I promised myself I’d never come back to this place.
On last week’s ramble through the Great Plains, I knew I’d come within a couple hundred miles of it, and, I admit I was curious to see how it had changed over the years, and so, wrapping up a day of driving through many small towns between Oklahoma City and Kansas City, I found myself once again inside the city limits of Burlington, Kansas.
As I drove around the streets, the memories of my tragicomic adventure in this town came flooding back.
It was the year 2000. I was enroute from Texas to Minnesota, at the very tail end of the year.
Having, at that time, a strict aversion to any kind of toll road, I found myself traveling via US 75 in order to avoid the Kansas Turnpike.
The day had already been tough going, not so much for me, but for the hoards of Oklahoma drivers who were flying left and right into the ditch, more due, I think, to sheer panic at the mere sight of a few snowflakes than to actual slick conditions. My task was to avoid hitting them as I hummed along.
The temperature had been dropping precipitously as I headed north. Near midnight, somewhere in the middle of Kansas, I started hearing odd grinding sounds coming from the car’s rear end. As the miles went on, the sounds steadily worsened. Eventually, they became loud enough that the radio couldn’t completely mask them out, and I started to get worried.
I’d had all sorts of trouble with that car ever since I’d bought it, so now my mind was running wild with imagery akin to the scene at the end of the Blues Brothers when the Bluesmobile literally junks itself.
I told myself that I’d stop at the next town and try to find some help. As it happened, the next town was Burlington, but as I drove through, it definitely seemed to be one-horse, and I decided to keep going.
But this bravado was of no use. Just outside of town, on the other side of the river that skirts its northern edge, I lost control of the car. It basically seemed to seize up, and wouldn’t move another inch.
Well below zero now, not carrying any winter gear, or a phone, and long after anyone with any sense had gone to bed, I had found myself in a bit of a pickle.
I sat there for a while, pondering the cliche scenario of inquiring after help at some darkened farmstead. In due course, a local police officer came by and wondered if I needed any help. Yes, please!
There wasn’t hope for any kind of tow or repair at that hour, so he drove me to the local motel, which was a cinder block affair to which one might apply the adjectives quaint or rustic. As I recall, he woke up the old lady that ran it, and got her to give me a room. At that time of the night, the only requirement I had was that of a working heater, and I remember being let down in that regard. However, with a well worn but sturdy homemade quilt on the bed, at least I had hopes that I wouldn’t freeze to death.
In the morning, I started working on dealing with the car. My room did have a phone; an ancient, but functioning, Western Electric desk phone made of bakelite. After several fruitless calls, I got in touch with a local fellow who happened to have a tow truck. He picked me up, and took me out to the car, hooked it up, and towed it back into town.
During that adventure, I realized that I was in the rural South, for this gentleman, in addition to having a fine Southern prairie accent, spoke incredibly slowly, quite at odds with a fast-talking city slicker such as myself. Don’t get me wrong, I wish not to malign; the fact is, there was nothing worth talking fast about, not in that town.
The next problem: Where would I take the car? The one and only dealership in town was closed indefinitely, due to a fire. Only one other place in town had a lift, so we took it there.
This place was discouraging, if not a bit scary. It was a two bay garage run by a couple local boys who had probably dropped out of high school to start a repair shop. I told the guy that I thought the rear-end was hosed up. He said he’d probably have to send to Wichita for the parts, and since it was Saturday, he wouldn’t be able to place the order until Monday, so it could take four or five days before I’d be on the road again! Big sigh. Four days in this town, maybe more, especially over New Year’s, would drive me mad.
The guy said he’d take a look at it, and, at the same time, fix the rear-right tire, which was flat.
Meanwhile, I took a hike back toward the motel, which was on the other end of town. Since this was still several years prior to the ubiquitous wireless Internet we carry in our pockets today – hell, I didn’t even have a laptop back then – I stopped in at the public library, and inquired about Internet access. “Yes!”, replied the stereotypical past-middle-age librarian, “We have the.. internet?, but we don’t really know anything about it..” Didn’t matter to me, I certainly knew a thing or two about it.
News cravings satisfied, and several emails sent out to people who might care about my whereabouts, I next stopped and ate lunch at a homespun restaurant on the main drag, and then continued back to the motel. The manager lady seemed to know all about my story; apparently my incursion into the town was highly unusual and entertaining fodder for the local grapevine.
She kindly relayed a piece of info from that grapevine: Not only had the car dealership been burned down on purpose, but the rumor was that the other shop in town – the shop that currently had my car – was somehow involved! And that they were somehow connected to the mafia! Really! Do tell! thought I.
At that point I started strongly questioning whether I’d ever make it out of that goddam town.
The next day, after a night of mind-numbing boredom, things turned around. The shop gave me a call and said that they’d put on the donut spare, and then taken the car for a test spin, and everything seemed okay. In other words, I had made a complete fool of myself regarding the rear-end! I rationalized, though, that I’d had flat tires before, and none of them sounded anything like the grinding I had heard. Not that I was thinking straight after having been driving for more than 15 hours in rather tense conditions.
Regardless my lack of mechanical acumen, it suddenly seemed like I’d be able to leave town, utter fool or not! Except for one problem: I wasn’t going to make it back to Minnesota on a donut, and, with it now being Sunday, and New Year’s Eve to boot, it seemed unlikely I’d find a real tire. Drat! The shop guys thought I might find one at the gas station next to the motel, and indeed, by some odd miracle, the guy working at that establishment – another fine Southern prairie gentleman – was able to dig an old tire out of a bin, and mount it onto my wheel.
I was so ecstatic at the prospect of getting back on the road, and maybe actually making it back to the Twin Cities by midnight, that I’m sure I probably sounded quite the Northern city-fool blathering on about it as the guy worked the tire mounter.
My car finally whole again, I backed out of there, and went around to the other side of the motel to get my stuff. Five minutes of packing, and I’d put the pedal to the metal. I was just about to turn onto the highway when I heard some yelling off to my left.
It was the tire guy, running toward me, and motioning me to stop. Now what??
He breathlessly told me two things: a) the highway patrol was out looking for me and b) I had been in an accident!
Well possum on a gumbush, son, wha’ ya talkin’ ’bout?
Get this: The claim was that when I backed out of the garage, I had broadsided a car that was getting gas at the pump! I had no recollection of this, but by then I was of one mind: to get the hell out of there.
My instincts told me to run, but my conscience – that pesky ol’ thing! – told me to stay. I went over to see what all the fuss was about, and sure enough, I found an upset, rather large late-middle-aged woman, carrying on about the anger she’ll face from her husband over the damage to his “brand new” car.
Uh-huh. What damage? I didn’t see any damage. I saw a spot where some reddish Kansas dust had been wiped off. She insisted on filing a police report.
Twenty minutes of seemingly eternal duration later – would I ever get out of this town? – the highway patrol came roaring in. The trooper jumped out and demanded to know, “Is this my hit-and-run?”
I then learned that after I had driven away to the other side of the motel, this lady had worked herself up into such a lather that, when hearing from the gas station guy that I was on my way back to Minnesota, she called the police, who promptly put out an APB on me as a hit-and-run suspect!
Holy sheep shit! It’s a good thing I hadn’t turned out onto that highway, for surely, I would have been arrested. Probably highly unfair of me to think this, but I suddenly started hearing banjos.
As it turned out, the trooper took one look at the woman’s car, rolled his eyes, took down our info, and went away.
I patiently listened to a little more complaining from the aggrieved woman, and then, apologies fully registered, and with a full tank of gas (no sunglasses or cigarettes, though, and it was only late afternoon), I tiptoed out of that town, and drove ten-and-two at sub speed limit velocity until I got to the freeway. Then I let ’er rip, and in a feat of driving, made it to my friend’s party on Nicollet Island with ten minutes to spare before 2001.
No better time than the ringing in of the New Year to launch the illegal rockets I had been carrying in the car since the previous July!