It's the only thing I had when my car broke down…
- Posted on Feb 11, 2010
Maybe a 1986 Mercury station wagon wasn’t the best vehicle to drive across the Mojave Desert, but it was all I had.
And I won’t have it for long, I thought as my engine coughed and sputtered. God, just let me make it to the next town.
I’d left my teaching job back in Colorado and was going to San Francisco to stay with my sister Joyce for a while. I packed my clothes, my books and my old guitar into the back of the Mercury and headed off.
I’d first taught myself to play folk music as a teenager in the 60s. Back then strumming a tune was all I ever needed to lift my spirits. I played bluegrass at parties, led ballads around campfires. I’d even performed in clubs and theaters and in church.
I hoped to find a club in the Bay Area once I got settled with Joyce, one where I could earn extra money with my music, since I barely had enough funds to get me through this road trip. Especially with my engine acting up the way it was.
Do I have enough cash to get the car fixed? I thought as I pulled off the highway into Barstow, California. I still had 350 miles to go.
The big temperature sign on a bank clicked from 109 degrees to 110 degrees as I rolled into town. I felt a full blast of that heat when I rolled down the window at a filling station and asked the attendant to recommend a good mechanic.
Three filling stations later, I finally got directions to an auto repair shop that looked like it had seen its best days around the time I was first teaching myself guitar.
If only I could play a tune to cheer myself up, I thought, but it would take more than an old folk song to solve my troubles.
The hot air seared my lungs as I climbed out of the car and walked to the open garage door. A skinny teenager was working on a car. Before I could even open my mouth he hooked a thumb toward a two-by-four office behind him. What else could I do? I followed his thumb.
Inside the office I found a dark-haired man sitting behind a cluttered desk, poking at a carton of Chinese take-out. “What’s your problem?” he demanded. Had to be the owner, I figured. His glare made me want to run, but my car would never make it to another shop.
“My engine’s cutting out,” I stammered.
“I’ll have someone take a look at it.” He stalked out of the office, slamming the door behind him.
I wiped a film a dust off a chair and sat down. An ancient air conditioner rattled above the door, but it made the office only slightly cooler than the air outside.
I looked at the signs posted around the room: Minimum charge: $50.00. Diagnosis: $50.00. Labor: $50.00/hour. No credit. It would cost me at least $200 just to get back on the highway. God, you know my cash situation. I’m putting you in charge of the repairs.
The door swung open. “Mechanic’s going to take a look,” the owner told me. “Where’s the keys?” He jabbed his hand out impatiently.
He must be having a really bad day, I thought. I hope he doesn’t take out his frustration on my wallet.
“Something’s still in the car.” I ran to the lot and got my guitar. The case handle was hot enough to burn my fingers. I carried it back to the air-conditioned office. “I hope my guitar didn’t crack in this heat,” I said.
The owner eyed the case. “What kind of music do you play?”
I passed him the cheat sheet of songs I kept inside the case. He flipped through them. For the first time since I’d met him he wasn’t frowning. “We must be about the same age,” he said. “I haven’t heard some of these for years.”
“Class of ’65,” I said.
He grinned—a real grin. “Close enough. My name’s Joel.”
“Well, Jan, it’s gonna take a while for my man to check out your car. You mind playing me a few tunes?”
Lifting my guitar out of the case, I slipped the embroidered strap over my shoulder. I plucked out a few chords. “What would you like me to play?” I asked.
“How about Joan Baez?”
I launched into “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” Joel nodded his head with the music, then began to sing the lyrics with me.
We ran through more Joan Baez, then moved on to Bob Dylan. Joel never stopped grinning. The music lifted my own spirits as well, just the way it had when I was 16. I’d get to San Francisco somehow, and I’d worry about money once I got there. Meantime I let the folk songs wash away my cares.
When the mechanic appeared to tell us the car was ready, Joel waved him off. “Take it for another test drive. We haven’t gotten through the song list yet!”
I finished “Blowin’ in the Wind” just as the mechanic knocked on the door a second time. “I drove her around the block four times,” he said. “She’s working fine.”
I laid my guitar in its case. “How much do I owe you?” I opened my wallet, ready for anything. I’d put the repairs in God’s hands.
Joel rubbed his chin. “You know, I couldn’t have heard that much good music at a concert,” he said. “You got ten bucks for the new part?”
Joel crumpled my 10-dollar bill and wrote PAID on the invoice. Minutes later I was on the road, my guitar like a guardian angel by my side.
I didn’t know what lay ahead, but I had everything I needed to face it: my faith, and my trusty guitar.