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Monday, August 20, 2012

You have entered …The Headlight Zone

It was 1990, and my nephew Matt was in love. It’s a love story that needs to be told. But, not today.

No. This story is about a brisk October night in Arkansas. A short story that, 22 years later, still has enough chill to send shivers down your back. The kind of story that finds its way into conversations when family gets together and someone always asks, do you remember when…..

Matt took a year off of college to work as a park ranger at Camp Yorktown Bay. Angel, the love of his life, lived in Arkansas and that was where he wanted to be – close to her.

On a weekend off  Matt would drive three hours up Highway 7, a scenic byway that is flagged by the State's Tourism promotions. However, the often late night runs would emphasize the curves and the dark lonely miles through forests and mountains that were only illuminated by occasional habitations.

The aging ‘78 Toyota Corolla that took him on each journey had belonged to his parents, and it had a puzzling problem with the electrical system. When you least expected it, the headlights and the dashboard lights would begin to dim and then everything would go dark.

“I took it into the Toyota Dealership in Wichita, Kansas,” his dad had told him when he handed him the keys. “But, they couldn't figure out what was causing it.”

But, young men in love push the limits and he had fearlessly driven the route before with no problems. That  was not to be the case on this particular autumn journey.

The lights began to flutter and dim. Matt stayed the course. He willed the car to keep moving as the high beams grew fainter. Another curve. Was that diffused lights up ahead? Yes. Could that be a gas station? It was. The car was totally dead when it rolled to a stop in front of a filling station and repair shop. There were still lights around the gas pumps, but the garage was locked tight in the middle of the night. Matt vaguely noticed a man leaning into the opened door of another vehicle under the lights nearby,  but there was no other activity in the tiny hamlet.

Matt hopped out and felt goose bumps - and not entirely from the chilly air.   He popped the hood and began to poke around in the engine - not that he really had any idea of what to do under there. He was frustrated, but certainly fortunate to  have broken down in some civilization with  possibility of a mechanic in the morning. He thought of all the very dark and narrow places along his route which could have been… well, very… dark… and… narrow.

“Whatcha got goin’ on?” A man’s voice startled him from his thoughts. When he turned he realized it was the man from the other vehicle. He appeared to be middle aged, dressed in work clothes, and the old pick-up truck he was driving had a huge tool box on the bed.

“No lights, no electrical system.” Matt answered, and then told the man about the cars propensity to work fine for long periods, and then when you least expected it, to lose power and die. In previous episodes Matt had called a friend and they had restarted it with jumper cables. As it was close to midnight, Matt said he was nervous about jumping the car and heading out onto the dark highway.

“Hmmm,” the man leaned over and fiddled with something around the alternator for a few minutes. “Let me look in my truck.”

The man turned and began to walk towards his truck when he suddenly stopped and returned. He reached into his pocket and pulled out what looked like a fuse.

This might work.” He leaned over the fender, removed a small part, and replaced it with the part from his pocket.

“Try startin’ it.” He made the command with a wave of his hand.

Matt jumped in and turned the ignition and the engine fired up immediately.  Matt was ecstatic!

The man made a facial expression that could have been pleasure as the result of his successful tinkering and then gestured with a quick tilt of the head to indicate that Matt should hit the road.

After flipping the beam between bright and low several times for assurance, Matt shifted into gear and pulled out into the roadway. He yelled his thanks through the open window and waved goodbye to his rescuer.

A few miles away, the total absurdity of the encounter suddenly hit him. He felt shaken. He had just experienced something that was wild beyond his imagination, and he had driven away from the scene as though it was an every day occurrence.

In a ten-minute span Matt's car had broken down in the lights of the only service station in a village on a lesser traveled highway in the middle of Arkansas, where an old farmer or handyman had been standing by his truck at midnight, who diagnosed the electrical short that had stymied the paid mechanics and then retrieved the exact part from his overall pocket and fixed it.  For free.

Maybe Matt had two Angels in his life that day.