“Engine Trouble” • • • NINETEEN SIXTY THREE Excerpt

On a travel adventure through the racially-torn American South in 1963, Adam and Bobby find themselves in a perilously dangerous situation when their VW breaks down on a quiet country road near Albany, Georgia. They are confronted by three seemingly friendly Afro-American strangers who are offering them help.  • • •  or are they?


Engine Trouble


The engine’s quit! It just stopped,”

I coasted to the side of the road, and tried the ignition—the engine turned over but wouldn’t start. We sat in silence for few moments, thoughts of nothing and everything running through our heads, confused that such a thing could happen. I tried again to start it but with no luck. We got out of the car, raised the engine cover and stood, staring at the motor. Everything seemed normal: it wasn’t smoking, nothing appeared burned or damaged, not that we had any idea what we were looking for. I had worked on my engines before—at home in dad’s garage—with a full assortment of tools. But now, we were broken-down on the side of a country road, somewhere in Georgia, with no tools, little money, and no one to call for help.

A feeling of anxiety began to develop in me. My first thought, ‘Maybe I should hitchhike to the next town, search out a phone and call dad.’ I quickly came to my senses. It was a lame idea; he’d probably just hang up. After all, leaving a note for our folks, telling them that we had quit school, and were off on a trip to Florida, and oh yeah, I had taken his Texaco credit card, was not the best precursor for requesting assistance.

We were definitely in a pickle. We stood at the roadside pondering our predicament. An idea would inevitably develop. Bobby grabbed a couple of Cokes from the car, and we plopped down on the gravel shoulder and stared into the distance. After several minutes of nothing inspirational, I got up and tried the engine once more. As expected, nothing had changed.

“Well, that’s it!” I said, returning to the side of the road. “I think we’re screwed! You want to hitch-hike to New Orleans and catch a freighter?”

The attempt at humor had no effect on Bobby.

“I suppose there’s nothing for it. We’ll just have to walk to the next town and find some help,” he said. “I wonder what this is going to cost.”

“Yeah, good point.”

The only hope was if the credit card would be accepted to pay for the repairs.

We were about to start the five or so mile walk into Albany when an old Ford pickup rolled up and stopped behind us. Three black, young and muscular guys got out and approached. It didn’t require a lot of knowledge of the American South to recognize that our situation could potentially develop from a car problem into something much worse. Three strong coloreds—two white boys—no witnesses. Having a better knowledge of racial tensions down here probably would not be of any use. As they walked up, the driver of the truck was the first to speak.

“Hello there. You fellas got a problem?”

He certainly spoke a lot more ‘white’ than I was expecting.

“Well, yeah,” I said. There was a slight quiver in my voice that I prayed was not noticeable. “The uh . . .  , engine’s quit. We’ve no idea what’s wrong. It’s been running great up until now.”

I was sounding as if I was apologizing for our problems. He looked at the engine then looked back to me.

“Name’s LeRoy Scroggins, and this here’s Rodney, and that’s Sam,” he said, gesturing toward his partners.

“Adam Hayden,” I said, and then motioned toward Bobby. “And Bobby Griffis.”

I extended my arm toward LeRoy with the intent of a handshake. My gesture, possibly too abrupt, took him by surprise and he stepped backward quickly as if a reflex to protect himself. Recognizing my gesture as friendly, he stepped up and shook my hand, then turned, reaching toward Bobby to do the same. Preoccupied with watching Rodney’s close inspection the engine, when a hand suddenly appeared in front of him, Bobby jumped. We were all apparently a bit nervous but were somehow able to recognize the humor in the situation.

Looking at the car, LeRoy said, “Well, I wouldn’t say I’m an expert, but I’ve worked on a few engines. I could take a look if you like?”

“Sure, go ahead,” I said. “I’ve tried to restart it. The engine turns over easily, but that’s about all.”

LeRoy knelt down and looked into the engine compartment.

“Mind cranking it over a couple of times?”

I got in the car and ran the starter for a few moments, but of course, it didn’t come close to starting.

“I can’t say for sure, but it sounds like the timing is off somehow. Maybe a broken timing gear or belt—I’ve never worked on one of these, but it does sound like a timing problem,” LeRoy glanced at Rodney, who responded with a head nod in agreement.

“Damn!” I said, “Just what we needed. I hope there’s someone in town that works on Volkswagens?”

They seemed sincerely friendly, but I wasn’t sure if it was that or were they just working their way up to providing us a good thumping and stealing the car.

“Where y’all from anyway?” Rodney asked. “I don’t recognize your licence plate. Y’all sound like you got a Northern accent.”

“Yeah!” I said, “Canada!”

I told them the part of Canada we were from and a quick version of our trip. It was none of their business, but I thought it would delay a potential beating. They were intrigued by our accent and continued to ask questions. Bobby and I answered like it was an interrogation, then we’d ask them something. It was an awkward confrontation, to say the least, filled with nervous fidgeting, but still, we seemed to exchange pleasantries quite readily. The anxiety at times would relax.

While we were discussing the engine with Rodney, LeRoy wandered away to speak to Sam, who was fussing with something in the back of the pick-up. After a bit, Sam got in the vehicle, made a U-turn and drove off. When LeRoy returned, all he said was that Sam was going to get more help.

“More help?” I said inquisitively. ‘Why would they need more help? I’m sure the three of them could handle us with no problems at all.

“Yeah. He’ll be back shortly,” LeRoy then began quizzing us about Canada and our trip. I tried to act calm, but I was feeling like a mouse being played with by a cat before being devoured. My imagination was running rampant with thoughts of robbery, a beating or worse. We could be killed right here on this road in Georgia, and no one would know.

Our conversation teetered on with LeRoy and Rodney for half hour until Sam returned; an old flatbed truck followed him. The two vehicles pulled to the side of the road and parked behind our VW. When the driver of the flatbed jumped out of the cab and started approaching us, LeRoy provided an introduction.

“Adam, Bobby, this here’s my Lil’ sister, Carla.”

My Gawd! Carla was gorgeous! Tall with a shape that begged to be hugged. Her soft, bronzed complexion shimmered like velvet in the sunlight. A delicate nose and sparkling steel grey eyes that peered out from under an afro, so massive, if the wind blew too hard, it would surely blow her away like a dandelion fluff. Her short-shorts were ratty-edged, torn rather than scissor-cut and rode high on her thighs, making her long and shapely legs appear to go on forever. A bright, rainbow-colored sleeveless blouse hung from her shoulders, with the shirttails pulled up and tied beneath her breasts for support; breasts that I was satisfied would spill out if only she would twist just a little. I could only hope. If a physical assault was the intent of this foursome, she could take me down now.

LeRoy looked at me, his eyes in a Clark Gable, ‘Gone with the Wind’ squint, which suggested, ‘Down boy.’

“Now, if y’all want some help,” he said, “we can load your car on the back of this here truck and take it to a garage we know in town.” He hesitated a moment, then added. “It’s a ‘White’ garage, and I’m pretty sure they’ll be able to help y’all out. They’re good folks.”

That sounded like a great plan. LeRoy had eased the tension I was feeling; this appeared to be sincere generosity from perfect strangers. While I remained a bit concerned about a potential nefarious outcome, it seemed our best plan. Our only plan. At least now, I knew what LeRoy meant by ‘More help.

The flatbed had a winch and a ramp that made loading the VW a simple task. With the car securely positioned on the truck, we were off—to where exactly, I wasn’t too sure. Bobby wedged into the pick-up with Rodney and Sam. I joined LeRoy, with Carla snuggly squeezed between us. We hadn’t traveled far on the paved highway when LeRoy turned off onto dirt side road.

“Just taking a shortcut,” he said.

That nervous twitch in my stomach returned. I wanted to ask where we were going but decided it would probably expose my tensions. The only comfort was Carla’s, warm bare arms and thighs pressing against me in the tight confines of the front seat.

It was hot, and the dust from the pickup ahead of us was choking; at least Bobby was breathing clean air. Hopefully, we would reach our destination soon; the constant yo-yo of tension and relief was causing me the need of a bathroom.

The old road was finally about to enter the outskirts of Albany. At last! I was confident we would be arriving at the garage shortly. Carla, LeRoy, and his friends had so far seemed sincere.

Unexpectedly, LeRoy turned from the dirt road into a trail traveling between several rundown properties, and my anxieties exploded again. We proceeded slowly, over the pot-holed lane, past yards littered with refuse: old rusted vehicles, and deteriorating abandoned outbuildings. The truck bounced and jolted through the holes, and I hoped we had tied the VW to the truck securely. Rocking back and forth, Carla grabbed my knee, her forearm pressing against my inner thigh for support — I almost wet myself. The trail continued beyond the derelict properties, through a grove of tall trees that reminded me of the pecan farm entrance Bobby and I had experienced the day before. Carla’s body continued to press against me, her hand remaining clutched on my knee. It was definitely stimulating, but I wasn’t sure if it was enough to distract my anxiety. I began to feel our fate was imminent.

We exited the alley onto a paved street, complete with street lighting, and modern housing. LeRoy made a right-turn into a service station parking lot. The garage—at last. It was a Texaco station and service garage. Things were again looking up. My first thought, ‘Would we be able to pay for the repairs with the credit card?’ I glanced at Carla, my beaming smile belying my relief at feeling liberated from potential assault and robbery . . .  , or worse.

We parked on the far side of the lot. LeRoy suggested he would go in first to confer with the owner. We agreed and other than my immediate trip to the station’s washroom, we waited, huddled in the limited shade of the truck. The afternoon sun was warm, radiating off the paved lot.

The station was busy; several cars were at the pumps; the two garage bay doors were open, with a car, high on a hoist. Vehicles were parked along the far side of the lot, either repaired or waiting their turn like patients in a doctor’s office.

Eventually, LeRoy leaned out the door and motioned for Bobby and me to come in. Eric Andrews, the proprietor, his name displayed above the door as we entered, was busy talking with a customer. He was an older man, possibly in his late fifties, with sparse greying hair, thick eyebrows, and a bit pudgy around his middle. He reminded me a little, of Archie Bunker, from ‘All in the Family.’ After finishing with the customer, his mechanic was waiting to discuss another matter. As he listened to the problem being presented, the phone rang. Answering it, Mr Andrews had no trouble handling both the phone call and his dialogue with his mechanic, at the same time.

“Busy man!” I said to LeRoy.

“Yeah! He is a busy man,” he said. “He knows how to keep people happy. One of the good ones.”

I wasn’t sure what he meant by saying, ‘One of the good ones,’  but before I could ask, the station owner had finished his business and approached.

“Mr Andrews, sir. As I was telling you, this here is Adam and Brody, the two fellas we found stranded on the highway.”

Bobby pursed his lips at being called Brody. He was about to correct the misnomer, but LeRoy never gave him a chance as he continued describing our plight. Mr Andrews put up his hand, interrupting LeRoy’s story.

“Well boys, LeRoy here has already given me a bit of information on your situation, and it sounds like a problem that we might be able to help with. But right now, I have to slip on home and have a little supper with my wife before she heads off to work. So you and LeRoy go ahead and get your vehicle off his truck and park it over there.”

He motioned toward a vacant spot at the edge of the service station lot.

“I’ll be back in an hour or so, and we can do some talkin’ then before closing time.” He hesitated a moment as he gathered up a couple of things to take home. “Y’all Okay with that?”

“Yeah! That sounds great,” we chirped.

“Thanks, Mr Andrews. Appreciate it,” LeRoy said, as he shook the old man’s hand.


Andrews left for home, and we went back to the truck to unload the VW and pushed it into its designated spot.

“Well, I guess, that’s about it,” LeRoy said, dusting his hands off, on his pants,

“S’pose we best be getting home, mama’s gonna have supper ready real soon,” Carla said to LeRoy.

Then unexpectedly, she looked at us and said, “You fella’s welcome to join us if yous got nothing planned.”

We were both taken back by the sudden offer. ‘If we got nothing planned?’ At this point, we didn’t have any plans. We were just going to sit in the car and wait for Mr Andrews to return. We’d seen more Southern hospitality in the last couple of days than I would have thought possible. But, being invited home for dinner after such a short encounter took me by surprise. I looked at Carla, then at LeRoy. He recognized the surprised look on my face.

“Yeah! You’re welcome to come if y’all care to,” LeRoy said. “I think mama would like to meet a couple of boys that come all the way from Canada.” Then he added, with a smirky grin, “White boys, at that.”

I smiled at the joking racial comment. “Yeah!” I said. “Dinner would be great. Thanks.”

And with that, Bobby and I joined LeRoy in the flatbed, while Carla rode with Rodney and Sam, who dropped her off at home.

LeRoy’s place, though rustic, was clean and well maintained. A picket fence in need of paint surrounded a grassy, treed yard. A young boy was playing on a swing, floating back and forth below a giant oak.

“That’s Titus, my young brother,” LeRoy said pointing to the boy, who flew from the swing, tumbling to the grass, then was up and running to greet his brother. We got out of the truck and went into the house.

His mom reminded me a little of Savanah from the pecan plantation, although much younger. I could see where Carla got her high cheekbones from and her striking looks. After introductions and LeRoy’s explanation of our situation to his mom, she welcomed us into her home as if we were family. Bobby and I joined Titus and LeRoy at the kitchen table, while Carla went to help her mom finish preparing dinner.

Oh, My Gawd! What a meal. Was everyone in the American South a chef? First Savannah, now Mrs Scroggins. A large platter of the best Southern-fried chicken I’ve ever tasted sat in the center of the table. Around it was smaller bowls filled with fresh, warm buttermilk biscuits with a side dish of butter, a delicious hot Creole Okra dish that could have been a meal in itself, and of course, a bowl of grits. People in America eat grits with every meal—at least in the southern United States. Bobby was more polite and only had a little of everything, but I ate as if it was my last meal of the week. When dinner was over, and I knew I couldn’t eat another bite, Carla brought out a freshly made, hot, bourbon-n-pecan pie, flavored with a hint of chocolate, that I would have pushed my grandmother down the stairs, for the last piece. There’s always room for dessert.

The ambiance, while we visited with the Scroggins, was as relaxing and comfortable as eating at home. There was no suggestion of racial animosity. Nor was there any discussion of it. We were new folks and white, visiting in a black family’s home, deep in the racially charged American South, the center of explosive Civil Rights issues, sharing a meal, friendship, and mutual respect for one another. I felt supercharged with the emotion I felt for the people we’d met in Georgia, colour of skin had no meaning, and yet the hatred and mistrust that ran between blacks and whites here was rampant with hatred, protest, fighting and even killing. I knew I would never understand.

As much as it would have been nice to visit longer, it was time to go; we were due to meet Pop Andrews back at the garage. I thanked Mrs Scroggins for the meal and gave her a hug. I’m certain she must have felt I was trying to squeeze the life right out of her. She hugged me back and told me to take care. After our goodbyes, LeRoy drove us back to the station.
What we were about to learn, would completely belie the caring we had just experienced Scroggins family.