Thursday, October 16, 2014

A Night in Bethlehem, Etc.

I told a story to a friend a few days ago that I feel is worth repeating. I don't recall exactly how we got on the topic, but every time I think back on this particular adventure, I realize how bad situations can offer up revelations.

The weekend before Thanksgiving, 1994, our family headed north from Charlotte in our 1990 two-tone Isuzu Trooper to spend the holiday with my wife's family in Boston. This was a drive we had made many times before from Atlanta, and the drive from Charlotte was of course shorter, but it still took almost two days each way. Headed up on that first night, we made it as far as Piscataway, New Jersey.

A few days earlier, knowing we were headed north, my New Yorker friend Scott had suggested a route that took us up the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, where we could get a great view of Lower Manhattan. Bright and early Sunday morning, we left our hotel in Piscataway, stopping along the way at a Dunkin' Donuts in a rather rough part of Perth Amboy for coffee and donuts to go. Sarah, nine years old and curious about what things looked like at street level in New Jersey, went into the shop with me and was completely taken by the accents of the patrons and the staff. A fellow customer joked with us about how you knew the neighborhood was getting pretty bad, because the change cup next to the register was labeled "Do Not Steal". He looked more than a little dodgy himself.

Emerging unscathed with some new Jersey phrases, we snarfed down a dozen donuts and some highly sugared coffee while driving the BQE and gazing at the city across the East River. I liked how the well-traveled road descended at times below street level into a sort of narrow corridor, only to emerge back into the light and life of Brooklyn. The twists and turns of the road eventually led us to I-95, where we headed north into New England and on to Boston.

The week in Boston was restful and energizing, and on Saturday morning, we pointed the Trooper back home and headed south. I drove from Boston, down through Connecticut, New York and New Jersey, traversing the crowded lanes of the Garden State Parkway, and finally heading west on I-78, eventually stopping at the New Jersey-Pennsylvania state line to switch drivers. The sky was overcast, and as soon as we crossed into Pennsylvania, it began to snow. Visibility was limited, and due to the hilly terrain in the area, the roads were slick. Karen, who grew up and learned to drive in New England, was used to driving in bad weather and consequently kept her speed to about 15-20 miles per hour.

Suddenly, I saw Karen look in the rear view mirror and say something, then I heard a loud crunch on our left rear bumper. We pulled to the right, but the driver who had hit us sped off ahead. It was too snowy to get his license number, but at that point, that was not our primary concern. Sarah was crying, Hannah was speechless, and somehow, Karen maintained her cool. We pulled off the road, put on the flashers, and got out to check the damage. From all indications, the only thing we could see was a bent rear bumper and a kinked tailpipe. We felt lucky, but also totally unable to drive as far as Harrisburg, which was our intended destination. And soon, it was pitch dark. We were unfamiliar with this particular stretch of road, since we generally took another route when traveling through Pennsylvania. A sign up ahead said that it was only a few miles to Bethlehem, so we decided to stop there for the night.

Neither Karen nor I had ever been to Bethlehem, so she drove while I navigated us into town. This was before Garmin, TomTom, and phone map apps, so I followed as best I could on the trusty Rand-McNally Road Atlas. We could see the shadows of the steel mills as we plied our way among unfamiliar streets, and there were no people around anywhere. The scene was nothing short of spooky, but fortunately, within a few minutes, we found our hotel, breathing a sigh of relief as we stepped out of the car and into the hotel lobby.

What we saw caused our hearts to skip a beat. The hotel was fully decked out for Christmas and was hosting a nativity scene decorating contest. All along the entry corridor, a series of creches were displayed. The hotel desk clerk directed us to our room, and we hauled up our suitcases, then returned down to the hotel restaurant for dinner. We all went into chill mode, then decided that the next morning, we would try to find a body shop to assess the damage. It was a good night of sleep.

The next morning, as we packed the car, I noticed that my portable CD player was missing. Not being familiar with the area, and having recently experienced a theft from the Trooper back in Charlotte, I spoke to the hotel clerk about the loss, and he summoned the Bethlehem Police to file a theft report. I wasn't really sure if this was necessary, but within minutes, a sharply dressed young police officer appeared and took down our information. Once that was out of the way, we headed to the nearest body shop. Remember, it was Sunday morning.

We pulled into the parking lot of the body shop, into one of the last available spaces. The owner, a jolly, fortysomething fellow, took a good look at the damage to the Trooper, then disappeared inside and returned with a crowbar. He carefully bent the tailpipe back into shape, and when I asked how much we owed him, he said, "Nothing, sir...I see you guys are from North Carolina. Just have a safe trip home." We thanked him, wended our way back out of Bethlehem, and then continued west on I-78.

The drive was getting better. The kids were so patient as we passed through one town after another on I-78, then on I-81, and by the time we got to northwest Virginia, everyone was hungry, so we pulled into a McDonald's and filled up. As we headed back out to the expressway, I could feel that something wasn't quite right with the Trooper; it was a little hard to get enough acceleration to get back up to speed on the road, but I attributed this to whatever might have happened the night before. At any rate, we would have the Trooper checked out once we returned to Charlotte.

The party wasn't over. As we drove down the road, I tried changing gears (the Trooper had a stick shift) and noticed that the clutch was slipping. Karen remembered that we had been down I-81 the previous summer on a family vacation, and she thought she remembered that we were coming upon a sizable town that we had passed through then. Sure enough, within a few miles, we reached Harrisonburg, Virginia, and as we approached, we spotted an Isuzu dealer off to the left. We pulled the Trooper into a Comfort Inn and planned our next move.

Evening was falling, and once we had parked the Trooper at the hotel, it wouldn't budge. We took our luggage up to the room and called a towing company. A little after dark, the tow truck arrived, and our driver, a pleasant young woman, hooked up the truck and got us the two blocks or so to the dealer. We paid her, thanked her, and headed across the street to a Red Lobster, where the restaurant manager, hearing our plight, offered us free appetizers and wine. We had a relaxing dinner and a restful night, and the next morning, we walked down to the Isuzu dealer.

At the dealership, two members of the service staff took pity on us and put us at the front of the service schedule. We needed a new clutch, and the work would take at least a day to complete, so we rented a car and drove up to the New Market Civil War battlefield, thinking that maybe we could all use a little history lesson to change gears. It was a beautiful day, and for a moment, we forgot all about the Trooper and our delay getting home. That evening, we toured around Harrisonburg, checked out the campus of James Madison University and discovered that we were actually in a fairly large town, and a friendly one at that.

The next day, the Trooper was ready, and after we paid and got our keys, I asked if I could speak to the owner of the dealership; I wanted to thank him for the superior service that we had received. When I walked into his large, paneled office, I introduced myself and told him about the two service advisors who had been so kind to us. I mentioned that I knew the holidays were around the corner, and I hoped that they would be recognized. He told me he'd make sure they got a little something special.

The rest of the trip home to Charlotte was, thankfully, uneventful, and when we got home, people were curious about what had happened and what it felt like to break down "in the middle of nowhere". All I could think was that in actuality, we had rediscovered something special, and that was that there are so many caring people in the world. You sometimes do not expect to find them, and they might not be in places that you'd even consider looking. But they are there, and maybe the adventure that started that night in Bethlehem was one of those things that was just supposed to happen.

By the way, our next SUV had automatic transmission.