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Engine Trouble

Last updated on April 5, 2019

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 seemingly friendly locals. But, are they friendly?

Engine Trouble

“The engine’s quit! It just stopped!”

I coasted to the side of the road, and tried the ignition—the engine wouldn’t start. We sat in silence for a few moments, thoughts of nothing and everything running through our heads, confused that such a thing could happen. I tried again. No luck!

Bobby and I went to the back of my VW 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 here 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. 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 . . . , I’had left a note telling him and mum that we had quit school, and we’re off on a trip to Florida, and oh yeah, did I mention, I’ve borrowed your Texaco credit card. It wasn’t 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 if we waited long enough. Bobby grabbed a couple of Cokes from the car, and we sat 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?”

Bobby’s expression matched his thought, ‘Catch a freighter?’

My attempt at humour was wasted.

“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. It had worked great for gasoline purchases so far.

We were about to start our walk into Albany when an old Ford pickup rolled up and stopped behind us. Three young, black, muscular fellas got out and approached us. Did I mention muscular? 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 innocent white boys—no witnesses. Having a better knowledge of racial tensions down here probably would not have been more comforting. As they walked up, the driver of the truck spoke to us.

“Hello there. You fellas got a problem?”

He certainly spoke a lot more, ‘white,’ than I was expecting. What was I 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 at 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 turned back toward LeRoy extending my arm, with the intent of offering a handshake. My gesture, possibly too abrupt, took him by surprise and he stepped backward quickly in a reflex to protect himself. Then, recognizing my gesture as friendly, he stepped up, shook my hand and turned, reaching toward Bobby to do the same. Preoccupied watching Rodney’s close inspection of the engine, the sudden appearance of LeRoy’s hand reaching out for him made Bobby jumped.  Touché. We were all apparently a bit nervous but we’re somehow able to recognize the humour in the situation.

Looking toward the car, LeRoy said, “Well, I wouldn’t say I’m a qualified 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 that happens.”

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. The starter worked great, but the engine never fired.

“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. I wasn’t sure what to think.  Were they what they seemed, or were they just working their way up to providing us with a good thumping, then 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. I think our accent intrigued them — they continued to ask questions. Bobby and I answered like it was an interrogation. Then there’d be a pause and we’d ask them something to break the silence. It was an awkward confrontation, filled with nervous fidgeting. But 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 their vehicle and drove off. When LeRoy returned, all he said was that Sam was going to get more help.

“More help?” I said inquisitively. That quiver was back in my voice.  ‘Why would they need more help? The three of them could surely handle us with no problems at all.

“Yeah. He’ll be back shortly,” LeRoy said, then began asking us more 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 on full tilt, with thoughts of robbery, a beating, or worse. We could be killed . . .  right here . . .  on this road . . . somewhere in Georgia . . .  , and who would know?

With bottles of Coke for refreshment, our conversation continued with LeRoy and Rodney for about a half hour until Sam returned; an old flatbed truck following him. The two vehicles pulled to the side of the road behind the 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, peered out from under an afro, so massive, if the wind blew too hard, it would surely have blown her away like dandelion fluff. Her short-shorts were ratty-edged, torn rather than scissor-cut and rode high on her thighs, making her long, shapely legs appear to go on forever. A bright, rainbow-coloured sleeveless blouse hung from her shoulders, with the shirttails pulled up and tied beneath her breasts, supporting them; 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, now, foursome, she could take me down without protest.

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

“Now, if y’all want some help,” he said, “we can load your car on the back of the 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’s words eased whatever minor tension had remained after being mesmerized by Carla. This encounter was beginning to feel like sincere generosity from perfect strangers. Whatever nefarious outcome lie ahead, this 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 travelled far on the paved highway when LeRoy turned off onto a dirt side road.

“Just taking a shortcut,” he said.

That nervous twitch in my stomach was returning. 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 for a bathroom.

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

Unexpectedly, LeRoy turned from the dirt road into a trail travelling between several rundown properties, and my anxieties exploded again. We proceeded slowly along the pot-holed track, past yards littered with the refuse of 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 in Georgia. 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 or my need to pee. 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! Oh my Gawd! The garage —at last. And, it was a Texaco station. 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 whatever.

We parked on the far side of the service station lot. LeRoy said 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 each 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, ‘One of the good ones.’  Before I could ask, the station owner had finished his business and approached us.

“Mr Andrews, sir. This is Adam and Brody, the two fellas we found stranded on the highway.”

Bobby pursed his lips at being called Brody. He wanted to correct the misnomer, but LeRoy never gave him a chance, continuing with his description of 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. 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 his dinner with his wife, 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 y’all 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 we’d spent time at yesterday, although LeRoy’s mum looked much younger. I could see where Carla got her high cheekbones from, not to mention 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 were smaller bowls filled with fresh, warm buttermilk biscuits, 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 like it’s a ritual —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. When dinner was over, and I knew I couldn’t eat another bite, Carla brought out a freshly made, bourbon-n-pecan pie flavoured 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 disturbed 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, the 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 with the Scroggins family.                                                          … to be continued.
   

 

Published inAdventurecoming of ageNovelstorieswriting

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