The stranger's Christmas present
Robert Jaques, Guest columnist
It began as an uneventful Christmas Day in 1959. I was driving my 1953 Chevrolet 6-cylinder convertible on a deserted stretch of Route 66, about six miles west of Tucumcari, New Mexico, when a ricocheting sound careened from under my car. The noise startled my carefree thoughts to full attention.
Immediately the engine shook violently. The shaking car was hard to control to a safe stop on the side of the road. It was like trying to control a bucking bronco. I shut off the engine, and sat waiting for my racing pulse to return to normal.
This was my first long distance trip driving an automobile alone. My planned route was from Indianapolis, Indiana to Mountain View, Calif., where I was to be stationed at Moffett Field Naval Air Station.
Looking at my map and considering the time of year, I decided the best and safest plan would be to cross the Rocky Mountains by driving the southern highway Route 66. Driving across the Rocky Mountains through Colorado in December would expose me to unpredictable snow, ice, and high winds that could seriously delay or injure me.
A 19- year-old sailor going to his first permanent duty station, I couldn't be any later than my Dec. 29 midnight deadline.
Tardiness would be a black mark on my record.
What a dilemma, I thought. Not only is my car stuck alongside a road that has not had any other traffic on it since I left Tucumcari, there wasn't a gas station within miles where I could make a telephone call for help.
Then I heard it. The sound of tires crushing the gravel along the brim of the highway as a car came to a complete stop inches from my rear bumper. I turned to see a stranger in a New Mexico State Trooper uniform get out of his air-conditioned car and walk towards my door. It was hot outside, and yet he looked neat with his freshly pressed uniform shirt and trousers.
He asked, "Having trouble?" I quickly told him what had happened to my car and he went to the front and raised the hood. After a careful inspection, he told me the problem.
"One of the four fan blades has snapped off and shot down under the car. It went between an opening the length and width of a man's index finger. You are very lucky the blade did not do any engine damage at that speed". He continued, "The unbalanced fan caused the violent engine shaking".
Without another word, the trooper went to the trunk of his car and found some wrenches. He returned to my car and removed my broken fan. It was very hot for mid-morning., and I could see perspiration drops form on his forehead and circles of moisture on the front of his shirt. With the broken fan in his hand, he told me to get in his car and we headed towards Tucumcari. I wondered what would happen next. Of all days to be broken down, I thought to myself, Christmas Day is the worst. There would not be any businesses open. The trooper called someone on his radio, and after a hurried greeting, I could hear the trooper say, "We will meet you at the yard in 15 minutes".
We stopped in front of two padlocked gates at the entrance of a large automobile junk yard, and there waiting for us was a middle-aged gray-haired man in jeans and a plaid shirt.
He owned the yard and was a good friend of the trooper. The trooper's call had interrupted the owner's Christmas dinner, but he stopped what he was doing and came right away. They found a Chevrolet similar to mine hidden among rows of old, rusted, and wrecked vehicles.
The trooper raised the hood and removed the fan. The yard owner said, "That fan will cost $1.50. No charge for taking it off yourself". I paid the money to the owner and thanked him as he locked the gate and headed home to finish his Christmas dinner.
The trooper drove me back to my car and he quickly installed the "new" fan onto the engine. I started the car which ran smoothly and quietly. When I thanked the trooper for his help, he replied with a grin, "You are welcome son. Merry Christmas and have a safe journey."
He got into his patrol car, turned around on the highway heading towards Tucumcari, and was gone.
And now, 45 years later, my only regret is that I did not get his name and badge number.
As long as I live, I will always remember the stranger who made my Christmas Day in New Mexico a very memorable one.