I am no stranger to misbehaving cars. When I was twenty years old and carless, I hitch-hiked from Maine to Florida to visit my older brother Steve. Most folks who pick up hitch-hikers are friendly: truck drivers, other college students, hippies in Volkswagen vans. But there were exceptions. When a lumbering, rust-bucket of a Cadillac DeVille hauling a trailer pulled over on the entrance ramp of I-95 in Maryland, I hesitated. The driver weighed a good four-hundred pounds and in the back seat were three feckless looking young men drinking beer. They were the “advance team” for a carnival and tasked with delivering and setting up the equipment for a show in southern Virginia. Empty beer cans littered the floor. It was 9 am.
I hesitated, but got in. The ride would bring me 300 miles closer to my destination. For a few miles, all was well. Then the fat-man jokes flowed from the back seat. Our 400-pound driver’s ruddy face turned a deeper shade of pink. His shoulders hiked up and his hands gripped tighter and tighter around the steering wheel. The speedometer climbed. On a long empty stretch of I-95, he hit 80, then 90, then 95. The backseat hecklers egged him on: “100! 100! 100!” I held my backpack on my lap and fastened my seat belt, thinking, this could be really bad. The carnival trailer behind the caddie creaked and swayed.
When the odometer needle on the big Caddie hit 100, there was a hollow metallic clunk and a moment later, smoke billowed out of the hood. The car vibrated and shuddered. Miraculously, our driver successfully glided into the breakdown lane, shut the car off, and dropped his massive head onto the steering wheel. I grabbed my pack, opened the door, and ran.
I begin with this story to better explain why I accepted a “free car” from my brother Steve after safely hitch-hiking the rest of the way to Florida. The Ford Pinto, he explained, was perfectly fine except it didn’t start unless you parked on an incline and popped the clutch as the car gained momentum. “Well, and the windshield wipers don’t work,” he added. “But you should be fine.”
On my return trip I was fine until the rain started somewhere in Georgia and didn’t let up until I hit Washington D.C. When I pulled into a gas station, I convinced myself that because it was pouring rain, I could safely fill the tank without turning off the ignition. Which was true that particular time. Eighteen hours after jump-starting the car in Florida, I pulled into the driveway of my childhood home in Cranford, New Jersey, turned the car off for the first and last time, and slept for the better part of a day and a night.
It didn’t take much convincing for me to leave the car in New Jersey, and even less to accept the bus fare my mother Shirley offered to get me back to Maine. When she asked me about the trip, I told her how great it was to visit my brother, but side-stepped, well, everything else. She probably knew. She always seemed to know. Raising three boys is not for the faint of heart. The day I left, she called a junkyard and a broad-shouldered woman with hands the size of dinner plates arrived in a tow-truck and drove off with my brother’s “gift.”
Twelve years later, my wife Sandi, one-year-old Kate, and I moved to Peaks Island, several miles off the coast of Portland, Maine to begin my medical practice serving the islands of Casco Bay. On our way to our rental house we saw a beat-up Volkswagen, the front bumper replaced by a log. We passed beaters with mufflers attached by bailing wire. The wheel-wells of many cars were rusted through.
The next day, at Feeney’s Market I learned that Maine state law did not require Peaks Island vehicles to pass inspection. We were living in an Elephant’s Graveyard, an island of misfit cars and trucks, and in a way, it made perfect sense. After all, with a suggested speed limit of 20 miles per hour, what harm was there if the floor boards were rusted out or a muffler roared? Then again, on the four miles of paved road on Peaks Island there are rolling hills and sharp turns. On the north end of Pleasant Avenue is even a STOP sign. Brakes matter.
Our house was less than a mile from the business section of the island (affectionately labeled Down Front, as in, I am going Down Front to buy some milk), and in the summer of 1985, we bicycled and walked everywhere. By then, Sandi was commuting to Portland three days a week, working as a social worker at a preschool for emotionally disturbed children. On work days, with Kate on her back, she pushed a cart up the hill from our house, dropped Kate off at Jon and Angie’s home daycare, and boarded the ferry with minutes to spare. I, on the other hand, was perpetually late, and walked or jogged to Island Health Center or bicycled to house calls. But the romanticism of pedestrianism quickly faded when a stretch of bitter freezing rain settled in that October.
We acquired a truck, or more accurately, friends on the mainland gifted us a truck that could no longer pass mainland inspection. This particular Toyota had been in several accidents and the replacement side-panel on the passenger side was gray while the remainder of the truck was green. For a time, our transportation needs were met. Then, one wintry morning, it refused to start. A neighbor driving by on her way to the 7:15 morning ferry, diagnosed a “bad battery” and in about the time it takes to read this sentence, popped her hood and attached cables from her battery to ours and our truck roared to life. Very slick. From then on, after lugging a new battery back to the island, I carried a pair of jumper cables of my own in the truck. There is nothing more satisfying than the roar of a previously disabled truck on a wintry morning.
If a vehicle needed more serious repairs, Mr. Jackson operated a gas station and repair shop up the hill from the ferry. He was even willing to make house calls, lying on the ground next to the road trying to switch out this or that. One year he declared that our truck had a “bad solenoid” and ordered the part from Portland. I was skeptical. First off, no-one knows what a solenoid does. Secondly, a friend advised us that a “bad solenoid” is code for, I have no idea why your vehicle doesn’t work. Miraculously, the new solenoid added another 2 years to our truck’s life-span.
When our beloved truck finally died, we had three choices; hire a tow truck to deliver the body to the car ferry and from there, to a mainland junkyard; place a flower pot in the truck bed and transform the truck into a yard ornament; or push the carcass into the underbrush in the island’s interior. Before we could make a final decision, a neighbor stopped me on the way to the ferry and said that he had “bits and pieces of a Toyota truck” in his back yard and offered to take it off our hands. People on an island can be clever like that. By that evening, our truck had found a new home.
My friend Tux on the mainland sold me his well-used Honda Civic. This was an exciting upgrade, since there was not a spot of rust on the body and the battery was brand new. We proudly parked the Honda at the top of our walkway on the shoulder of Island Avenue. With its front-wheeled drive, the little Honda pulled out of snow drifts like honey dripping from a jar on a wintry day; slow and steady. We almost made it through the winter in perfect equilibrium. Both our Ford Focus hatchback on the mainland and the Honda Civic on Peaks provided dependable, cheap transportation. Then one night, we were awakened by a crash that rattled the house.
I peeked out the window curtain. “Sandi, there’s a van up there. Hey, a man just fell down in the snow. He’s getting up, no, he’s down again. Damn.” Hurrying downstairs, I pulled on my boots and parka and grabbed my doctor’s bag. As I approached the van the man was back on his feet, swaying like a lumbering bear that’s broken into a jug of whiskey. He emptied his bladder against our mailbox. I asked him if he was okay.
He looked up, head rolling. “I’m awfully sorry.” The front end of his van was crumpled and both headlights were shattered. Metallic debris and shards of glass lay scattered on the edge of the road. I reached into my pocket for a pen light, thinking, head injury, keep him talking. A jeep braked to a stop behind the van and Jim, one of our island policemen, stepped out.
He swept his flashlight across the front end of the van. “Oh my.” While I examined John, Jim waded through a snow drift to our maple tree and ran his hand over the trunk. “Funny. Your tree’s fine.” It didn’t add up. The front-end of John’s van was crumpled but…then I saw a vague, dark, mound across the street, the rear end compressed like an accordion, our Honda Civic.
John suddenly pulled himself together and correctly answered Officer Jim’s questions. He walked a reasonably straight line. Amazingly, there wasn’t a bump or scrape on him. Pulling me aside, John apologized again and asked if I’d mind if we kept this off his insurance. We can settle this up tomorrow. Officer Jim kicked the snow off his boots and helped John into the police Jeep and offered him a ride home.
Wait. That’s it? I’m wild eyed. I pulled back my hood. “This guy must’ve been going fifty coming down the hill and totaled my car and you’re not even giving him a ticket?” For the next fifteen minutes officer Jim explained that because he didn’t actually see any reckless driving and John did walk a straight line and because he didn’t have a breathalyzer in the Jeep and by the time he called for the police boat and got John uptown his alcohol level would be normal, he basically couldn’t do anything except drive John home. Get him to bed. I’m thinking, it’s Officer Jim who wants to get to bed.
“John, you are going to make good on the car with Dr. Radis now, aren’t you?” he asked. John said he and I had already talked. I wanted to punch someone.
From there, Sandi and my memories diverge. We have had so many vehicles on Peaks Island and the mainland that it’s impossible to keep track. Since 1985, we we have owned 17 vehicles, but it could be as many as 20. Sandi thinks we may have brought our blue Ford Focus from the mainland out to the island, and bought a Ford Taurus station wagon for intown. I insist that our neighbors down the beach gave us their blue “shit-box” Volvo which was a disaster (as it had been for them). It only worked when we didn’t need it.
By the mid-1990’s, we needed more room for our two girls, Kate and Molly, and bought a third-hand, full-sized Dodge Ram truck which eventually, and quite mysteriously, stopped working. During its life it seemed to go through gas at the rate of roughly a gallon a mile. Our neighbors, Cindy and Rod invested in the necessary repairs and brought it back to life. They nursed it along for several years until they sold it to Marty on Daniel Street. For another decade I’d see our truck at the dump or parked in front of the market. Then, like so many vehicles on Peaks Island, it simply disappeared somewhere into the woods.
Eventually, Peaks Island’s 850 year-round residents grew tired of the “tradition” of abandoned vehicles. Well water contamination was a concern from leaking oil and transmission fluid. Island children often played in the woods amid broken windshields and rusty fenders. No one wants to live next door to a yard full of rusting carcasses. After a series of community meetings, Covey Johnson was hired to remove abandoned vehicles from the island. Covey set to work dragging junkers out of the woods and back yards, and crushed and stacked them on a trailer for delivery to a mainland junk yard. According to Covey, he exhumed 300 cars and trucks. Among them was an ancient Packard, it’s classic, elegant lines still intact.
There is a saying that “As Portland goes, so goes Peaks Island,” and there’s no denying that Portland has evolved into a vibrant tech and foodie and micro-beer haven. Some of this money flowed across the bay. Cottages were enlarged and renovated, or torn down and rebuilt on a grand scale. One recent rebuild is replete with a garage and a lawn sprinkler system.
We have not been immune to this trend. Six years ago, I purchased a new Toyota Tacoma truck for the island. I have to admit, it’s a guilty pleasure owning a truck with a working heater and a radio. On frigid winter mornings, I can flip on the defroster and switch into 4-wheel-drive when the snowplow blocks me in with a wall of icy snow.
Several years ago, returning from a weekend away, we walked up the hill from the ferry and discovered that our truck was missing. I sheepishly admitted to Sandi that I probably left the keys in the ignition, or perhaps a teenager found the extra set of keys by the stick shift. We were unworried; it’s not like the thief was going anywhere. But when we checked the gravel pit and biked around the island and failed to find the car, we knew this was no ordinary joy ride. Several days passed; still no truck.
On the third day, a friend of Sandi’s mentioned that she thought she saw our truck on an inland dirt road, so Sandi walked over. Sure enough, there it was, neatly parked in front of a seasonal cottage. Sandi rang the doorbell. A woman answered. Sandi said, “That’s our truck in your driveway.”
The woman blinked. “I don’t think so. Our friends, they’re in Boston this weekend, said that when we got off the ferry, the keys would be in the ignition of their silver truck near the market. The keys were right where they said they’d be.”
Sandi adjusted her barrette and scratched her cheek. “It’s okay. I’m not upset. I just want our truck back.” Where to begin? There were 3 silver Toyota Tacoma’s on Peaks Island. Probably all of them had the keys in the ignition. Our particular truck had a tailgate sticker which said, SISU (meaning tenacity in Finnish), making it easy to identify. The woman’s face sagged with guilt; she had stolen our truck.
Sandi pulled a spare set of keys out of her backpack and patted the woman on the back. “It’s okay. I’m not mad. I’m going to start our truck and drive it home now.” Then, she wrote out our name and phone number. “If you need a ride to the ferry, call me. I’ll pick you up.” As she pulled away a few minutes later, it seemed, for a moment, just like old times.