“ARE YOU SURE that car’s gonna make it?” the gas station employee asked, without knowing our destination. Clyde was the only one who knew the answer. Instinct and lack of mechanical competence told me to trust him.
Clyde’s headlights didn’t work when I retrieved him from northern Wisconsin. He sat in my garage for a week before I searched under the dash for a broken fuse. A friend’s over-thephone diagnosis helped me find the real problem—a raised metal knob on the driver’s side floor known as a dimmer switch. (For all you non Baby-Boomers, the dimmer switch was invented in 1927 as a way to shut off your brights with your foot. They apparently disappeared in the late ’70s, about the same time as front bench seats, another Clyde feature.)
I gave the dimmer switch a couple smacks with a socket wrench and on came the lights. Soon after, the wipers stopped in the middle of their cycle. I thumped the steering column with a clenched fist. The wipers started back up. Batting 1,000, I applied this approach to each problem Clyde presented.
The Pere Marquette River was still 200 miles away when a sign announced we had entered “Pure Michigan.” It would have been a nice sunset over the big lake had the clouds lifted. I didn’t trust the gas gauge that read half-full so we took a break. I sipped seethrough coffee as Clyde inhaled a double shot of 10w-30 with an 87-octane chaser. On the way out of the parking lot I stepped on the dimmer switch to trigger the high beams. Nothing happened. I applied a little more force and on came the brights.
When the AM signal coming out of South Bend died, I put on my headphones and cruised to Steely Dan’s Aja. Somewhere around Deacon Blues, Clyde took a wrong turn and we ended up on winding backroads. We were approaching fifty-five on the outskirts of a two-bar town when Clyde’s lights went out again. My dad used to do the same thing on night drives when I was a kid. My mother hated it but I relished the rush before the lights came back on. Applying my usual prescription of excessive force, I stomped on the dimmer switch. I now know what my mother feared, because this time the lights didn’t come back on. As I floundered for the brake pedal, Clyde planted his passenger-side wheels into a snowbank.
When my breathing slowed, I grabbed my headlamp and pointed it at the floorboards. A pile of metal and plastic sat where the dimmer switch had been. For the next hour I tried to resurrect the circuitry of Clyde’s brights button with things I found under the driver’s seat—a Mexican wrestler’s mask, a dog toy of unknown provenance, some Carl’s Jr. wrappers. None of that stuff worked, but the rusty screwdriver did. I taped a piece of metal to it and shoved it into Clyde’s open wound. The lights came on. They stayed that way until we hit the minimum speed limit.
Two hours later, all nineteen feet of Clyde sat on the back of a tow truck. An hour after that I checked into a motel where it took the owner, his wife, and his son to collectively decide that someone born in 1993 is indeed over twenty-one.
Clyde and I made it to the Pere Marquette the next morning. The icy roads at the put-in left Clyde in another snowbank. He waited patiently while a friend of a friend rowed me to a fair number of steelhead that I failed to land.
That evening we scattered kitty litter on the ice and pulled Clyde back to the road. A burst of starter fluid encouraged the chilled engine to turn over. I tossed the can into the back seat and everyone climbed in. We roasted a bowl in honor of Clyde’s longevity. The roar of the engine shadowed the sound of the aerosol leaking at my feet. I’m not sure if the weed or the ether got us higher.
Clyde keeps rolling. The wipers are still having trouble but a new dimmer switch keeps his lights on, and new(ish) tires help him stay out of the ditch. Gas-station employees below the Mason- Dixon Line have more faith in Clyde than their Yankee counterparts. Not sure where he’s headed next, but I know he’ll make it there.