Another Lesson in Serendipity

About a week ago, I completed a 3,200-mile round trip from Florida to Pennsylvania in my 44-year-old Mustang. The 12-day journey provided several good experiences. In one regard it was a tune-up for a cross-country odyssey of about 8,000 miles planned for next year. It was also a test of the new steering and suspension components installed last month. Except for one temporary glitch, the car performed remarkably well, especially considering the awful heat wave that gripped the eastern US in late July.
There were several purposes for my trip, including a visit with family, a speaking engagement, a car show, my 35th high school reunion, and a research opportunity. All of them kept me busy as I drove back and forth across Pennsylvania for several days.
The trip north began on Wednesday, July 27 with a loosely- planned route of secondary highways through Georgia and into South Carolina. I started early and enjoyed the country scenery as well as the pleasant rumble of the Mustang’s slightly-massaged small block. (I know, it’s a cliché—but it’s also true!) I found my visual reward in Georgia on a stretch of US 19 south of Americus: wall-to-wall crepe myrtle along both sides of the highway for miles. Shortly beyond Americus, up Georgia Route 49, I paid a sobering visit to the Andersonville National Historic Site and toured the notorious camp where thousands of Union POWs died during the Civil War. Farther north, in the lovely antebellum city of Madison, Georgia, the heat of the early afternoon dictated another stop for a much-needed iced coffee at the Perk Avenue Café and Coffee House.

With a schedule to meet, I had to make time the second day and spent much of it on the interstate system. The Mustang hums along just fine at 70 or even better with its late-model AOD transmission, so keeping pace with traffic isn’t a problem; but the sheer volume of vehicles on the road was a reminder of why I dislike interstates. Most are so heavily traveled—often resembling a parking lot moving at more than a mile a minute—that a driver can never relax. Even on scenic I-81 through the Shenandoah Valley, I found it impossible to enjoy the drive. To make matters worse, rain began falling in southern Pennsylvania, and by the time I reached my hometown of State College, I had “leak-checked” the convertible through a series of squalls and torrential downpours.
The Mustang needed an adjustment to its new power steering control valve, so on Friday morning I took it to an independent shop that has serviced my mother’s car for years. While the car was up on the rack, the mechanic noticed that a clamp on the return line appeared to be stripped, and with all good intentions he replaced it. That afternoon, I drove the Mustang to Felicita Resort near Harrisburg for a speaking engagement. I was initially misdirected and found myself at the spa on the opposite side of the valley from the main resort. While I was turning around in a parking lot, the newly-clamped return line suddenly blew off. In a matter of seconds the power steering fluid drained out. The car was rendered useless at 4 o’clock on a Friday afternoon—not a good time to be stranded.
I had a GPS unit with me, so I looked up local repair shops and phoned the nearest one. After nobody answered by the 20th ring, I dialed the next business, a truck and auto repair shop in the nearby town of Dauphin. I didn’t have much hope, but the call was answered on the third ring. I hastily explained my predicament: a disabled driver, out of state, with a disabled vehicle. The owner, Dave Szostek, explained that he might be able to shuffle some things around and take a look at the problem the next day—if I could have the car towed to him.  So my next call was to AAA. I was not first on the list, however, as there were several fender-benders in the Harrisburg area. I waited nearly two hours before the rollback arrived, and as soon as the car was chained to the flatbed and taken away, I gave my scheduled presentation.
Here’s where the story really gets unusual. The presentation was a PowerPoint tribute to Glenn Bowers, an original member of the World War II Black Sheep squadron, who was being honored with a memorial golf tournament to raise money for the Semper Fi Fund. Glenn had been a replacement pilot for Pappy Boyington’s squadron in 1943, and had arrived in the South Pacific after first learning to fly at Penn State, my alma mater. More coincidentally, he and my father knew each other at Penn State before the war: both shared forestry classes in their respective majors in the College of Agriculture. I met Glenn in 1995 and interviewed him for my book on the Black Sheep. He passed away in 2010, at which point I began corresponding with his son, Toby. As luck would have it, Toby is a car guy—he drives a Shelby Cobra replica—and he helped tremendously at the event as we dealt with my disabled car. He graciously offered to drive me all the way to State College (a three-hour round trip for him), but got a partial reprieve from my brother Chris, who met us halfway.
I called Dave on Saturday morning and he assured me that he was working on my car. Unfortunately, the day-long setback meant that I could not attend the car show that I had registered for: the 19th annual Moonlight Memories sponsored by the Greater Hatboro Chamber of Commerce. The event, which began that afternoon near Philadelphia, brought in over 500 vehicles and I was disappointed about missing it. (My registration, mailed from Florida, had prompted an interview with a local reporter that appeared in the Hatboro newspaper a few days before the show.) I was excited about sharing the story of Sweet Chariot with spectators, but it was not meant to be.
Dave called back Saturday afternoon and told me the Mustang was ready.  He had fabricated a new aluminum return line for the power steering and spent about three hours working on the car. I figured the repairs and labor would run a few hundred dollars and steeled myself for the bad news. I asked, “What are the damages?  I might need to stop at an ATM on my way to your shop.”
 “Seventy-five dollars,” he said.
I thought he had skipped a digit. Maybe my cell phone lost signal for a moment. “How much?”
“Seventy-five,” Dave repeated.
Unable to help myself, I blurted, “Are you kidding me?”
“Is that high?” He sounded a bit surprised.
“Lord, no,” I said, and quickly explained that I was expecting a bill for three hundred or more.
“I’m semi-retired now,” Dave chuckled. ” I work for myself and I only work on muscle cars and hotrods.”
Serendipity. Again. My car broke down near the one guy in the Harrisburg area who could work on a vintage Mustang—on a Saturday. Some things are meant to be.
I called my brother, who was ready to drive me back to Harrisburg when the car was repaired, and we set off for Dave’s shop. To this point I only knew him through a few phone conversations, but the best was yet to come. Following the GPS directions to his garage, we found ourselves on a little country road where Dave and his wife live in a nicely kept home a few miles outside Dauphin. Dave’s garage was in back and the Mustang was sitting in the drive, so we pulled up and met Dave, a sixtyish, salt-of-the-earth guy who gave us a cook’s tour of the shop. The inside of his large metal building was like a museum. Among the classic vehicles were a lovely 50s T-bird, a Dodge “Lil’ Red Wagon” pickup, a custom T-bucket, a hot-rodded 1930 REO, and a treasure-trove of small collectibles.

We had a really pleasant visit, and went on our way after paying Dave’s modest bill. It’s funny how a breakdown far from home, frustrating as it might be, can turn into a gem of an experience and a new-found friendship.

Dave: Here’s to you. They just don’t make ‘em like you anymore.