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  • December 25th, 2017


This was the first blog I ever posted on this website, on my birthday in 2010. It seems almost a lifetime ago, as does the event described. But it also seems somehow appropriate to repost it on this day of peace when, if we believe someone arrived two thousand years ago to offer hope to a troubled world, we can also believe that such people do exist even in our own time. To the memory of my mechanical Messiah I offer my inadequate thanks and tell him or his spirit that Marty and I made it home, her cold is cured, the ailing Ford, having served a long and useful life has gone to the great junkyard in the sky, and the pitiful kids you played savior to have done okay in the six decades since.
May everyone who reads this blog find someone in his or her life who measures up to that guy, whether it’s in or out of church, whether it’s in daily life or wherever. Have a wonderful Christmas and accept the fondest hopes from the Vance family for peace, good health and happiness for all of you.
• * * *
By Joel M. Vance
We were young, less than a year married, in love and far from home. We were still learning to live together and had not suffered any major crisis—no births, deaths or serious illness. I was stationed at Ft. Bliss, Texas, perched on the south edge of the United States in the arid desert around El Paso.
It was peacetime, 1957, and my active duty tour had ended. I was an unemployed second lieutenant with a specialty in antiaircraft artillery, a skill that, in the age of missiles and jet airplanes, was as useful as wet plate photography.
I had a couple hundred dollars in cash. Home in central Missouri was 1,200 miles away. Marty and I left El Paso well before dawn, intending to drive all the way without stopping—there was little money, even for a cheap motel room.
Marty had come down with a miserable cold, one of those ache all over, watery-eyed, nose-dripping miserable colds that feels worse than most terminal illnesses. She huddled on the passenger side of the 1949 Ford we’d bought for $500 and periodically sneezed and whimpered.
I sped through the night, the Ford purring like a contented kitten. We finally were going home, freed from sand burrs and cacti and being treated like cheese mold by superior officers and subordinate non-coms, vectoring on soybeans and corn. There was no traffic. The yellow headlights flashed across the occasional saguaro cactus, its arms raised in a southwest Texas goodbye.
The night flowed past like a dark river. The headlights showed yucca and sage and sand—for the last time, I hoped, at least on an involuntary basis. The Southwest is hospitable only to those with enough money to afford air conditioning and swimming pools…or to rattlesnakes, Gila monsters and scorpions.
We slipped into New Mexico, passed by Alamogordo and White Sands National Monument where we had spent a giddy weekend sliding on the pristine white dunes like the kids we had been back in Missouri, sledding on a snowy hill.
Mountains began to appear to our east as the rising sun, still hidden behind them, lightened the sky. We were in rolling hills that seemed to go on forever, the way they do in Western states. Tularosa, Three Rivers, Oscuro…the little towns came and went, each of them one step closer to home.
Our euphoria at being freed from military servitude lasted 250 miles until the Ford threw a rod. We were 10 miles outside Santa Rosa, New Mexico, and about 900 miles from Macon, Missouri. What had been a landscape of stark beauty suddenly became alien and hostile.
There was no traffic and I was 10 miles from help with a sick wife and an even sicker car. As miserable as she was, Marty would get well without help, but the Ford needed intensive care. I prayed that Mr. Ford had built a car that would endure the torment I was proposing to inflict on it—to go for help with a busted engine. I coasted down the hills and clenched my teeth so hard my jaws hurt as the Ford labored uphill, the shattered parts clattering around in the guts of the engine.
Finally we drifted into Santa Rosa, a town of about 1,500 and I stopped to ask where we could get a car fixed. “Ain’t much to choose from,” a fellow said. “There’s a Ford garage up the street.” I suspected the Ford mechanics would charge far more than I had available and it would take several days to get the car fixed.
But any small town kid knows there is a one-man garage somewhere in town, operated by a perpetually greasy mechanic who can fix any car ever made. “Is there a fix-it garage anyplace around?” I asked.
The fellow directed us to a quintessential one-man auto repair shop where the one man was shoulder-deep under someone’s hood. With Marty beside me, red-eyed and sniffling, I explained my problem. “I can do it,” the fellow said. “But I’ll have to get the parts from Tucumcari and that’s an hour away, each way. I can get it done by sometime tomorrow.”
I must have looked as if I were going to burst into tears (because I was). “I just got out of the Army,” I said. “We just have a little money and we’re trying to get home to Missouri.” I stopped there because I didn’t know what else to say. Marty snuffled.
The fellow looked at us through a sheen of automotive grease and said, “Well, I’ll do the best I can. Can’t promise anything, though. I’ll try to get her done by tonight sometime. Check back later.” It wasn’t as if he had no other work. Cars were stuck here and there in the small garage and we should have been at the end of the line.
We trudged through steadily increasing heat to a small motel where I repeated my story of woe. The proprietor, less friendly than the mechanic, grudgingly rented us a room for the day, a place where Marty could lie down in misery and I could count the minutes. If every day passed as slowly as that one, we’d all live a thousand years—but not very happily.
It was stifling by mid-day and we stripped to our underwear and sweated in the sweltering heat. There probably were motels with air conditioning, but not in Santa Rosa for $2.50. We tried to sleep, but it was too hot. I got dressed and told Marty I was going to check on the car. She coughed and sniffled.
The mechanic said he’d sent for the parts and they’d be in Santa Rosa in about an hour. “If everything goes well I might get it done by 8 or 9 tonight,” he said. Seven hours to wait in that awful motel room, sweating and anxious. I still didn’t know how much the car would cost, but I was pretty sure it would be more than we had. I didn’t know what we’d do if that were the case.
This was well before credit cards and we had no bank account. I supposed I could phone my parents or Marty’s, collect, to wire some money, but really didn’t want to do that and reinforce their opinion that we should have waited to get married and that I was a son/son-in-law with no money and little prospects.
The day dragged on and finally the sun began to go down and it got a little cooler. I went back to the garage about eight and the mechanic, tired and dirty, said he was almost finished. “Haven’t had any supper,” he said. “I wanted to get you folks on the road.” I didn’t know what to say to him. How can you thank someone who has given up his day, his work and his supper to help his fellow man and a stranger at that?
I didn’t get his name or address. I was young and thoughtless and I should have done that, among many thoughtful things that I didn’t. No doubt Hell is filled with folks who didn’t do something nice when the opportunity was there, but I hope when they throw a rod in a celestial carriage there is a grimy guy in an obscure corner of Heaven who will say, “I’ll have her done before manna.”
“Don’t push it,” the fellow said. “Let those parts wear in before you run her above 50 or so.”
Now came the dreaded part. “How much do I owe you?” I asked.
He wiped his dirty hands with an equally dirty rag, looked at me and at Marty who sniffled and coughed. “Say about $90,” he said. Even as dumb as I was about cars I knew that I was paying only for parts and maybe not all of them and not for his hours of hard work. I felt my eyes water and swallowed hard.
I emptied my scuffed billfold and handed the worn bills to him.
“I don’t know how to thank you,” I said. “I…don’t know…”
“Forget it,” he said. “Maybe you can help me out some day.”
They say charity begins at home, but I’d argue that, for me, it began long ago with a scruffy mechanic in Santa Rosa, New Mexico.

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