Patagonia

Could this have been Sue's roadside hero? In a Patagonia jacket, almost anyone seems trustworthy, writes columnist Herb Benham.

I have good news about breaking down on I-5: Help is on the way and it may not be the help you expected.

“How long has that battery light been on?” Sue asked.

How long? Longer than I want. Three miles and five minutes too long.

We’d spent the weekend in San Diego watching the grandkids and were headed home. The car was filled with satisfaction. After the battery icon appeared on the dash, the car was also filled with the faintest hint of smoke and a dash of collective anxiety.

I liked it better a long time ago. Before there were brake, battery and check engine lights. Your car just died, burned up or the wheels fell off. There was no sense of impending doom.

Doom was now on the horizon like the neon signs for In-N-Out. We were done. I knew we were done. It was just a matter of when we were done.

We made it through Oceanside, San Clemente, Laguna Beach, Fountain Valley and then past LAX. All the while, the battery icon might as well have been jumping up and down, waving its arms shouting, “I’m still here and you have a big problem.”

No one wants to be that guy on the freeway. That guy whose car breaks down, blocks the carpool lane because every freeway in California seems to be under construction and who causes cars to back up for 10 miles. That guy is the most despised man on the planet. No one likes that guy. Not even that guy.

I don’t pray often because my prayers are weak and tend to be self-serving, but as I went over Sepulveda Pass, I sent one to the car gods:

“I don’t deserve your sympathy and I know I am going to break down, but please let me break down where there is a shoulder or an off-ramp and close enough to Bakersfield where my roadside service gives me free towing.”

I knew I was asking for a lot but it’s like a kid and his Christmas list. Ask for the moon and be happy when Santa gives you a Pet Rock.

The Jeep began to shut down a mile north of Magic Mountain. Icons flashed that I’d never seen before. The Jeep was going code blue, red and yellow.

Sue looked at me with wild eyes. Wild beseeching eyes. Eyes that asked if there was something a man could do.

Not this man. Not with this car. This man was feeling pretty good about steering this car onto the shoulder of the Hasley Canyon exit.

We stepped out of the car. It was cold and windy. We were 70 miles from home.

After calling the tow truck, we had a decision to make: Adventure or woe-is-me?

While we were deciding, I scampered down the hill for a moment, and when I returned, Sue was talking to a man who had pulled over when he saw a female motorist stranded by the side of the road.

“My dad taught me never to leave a woman stranded by the side of the road,” he said, noticing that the woman now included a man.

Richard Barnes was driving to Chico State for his daughter’s graduation. He offered to jump the car or take Sue to Bakersfield. (He dropped her at the Outlets at Tejon where Lauren, our daughter-in-law, picked her up.)

He looked trustworthy. He was wearing a Patagonia jacket. When is the last time somebody abducted somebody wearing a Patagonia jacket? The worst thing that could happen is he abducts her and they go and climb Kilimanjaro.

“Take a picture of my license,” he said and I did.

If I took a picture of his Patagonia jacket, he might make the June catalog.

They left and I waited by the Jeep for the tow truck from Fleet Services in Bakersfield. That’s when Melvin, from the Freeway Service Patrol, pulled up. Talk about Christmas. The FSP (dial 511 and say “Motorist Aid") keeps L.A. freeways moving and it’s free.

“Let me tow you to that shopping center there,” Melvin said, pointing across the freeway to a Ralphs. “You’ll be safer there.”

He towed me to the Ralphs where I ordered a turkey salad with avocado on white bread from Christiane in the deli. Christiane is a breast cancer survivor, has a great smile and lives in Frazier Park.

Twenty minutes later, Ryan Godfrey, the tow truck driver, arrived, slid the Jeep on the flatbed and we headed for Bakersfield.

Ryan is getting married soon, has applied for a job at Pepsi (hire him) and likes to fish. He also told me his brother was a good handyman when he wasn’t fishing.

I need a good handyman. Everybody does. When I got home, I called him and he’s coming over to look at some stuff.

The Jeep has a new alternator. Sue’s not climbing Kilimanjaro with her new friend. Life is an adventure.

Herb Benham is a columnist for The Bakersfield Californian and can be reached at hbenham@bakersfield.com or 661-395-7279.

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