Ford Flathead II

  Jerome Shea       February 9, 2008      Weekend Wonk

I don’t remember much about that first semester at Colorado State, and maybe that’s for the best. It was a mixed bag, surely. I was on my own for the first time and pushing a barrow-load of insecurities. Too much partying, too much floundering and dithering. To be teaching for the first time was both a heady and a terrifying experience.* But somehow I got through it, and I made friends that I still have these long years later.

Christmas break came and I felt that I had earned a reward or at least a respite. It was cold in Fort Collins, snow on the ground, so I began to think of someplace tropical, some place with palm trees and beaches. Southern California was a good bet. But wait! Mexico! The New Year would find me on the beach at Mazatlan, sipping Negra Modelo and lazing on the warm sand. Viva Mejico! Another grad student caught the fever with me, and before the trip was over I would convince myself that I was deeply in love with her. I wasn’t, and she knew it and suffered my histrionics patiently until the fit passed. I still had a lot of growing up ahead of me.

We’ll call her “Sally.” Wherever you are, Sally, I hope you’re well.

So off we went in the Ford,** which had fared ok through the fall except for getting rear-ended around Halloween. It was just cosmetic, though; the trunk lid was now stove in and held down with bungee cords. For years I had a snapshot of the Ford on the beachfront boulevard in Mazatlan in all its stove-in glory and sporting its Pennsylvania license plate, like someone’s geriatric aunt on holiday.

I had never been south of Denver, and New Mexico was a revelation. Even in winter you could tell that Colorado was mountains and plains while New Mexico was mountains and desert, much drier. We went over the Raton Pass and somewhere around Cimarron I began to hear that ominous louder-than-normal tick. Trouble.

That was my introduction to Albuquerque. I tooled into Frontier Ford (now long gone), they diagnosed it quickly—snapped valve stem—had it fixed the next day, and charged me all of $28. Off we went again, the Ford none the worse for wear.

The plan was to cross the border at El Paso/Juarez, keep on heading south through Chihuahua (why would you name a city after a tiny dog, I wondered) and Torreon, then over to Durango and down the Sierra Madre to Mazatlan and the blue Pacific. The Ford rolled on. I do remember a moment in Chihuahua when I put it in gear in a parking lot, went to start off, and the front seat pitched right over backward! Fortunately, we stalled when my foot slipped off the clutch. I found a mechanic with a willing heart and a couple of spare bolts that did the trick. At one point I remember driving those Mexican roads at night, an appalling risk to take. There is a providence that looks after innocents and idiots. In Durango, Sally ate some huevos rancheros that gave her a case of Montezuma’s Revenge that almost seemed fatal at the time. But the countryside was huge, with vistas stretching for miles; twisting down, down the Sierra Madre into Mazatlan was worth it all. And never once did I think to check the brakes (see above, “innocents and idiots”).

Mazatlan was everything it should be and we spent about three days there, as I recall. Food and lodging were dirt cheap: even grad students could afford it. This was Mexico! This was the life!

But inevitably we had to leave paradise and get back to cold weather and Milton seminars and freshman themes. The return route was up the coast through Los Mochis and Hermosillo, crossing into Arizona at Nogales and then wending our way northeastward. In truth, I can’t remember exactly what roads we took from Nogales to Fort Collins. You see, I was somewhat distracted.

Yes, the telltale ticking had returned, somewhere between Hermosillo and Nogales. At first it was as it had been in Cimarron, akin to that notorious cloud no bigger than a man’s hand. I pressed on, not having the time or money left to get it fixed. I said a prayer. I do remember winding down the Salt River Canyon in Arizona, Sally asleep, her head on my shoulder. A beautiful crisp morning with snow on the rabbitbrush and chamisa.

The ticking was now a chorus, not a solo, and a very ragged chorus at that. At some point I made an irrevocable decision. We were going all the way home; somehow bygod, we were going to make it home. But to do so, I had to obey the insistent voice in my head that said, louder and louder, “Do not shut this car off!” If I did, it would never start again. I knew that much.

Louder, the voice and the ticking. Sundown. The Ford was sounding like a diesel now, and losing power. We stopped somewhere for burgers and fries. The Ford had both a hand choke and hand throttle so I jiggered them to goose the idle up to a safe level while we scarfed down the food. Do not shut this car off! Gas up with it running and hope no one notices.

Well, of course we made it, or I would have no story to tell you. I had driven the clock around. I dropped Sally off—she hugged me, knew I was hurting—and drove on to 104 N. Roosevelt where I had a room in the basement.

It was about three in the morning and bitter cold. The sky was moonlit and clear and the stars were doing what stars do. I slipped quietly out of the Ford, which was making a mournful death rattle at this point, and throbbing, trembling. I’ll never forget that sound. But the Ford had not failed us. The Ford had come through. I stood there only a couple of minutes, though it felt much longer.

“Good night, Sweetheart,” I said. “’Flights of angels’ and all that sh*t.” I reached in through the open window and shut that valiant old machine down.

Yes, I cried. I’m tearing up as I type this right now, 40 years on.

Next day I had it towed to the local gas station where I sold it for a buck to a teenager who worked there. I stopped by a couple of days later. He had torn into the engine and showed me a coffee can full of what I can only describe as shrapnel.

“No way this thing made it back all the way from Mexico!” he said, waggling the can under my nose.

Half angry but three-quarters heartsick, I said, “Yeah, I guess I musta dreamed it.”

*See “Great Moments in Teaching II.

**Here’s a curious thing. I am an inveterate namer of my cars and yet I never assigned that Ford a gender or a moniker. It was always neutered and nameless and I can’t imagine why.

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