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Story by Tor Pinney                                                                                                                                        Back to List of Tor's Tales



Almost Heaven
© 2011 Tor Pinney - All Rights Reserved

Two angels in one day; not quite heaven,
but about as close as you're gonna' get in Nitro, West Virginia.



"Almost heaven, West Virginia..."  

                               -- John Denver, "Country Roads"


Great song, but I'm pretty sure he wasn't singing about Nitro. Nitro, West Virginia can be one lousy place to break down, especially when you’re driving a 1984 Volkswagen Vanagon, a vintage German vehicle that most mechanics these days won’t touch with a 10-foot pole. Still, considering I was traveling from Florida to Montana I suppose I ought to at least give thanks that the old girl died in front of the only VW parts & service shop within God knows how many hundreds of miles - not that it did me much good.

I was in Nitro to get a new side-view mirror for the van. A sales guy in an auto parts store off I-70 had told me about this shop that specialized in VW's, and a phone call confirmed they had the part I needed. So I detoured 10 miles to get it. The part was good, the price was right and I put it on, but when I went to start up the van and get going, the engine began sputtering and backfiring as if it was only running on half its cylinders or wasn’t getting enough gas. It barely had enough power to roll forward in 1st gear, and I had to burn the clutch to do even that. Nothing I did made it any better, which isn’t surprising since I’m about as proficient in auto mechanics as I am in quantum physics.

I was, however, 30-feet from a self-professed Volkswagen expert. Two, actually; Keith & Keith, father and son. At first they took turns poking around my engine in between their scheduled repair jobs and walk-in customers, but neither of them could figure out the problem. Then they stopped trying. Their shop was booked solid; they were just too busy. I’d have to wait my turn – a week, maybe more, before they could work on it, plus however long it then took to get whatever repair parts were needed. Damn! Meanwhile, the owner really wanted me to leave, but how could I? I was stuck, and he was stuck with me. In the end he agreed to let me stay in the van in a far corner of an adjacent lot until we could figure something out.

What a bummer! I’d been on a roll, happily heading west for the summer, momentum built towards a new adventure in my new old VW campervan. This sudden breakdown stopped me like an iron fist. WHAM! I was seriously crestfallen; felt cheated, imprisoned. Hell, I was imprisoned, broken down in a hot, dirty car lot in the middle of nowhere, West Virginia, sandwiched in between a noisy 2-lane truck route and a noisier railroad track with trainloads of coal rumbling through day & night, blasting their damned whistles at the intersection a block away. Try sleeping through THAT at 2:00 in the morning. And did I mention it was HOT? This was a campsite from hell. It really, really sucked.

I spent a couple of days this way, frustrated, pissed off, distressed and depressed, internally railing against my fate. It all seemed so… intolerable. I actually shut my eyes tight a couple of times hoping that when I opened them I’d find myself waking up from a good night's sleep in some rural Interstate rest area, ready to hit the road again, Nitro WV just a bad dream rapidly vaporizing.

But then something did happen that turned it all around. After suffering so much anguish to no avail, I had a moment of clarity and that saved me, opening the door to an amazing change in my circumstances. Here’s what happened:

I suddenly realized I had to accept the way it was. That's it. Sounds kind of simple-minded, I know, but  think about it. I'd been fuming and fretting and, well, suffering for 2 days over a situation I couldn't do anything about. How dumb is that? I had actually just been learning about this very thing in an Eckhart Tolle audio book, and now it seemed The Universe was putting this student to the test. Tolle, an enlightened intellectual and a brilliant spiritual teacher, suggests that if you can’t change an unwanted circumstance and can’t remove yourself from it, then the only sane thing to do is fully accept things as they are at that moment. Well, I couldn’t leave my current predicament – I was living in the van for the summer and had nowhere else to go – and I couldn’t change it - I’d tried repeatedly for the past couple of days, bugging the overworked mechanics ad nauseam. So I  needed to accept it. That was the key. By no longer resisting - even though I didn’t like the situation I was in - I might at least take the pain out of it. It’s a useful mindset and a valuable spiritual lesson, but as you’ll see it can also be much more.

When this revelation struck me I stopped what I was doing, closed my eyes, took a few long, deep breaths and consciously allowed it to be. This is where I am; this is how it is. No judgment, no labeling good or bad, just a statement of fact and my sincere acceptance of it. Then I took it a step further by affirming my belief that all of Creation is as it should be right now and - and this is my own take on things, not necessarily Tolle's - that It was taking care of me. (This notion harkens back to my Time of Miracles.) So I surrendered my present situation to it, or rather to the Creator Itself, That Which Is, The Universe - call it what you like. I couldn’t deal with it, so I admitted as much and handed it over. I call this 'practicing the art of surrender.'  I've had some astonishing experiences with it over the years and I was about to have another one.

The first thing that happened there in Nitro was I instantly felt better. This huge weight of helpless impotence I’d been carrying around simply lifted. That alone was worth the price of admission, and I can honestly say that if I'd had to tough it out where I was for another week or two I'd have been OK with it. Not thrilled, but OK.

But I guess I'd learned the lesson sufficiently and didn't have to stay after school, because literally about a minute later this battered old VW van happened by with a young, long-haired hippie at the wheel. I was standing by my van’s open engine compartment still adjusting to my new & improved state of mind when I noticed him. Some part of me recognized the kid as a kindred spirit (I was a long-haired hippie when I was his age - hell, I still am) and his van as a sister ship, so I half smiled & waved without giving it much thought. To my surprise he pulled over, jumped out and walked right up to me.

“Havin’ problems,” he drawled, leaning over to inspect the engine? I told him what was wrong. “Hmmm, maybe I can help. This is what I do. Vanagons. I know these things inside out," he continued without a pause. "Ain’t nothin’ about ‘em I ain’t fixed a hundred times. Got my first VW bus when I was 16 and been messing with ‘em ever since. I ain’t braggin’, but I probably know Volkswagen vans better’n anyone within 3 states of here. Pretty amazing I found you, though.  My place is waaay out in the country, up a mountain. I hardly ever come into Nitro. Can't stand the place. Haven't been here in months. Just came for a part Keith happens to have in stock. Yep, you just got lucky, man. Hey, we oughta' replace these fuel lines on general principle. Damned if some of 'em don't look original...” During this nonstop monolog, he was poking at various engine parts, wiggling hoses, prodding wire connections. “Well, this air intake boot is at least part of the problem,” he announced, bending back the old rubber hose to reveal a large, open split in its belly. “It's supposed to hold vacuum, you know. I can’t believe you made it this far with this thing. Definitely gotta’ replace it.”

I was speechless. Two professional Volkswagen mechanics hadn’t been able to figure out what’s wrong with my van after 2 days of intermittent fiddling, and here this tie-dyed hippie kid comes along and in about 2 minutes flat solved the problem, or least made a good start. And the timing of his arrival was not lost on me, either, coming so immediately in the wake of my surrender. That's how it works sometimes. Yep, this guy was my angel of mercy, all right, provided by The Universe Itself, and I was smiling for the first time since I’d hit Nitro. Now all I had to do was kick back and go with the flow.

Matt – that was his name - rummaged around in his cluttered work truck and came up with a matching part, but it was old and badly worn. Keith & Son’s didn’t have one in inventory, either, so Matt got on his cell phone. A couple of calls later he’d found what we needed and off we sped to his buddy’s house 12 miles away, up a country road named Sugar Creek Drive.

Matt's friend, Jay, was a master mechanic and another old-Vanagon aficionado. That made two of them in this one little corner of West Virginia; four if you count Keith & Keith. What are the odds? I've been to large cities that didn't have a single person could work on these things, let alone come up with parts. I didn’t know it yet, but Jay was going to be the other half of my salvation, my second angel. That’s two in one day. I felt like I’d died and gone to heaven. Well, almost heaven.

Jay sold us a spare air intake boot he had for $20, a fraction of the cost new, and it was soon installed in my van back in Nitro. The engine ran better, but it still lost power under load. Matt replaced most of the fuel system. The engine still coughed and stalled. Not to be beaten, he worked on it late into the night - testing, tuning, fussing, muttering – determined to lick the problem no matter how elusive.

It was pushing midnight by the time he quit and he had pretty much narrowed it down to a dirty, probably rusted fuel tank with a clogged, inaccessible internal filter. The next morning he was back at it. Jay showed up and after a series of experiments, agreed with Matt’s diagnosis. The tank had to be replaced. Matt whipped out his cell phone again, logged onto the Internet, and in a matter of minutes had ordered a new gas tank plus a bunch of other stuff from a specialty outfit in California, which I paid for (plus a 3-day expedited delivery charge) with a credit card.

Now I had 3 days to wait (or so we thought – it turned out to be 5) until the parts arrived. Keith Sr. had been patient and even helpful throughout all this, but he really wanted my van off his car lot, and so did I. So when Jay offered me a place in his driveway up on Sugar Creek Drive, I jumped at it. We rigged a temporary bypass for the fuel line and off we went, the van running pretty well with the jury rig.

My new host was in his mid-30’s, tall, long-haired and independent. We quickly became pals. That night he had a few friends over for a 3-guitar jam session in his yard. We all talked and drank beer and serenaded the stars while lightening bugs swarmed in the trees, sparkling like Christmas decorations. A few feet away my home sweet campervan sat beneath a great, sprawling shade tree. What a change from downtown Nitro!

The next morning Jay invited me to tag along with him to a local motorcycle sales & repair place to see a buddy of his. We marched right through the dealership showroom, past the Authorized Personnel Only sign and into the mechanic's shop in the back. Jay and I sat on wood stools while his friend, the head mechanic, fussed with an old Harley engine. There we 'set a spell,' surrounded by tool benches and half-dissembled motorcycles, sipping coffee in paper cups and shootin' the breeze. Well, they shot the breeze. I mostly just listened, not always understanding their terminology or their dialect but enjoying the setting, like a scene in a documentary about a little-known American sub-culture. It was kind of cool just being there while they rambled on about friends and family and local events and motorcycle parts.

That afternoon Jay went to work. He’s a freelance auto insurance inspector with a good reputation and plenty of corporate clients. Whenever he was gone I enjoyed the quiet tranquility of his driveway, keeping busy with van chores, reading and writing. Jay loaned me a wifi antenna he had laying around so I was able to pick up the marginal signal from his house and get online inside my van. He also opened his garage shop to me, inviting me to use his tools as needed, an uncommonly generous thing for any mechanic to do. The guy was a giver, plain and natural. When he wasn’t off inspecting wrecked cars, he helped me with a dozen assorted repairs and improvements to my van. I had it made in the shade on Sugar Creek Drive, and it just kept getting better..

The next afternoon Jay suggested we drive into Charleston for an outdoor music concert. What a blast! We ate at the food stands, checked out the pretty women and rocked to an incredibly good calypso-style band in the city’s elegant amphitheater on the banks of the Elk River. Caribbean music in downtown Charleston, West Virginia. Who’d ‘a thought?

During the subsequent days I was there, Jay kept me entertained with all kinds of down home activities: beer and pool at the local country bar, hotdogs from a popular roadside take-out (they eat them covered with chili & coleslaw in those parts), chatting with the old timers in some guy's garage, zooming around the local rivers and fishing the streams in Jay’s speedboat, eating breakfast at the local hotspot, cheap & good, where everybody knows everyone else. Amazing how much there is to do out in the country. And because I was with a home-grown local boy I was automatically accepted everywhere we went, allowing me to see and experience this warm West Virginia culture and lifestyle in ways  an outsider never could. This unplanned detour on my way out west had become a happy highlight of my summer road trip.

The day before my repair parts arrived, a Sunday, we drove one of Jay’s father’s collector cars, a beautifully refurbished 1966 Oldsmobile, to a homespun car show way out in the sticks. (His dad drove his mint ’56 T-bird.) The easy-going friendliness of the people there, the free, help-yourself hotdogs & ice cream, the lovingly restored antique automobiles these folks brought to share and show off, all made for an outstanding afternoon. That little corner of America may be economically depressed, but these hard-working people are rich in other ways and live a good life.

When we got home from the show Jay pulled a pair of 4-wheelers, ATV's (all terrain vehicles), out of the garage and we took off on a long, wild ride through the forested hills that flanked his home, all 200 acres of it his daddy's land. We raced up impossible inclines, startled a few deer, identified some wild herbs that grow in the woods, and wound up at a secluded pond just uphill from his house. We dug up a couple of worms, pushed a little John-boat off the bank, and went fishin' to the sound of the bullfrogs croaking - just like Mayberry RFD!

UPS finally showed up with my parts. Matt came down to Jay’s house and the two of them installed the new fuel tank and other stuff we’d ordered right there in the driveway. Still the van ran rough, so they kept at it, tuning, testing, theorizing, trying out different fixes until Matt finally solved the last problem by swapping the computer box that governs the fuel flow for one he had laying around in his cluttered truck. By the time they wrapped things up it was 2:00 AM. When I asked Matt what I owed him, he named a figure so ridiculously low I gave him an extra hundred bucks and still got the deal of the century considering all the hours he’d put into fixing my van.

I almost hated leaving Sugar Creek Drive the next morning. What had started out a total nightmare in Nitro had turned into an amazing adventure, and I’d made a two new friends to boot. Incredible what a little surrender will get you.

It seems I need to be reminded from time to time that resisting the way things are, the Now, as Tolle calls it, invariably creates suffering. If you don't like the situation, change it if you can. If you can’t, then remove yourself from it. And if you can’t do either of those things, then accept the way it is at that moment and surrender yourself to The Universe that created it. Then see what happens.

~ End ~


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