Losing Time
- or -
How, Despite my Best Efforts, I successfully U-hauled from Chicago to Palm Springs by Depending on the Partially Remunerated Kindness of Strangers

Chapter One:  Prologue
Chapter Two:  He Ain't a Crack Addict Bum, he's my Furniture Mover
Chapter Three:  The Truck Who Sang Bleeds to Death
Chapter Four:   Attacked by Indians
Chapter Five:   Why I've Never Liked Winona Ryder


When I was a teenager I read a science fiction novel by Anne McCaffrey called "The Ship That  Sang".   It describes a future where the brains of people with severe physical handicaps are removed from their bodies and implanted in spaceships.   The brains are connected to all of the ship's systems and they can control all of the ship's functions, as well as communicate with the ship's crew.    In this case, the personality of the woman who was put in control of the ship remains intact, and she expresses herself by singing through the ship's speaker system.   I can't remember much else about  the book, but I believe that things end rather messily.   I mean, it would have been a very boring book if everything had gone along just swimmingly, wouldn't it?

U-haul trucks can have personality, too, but this is usually not such a good thing.   The person in the book adjusted well to her role controlling the spaceship, and had a full and satisfying relationship with the rest of its crew.   Unfortunately, U-haul trucks which have had enough time to develop a personality are almost always malevolent and sadistic.   Perhaps this has something to do with being repeatedly abused by uncaring strangers who just use you and discard you in some distant place once they've finished with you.   I confess to having done this myself, to a brand new U-haul truck on its very first foray into the world.   Somewhere in West Virginia I accidentally put this poor innocent truck into reverse while doing 60 or 65 miles an hour, with my Honda Accord on a trailer on the back.   Accident or not, I vividly recall to this day seeing a large cloud of blue smoke in the rearview mirror as the back wheels locked up.   I retained control, coasted over to the side of the road, and on its third attempt the gallant, injured truck managed to start up and took me without further complaint to Chicago.   Goodness only knows what evil I planted in its heart that day, and what vengeance it wrought on subsequent drivers.

The truck I left Chicago in definitely had personality - far, far too much personality.   Coincidentally, she sang too.   OK, she didn't actually sing, what she did was whistle.   Loudly.   This seemed to have something to do with having a driver's door which was so bent that you could see sunlight where it was supposed to meet the doorframe.   It got so bad that I eventually wound the window down, because even loud white noise was preferable to the infernal unending whistling.   The thought of over 2000 miles of such torment was already starting to get to me before I'd left the Chicago city limits.

The whistling, though, was a minor inconvenience compared to the outright disobedience.   I didn't notice this at first, but after I left the safe confines of the Chicago freeway system, it occurred to me that the truck's headlights weren't working.   As long as I was on well-lit freeways I couldn't tell that the lights weren't working, but by the time I got onto the rural parts of interstate 55 I noticed that the lights were coming and going.   They'd go on for a while, then fade and go off completely.   If I pressed the high-beam control on the floor with my foot the lights came back on, or so it seemed.   Then they'd go off again and no amount of high-beam control trickery would make any difference - but turning the light switch off and on again would bring them back.   For a while.   Then nothing would help, not high-beam controls, not light switches, not even swearing and cursing.   There seemed to be something horribly familiar about this situation.   "Turn the headlights on, Hal.   Turn the headlights on please, Hal.   Turn on the headlights, please.".

The plan was to get out of Illinois and down to St Louis that night, but even with my type-A personality I couldn't ignore the fact that driving some tons of steel at speed along a pitch dark interstate wasn't a smart thing.   I pulled off the freeway at the small town of Lincoln, only halfway to my intended goal, and checked into a motel for the night.

In the morning I set off, stopped off in St Louis to see its giant arch, and then crossed the remainder of Missouri on interstate 44 without incident.   I crossed over into the state of Oklahoma and, since I needed fuel for the truck, pulled off the interstate at a town called Wellston.

Wellston had once been a one-horse town, but the horse must have died quite some time before I got there, and now all it had was a gas station.   I'm sure they're very, very proud of their gas station and would severely injure anyone who did anything to threaten it.   My truck obviously sensed this and seized this opportunity in the only way it knew how - by haemorrhaging large quantities of red fluid that looked disturbingly like blood.   Actually, I didn't notice that there was a problem until a local woman pointed out that I was losing brake fluid.   I tried to move the truck out of the way while I still had brakes, but it wouldn't budge.

I borrowed the gas station manager's cellphone and, since I'm proud to say that I've never used one before in my life, I asked her to explain how to use it.   I then called the U-haul emergency number.  I told them that I was blocking 6 out of the gas station's 12 pumps, and that it would be good to get this situation resolved quickly.   She told me that she was going to send someone up from Oklahoma city, and that it would take an hour and a half.   I told her again that I was blocking 6 pumps (which was true) and that it was causing a snarl-up at the gas station (which, um, wasn't quite true).   Somehow, none of my brilliant logic seemed to help my case, so I settled in for a wait.

Type-A personality, right?   I couldn't see the point of wasting my time sitting around, so I grabbed my camera and looked for some photo opportunities.   The first one presented itself immediately - Wellston sits right alongside the old route 66, famous in song and legend as the road taken by many people before me who were moving from Chicago to Los Angeles.   I got a couple of photos of the sign and moved on.   It didn't take too long to find other subjects worth photographing, some small but interesting green butterflies which were hanging on for dear life in a stiff breeze.   I put my closeup lens onto the camera and got some nice butterfly photos.   I then noticed that the U-haul repair guy had arrived, half an hour ahead of schedule.

He was a fairly young guy, but already seriously overweight.   He said that the problem was only affecting the parking brakes, and that he'd release them manually and I could follow him to Oklahoma where the problem would be fixed.   I suggested that a better solution might be for me to get a replacement truck, given the whistling and headlight problems this one also had.   He said it would probably be quicker to fix the truck than to transfer the load from one to another, so I accepted his recommendation.

Only problem was, he couldn't get the brakes released.   After about an hour and a half of fiddling, and consulting several times with home base, he said that they'd bring in a large tow truck, lift up the back of the U-haul truck with it, and tow it to Oklahoma, where it would be fixed.   I said that I didn't like this idea at all, since all of my household goods were in the back of the truck, and would get messed around when it was lifted.   He said there was nothing he could do about it, because it was company policy.   I got on the cellphone again and called the Oklahoma U-haul office, who explained that only if there were something major like an engine or transmission failure would I get a replacement truck.   I suggested that an inability to move seemed like rather a major failure to me, and that I didn't want my stuff wrecked during the towing, nor did I want to lose yet more time while I waited for the truck to be fixed - by now I'd been in Wellston for three hours.   Somehow I must have sounded the right note, and she relented and offered me a replacement truck in Wellston or, more precisely, in Chandler, ten miles back up the road.   So I drove up with the U-haul guy.

Chandler seemed like a fairly redneck little town, but it was a bit bigger than Wellston and had the luxury of a U-haul outlet.   Before I could pick up my replacement truck, however, I had to fill in the transfer document to authorize it.   This piece of paper had already loomed large while I was in Wellston, since my old truck didn't appear to have one of these vital pieces of paper.   After ten or fifteen minutes of digging around, however, the U-haul guy found one in his vehicle.   When we got to Chandler, however, he realized that he hadn't filled in the mileage of my truck, so he headed back down to Wellston to get it.   I therefore had a charming fifteen minutes to spend with the mechanic and his assorted hangers on at the Wellston U-haul.

They started off by telling me about the shortcomings and foibles of their various relatives, including a sister who, apparently, was good for nothing except lying down, and she didn't even do that well.   Then, as one might expect with such people, the subject turned to guns and then to hunting and I was told it would soon be time to go squirrel hunting, since the first frosts would kill off the old and sick squirrels.   I couldn't quite make the association, and said so.   The guy repeated what he'd just said, that the frosts would kill off the old and sick squirrels, as if the connection were self evident.   I was obviously still not there, so he groped a bit deeper for an answer.   Well, you wouldn't want to eat old, stringy squirrels or sick squirrels, would you?   No.   No, of course I wouldn't.   And it's true - I really wouldn't want to eat old, stringy, sick squirrels.

Thankfully, I was rescued from this situation before I or they had run out of amusing and uncontroversial topics, and I headed back down to Wellston with the new truck.   I couldn't back it right up to the old truck, since the trailer was still attached, but I got it within fifteen or twenty feet.   Once again, I needed to find someone to help me with the moving, but one of Wellston's more glaring inadequacies was a woeful shortage of homeless people - maybe the frosts had killed all of them off.   I'd already asked at the garage in Chandler if there was anyone around who might want a couple of hours work, which is how I found out about the uselessness of the lying-down sister, but none of the potential helpers could be tracked down.

So I did what anyone would have done in those circumstances, and asked the first guy I saw sitting in a car whether he knew anyone who wanted a couple of hours work at $20 an hour.   I think he was a native American guy.   He said he'd do it.   Right now?   Yes, right now.   Swell!   We started moving boxes over and then the bigger stuff.   His girlfriend came out of the store and he explained what was happening, so she started helping to move stuff.   Then some really old guy who looked like the sort of toothless old codger dreamed up as a comic foil for Western movies came over and started moving boxes.   I felt embarassed to have him there, he was so old I thought he might have an apoplexy and keel over, but he insisted.   Then another local woman stopped by for gas and she started helping.  They were moving stuff so quickly that I couldn't keep up at the other end.   In less than half an hour everything was moved over.

Now the only problem was moving the trailer from one truck to the other.   I was pretty doubtful about how we were going to achieve this, because these trailers weigh 2200 pounds (999 kilograms) even without a car on them.   I started disconnecting all of the chains and straps which keep the car on.   The old guy, who was blessed with the very Wild Western name of Bart, suggested that we leave the car on and he'd get a trolley jack and move it with that.   That didn't sound particularly plausible to me, but another guy who was smoking a cigar said that would be a good idea.   If it worked then it certainly would be nice to avoid the hassle of getting the car on and off, so I agreed and Bart went off to get the trolley jack, while I moved the new truck into place.   Sure enough, it worked a treat and in minutes I had the trailer transferred.   I gave $20 to the Indian guy and $20 to his girlfriend, but Bart and the local woman wouldn't take anything.   They left and Bart packed away his jack.

Then the gas station manager came out and asked what was going to happen with the dead truck.   I told her what U-haul had told me, that a tow-truck was meant to be coming to take it away.   She didn't sound entirely convinced or pleased.   Bart then suggested that he'd try moving it.   I explained that I had already tried, and the U-haul guy had tried, but that it hadn't moved.   However, Bart wanted to give it a go and so I gave him the keys.   He climbed in, revved up the engine and tried to pull out, without any success.   He tried a few more times, with no more luck.   Then he put it into reverse and voila!  Slowly and unhappily it started moving while he revved the engine quite high.   He kept inching it out and soon got it out of the way.   The manager said that this sort of resourcefulness was typical of him.   Now everyone's problem was solved, except for the U-haul people.   Seemed like instant kharma to me.

So that's how the partially remunerated kindness of strangers saved the day for me once again.   I lost five hours in total.   People who know me might be rather surprised to learn that I stayed remarkably calm throughout the entire episode, since there was really nothing whatsoever I could do about any of this.   I guess I did score a pretty significant victory by getting a replacement truck despite the visionary policies of the U-haul Corporation.   And it certainly wasn't a total loss in other ways, since I did get a nice photo of a butterfly and of the route 66 sign, too.   I also had acquired a truck with lights that worked, so I'd be able to drive into the night and make up some of the time I lost earlier.

The one thing I really regret is not getting a photo of Bart and the other people who helped me.   Heck, I would even like to have a photo of the people up in Chandler.   Unfortunately, by the time I thought of it everyone was gone, except for the guy with the cigar and some guy who turned up after all the excitement was over.   When he found out that I was a New Zealander, he told me that his son-in-law in Oklahoma city was a New Zealander, and he insisted that I speak to him.   So I got to exercise my newly found skills with a cellphone once again, and heard a familiar sounding accent on the other end of the line.   So then, there's that photo above of the guy with the cigar, and the guy on the right is the guy with the son-in-law from New Zealand, and the guy in the middle is some guy I don't know  at all - but heck, maybe someday I'll also need him to rescue me from some pickle.