It was late. We were near Savannah, Georgia. I was with my friend Roger. It was midsummer and we’d driven all the way from West Florida to look at a boat for sale. We were young men, trapped in an un-air-conditioned truck cab. We smelled like the varsity basketball team laundry bag.
A guy will do strange things when a boat is involved. To some people, a boat is just a boat. But to many American males, a boat is an enchanted thing that sits in the backyard for decades, untouched, forming an enchanted natural habitat for spiders and raccoons. Until one day, the enchanted boat-trailer rusts apart from neglect and becomes a historical landmark.
It was dark. There was heavy fog. Roger drove his truck with the hazards on. It was 3 a.m.
We stopped at a cheap hotel to get some rest. It was a seedy place. The night clerk smirked at Roger when we asked for a room, probably because Roger looked like a junior librarian.
“We’d like a room, please.” Roger’s voice squeaked.
“How many hours?” said the guy. “We rent rooms by the hour.”
That’s when we noticed a woman sitting in the corner, wearing fishnet stockings. We could tell right away that this was not the kind of establishment that offered a continental breakfast.
So we drove outside of town and parked near a large salt marsh in the middle of nowhere. We slept in the front seat.
When the sun came up, I was sitting on the hood, admiring miles of golden cordgrass and sea lavender. If you’ve ever seen the lower coastal plains of Georgia, you can’t help but think that this incredible earth was no accident.
Anyway, the boat for sale was a Boston Whaler. The kind of boat that would have made a great home for some lucky family of field mice in Roger’s backyard. Roger inspected the trailer and kicked the tires. Then he began the ceremonial process of “dickering.”
Dickering is a cherished custom among classified-page buyers. There are unwritten rules and a strict procedure of etiquette that must be observed. Roger was a master bargainer. He worked in haggling the same way other artists work in oils or charcoal.
Roger kept lowballing the guy until he’d offended the man. Finally, the seller was finished messing around with Roger and he told us to get lost.
I was ticked off at Roger for the rest of the day. I had spent one night in a stinky truck parked in marshlands for nothing. What a waste of time.
On the ride back, I was driving, Roger was sleeping. The stars were out. Alan Jackson was singing about the Chattahoochee. We were on a vacant backroad. I never drive interstates if I can help it.
Then it happened. I heard the loud, unmistakable pop of a tire. The truck jerked left. I muscled the steering wheel to the shoulder. In a few minutes, we were looking at the damage with a flashlight.
This was before the age of smartphones with flashlights, back when most phones had cords and—I know this is hard to imagine—could not even take pictures.
The rear tire was chewed to shreds. And it got worse. We discovered that Roger had no spare. Roger almost had a meltdown.
“What’re we gonna do?” he said. “Walk to town?”
“We can’t, it’s way too far.”
“I hate myself! What kinda idiot doesn’t bring a spare? All for a stupid boat.”
One of the worst parts about any difficult period in life is that you never know when it’s going to end. If you knew the end date beforehand, you could almost endure hell itself. But when bad circumstances seem permanent, total panic sets in.
After several hours of fretting, sitting on the back of the truck, staring at the moon, we thought our lives were over.
Then a pair of headlights approached.
We jumped off the tailgate and flagged the vehicle down, waving and screaming, leaping in the center of the highway. The car pulled over. It was a rusted Oldsmobile that looked like it had seen better days, with stickers and decals all over it. The driver had a white beard and, I don’t mean to sound judgemental, but he smelled like a close friend of Jack Daniels.
Even so, this fragrant stranger had a donut spare tire in his trunk that fit an ‘86 Ford F-150 XL. We could hardly believe that this little old man in an Olds, out the middle of the wilderness, had the correct tire with him. It was a borderline miracle.
“Who is this guy?” Roger whispered.
We fastened the new donut onto the hub and we were trying to pay the man, but he was not taking it. He said, “I don’t need your money, fellas.”
He was a quiet man, that much I remember. He had greasy hands, brown stains on his beard from either chaw or cigarettes. He had tap-water blue eyes. He shook our hands—this was back before quarantines, when people still shook hands.
“Where’s home for you two?” he asked us.
“Florida,” Roger said. “What about you, sir?”
The man smiled, lit up by the glow of our headlights and maybe something else. He winked. “Oh, I’m not from here.” And it was all he said.
When he drove away, we caught a glimpse of the bumper stickers wallpapering the back of his car. His rear fenders were plastered with Bible verses and gaudy religious artwork. One of the stickers read: “I love boats.”
I’ve never forgotten that man. I don’t think I ever will.