It was 2:00 in the afternoon, Sunday, February 20th…I had just pulled off Interstate 83, north of the Baltimore Beltway, into the parking lot of the Hunt Valley Shopping Center for a cup of coffee, when I felt the bump-bump-bumping of a front left tire quickly going flat. I got no more than ten feet toward the row I intended to park in, when, in a flash, the brake pedal of my 1987 Dodge Diplomat slumped all the way to the floor; the car keeled over and screeched along the asphalt to a halt!

Getting out to survey the damage, it was instantly apparent I’d escaped calamity out there on I-83. I’d been on my way home from the very special funeral of my august mother-in-law at the Highland Presbyterian Church, in Fayetteville, North Carolina. As if that hadn’t been excitement enough, my head spun as I witnessed, beneath my car’s left front fender, wheel and tire collapsed at a 70 degree angle against a rusty frame! The Endless Mountains of Pennsylvania and home were suddenly a moonshot away!

Dazed, I wandered into Wegmans supermarket, where a sympathetic clerk at a long information desk offered me a phonebook the size of – and just as inscrutable as – the Magna Carta. Slumping to a seat on a bench that faced the check-out lanes, I failed to focus at finding the AAA auto club’s number, of which I happened NOT to be a member. Which of several towing outfits was the right one? And if I did pick a winner, where was I going with the car? Which of the dozen garages listed could be trusted to repair my car? Which of them were open on a Sunday? I never thought of suburban Baltimore as being a particularly friendly place, but the store manager approached and asked what my problem might be. As quickly as I poured out my predicament, he was on his cell phone speaking with an inexpensive and functional towing outfit. The manager also disclosed that I was within shouting distance of a well-regarded Sears’ auto repair center – which, in fact, proved to be on the opposite side of the shopping center directly behind his store. My benefactor had no sooner left when a gentleman took a seat beside me and – explaining he had overheard the store manager’s conversation – called the Sears people, relaying the situation with my car as I laid it out to him. Squirming in discomfort, I uttered a snippet to my tale of woe; I was expected  back in northern Pennsylvania Wednesday morning, bright and early, for eye surgery. Angel #2 smiled in return and put me on his cell with “Chris,” the Sears weekend manager, who guessed they could have my car up and running and out the door by late Monday afternoon.

The tow truck driver, a friendly chap from El Salvador, spoke excellent English. When we’d towed my car around to Sears, he offered to chauffeur me, gratis – in the tow truck – to a motel of my choice. My first selection, the nearby Hunt Valley Inn, at $140 a night, proved too much for my pocketbook. We made the rounds of several other places near the mall (no reduction in the prices!) until he thought of the former Hampton Inn. A mile away, it was $89 plus tax. Recently reborn as a Comfort Inn, it was to be my palatial and comfortable home for the next several days.

Monday, I was at the Sears garage as quickly as I could get there – not as easy a job as you might think. Over the past several weeks, Baltimore and its environs had been stricken with at least four feet of snow; the sidewalks piled even higher – undoubtedly hurled in haste off the streets and now frozen mounds of ice. You couldn’t walk anywhere, even to a place within sight; wild, relentless traffic made the cleared streets too dicey for foot traffic.

Enter “Jimmy’s Taxi,” a super efficient bunch that appeared almost before you called them and, at reasonable rates, got you where you needed to go at bullet speed. The cab drivers, although from India, were cheery, quite Americanized, and knew the Baltimore area like the tanned back of their hands. The warning about the sidewalks and the “Jimmy’s” recommendation had come from the girl manning the Comfort Inn front desk – as it turned out, another godsend from yet another angel.

At the Sears garage, Monday’s news  was mixed: they’d found the problem: the upper left wheel control arm had virtually disintegrated from age and road salt. My car being 23 years old, the suspension parts were not readily available; it could take weeks to locate them. Brown’s salvage yard to the rescue…out on Kirkwood Road in the town of White Hall; they sent a man into a junkyard drifted five feet with snow to pull the part from the single matching Dodge car in their inventory. As for Monday, that’s all she wrote….

At the motel, Tuesday morning, I grew totally antsy. I’d been forced to cancel the eye surgery back home, already once rescheduled because of the funeral. In a dither, bag and baggage, I checked out of the Comfort Inn and took up residence in the waiting room at the Sears garage. Either that car was going to be fixed, or… or, what? Andy, the mechanic, took me out into the garage and showed me the mess confronting him. Trying to mount the junkyard arm, he had discovered further hidden rot at the point of attachment. Andy broke it to me gently – the car was not easily, if at all, fixable. Furthermore, it was Andy’s personal advice not to drive it one mile further, even if he were to fix it. The amount of hidden salt and rust damage to the frame, the brake lines, etc., in his opinion, made the car a death trap. Andy didn’t have to tell me that if that control arm had let go out there on 695 or on I-83, at 70 miles an hour I most certainly would have been attending my own funeral.

I hated saying good-bye to my old friend the Diplomat, but I cleaned the car out, and gave it a burial right there in the Sears garage. (Brown’s arrived the next day and towed it off – along with the unused control arm – to keep the other Dodge company out in there the drifts.) That afternoon, I leased a little Chevie Cobalt from Avis and headed up I-83, first toward York and Harrisburg, PA, then east to a bed at my daughter’s home in Kutztown, some four hours away.

What did I learn from this experience? First, never, EVER, look a gift horse in the mouth. When O’bama presented his “cash-for-clunkers” deal I’d turned up my nose at it – that $4500 dollar allowance I’d missed, was looking very good on the new car I now belatedly contemplated purchasing. Why in hell had I stubbornly stuck to that clunker? Sure, I’d bought it five years ago for $1500, but in the past 18 months the expensive repair bills had been mounting. And as to the SAFETY aspects? – I’d been totally out of my mind driving that car at speed on trips to Florida, lucky to still be alive. I’d certainly been warned – not just by my son and daughter – but by practically everyone who knew me.

The best lesson of all was in discovering how wonderfully helpful Americans can be when they see someone in trouble. It’s the kind of thing that takes you totally by surprise – folks in the middle of a stressful day, coping with their own problems, simply putting them aside to come to your aid. If we are looking at hard times, then, as Dubyah once told us, “bring em on!” I suspect hard times will only bring out more of that kindly AMERICAN SPIRIT that so helped me a few days ago in Baltimore.

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