Wednesday, January 9, 2013

By the Hand of God

I needed cheese.  Pepper Jack and Cheddar, to be precise.  This was not a passing whim -- not merely some ephemeral hankering.  You see, the Packers cannot lose when I make the delectably gluttonous and magical "No-Lose Nachos."  They are that powerful.  For the good of Wisconsin and the universe in general, cheese needed to be procured, post haste.

I hurriedly clambered behind the wheel alongside my step mom in the passenger's seat, rushing to get back from the store in time to melt two cheeses into beer-laced béchamel, and pour it over corn chips before kickoff.  We took her truck, but when we travel together I nearly always drive.  This is out of no anachronistic sense of chauvinism.  If you'd ever ridden with her, you'd drive too.  I suspect she secretly likes to be chauffeured.  That's the only possible explanation for why she tries so valiantly to end me in a firey ball of death on the seldom occasions she takes the driver's side.

So with the urgency of a man late for the meeting of his life, I rushed onward for the glow of town over the horizon and the big box grocery.  The game was on the line, after all.  It occurred to me that the headlights might have been a skosh dim in the wintry evening gloom, but that was of little concern in the heat of the moment.  Then the dashboard lights faltered.

Oh, shit.  That ain't right.  I'd been there before in a vehicle of my own, and knew the symptoms of an alternator in the throes of death on the road.

Within a minute we were dead in the water, adrift in a sea of impending Packer doom.  As it happened, we were also stalled at a four-way stop in a no parking zone right at the edge of town.  Being a weekend as it was, Carolyn elected to leave the Suburban overnight in order to avoid exorbitant towing charges, which meant we had to get it down the street and around the corner to avoid a parking ticket.

Now Carolyn, wonderfully bright and witty as she is, is not built to push 7200 pounds of Chevrolet steel down the road in her pretty little heeled boots.  Even in her youth she was a slight woman.  Tea with the ladies is more her speed.  So I was the nominated workhorse, obviously.

All went well on the straightaway.  With the standard amount of slipping in the snow and questionable language to get things started, I quickly found myself in that oddly powerful condition of rolling a big vehicle down the street one-handed.  Then came the turn, and trouble was once again at our doorstep.  Not only was Carolyn unable to push the truck, but through no fault of her own, she didn't possess the strength to turn the wheel without power steering either, and we'd rolled too far into the intersection, all kattywampus and snarled up.

I quickly found myself dancing with the devil in the cold dark.  Heave on the steering wheel to get the wheels turned, push the truck back, yank on the steering wheel once again in the other direction, push the truck forward; executing a 47-point turn, one hernia at a time.

A gifted storyteller, my father used to relate to us a favorite family tale of he and Brian canoeing down the Kickapoo river.  As one of our favored paddling rivers, I've enjoyed the wiles of the Kickapoo many times, and was always entertained by the story as it grew in magnitude and intensity over the years.  The best storytellers among us can accomplish this embellishment sublty, without detracting from the meat of the story, and often do among friends.  It's part of the art of folklore.

They'd chosen a spring day of low flow and freezing weather to run the river.  It turned into a tiresome afternoon of getting hung up on sandbars in that big old aluminum Grumman, but they'd managed to avoid stepping into the icy waters by doing that ridiculous butt-skooch thing you do when your canoe gets stuck.  The vision of two bearded, hale and hearty outdoorsmen doing the butt-skooch dance down the river before my time is enough to make me smile every time the story is retold.

Nearing the end of their journey, the canoe finally became irrevocably mired.  Skooch as they might, they weren't going anywhere.  In the retelling, Dad was down on his knees in the bow, digging at the marl for all he was worth. When, in his own words, with proper dramatic pause and expression of awe, "As if by the hand of God, we broke free and began to move."

While "as if by the hand of God" has since become a family catchphrase, with a wink and a nod, for any momentous happening, the Almighty Himself had little to do with freeing the canoe that day.  Brian had simply sacrificed his warm dry feet, and gotten into the river to push.

And so it was with Carolyn's Suburban and my 47-point hernia.  As I was leaning into the tailgate for another heave forward, the truck rolled forward begrudgingly.  But then, as if by the hand of God, it began to move more freely.  I looked up to see not Jehovah, but a dude clad in Carhatt and a Pheasants Forever cap, much like me.  With his help, we were able to park the truck at the curb, safe from tickets and fines, and grab a ride with Carolyn's husband to the grocery store.

Fear ye not, while they weren't ready to enjoy until the second half, No-Lose Nachos were made, and they worked their mystical charms on the game.

I don't know how many cars passed us as I toiled to get the truck turned that evening.  Dozens and dozens, at least.  As it happened, the man who stopped was blatantly cut from the same cloth as I am, as evidenced by apparel, attitude, and demeanor.  From his pick up truck with an ice shack in the back and his willingness to help, right down to the same brand of boots I noticed, head down and pushing, when he first appeared beside me, we were two of a kind in that moment.

Maybe that means nothing.  Maybe everyone else who passed us had wives in labor or screaming children in the back.  But most of the folk of fine northern stock I associate with would stop on a cold night to help a stranger push a broken-down vehicle out of the road.  With the exception of a certain unnamed soul who once playfully sat in his truck sipping a beer as I dug my truck out of a snow drift with an ice skimmer on the camp road, it's what you do, at least if you're a guy.

I didn't catch the name of our mystery man, nor was I able to repay him with anything more than thanks, but I've stopped to help stranded motorists in the cold before, and I'll do it again.  In the vain of the old Real Men of Genius Bud Light commercials, here's to you, Mr. Mystery Ice Fisherman Truck Pusher Guy.  I owe you one.

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