They’ll fix it.”
“Don’t you understand,” I fumed, “I have a flat. I can’t drive that far on the rim!” Why, I wondered, was I standing here in the rain talking to this old guy?
After another minute’s pause, he asked, “Then why don’t you fix it?”
I wanted to shake this man until his teeth rattled, I was so mad. “Because my jack broke!” I replied, exasperated by this slow-motion conversation.
Looking at my mud-spattered watch, I realized that the concert would be starting soon.
“I have a jack,” said the old man, and he handed me the keys to his trunk.
“Why didn’t you say so in the first place?” I said huffily, as I got the jack. As quickly as I could, I changed the tire, then returned the man’s jack and keys. Neither of us spoke.
I went back to the Packard, whacked on the hubcap. Then, feeling guilty about my rudeness, I turned back to thank the old gentleman. And I gasped! Jalopy and man had vanished. Without a sound. I remembered the sputtering of his engine when he pulled up behind me. There was no way to sneak off in that car.
I ran up the Parkway and looked into the distance, cars zooming and screeching around me. No trace of him. “I am losing my mind,” I said out loud.
Then I began to wonder. Was that man real or wasn’t he? The spare tire in place on the front of my car was proof that he’d lent me a jack. But he couldn’t have disappeared in those few seconds–20 at the most–while my back was turned. It was weird. I felt a shiver down my spine.
On the train ride down to Philadelphia, I continued to puzzle over the old man.
Of course, I thought, if it hadn’t been for him, I’d still be standing helplessly on the Parkway. But on the other hand, he wasn’t all that helpful. He didn’t do anything, in fact, until I told him point-blank what I needed. And yet, he gave it–a jack, that’s all I needed And then he disappeared. Just who was he?
All those flats, I later found out, occurred because the mechanic failed to put on the boots with the Packard’s new tires. The boots would have protected the tires from the Packard’s spoked wheels.
But, you know, I never forgot that old man, and years later, when I drew closer to God, I felt–and I believe now–that that old man was sent to help me. As exasperating as he was, he gave me the help I needed. But he made me ask for it.
“Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find…” (Matthew 7:7)
But wait, there’s more to the story of that day. I walked into the concert in Merion, two hours late, just as the choral group burst into “Praise ye the Lord … Praise Him for His mighty acts ...” The 150th Psalm–my motet! Knowing I was delayed, the conductor pushed it back on the program until he felt he could not hold off any longer; and at that moment, I pushed wearily through the doors.
I sat there, muddy and wet, and listened humbly, as the choir’s voice swelled at the end: “Let everything that hath breath praise the Lord. Praise ye the Lord.”
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