Wednesday, February 5, 2014


In the year 2000 the Bower family caught up with the Joneses.

Until then, life for our family could've been measured by whatever shitty vehicle was adorning in the driveway. If the Bowers’ lifespan were represented by a highway, the stalled vehicles on the shoulder—the secondhand Ford Astro vans and sputtering station wagons—would've served as mile markers. Or, if the Bowers' lifespan were represented by the depth of planet Earth from crust to core and I drilled until I hit the year my Little League team won the District 12 championship I would've bored into the coughing-and-hissing, rusty bumper Geo Metro layer.

Despite the succession of crummy vehicles, the Bowers were certainly not a penniless family. But my father was the sole breadwinner and he had 3 children and a wife to support. He drove a jalopy to preserve adequate finances to put well-rounded meals on the table or stuff plenty of Christmas gifts under the tree or take the family to Rehoboth Beach most summers. My father put his family first.

Until the year 2000…


One evening during dinner Dad tapped his water glass with his salad fork. “Wife. Kids. I have an announcement. Your father has finally gotten his big break. I’ve been promoted to the vice president of Sun Bank.”
Accompanying the promotion was a healthy raise, of course. Dad celebrated by immediately trading-in his 89' Ford Tempo Continental for a 98' Chevy Blazer. A Chevy Blazer is an "American as Grandma's apple pie" sports utility vehicle. Now, parked in our driveway was an S-U-V, just like the neighbors, and the neighbors' neighbors. Yes, the Bower Family had caught up with the Joneses. (Footnote: There were no Joneses in our neighborhood. We lived next to the Fries', who lived next to the Stiabbs', who lived next to the Fergusons', etc. Regardless, every family owned a vehicle that was not only roomy enough to transport a family of five, but tough enough to pull a Sherman Tank out of a backwoods lagoon while a Sam Elliot voiceover touted words like "torque" and "horsepower".)

My father was immensely proud of his 1998 Chevy Blazer.


During this time—the start of the Chevy Blazer layer of crust if you will—my friends and me spent many warm weekend nights camping deep in the Tiadaghton state forest. By "camping" I'm not talking about the catch a heap of brook trout to cook over the campfire, pitch a sturdy tent and live like a mountain man variety of camping. I'm talking about the lug two cases of Pabst Blue Ribbon into the woods, pass-out on a stump and live like a frat bro variety of camping.

There was one camping spot in particular we frequented called Sharp Point Vista. Sharp Point Vista is one of the highest points in Pennsylvania and miles from the nearest settlement. The spot was only accessible by traversing miles of rugged dirt roads. Regardless, the view is absolutely beautiful.

We planned to camp there one Saturday night but my friend's truck was having engine problems. I decided to ask Dad if I could borrow the Blazer. He was not pleased by the prospect, but I was persistent. Eventually he relented. I almost required a pry bar to wrest the keys from his clenched fingers.
That camping trip was not unlike other nights at Sharp Point Vista. We tossed empty Pabst cans from the mountaintop listened until they clanked off the rocks below; we sang awfully to classic rock tunes on my battery-powered radio; we woke up with headaches a Sam Elliot voiceover would've described using words like "torque" and "horsepower." Those were the days!

Come morning my friends and I "redded-up" the campsite, packed into Dad's Chevy Blazer, and then began the winding trek down the vista and back to civilization. Along the way the dashboard's red "check engine" light ignited. Until this point in my licensed driving career I'd assumed that a lit "check engine" symbol was simply a reminder to tell the mechanic to peer under the hood the next time the vehicle was in for an oil change. Even then, he'd probably say something like "it's just a little electrical problem in the dash," or something benign. Danger was not imminent.

We soldiered on through the forest until we finally connected with Interstate 220 West. When the engine was suddenly pushed from 15 miles per hour to 55 miles per hour, it began making a faint, yet distinct, grinding noise. I made the conscious choice to ignore it. (Footnote: If the check engine light was personified into, say, my father, it would've reached over the steering wheel, snared me by the collar and shook like the dickens, screaming "Pull the hell over idiot!")

I dropped my friends off one-by-one at their homes. Meanwhile, a sense of looming catastrophe gradually overcame me the longer I ignored the warning light and still-faint grinding noise. All I wanted was to get home, give my dad back his keys and let him realize his Blazer was malfunctioning during Monday morning's commute.

I took the Williamsport business district exit and stopped at the red traffic light above one of the cities’ busiest intersects. Only three miles from home now! The traffic light turned green and I pressed the gas pedal but…nothing happened. I tried again but the engine didn’t roar and the Blazer didn’t budge. That’s when the black smoke appeared from underneath the hood. What began as a few puffs quickly swelled to full-fledged plumes. And you know what they say: where there’s smoke, there’s…

“Fire!” I yelled. I began freaking-out, and glanced into my rearview mirror. A police car had been stopped at the light behind me! What luck! (Footnote: This was the ONE time a police car in my rearview mirror signaled good luck.) The officer sprinted to my driver’s side window and instructed me to put the vehicle in neutral and steer while he and a bystander pushed it across the street into a strip mall's parking lot. Nearby shoppers watched a mobile mushroom cloud schlep toward them. Soon I was parked between Petro’s Jewelers and a Dunkin Donut. I hopped from the Blazer (no pun intended), and sprinted a safe distance away from the flames spewing out the front grill.

The police officer swooped in with a fire extinguisher and blasted the front of the Blazer, but this just pissed the flames off.

“How much gas do you have in the tank?” the cop asked as he back-peddled from the vehicle.

“It’s nearly full, sir."

“Oh my god, son! STEP AWAY FROM THE VEHICLE.” Then he began jabbering into the little walkie talkie in his shoulder, saying things like “dangerous situation” and “need back-up.” I was flat-out mad at this point. I yanked the ball cap of my head and kicked it like a huffy little kid.

By now, several shoppers and bystanders had congregated along the walkway in front of the strip mall, watching my father’s pride and joy succumb. I imagined he was among the spectators, glaring at his dimwit son with a look that would’ve compelled the flames to extinguish themselves out of pure fear.

The police officer began directing the crowd. “Move back, people. Move back.”

I watched too as the flames gradually engulfed the Blazer, like a python swallowing a hippopotamus. Luckily, reinforcements appeared in the form of a fully-capable fire truck carrying a crew of three. The fire fighters quickly disembarked and unwound the cumbersome hose from the truck's back, plugged one end into a nearby fire plug and aimed it's formidable business end at the mounting inferno.

I imagined the struggle between the fire and firefighters as a WWE wrestling match: “The fire is in complete control now. The Blazer is as good as out cold. It's smoldering like…OH MY GOOD! IS THAT TANKER TRUCK #7's MUSIC? IT IS! Here comes a triple threat tag team of the city of Williamport's finest. And they're pulling out a foreign object: THE FIRE HOSE. IS THAT LEGAL? They're unleashing it on the unsuspecting flames now. We're seconds away from a tap-out by the Chevy Blazer. Oh, the humanity! The fire is clearly hobbled and…God Almighty! Here comes another surge bursting out of the front grill! Was the fire faking injury? The firemen are feverishly cranking the hoses' force up to 11. In 22 years of calling Blazer fires I've never seen the likes of this! The fire is wilting under the intense blast. The crowd is stirred to pandemonium at the spectacle. They want blood. The fire is shrinking still. "Soak. Soak. Soak." The fire is sputtering, sputtering…nozzle closes in on Blazer and…"hiiissss" goes the dying breath of the flames. It's all over. The fire put up a helluva fight but in the end three city firefighters and a giant-ass fire hose gushing full-bore was just too much. You're winner…Tanker Truck #7!”

As the victors high fived and re-coiled the hose, and the onlookers dispersed, I knew MY greatest challenge lie ahead—I needed to call my father. I didn’t own a cell phone then, and there were no pay phones in the area. So, I slogged over to Dunkin Donuts and up to the bushy-haired lady snapping gum behind the register.

Women: "Welcome to Dunkin Donuts. What can I get for you?"

Me: "See that out the window there? That's my ride. I need to use your phone."

Woman: "You gotta' purchase something first. Company policy."

Me: "Fine. I'll take a small Coke."

Woman: "We just got Pepsi."

Me: "Whatever."

Woman: "That'll be 89 cents."

I was led behind the register to the push-bottom phone behind the wall of assorted freshly baked donuts. The receiver and my ear resisted one another like magnetic poles. Each "beep" of a pressed button felt like another step toward innocence's cruel end. The phone rang. My father answered.

Dad: "Hello."

Me: "Dad?"

Dad: "Yes."

Me: "Dad, I got bad news."

Dad: (long pause-breathing) "What?"

Me: "Your Blazer caught on fire and the fire company had to come put it out. I'm at a Dunkin Donuts. I had to buy a fountain drink to use their phone."

Dad: (pause again-more breathing) "Fuuuck! Fuuuck! Fuuuck!" Then he just went nuts, like if Frankenstein stubbed his foot. "FUUUCK! FUUUCK! FUUUCK!"

I expected my father to appear at the strip mall harboring a rage that would knock his previous rages 17 years out of fashion. (Footnote: Although he was never a violent man I wouldn't mess with him if I was a VCR that needed programmed or a map that needed folded.) But when Dad arrived he was eerily calm. Even when I told him the red check engine light had been on he remained seemingly unruffled. Even after I'd confessed that I'd driven many, many miles while the engine grinded audibly he didn't utter a word. He didn't chastise me or belittle me or even tell me what I should've done differently. He knew that I knew that I'd fucked up. Instead, Dad and I just stood together and watched as a couple of poor Department of Public Welfare workers loaded the charred Chevy Blazer on to a flatbed tow truck.


I felt guilty about destroying Dad's 1998 Chevy Blazer for about a month until the insurance company paid-out above the Kelly Blue Book value of the vehicle for damages. He immediately used the money to purchase a 1999 Chevy Blazer. Then I got to thinking: A few more vehicle fires and insurance claims and the Bowers might not just be keeping up with the Joneses, they'd be in the passing lane.

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