By Robin Kristoff
I should begin by saying that I know nothing about cars. Yes, I know how to drive one, given lowly-populated surroundings. I know that turning the key affects the ignition system, which is somehow connected to a battery that runs out of charge and leaves you stranded if you leave your headlights on all day. I further know that cars have four wheels which require changing for winter driving – an engine, windshield wiper fluid and gears, and that this combination of items is potentially lethal when mixed with alcohol or moose. But for our purposes here, I know nothing about cars.
Imagine then the degree of my alarm when green fluid suddenly
gushed from beneath my hood an hour’s drive from home on I-91. My feelings may have been roughly equivalent to those of the Wicked Witch of the East as she watched a flying house speeding toward her. Utter bafflement, perhaps, in the face of witnessing something outside of natural reason—cars, as far as I had experienced, generally kept their fluids internally — a vague but quickly sharpening sense of danger, and a complete lack of ideas on how to solve this situation. I did at least have the sense to pull over, turn my car off and get out. But then, having reached the limits of my ideas, I stared helplessly ahead as green fluid continued pulsing from my hood to the ground in a smooth three-sided waterfall.
After about thirty seconds, I shuffled a few feet closer to the front of the car, thinking that opening the hood might somehow enlighten me as to what was wrong and somehow give me the ability to fix the problem. Then I stepped back. The green liquid, whatever it was, looked hot. And in any case, I knew perfectly well that merely looking at the dysfunc- tional interior of my car would no sooner grant me the knowledge to fix the problem than it would cause wings to sprout on my back to fly me home.
But not to fear—I live, after all, in Vermont. No sooner had I reached the before mentioned point in my mental process than a capable looking pickup pulled over behind my car. Out of this pickup stepped an even more capable looking married couple, asking if I needed help. In such situations, I have no pride on which to stand. I agreed wholeheartedly that yes, I could use any help they could give me. The husband pulled a toolbox out of his truck. The elapsed time between my breakdown and the arrival of help was roughly three minutes.
My next rescue occurred exactly one week later with the same fourteen-year-old Subaru, now proudly sporting a four-day-old radiator hose, on a low-traffic road outside of Barnet. The radiator hose and every system of the car were fine that day. My new problem was a very flat tire. I’ve mentioned that I know nothing about cars. At that point in time, I knew particularly little about my car, as I’d bought it a scarce two weeks earlier. The result of this was that I didn’t even know where my spare tire was, much less how to exchange it for my flat.
Every other vehicle I’d ever been acquainted with kept its tire in the trunk. I lifted my tailgate to discover that I didn’t have trunk. I blinked at the open space behind the back seats in a perplexed way. Why had I never noticed the absence of a tire when I’d opened the rear door before?
Finding the tire was the foremost worry on my mind through the next few minutes. After my rescue the week before, I had every confidence that a good toolbox-carrying Samaritan would stop to help me. Gone was my fear of being stranded. A fervent wish to not look like a complete idiot settled in its place.
Straining my ears for the sound of an oncoming car, I pulled out
the removable lining of the space that should have been a trunk. Searching for hidden compartments along the floor produced no result. Nor did pulling at the mysterious latch welded into the frame.
I darted my head out of the car and scanned the road, relieved to find it still empty and silent. I pondered how much damage I would inflict on my innocent, aging car if I searched any harder. Ripping away the floor seemed like far too drastic a measure. I eventually opted to pop my hood to achieve that small measure of perceived competence. Of course, when the hole in my tire was large enough to be seen from the road, a person who ignores their flat to check for engine problems is unlikely to be perceived as anything but a liability to share the road with. At the time, however, the idea seemed to have merit. I imagined that opening a hood was for a car what putting my hands to my throat meant for choking: a universal signal of a problem and a silent request for assistance.
When I opened the hood I found, most unexpectedly, my spare tire. It was bolted securely in place with no hope of my removing it on my own, but I’d found it. Fifteen seconds later, roughly six minutes after pulling my car over, a man in his thirties with a kind smile and toolbox pulled over in front of me. After ten minutes of casual workmanship, idle conversation and profuse gratitude, I was back on the road.
Later that day I thought back on how completely I had trusted that someone would stop to help me, and how quickly that trust had proven well-founded. I was on a completely different road from my first breakdown, at a different time of day, but rescue in both circumstances had arrived in less than ten minutes. I’m also sure that I’m in no way the only recipient of this easy, casual generosity. Having lived in Vermont all my life, I’ve heard enough stories of other rescues that my encounters with country chivalry were not wholly unexpected. I certainly appreci- ated each of my rescuers calm, kind generosity, but nothing in their actions truly surprised me. I’d always known that I lived in a place where you could leave your doors unlocked and the keys in your car. With less clarity, I’d known that people will usually eventually help you when you need it. But I hadn’t realized, until my second rescue in eight days, that where I live you can receive undemanding assistance so regularly that you can come to expect it, to count on it and, with whatever skill you can, aspire to return it.