We thought we were going to the Phoenix area, but for a moment, for a sweet, quiet, tearful moment, it seemed we had found Zion instead.
It was 114 degrees in the shade that summer day of 1973, and there wasn’t that much shade. Our ‘62 Pontiac wagon roared through the August heat toward the Valley of the Sun. “Why are we going to Arizona in August,” my wife asked, trying to get her mind off the boiling mercury. “Why not wait six months and go to Alaska?” I had been hired by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to teach the scriptures to high school students in Arizona. The Church’s name for the program that employed me was “seminary.”
“I doubt that the Mormon Church will be hiring many teachers in Alaska this February,” I told her.
My wife, Lydia. rolled the window up partway. The heat in the car was intolerable, but the open window was a furnace vent. The baby girl on her lap was in a diaper and nothing else, and the heat was making the child miserable. And for a father who had taken a huge hit in the paycheck to get a job with the Church, air conditioning was an impossible dream.
The Valley of the Sun glistened before us, flickering in the haze like a nearly forgotten dream. “Watch for Bell Road,” I told her. “We need to turn east on Bell Road.”
I had wanted to teach seminary since the beginning of my college years and had been offered a position after graduation from Utah State University in 1971. But the Army intervened and two years of active duty had moved me so far down the roster of potential employees that no one offered me much hope. But in the summer following my discharge, the Scottsdale School District had decided to allow Mormon students to spend an hour each day in religious instruction, and I had been hired to teach seminary next to a high school in eastern Phoenix.
The purpose of this trip was to find a place to live. Three of our children were in Utah Valley with relatives. The baby, Tami, was with us. And, like the wet witch in The Wizard of Oz, we were melting.
“One mile,” my wife noted, pointing at a roadside sign. I moved to the right and, a minute later, turned off onto Bell road. The landscape was nearly lunar in its sterility. Even the ubiquitous saguaros had retreated to the nearby hills. The communities in which we might find housing all seemed far to the south.
“We need to find Scottsdale Road now,” I explained. “That will take us into Scottsdale, down there somewhere . . .” I gestured weakly toward Camelback Mountain and the waiting civilization to the south. A friend on vacation had offered us the use of his house in Scottsdale while we searched for a home of our own.
After a few miles more of moving east at high speed in high heat, I glanced at the dashboard. I looked again. The temperature gauge needle had slipped to the right—all the way to the right—and come to rest in a field of red. I slowed and pulled over. As our speed diminished, I saw the wisps of evaporating engine fluids gliding by the car windows. We came to a stop just at the intersection of Bell Road and Scottsdale Road. I popped the hood and got out to take a look. A cloud of continuous steam drifted upward from the engine compartment.
I don’t fix cars, or much else for that matter. I use my hands to pick up phones and call people who do. But even with this mechanical myopia, the dissipating steam under the open hood could not hide the problem. The fan belt had popped off one of the pulleys.
For reasons implied in the paragraph above, I do not carry tools. I know so little about what to do with them . . . and they take up space I need for diapers, bassinets, soft drinks, and suitcases.
I walked back to the passenger window to tell my wife we were in some difficulty. There were no buildings close by—no phones, no shade or shelter from the heat—and very little traffic. But almost at once, a police car stopped behind us and a handsome young man got out.
I explained our problem. He had no tools either. He had a radio and a budget—why would he need tools? He offered to drive me to the nearest service station on Scottsdale Road. For some unremembered reason, he could not take all of us. My wife and baby remained with the car, and I assured them I would be back quickly. The air conditioning in his car felt like the sweet breath of autumn.
A few miles down the road, I disembarked in front of a Chevron station. In those days, service stations still offered services. They had no beef jerky or soft drink dispensers and ninety-six ounce cups inside, but they had garages and mechanics. This station was staffed by an aged gentleman and his teenage son. The man had a scruffy beard and coveralls, and his name was Hank (of course). I explained my problem with some concern. Could he help? Would he help? And there was still that matter of finances. What would it cost us to get back on the road?
“Let’s get going,” he said, once he understood. “Your wife and kid will be well done before long.”
He opened the trunk of an old Plymouth and threw in a disorganized collection of wrenches, crowbars, fan belts, and two or three plastic jugs of water. He told his boy to watch the shop and we turned back up Scottsdale Road.
My wife was outside the car with our baby, driven from the escalating heat inside the unmoving vehicle. Hank offered them some cold water and leaned over the open hood.
In a moment he had his tools at work, the old belt securely back in place, and water in the radiator. He slammed the hood and pulled a greasy rag from his rear pocket to wipe his hands. “Start her up,” he directed. The engine turned over and rumbled to life.
“That ought to do it,” he said, smiling at the baby. “But get some coolant in the system as soon as possible.”
I thanked him with all the fervor of a grateful father and reached for my wallet. “How much do I owe you?” I asked.
He glanced at me, then walked to his car. He opened the door, looked at me again over the roof of his vehicle, and said something that changed my life: “I never take money from a man in trouble.” Then he got in his car and drove away. – by Ted Gibbons