Monday, April 30, 2012

"The Durant"
by Ken Neal

Ad for a 1925 Durant
     The Durant labored up a hill, loaded with a family of seven and all it owned. The Radfords were moving - again. 
     Andrew Radford drove, his head cocked, his mouth a tight line, his jaw muscles working. He gripped the wheel at eleven o'clock and one o'clock, constantly overcorrecting so that the Durant always wandered a bit. Rad was not comfortable with automobiles.
      A team of mules was a different matter.
     "Fred, you get ready to skin a while; I'm tired."
      The boy grinned. He loved cars.  Last year, he'd pulled the oil pan off the Durant. Rad had caught him on his back under the car with the engine idling.
    "What the hell are you doing?"
     "Seein' how she works."
     Rad had thrown a shoe over that one, cussed the boy thoroughly for such a hare-brained stunt. After the tantrum, Fred had sheepishly put the oil pan back. But he'd seen how the engine "worked," taking a mental picture of the whirling connecting rods. The curiosity was satisfied; he saw how the piston explosions were transformed into turning power.
     At 13, he was the family chauffeur and mechanic. But now his father was driving and talking.
     Rad squinted at the November sky. "Rain. My god, I wish to hell it would rain." It had been raining all day and getting colder.
    "Won't be long to Chickasha," Rad said.  "We ought to get to Red Hill 'bout noon day after tomorrow." He punctuated the pronouncement with an emphatic nod to Fred.  When he did, the Durant lurched in the direction he nodded.
     "Whoa, you son-of-a-bitch." Too late.  The Durant refused to obey the voice command and slithered parallel to a deep borrow ditch.  Rad locked the brakes but the slide continued, now with no steering control.  He got off the brake in time to try to regain the road.  But the manuever was too complicated for him; he forgot to downshift and the engine bucked and died in high.  Distracted and confused, he let the car roll backward.  The right rear of the car sunk into the ditch.  The Durant and all the Radfords were assbackwards and listing to starboard in the borrow ditch.
     Pots rattled; kids from three to 13 yelled.
    "God-dam," shouted Rad.
     "My Lord," said his wife, Sarah Ann, her catchall comment for everything from a bad haircut to death.
     Rad jumped out of the Durant. Everybody clambered up the slope to the road and looked down at the Durant. It was canted at a crazy angle in the ditch, the left front wheel almost off the ground.    
Fred stood with his father surveying the situation.
     "Damn, son. We waited too late. If you'd been driving, this wouldn't have happened. Rad squatted on his haunches. Fred imitated him.
     After a bit, Rad took matters in hand. He got back in the Durant, fired it up and started trying to pull out of the ditch. The left rear wheel spun helplessly.
     "Ok, you kids, ever'one get back there and push." A jumble of shoving kids, including Sarah, got behind and pushed. No luck. The wheel spun even faster.
     "Ever'body stand back," Rad ordered. He shifted into reverse to try to rock the touring car a bit. When he did, the Durant sank a bit deeper.
     Back in low gear, he gunned the engine. The sound of the over-revving engine scared Fred. He intuitively knew this was not good. But Rad was unconscious of the warning sounds.
     He was pissed off - at himself, at the curve, at the Durant, and at life in general.  He whipped the Durant as if it were a team of mules; as if he could get out of the ditch if the car worked a little harder.
     "Come on, you son-of-a-bitch; let's go."
      But it was no go. The Durant was stuck.
     It was late in the day; Chickasha was miles away. Rad had intended to get there in time to buy a stick of balogna, some bread and some milk to make supper.
     Now that was threatened. The god-damned old Durant was stuck. The son-of-a-bitch was lazy.
     Fred watched Rad's anger build.
     "Pop, we'd better try to pull her out; she sounds awful when you gun 'er."
   "God-damn it, you try it," Rad told the boy. Rad didn't like to admit it, but he knew Fred was better with automobiles than he was. When he was in a generous mood, which was most of the time, he bragged about his boy, Fred, who could do wonders with cars.
     But there were times when he resented the boy's superior knowledge of the god-damned cars, and this was one of those times.
     Fred crawled behind the wheel. He was not full-grown and he had to reach for the clutch. He eased the Durant into low, accelerated the engine  and eased out the clutch pedal.  The upside wheel started to spin immediately.  He realized there was no use gunning the engine and shifted back into neutral.
     The Durant slowed to a chugging idle.
     "God-damn, boy. You didn't even try."
     "Pop, it ain't no use. She's stuck. We got to pull her out."
     "Let me at it," Rad said. "I'll get the son-of-bitch out of there or kill every mule in Georgia trying."
     If Rad could have gotten hold of them, the mules in Georgia would have been endangered; the Durant was in a hell of a mess.  He hooked his foot in the carburetor, came off the clutch sideways. The engine moaned, the wheel spun. No go. He repeated the procedure. And then again. The engine groaned and the wheels spun but nothing else moved.spinningl
     At about that moment, Fred heard a knock in the engine. He started waving to his father, but Rad was deadset on getting the Durant out; he couldn't hear above the din.
     Then he heard. With a sound like a cannonball hitting armor plate, the Durant engine stopped dead. As Rad said later, "all hell broke loose."
     Fred winced. Rad cussed. Sarah said "My Lord." The smaller kids, wide-eyed, held their breath. Rad could be fearsome when he was upset and he was clearly upset.
     A moment before, the Durant was straining and making a hell of lot of noise. Now it was like a horse that had fallen dead in the traces.
     The silence was frightening. Everyone knew something bad had happened. Only Fred had an idea what and he knew only that it wasn't good.
     Rad regained his composure when he saw how upset everyone else had become.
     He was like that. Little things irritated the hell out of him; he was hell on wheels when the little things added up to a major irritation. But in a crisis, he was cool when others were frantic.
     Now, he was cool.
     He climbed down off the Durant, walked up the side of the ditch.
    "Come on, son, let's see what's happened." Rad knew he needed Fred; he was helpless on autos. A sick mule would have been another thing; these oily bastards they called cars were different.
     Fred lifted the hood on one side and looked the engine over. Everything looked all right. Then, he saw a dribble of oil. He jumped around to the other side and lifted the hood there. The Durant looked like a mother hen with her wings
     Crawling on the fender and peeping down, Fred's eyes ran over the engine. Then he saw it. There was a bulge low on the block at about the point where the oil pan joined it.  In the center of the bulge was a crack. Oil seeped from it.  The boy remembered lying under the Durant and watching the connecting rods make their circular route. He wasn't sure, but he thought the bulge and the seeping crack had something to do with that.
     Rad grabbed the crank, stuffed it in the front of the Durant and tried to turn the engine over. No go.
     "She's locked up," he pronounced.
     Fred stepped back, got Rad's attention, and pointed to the engine.
     "Look here," he said.
     Rad leaned over the fender, followed the boy's finger and saw the oil dripping.
     "Guess something's wrong," he offered.
     "You damned betcha," thought Fred, although he didn't dare say it aloud.
     "Well, you kids gather up a blanket or two and get over there under the trees. Mae, get the tarp. Ma, get 'em some water and build a little fire.  We'll be back soon as we can. Come on, son, let's find some help."
     He glanced back down the road, remembering the 25 miles back to town and remembering no farmhouse in the last 5 miles or so.
     Weighing the odds, he decided to walk ahead in hopes of finding a farm.
     "Let's go, Fred."
      Fred fell into step with his dad without question. Right or wrong, Rad was always in command. His manner was to size up the situation and make a decision.
     Sure enough, he guessed right. About a mile down the road, a house appeared, set about a hundred yards from the road at the foot of a small hill.
     They were still about a quarter of a mile away and the sight of the house spawned a story.
     "You ever hear about the fella borrowing a jack, son?"
      Fred didn't have the chance to respond. Rad launched into the story.
     "Fella was out on the road late at night, kinda like we are and he had a flat. He had a spare tire, but no jack.  So, like we are, he started walking. After a while, he saw a light. He was tickled at that good luck. It was way in the night and he got to thinking that the farmer would be in bed and how he hated to wake the guy up. So, he decided he'd make it worth farmer's while to loan him the jack. Then he started trying to decide how much he'd offer the farmer. He first decided on about two-bits. Then he got to thinkin' that two-bits wasn't much for wakin' a fella in the middle of the night.  He talked himself up to a dollar.  About that time, he turned into the lane leading to the farmer's house. Then it occurred to him that he was a stranger on the road; that he was helpless.  What kind of man, he thought, would charge a fella a dollar just to used a god-damned jack? Didn't the Good Book say to extend the hand of help to strangers? About
then, he stepped up on the porch.  The farmer, hearin' his dogs raisin' hell, knew someone was coming and was waiting.  He opened the door just as the fella stepped upon the porch, and said, 'what can I do for you, neighbor?' The fella stepped up and said, 'Buddy, you can take that jack and stick it up your ass.'"
     Fred laughed. Rad grinned.
     "Son, that's human nature. All of us get to borrowing a jack every now and then. It's easy to talk yourself into a frame of mind and then talk yourself right out of it. A lot of life involves looking at things in the right frame of mind."
     Fred trudged on. The story stuck. From then on, he often realized he - or someone else - was "borrowing a jack."
     The farmer was a nice fella. Rad bullshitted him a bit, asked about the crops, admired the "place." Then he told him his problem.
     "Broke down a piece down the road," he said, gesturing toward the disabled Durant. Any way we could hire you and your team to come pull us out of the ditch?"
     The farmer was already headed for the barn.
     "I might be able to work that out," he said.
     Rad had found a man like himself. There was no question the farmer would do whatever he could.
     The three of them trudged the mile or so back to the Durant, the farmer leading a team.
     Back at the Durant, Sarah was watching down the road. As the men topped the hill, she jumped and the kids started yelling. No one expected Rad and Fred to be back so soon. The farmer hooked the team to the front frame. The mules squatted and he yelled "gidup" and swatted them with the end of the reins.
     Once they got the Durant moving, they quickly pulled it up onto the roadway. Then came the real test.
    "What'll you take to pull us on into Chickasha," Ralph? Rad and Ralph had been on first-name terms since five minutes into their first conversation.
     "Look here, Rad. I ain't got time to haul you into Chickasha. Got to get back to the place and do the chores. You take the team into town and have one of the boys bring 'em back in the morning."
     "Ralph, that's more 'n a man ought to do. We appreciate it. I'll see them mules get a good feed and they'll be back here soon's we can get here after daylight. Whatta we owe you?"
     By now, Rad knew Ralph would refuse any pay or he wouldn't have offered it. If he'd thought otherwise, he'd have bargained at the start, instead of throwing himself at the mercy of his benefactor.
     The answer was as expected.
     "Don't owe me a thang. You'd a done it for me. Where you all headed, anyhow?"
     "Back to Red Hill, near Eufaula. Been trying to farm in Seagraves, Texas. Not much luck. Dry's a popcorn fart there. Nothin' but prairie dogs and sagebrush."
     Ralph never missed a beat, intending before the question to offer some friendly advice on where to take the Durant in Chickasha.
     "When you get there, go to the blacksmith shop. Tell Bill Johnson I sent you. Bill's been doing a little work on cars and got some tools. He'll treat you right."
     Rad and Fred walked in front of the team. The older girls stayed in the car with Sarah and the baby. The other kids managed to play along the roadside and still keep up with the caravan.
     It was like that for the three hours or so it took to get to Chickasha.
     "Chickasha, two mile," recited Fred as they came upon a sign.
     "Might as well find a place for the night. Go on into town in the morning. Be no place right in town to camp," Rad
announced.  The smaller kids had climbed back into the Durant and were quarreling over space. They were tired. So was Rad.
     He spotted a big cottonwood tree with a grove of scrub oak off to the side and led the team and the broken Durant off the road. A bridge indicated a creek nearby,
     "Get 'm out, Sarah. I'll see if I can scare up a little something to eat. Fred, take the team over there and see if you can find a little water for em."
     Rad prowled around in a box in the back of the Durant and pulled out a curry comb. He tossed it to the boy. When they've been watered, cool 'em out a bit and rub 'em some. They'll be hungry but they'll have to wait for morning."
     Rad looked down the road.
     "I'll be back before you know it."
     "Get some cheese, Rad," said Sarah, lifting a washtub full of dishes out of the back of the Durant.
     She pulled off a crate covered with a couple of kitchen towels and started setting up.
     "One of you kids spread the tarp and a blanket over there on the grass. We'll have a real picnic."
     It had been nothing but roadside picnics since they'd left Seagraves three days before. The chickens she'd fried were gone; there was a loaf of stale bread and several quarts of canned corn, peas, and greenbeans, enough to make a respectable meal if Rad could find some baloney and cheese and maybe a gallon of milk.

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