Experiencing the fun of being stranded in Norfolk, Nebraska during a spring blizzard, a break down at Clines Corners in New Mexico on a cold winter night, and the simple pleasures of changing a tire in Oklahoma City, in mid January, in three inches of ice cold slush were among the highlights of job that combined the adventure and surprises of a road trip with adequate pay. The whole thing started simply enough, I was broke, out of work, and willing to do just about anything for money short of dancing naked on the street corner or teaching a pig to dance.
So, I started washing vehicles on a car lot in mid December because no one was crazy enough to take the job. As luck would have it the owner had his fingers into a number of pies and once he found that I was somewhat versatile, he shuffled me here and there to fill holes in his various enterprises.
I detailed vehicles, ran errands, assumed the position of lot manager, and even took care of the landscaping and sprinkler systems on occasion. I did just about everything short of selling cars but it was there I drew a line. I was desperate but still had scruples.
On more than one occasion it has been suggested I take up cards as it seems bluffing seems to be a natural ability. So, when asked to take on the daunting task of transforming cars one owner away from the salvage yard into a saleable commodity even though my mechanical experience consisted solely of keeping my wrecks on the road, I leaped at the chance.
My domain was the garage on a buy here – pay here pot lot where he sold the dregs of the barell trade in vehicles from his Chrysler dealership; well worn 1955 De Soto Firedome sedans, used and abused Corvairs, battered Gremlins, massive New Yorkers, and a herd of very well used trucks of every stripe. The work fit me to a “T”, no precision surgery for these vehicles, this was strictly triage where the goal was keep the patient alive long enough to last out a couple months of a pay by the week contract.
As I mastered each new task the owner would find another slot for me. Then, one day, he called me into his office, handed me a one hundred dollar bill, told me to buy something nicer than overalls and blue denim shirts, shook my hand, and appointed me to the newly created recovery office.
This was a fancy way of saying my job was to “A” repossess vehicles, and, “B” recover vehicles repossessed in other states when it was deemed the loss would be less by retrieving the vehicle and then reselling it. My office, literally a reupholstered men’s room, was as new as the job.
The owner had recently purchased a closed Union 76 station on Route 66, expanded it with an addition, transformed it, including the former men’s room, into offices, and kept the garage as a service facility, a much better proposal than when I was working on cars outside under a carport. The old bathroom was carpeted and paneled, and had just enough room for a desk, and a two file cabinets used to obscure the urinal recessed in the floor that he didn’t want to spend money to remove.
My time spent on the various Indian reservations in northern Arizona proved a valuable asset as those contacts made it possible for me to go places others simply weren’t allowed. My time spent haunting the bars of northern Arizona also proved a valuable asset as I knew people in low places and a few police officers well enough to call them by their first name.
The grandest part of the job was in the recovery of vehicles. The market for a used vehicle varies in different parts of the country. So, a vehicle worth $5,000 in Arizona might only be worth $2,000 in North Dakota, especially after moths of neglect and abuse at the hands of an owner that knew they weren’t going to keep the vehicle anyway.
Once it was determined the loss would be less to fetch it, bring it back to Arizona, and resell it, than sell it through auction where it was recovered, I was called in. Then I would be handed the necessary paper work, a company credit card, my plane or train ticket, and away I would go.
One of the more memorable adventures was to recover a mini van, with more than 200,000 miles on the odometer, in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, in January. It started with a drive to the airport in Las Vegas during a blinding rain storm that resulted in a highway closure, detour through Laughlin in Nevada, and then lengthy flight delays.
As I sat in the airport waiting for my flight to Kansas City, where I was to catch a commuter flight to Sioux Falls, a nagging thought that this trip was going to be one for the books began creeping into my mind. That thought became harder to deny with the plane being rerouted to St. Louis, a long delay, a puddle jumper to Kansas City, and then a bus to Sioux Falls.
My one day trip had already stretched into two, I had lost a bag containing my overalls and gloves, and I arrived at my destination city shortly before midnight on an evening when the high temperature for the day had been nine degrees.
The hotel, a Holiday Inn, was nice enough to pick me up which was the first bright spot on the trip. The driver was kind enough to stop at a fast food shop so I could stave off hunger until morning. Things were looking up.
I awoke full of renewed hoped and with a sense of excitement and anticipation of the adventure ahead. That lasted all the way through my shower, breakfast, and check out. Then I called a cab and went to the storage company.
The brake lights of the cab flashed for a moment in the early dawn light before the cab rounded a corner and vanished from sight. It was about that time I noticed the sign that read, “Closed – family emergency – call …”
Now, I am not sure what the temperature was but knew that a man who looked for his long johns when the temperatures dropped below eighty degree’s was in serious trouble. So, I stashed my bag in the hedge out front, pulled my hat as low as it would go without my head poking through the top, jammed my hands in the coat pockets, and began walking in the direction I had came.
Every Jack London story and Robert Service poem ever read began dancing in my head as I lost the feeling in my face, my toes, and a few other parts of my body that should never be that cold. As it turned out the walk to a convenience store with a phone was less than ten blocks but in that short time I was transformed into a human Popsicle; the brim of my hat was heavily frosted from my breath, I could hardly talk, I shook like a man after a week of hard drinking, and was afraid to pee because of what might break off.
In the time it took me to down two or three coffees, the owner of the yard picked me up, approved the paper work, gave me a receipt for payment of storage, and took me out back to get the chariot that would take me home, a vehicle I had been told was dirty but not damaged, and that ran without major problems. It was only 9:00 in the morning and the day was already spiraling down at a high rate of speed; the drivers side window was down and the van was filled with snow, the seats had been replaced with a mound of garbage (the repo company had forgot to get the seats when recovering the van and the drivers seat had been stolen, or so the yard owner said), two tires were flat, and it had a dead battery. But the best was yet to come.
In between coffee and trips to the office to warm up, we switched batteries, aired up the tires, poured five gallons of gas in the empty tank, and found a seat with two holes in the frame that matched the holes in the van, and bolted it down. Now, I was ready to roll.
I bounced over the frozen furrows of tire tracks and onto the street before the drivers side window glass dropped into the door. I filled the tank with gas, purchased two tires, stopped at a farm supply store to buy overalls, a ski mask, gloves, several dozen air fresheners, a paint stirring stick to put under the window glass after removing the door panel, and a large ice scrapper, and almost made it back to the hotel before blowing a fuse and having the defroster fan quit.
At the hotel that evening, after a brisk two block to the parts store for fuses, I planned a course of action, called the previous owner, talked them into giving up the seats, and got their address – in Storm Lake, Iowa. Then, I went to the lounge, ordered a beer, and entered deep meditation about the sins that led to this point in life.
The next morning, after a hardy breakfast, I sailed across the snow covered hills under clear skies into a section of Iowa that was new to me. The old van ran surprisingly well, the glass only fell down occasionaly when the stick slipped, and the radio worked well. The sense was that the worst was behind me, now I could recover the seats and enjoy a winter cruise across the Great Plains.
As it seems to have happened on that trip so many times, the sense of euphoria and peace was relatively short lived. This time it lasted all the way to Storm Lake.

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