Bloomington Blues #2

Have you ever had that feeling of pressure in a moment of crisis or uncertainty when you truly did not know what to do and other people were relying on you? That’s what happened as my daughter and I sat in the cab of our Penske truck and watched steam hissing out of the hood as if from the head of a dragon. Casualty number three.

“Dad, what are we going to do?” she asked. “I don’t know,” I said. Surprised, she stared at me. Casualty number four. That could have been the moment she crossed the line from childhood into adulthood. “I don’t know,” I repeated, shaking my head.

Once I recovered, we located a pay phone and called for roadside assistance. They towed us to a hangar-like garage off the interstate filled with semis, trailers, straight trucks, box trucks, “reefers” (refrigerated trucks), and even a car transporter. Our Penske looked like the little engine that could among giants. We gave our information to the mechanic and then called our friend who, eager to help, picked us up quite cheerfully. Of course, he did not know he would have houseguests for the next three days. We tried to stay out of his way since he had work to do for a new position at the university and barely knew us. Some disasters happen, others you inherit.

Don’t take this as an endorsement of auto insurance, especially when most of it is a ripoff, but it so happens that we had taken out as much insurance as possible when we rented the truck back in Berkeley. Part of that came from a frank assessment of my own driving ability (i.e., New Yorkers are not the best drivers) and part from my wife insisting. Women can be very practical that way. It seemed like a strange thing to do for a new truck with only a few hundred miles on the odometer, but I took it out anyway.

Good thing, too, because the night before the frat boys had tied ropes to the radiator mount so that when they pulled the truck out of the depression in the street, they dislodged the radiator from the rest of the engine. This caused the engine to overheat and then shut down as I gave it gas to follow my wife’s minivan onto the interstate. The mechanic assured me that they would fix it in no time and we would be on our way that evening. I relayed the good news to my daughter and our host. I could see my daughter’s faith in her father restored. “This,” I said confidently, “was a minor setback.”

That evening when I hadn’t heard, I called the mechanic, who told me not to worry but that the truck wouldn’t be ready until morning. I took him at his word and didn’t worry. But then at breakfast after clearing his throat he informed me that the overnight crew had used our Penske to play chicken in the garage and smashed the front end. They would have to order a replacement part from a distributor. “What?” I said. The guy repeated word-for-word what he had just told me, including that the part would be there the next day. “It’ll be fixed in no time,” he said. I hung up and turned to my daughter and our Nigerian friend, both of whom looked at me with what economists like to call “cautious optimism.”

I relayed the mechanic’s message verbatim and said I hoped we could get back on the road soon. They thought I was pulling their leg. I told them it was true. Our host wished us well but had to get back to an article he had been working on about tribal coming-of-age rituals in West Africa. My daughter took a novel she had been reading and found a secluded spot. That left me to reflect on what I had done wrong in this or a previous life. Never mind that I don’t believe in previous lives or reincarnation. It didn’t matter. It was clear to me that I was paying for something that I or an ancestor had done to deserve temporal punishment in a truckers’ garage in Laramie, Wyoming.

As I mentioned, this occurred before cell phones. When my wife and our two other daughters realized that something had happened, they called my mother in New Jersey, who acted as a communications center, relaying messages back and forth. Messages typically had delays of a few hours to a full day. But since we were at a fixed location in Laramie, it was relatively easy to keep updated, assuming my mother could remember the message and phone number, which changed with each hotel my wife checked into. By then she was two states ahead of us.

The next morning I phoned the garage to discover that the replacement part had not arrived and wouldn’t be there until evening. “Sure,” I told the mechanic. Our host went about his business, I took long walks, and my daughter went back to her novel. Then, that evening the mechanic told me the wrong part had come in and they would have to order it again, this time from a different supplier in another part of the state. I started to worry.

On day three, the mechanic called to tell me they had received the correct part and would have the truck ready by 8:00 pm. At that point, things had gotten ridiculous, but I didn’t realize they would get even more so after our host dropped us off and we headed east on Interstate 80 in the dark. I wanted to make up as much time as possible. My wife and I had agreed to meet at the Doubletree Inn in Bloomington, Illinois. According to my calculations, we could catch up with her there if we logged a thousand miles over the next two days. That wasn’t something I was looking forward to, but we had no choice.

Less than an hour into the drive it started to rain, heavily. The driver’s headlight, which had been smashed in the chicken incident and set in place with duct tape, detached from its fixture and began swinging wildly by a few wires. I could see only half the road on its downswing as it struck my door. Then the rain turned to hail, and I had to come to a dead stop in the middle of the lane. The pelting got so violent my daughter cried. I told her not to worry–everything would be all right–although I had no idea how. To tell the truth, I wasn’t even sure where we were.

This is the second part of a three-part post entitled “Bloomington.” Look for part three next week. Image credits: feature by Karsten Winegeart. For the full story of Bloomington, go to Nine Lives. See also Robert Brancatelli. The Brancatelli Blog is a member of The Free Media Alliance, which promotes “alternatives to software, culture, and hardware monopolies.”


  1. Robert, all I can say is Wow!!! What an incredible story! In all my years, I have never had an experience like yours. And, yes, I have had my adventures renting, driving, and moving friends from St. Louis, MO to the desert. In my adventure, I had to exchange my rented U-Haul truck-yes, unload and load the truck 4 times, between St. Louis and the California Desert. In my story, no overnights with friends, but…a wonderful owner of a small auto parts store in rural MO, who actually left his house to open his shop and replace a truck part, so that we could get under way…Travel Angels:)

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