Braking Bad

Readers who have followed this blog from the beginning know that I’ve experienced some truly serendipitous events. So I feel almost humbled in describing a recent incident that can only be defined as providential—or maybe divine intervention.

For the first 4,000 miles of the Sweet Chariot tour, the 45-year-old Mustang has performed remarkably well. The only repair needed was replacement of the front wheel bearings, a routine maintenance item that was accomplished in Pennsylvania before the Kerouac tribute started. Subsequently, the car has been subjected to some of the worst roads in the country. The pavement in New Jersey around the metro New York City area is rough enough to loosen fillings. The same goes for Chicago; and in the Midwest, many of the rural intersections have deep rumble strips cut into the pavement. The rough roads and heavy vibrations over the past couple of weeks almost certainly contributed to a mechanical problem, causing the disc brake caliper on the Mustang’s left front wheel to work loose.

Fortunately, the situation did not become apparent until I was just a few miles from my scheduled destination on Sunday, September 23. I was approaching the Wings Over the Rockies Air and Space Museum in Denver when a traffic light turned red just as I neared the intersection. I hit the brakes hard. The car slowed normally, but I heard a rather sickening metal-on-metal sound from the front of the car. Later, going through a series of roundabout intersections, I heard the same grinding noise. And, as I pulled into the parking lot at the museum, the noise was even more apparent.

The Mustang made it safely to my hotel that night, where I enjoyed a great visit with my brother Larry and his family from Estes Park. On Monday morning, taking the advice of a staff member at the air museum, I phoned University Hills Conoco on S. Colorado Boulevard in Denver. Claude Akridge answered my call, and said to bring the car in at 9 AM. During the drive to the station, my brother and I heard one slight “clunk” from the front end, but we arrived without incident. Claude, who has been working on cars for 50 years, promptly took the Mustang for a test drive—and was gone much longer than anticipated. I was getting a bit nervous about his absence when he came around the corner, walking back to the station!

My first thought was that he had crashed the Mustang—and I wasn’t far wrong. “You might have been killed,” he said without preamble. “The left front wheel locked up. Thank God I was driving slowly. If that had happened while you were on the highway, you might have been killed.”

He sent a couple of guys with tools to free up the wheel, and they were able to drive the car to the station. Soon they diagnosed the problem: Over the extended road trip, one of the two large bolts in the bracket that attaches the brake caliper to the spindle had worked loose. The caliper had been shifting slightly, and the constant torque eventually stripped both bolts.

So once again, the Mustang had a mechanical issue—but only after I had arrived at the day’s destination. And it happened where someone with expertise could correct the problem. (If this sounds familiar, see my post entitled “Another Lesson in Serendipity,” published in August, 2011.)

Monday had been set aside so that Larry and I could drive the Peak-to-Peak Highway  on our way to Estes Park. Had the brake caliper issue not become evident when it did, we might have found ourselves either stranded—or worse, wrecked—on a remote highway in the Rocky Mountains. Meanwhile, the staff at University Hills Conoco had over a dozen cars in the queue for service that Monday; nevertheless, Claude called a few of his regular customers and shuffled their schedules so that he could work on the Mustang. The serendipity just kept happening. Within a matter of hours, Claude had ordered in the necessary replacement part and completed the repair. Even better, the station serviced the Mustang with an oil change while waiting for the part to be delivered.

Some people tend to go a little crazy when unexpected issues crop up. I’ve learned to just roll with them, no pun intended. It seems that most issues work out okay if you let them—and you might just meet some genuinely nice, helpful people along the way.

You can decide whether I’m the benefactor of serendipity, God’s grace, or just plain good fortune. The outcome was good, and I personally take no credit for that.


Jack’s Thumb

In the summer of 1947, Jack Kerouac left New York City with $50 in his pocket and a dream of exploring America. But Jack didn’t have much of a plan. Anxious to visit friends in Denver before heading to California, he spent half his cash on a bus ticket that took him as far as Chicago. Continuing west, he took another bus to Joliet in order to get through “the impossible complexities of Chicago traffic,” but from there he had to hitchhike the rest of the way.

As I mentioned in the previous post, my buddy Al and I spent three days getting from New York to Chicago. Kerouac made it by bus in 24 hours; but thereafter, almost broke, he was slowed by the need to stick out his thumb. He rarely slept as he hitched ride after ride for another thousand miles to Denver via Cheyenne, WY.

I looked forward to tracing this part of Kerouac’s journey, accompanied by another friend, Lewis Watt. A retired Marine Corps colonel, Lewis and his wife are my mom’s neighbors. We share another thing in common, in that Lewis’s career crossed paths with one of the original Black Sheep Squadron veterans, Col. Ed Harper, a gentleman I’ve known for almost 20 years. An avid outdoorsman and traveler, Lewis had been eagerly anticipating the trip ever since I shared my initial idea with him years ago.

I met Lewis in Chicago on Thursday, September 20, after an outstanding event at the Pritzker Military Library. Joined by Aaron Rosell, the Zenith Press publicist for the Sweet Chariot Tour, we dallied over dinner and drinks at the Palmer House Hilton. Lewis and I stayed overnight before starting our trek to Denver the next morning.

With the aid of a GPS (Kerouac would have been astounded), we found the Chicago traffic uncomplicated but terribly slow as we headed out of the city. Finally, at Naperville, we ducked south to pick up US 34 for a two-lane cruise through the Illinois countryside. Although the terrain is mostly flat, we were treated to a great ride through America’s breadbasket. One of the most unusual sights along the roadside was a farmhouse lawn filled with zombies. The Halloween display featured dozens of cleverly displayed mannequins in a life-sized Fright Farm!

After crossing the Mississippi at Davenport, Iowa—one of Kerouac’s notable stops—we followed US 6 again most of the way to West Des Moines, where I had a scheduled event at a huge, two-story Barnes & Noble bookstore.

Saturday morning was clear but chilly as we headed out of West Des Moines. We did not slavishly follow Kerouac’s route, which took him through the small town of Adel, but soon rejoined his track on US 6, based on clues found in On the Road. Hunger pangs prompted us to search for an authentic small-town breakfast, which we found in The Farmer’s Kitchen, in Atlantic, Iowa. The décor could have been from Kerouac’s time, and the food was delicious.

The day’s big adventure occurred while we cruised through Nebraska on US 30, the Lincoln highway, which parallels Interstate 80. Traffic on the old two-lane was almost nonexistent, so we cruised along at 5 mph above the posted speed limit of 60 mph. One local cop ignored us, but a half-hour later a Nebraska state trooper passed us in his blue-gray Crown Vic going in the opposite direction, and immediately spun around to get on my tail. I pulled over when his roof lights came on, and he approached my window with the usual “license and registration” request. He said little other than informing me that I had exceeded the speed limit, and went back to his cruiser to run my data. Upon returning, he handed me a warning and sent us on our way. Lewis and I just shook our heads. Really? Five over? We chalked it up to boredom on the trooper’s part.

Lewis proceeded to commemorate the excitement with one of his patented rhymes:

Red Pony
22 September, 2012
Damn, we are havin’ fun!
Feelin’ this Red Pony run.
Life can’t be wrong,
As we rocket along,
Don’t want this trip to be done.
Yup, This Pony will go.
Stopped, it is an instant show.
The gear-heads are staring,
It’s fun to be sharing.
Folks don’t know what they don’t know.
But Smokey was not impressed,
As our pace he grimly addressed.
Just over by five?
Well, sakes alive!
Just a warning? Okay, we confess.
We’re on the Pony Express trail.
This Pony ain’t carryin’ mail.
No Indians chasing,
As westward we’re racin’
Piecing together our tale.


That afternoon, after a brief stop in Gothenburg, Nebraska for a photo op—our red “Pony” next to an original Pony Express station—we pulled into Ogallala for the night. Dinner at The Golden Spur, attached to the town’s Best Western motel, was every bit as excellent as our meal two nights earlier in Chicago—but a far cry cheaper.

From Ogallala, Kerouac’s route took him to Cheyenne, Wyoming before he headed south to stay with friends in Denver. Lewis had a flight to catch on Sunday morning, so I took him directly to the Denver airport, then proceeded to the Wings Over the Rockies Air & Space Museum for a scheduled event.

After the hard push from Chicago, I was looking forward to a day of sightseeing with my brother Larry, who lives in Estes Park.  Unfortunately, a new adventure with the Mustang would dictate other plans—but that’s for the next post.

Jack’s Tracks

After the opening event for my new book at the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum in New York City on September 15, the Jack Kerouac tribute of the Sweet Chariot Tour finally got underway.

Earlier I posted about a high school classmate, Mark Kline, who owns an automotive shop in Pennsylvania. For the start of the Kerouac tribute, I was joined by another classmate, Al Kesler, whom I’ve known since grade school. He took a train from his home in Boston and met me at the Intrepid museum on the 15th. Al has always been a car guy. During high school he bought a 1965 Mustang coupe from another mutual friend, Chris Riley, who had hot-rodded the Mustang’s 289. That was decades ago. Al is now a partner in Deloitte, one of the top auditing firms in the US. His latest ride is a 1964 Corvette roadster custom built by Chris. A childhood friend as well as a high school classmate, Chris owns Centre Cycle Works in Bellefonte, PA. We had hoped he would accompany us in one of the cool cars he owns, but his work schedule prevented him from joining us.

Sunday morning, Sept. 16. Al Kesler and I are about to start our journey.

I had driven the convertible into the city for the Intrepid event, and Al and I made it back out of Manhattan without mishap to our hotel in Secaucus, NJ. The next morning, we drove out of the urban sprawl and picked up the route that Jack Kerouac took by bus in 1947. The roadways have been heavily developed and modified in the past 65 years, so our path was initially an approximation. But I had received excellent research assistance from Doc Rushing, a vintage bus line expert, and was confident that Kerouac’s bus—almost certainly a Greyhound—went from New York to Scranton, then west across northern Pennsylvania on US 6, one of the earliest highways across America.

In describing his ride to Chicago in On the Road, Kerouac provided only a few clues:

It was an ordinary bus trip with crying babies and hot sun, and countryfolk getting on at one Penn town after another, till we got on the plain of Ohio and really rolled, up by Ashtabula and straight across Indiana in the night. I arrived at Chi quite early in the morning, got a room at the Y, and went to bed with a very few dollars in my pocket. I dug Chicago after a good day’s sleep.

On the first day of our run, Al and I enjoyed spectacular late summer weather on the scenic old Rt. 6, which took us past numerous tidy farms and small towns. We made a couple of worthwhile stops, including Steamtown National Historic Site in Scranton. The world-class museum features an impressive array of trains and technological displays—definitely worth a visit.

We stopped for the night In Coudersport, PA. While checking into a local hotel, we met three bikers from Allentown, several hours distant. They were digging the Mustang, and we shared a mutual admiration for cruising the famous old highway.

Not many restaurants are open on a Sunday evening in Coudersport, but we found Mosch’s Tavern, a mile or so out of town, to be everything we wanted. The food was great, the beer cold, and the Steelers were on TV (with a big win over the Jets). Best of all, the three bikers were there. We all talked for about an hour about our enjoyment of highway travel. They had ridden extensively together and planned a trip to Alaska in a year or two.

Monday was cool and foggy as Al and I continued west. We grooved to a lot of our favorite music from the ‘70s (the Mustang has a great aftermarket stereo with iPod connectivity) and reminisced about high school friends—several of whom have passed away. We talked so much that we didn’t pay close attention to the Garmin, and thus found ourselves missing a couple of key turns on Rt. 6 in Pennsylvania towns. The alternative route gave us a chance to see Lake Chautauqua, where I had enjoyed some sailing as a teen, so the errors were serendipitous.

By noon we had plenty of sunshine. Al drove the Mustang from Erie along the shores of the great lake until we reached our destination, the Lodge at Geneva-on-the-Lake, Ohio. The setting is sublime and we enjoyed a superb meal in the lodge restaurant.

Tuesday the 18th found us sloshing through rain squalls and high winds. Except for a drop or two of rainwater that squeezed through a vent window frame at 70 mph, the Mustang was perfectly dry inside—pretty good for a 45-year-old-convertible. I dropped off my friend at the South Bend Regional Airport so that he could return to Boston, and spent the night in a downtown hotel. I finally reached Chicago at about noon on Wednesday, and decided to cruise along Lakeshore Drive headed north.

It took Kerouac about 24 hours to get from New York ago in City to Chicago by bus in July, 1947. By design, Al and I spent three days following the same route. We had a blast, and would do it again in a heartbeat.

Sometimes the best things are done slowly, and savored.

Class Act

I’m proud to be an alumnus of a high school that has produced some outstanding people over a period of many decades. But with deliberate bias, I think the graduates of State College Area High School, Class of 1976, are a special group of Americans making a difference. The class was large, with some 600 graduates, so there’s no way to comment on all of the unique achievements of every classmate; however, I’m especially pleased that several are directly involved in the Sweet Chariot tour.

Today I’d like to introduce Mark Kline, one of the nicest, friendliest guys you could ever hope to meet.

Because we came up through different elementary schools in the State College district, I didn’t get to know Mark until we were12 or 13; but I knew his father long before that. “Puce” Kline, as everyone knew Mark’s dad, owned a small service and repair shop in the village of Pine Grove Mills, a few miles west of State College. Over a period of about 30 years, my father took our cars to Mr. Kline for routine maintenance and minor repairs. I enjoyed tagging along, mostly because Puce was a World War II veteran, like my dad, and the walls inside the shop were lined with interesting photos of his service in Europe with the 309th Infantry Regiment. There were also the usual automotive ads from suppliers, and a big bunker of coal for the ancient furnace that kept the shop warm during central Pennsylvania winters.  Puce was as fair and honest as the day is long. He could do just about anything; but if a repair was beyond the capability of his shop, he referred customers elsewhere.

Mark has run Kline’s Garage since his father passed away, yet the old shop is no more. About six years ago, a large truck lost its brakes coming down Tussey Mountain into Pine Grove Mills on Rt. 26, and smashed into the garage, which sat at the foot of the T intersection with Rt. 45. A customer waiting inside the shop was killed, and Mark was seriously injured. After a long period of rehab, Mark built a new shop, slightly offset from the old shop and reinforced against runaway vehicles. The new facility is nicely equipped, and with the help of his full-time assistant, Elijah Grenoble, Mark can accomplish everything his father did—and more. Today Mark is in great shape. He loves the outdoors and is an avid hiker, which keeps him fit for the physical demands of working in his shop.

I phoned Mark from Winchester, VA on the morning of Tuesday, Sept. 11, after my Mustang developed a strange noise from the front end. I had a few more hours of driving, and Mark said he’d be happy to take a look at it that afternoon when I got to town. I stopped by at 2 pm and Mark promptly hopped in for a test ride, during which he diagnosed the source of the problem as the front wheel bearings. He and Elijah got to work immediately after phoning in an order for the necessary parts.  Within two hours, they disassembled both front wheel hubs, replaced the races and bearings, and bolted everything back together; they also tightened the belts under the hood (which had been replaced before the trip and stretched) and installed a piece of trim that had worked loose. All the while, we talked about our favorite WWII movies, our dads, and our classmates.

Just a couple of months earlier, Mark had attended the retirement ceremony of our classmate Jim Houck, who rose to the rank of Vice Admiral and served as the 41st Judge Advocate General of the US Navy.  Another who rose to the pinnacle of his chosen profession was Matt Suhey, the running back who starred at Penn State in the late ’70s and spent 10 years with the Chicago Bears, earning a ring in Super Bowl XX.

My classmates have achieved some amazing things; but I personally reserve a special place for a salt-of-the-earth guy like Mark Kline. If you live in central PA and are in need of a friendly, trustworthy service shop, take your vehicle to Kline’s Garage.

He’s a class act.

Note: I’ll be introducing more classmates in future posts

Pickup Paranoia

What a way to start a trip! After three years of planning, I finally started my big cross-country road trip on Friday, September 7. However, I didn’t even get to the end of my own street—maybe 45 seconds’ worth of driving—before a near-disaster almost ruined everything.

As I approached the first intersection with a stop sign, a white pickup truck from a local cable provider turned into the street from the opposite direction, then immediately swung into a nearby driveway to execute a 3-point turnaround. Obviously in a big hurry, the driver never looked before shifting into reverse and backing out onto the street, directly into my path. Either my horn or the sound of my squealing tires got his attention, and he stopped just short of backing into the side of my restored Mustang.

What really irritated me was not his carelessness, but his attitude about the near-crash. The position of my convertible blocked him from backing completely out of the driveway; and rather than making an apologetic gesture or excuse-me signal from his seat, he impatiently waved for me to get out of his way.

The gall!

I rolled down my window and yelled a couple of choice descriptions about his feeblemindedness, which he confirmed by continuing to gesture at me to move.

The rest of the trip to Jacksonville was uneventful. I enjoyed the next day’s Wings-N-Wheels air show/classic car show at Craig Municipal Airport, and on Sunday, September 9, I began the 1100-mile trip to Pennsylvania. After overnight stops in Blythewood, SC and Harrisonburg, VA, I had another encounter with a white pickup.

My friend Mark Baughman, a high school classmate, poses with Sweet Chariot at the beginning of the Wings – N – Wheels event in  Jacksonville.

While heading north on I-81 on Tuesday, Sept. 11, I noticed a pair of highway maintenance trucks parked on the left shoulder. Orange warning lights flashed from big panels on the rear of both trucks. Over on the right, an on-ramp merged with the northbound lanes. Just as I approached the ramp, two pickup trucks began to merge from the right, so I moved over into the passing lane.  However, as I came abreast of the second pickup—a white one—it began sliding over into my lane in order to pass the truck in front. I laid on the horn but the driver never glanced over, just kept crowding into my lane. I had to hit the brakes and swerve to avoid being side-swiped at almost 70 mph. In fact the white pickup ran me off the road. Both of my left wheels were in the grassy shoulder, and those two parked maintenance trucks were coming up fast. The only thing that prevented a bad crash was the pickup driver’s haste. He swept around the slower pickup so fast that I had room to wrestle my car back onto the passing lane before hitting the parked vehicles. I noticed then that the slower pickup had dramatically decreased speed and was far to the right in the opposite shoulder—apparently the white pickup had run us both off the road!

I always drive extra-defensively in my 45-year-old Mustang, which has already helped me avoid two potential mishaps at the beginning of my weeks-long journey. If such incidents truly happen in threes, as the old wives’ tale suggests, then I’ll have at least one more encounter with a terrible driver.

If the vehicle happens to be another white pickup, I’ll be convinced that something just a little bit unusual is going on.