Wednesday, December 28, 2005

2006 NEW YEAR’S RESOLUTIONS

I, Michael Kubacki, hereby resolve to:

1) Be more tolerant and accepting of people from different ethnic groups, and not just the good ethnic groups, but the stupid, dirty ones as well.

2) Drive just a little bit faster wherever I go, and use the time saved to watch internet pornography.

3) Remember to turn up my cell phone ring when I go to the movies so I don’t miss any important calls.

4) Take some of the money I’ve been putting away for Tex’s college and start buying better beer.

5) Put on a few pounds. Instead of that green salad I usually put next to my macaroni and cheese, why not a baked potato? Six minutes in the microwave!

6) Give up my study of the Bible and watch more TV instead.

7) Stop being so shy in spreading the good news about our wonderful President Bush to all my friends.

8) Remember to say “Native Americans” instead of “Woo-woo Indians.”

9) Be more sensitive, caring and understanding toward my fellow man, but always be sure to get the other guy before he gets me.

Copyright 2005 Michael Kubacki

Thursday, September 22, 2005

ARCHIE BUNKER AIR

Does anyone feel safe on an airplane these days? It’s been, after all, more than three years since the horrors of 9-11, and flying still supplies endless fodder for dark humor. We have all learned the resigned shrug of the helpless as we step on an airplane.

Everyone has a story. The two-hour wait for security. Take off your shoes. Take off your belt. Step over here, Madam, I need to feel your bodacious ta-tas. Why are they giving that eight-year-old a workout, and ignoring the six Arab guys who are half-pretending not to know each other? And don’t sit next to the only guy in a suit on the flight to Orlando. He’s the air marshal; he’s the first one they’ll kill, to get his weapon. And oops---thank God they missed this Swiss army knife I forgot I had---but wait, what else did they miss?

The procedures themselves are always changing, but it never gets any better, does it? Well, really, how can it? Name a government bureaucracy that does. Do the public schools get better? Does Medicare get more efficient? How about Amtrak?

Some years ago, during one of the periodic national debates on why it took five years and $500 million to get a new drug through the FDA (it’s now eight years and $800 million), Milton Friedman commented that calling for “reform” of the FDA is like saying you like cats, but you want one that barks. The flaws of a bureaucracy, in other words, are embedded in its very nature.

In particular, the incentives for a bureaucrat are different from those of an entrepreneur who, in order to survive, must satisfy his customers with efficiency and low prices. A bureaucrat, on the other hand, derives prestige from the size of his staff and his budget, so there is little motivation for efficiency. The bigger the agency, the more important the bureaucrat. Further, his customers are actually “end-users,” a term the computing world has invented to describe consumers who are stuck with a product because they have no market power in the transaction. Parents and children are end-users of public schools. Geezers are end-users of Medicare-regulated healthcare. As we all have learned, an end-user is pretty much the last thing you want to be in this world. Political prisoners generally have a lot more fun.

And when we go to the airport, we’re all end-users of airport security, aren’t we? I mean, there’s no choice. Whether it’s Delta, or USAir or Southwest, we all get the same one-size-fits-all, take-off-your-shoes, make-a-joke-and-you’re-off-to-Gitmo, expensive, annoying, inefficient security system. And then we get on the plane and spend the flight watching the creepy 20-year-old male Egyptian in seat 8C who strolled unmolested through security but who, if he were spotted at a Bush rally, would immediately be surrounded by seventeen Mormon commandos.

No matter what you may think about the evils of the profit motive and the lack of imagination in the corporate world, they couldn’t possibly be as ham-fisted and brain-dead as the feds, could they? In fact, freed from the constraints of political correctness and union politics and the civil service, YOU could come up with a better, safer, cheaper system. I know I could, and I don’t have much doubt that every commercial air carrier would as well. And you, the consumer, would vote with your dollars on the security system you prefer.

If airline security were left entirely to the airlines, several innovations would appear almost immediately.

First, since there would no longer be any federal scrutiny of security procedures, carriers would need to assure customers that airplanes are, in fact, safe. (Not that the feds do this, of course, but the airlines would have to.) So in short order, there would be an industry group or an independent testing company that would test security systems and report the results publicly. Think Underwriters Laboratory, the people who test electrical equipment of all sorts and put their “UL” sticker on the ones that pass. For airlines, there would be a similar company that would try to sneak fake weapons onto planes and fake bombs into suitcases, and all of us would find out whether they succeeded.

Second, there would be an industry-wide “Trusted Traveler” program, under which any passenger could choose to submit himself to a series of interviews, background checks and a polygraph test. Once approved, a Trusted Traveler would sail through a special line at any airport and be spared all security-related delay. There would be a charge to the passenger for the screening process, but it could be reasonable because the program would actually save the airlines a ton of cash. Every business traveler in the country would sign up for the program. It would be a status symbol. And half the people now doing “security” because they can’t find a job as a bartender would have to polish up their mai-tai-making skills.

The third thing that privatization would accomplish immediately is that it would permit carriers to discriminate among those flights that require extensive security checks and those that do not.

For example, consider the 7:30 AM Monday trip from Scranton to Harrisburg. Every week, there are six people on this airplane, and they are always the same people. Even when a newcomer shows up, it’s somebody that four of the passengers can vouch for, and when I say “vouch for,” what I mean is something along the lines of “I went to elementary school with Joe---he’s OK,” or “Sally’s my sister-in-law,” or “The guy baptized my kid---give him a freaking break.” No security whatsoever is needed on these flights, and there are hundreds of them every day. Why waste metal detectors on these people? Because it’s “fair?”

By contrast, while I have never been on an 8:00 AM weekday flight from Logan Airport in Boston to LAX, I think that if I ever had to fly that route, I would refuse to get on the plane until every passenger had been given extensive, even lingering, body-cavity searches. There are many such flights---any flight to D.C. or any flight out of Miami or Newark, for example. No rational human being, including Hindus, will now board these flights without a full complement of rosary beads. Post-privatization, these would instantly become the safest airplanes in the country. You might have to report for your flight six hours before departure, but once you got on the plane, you could sleep like a baby.

The possibilities for airline security are limited only by the imagination, a commodity utterly absent in the bureaucratic mind. Many suggestions have been made for improvements in the system, but very few have been tried. I think we could expect some of the following experiments to appear.

1) Naked Air. We’ve all heard this one. Check your clothes at the gate, and they are returned at your destination. Carry-on luggage would we strictly limited as well. Perhaps not the ideal solution for those Minneapolis to Vancouver flights in mid-January.

2) Captains Rule Airlines. Your pilot, assisted by those of the flight crew he trusts, sits at the entrance to the jetway and exercises his unfettered discretion on the question of who flies. Some folks he waves aboard. Others he questions, and if they satisfy him, they too are allowed to fly. Others he rejects. There are no appeals. (This discretionary power of the master of a ship or conveyance dates back at least to the Phoenicians, and was part of English and American common law until it was discarded by aviation bureaucrats a few years ago.)

3) El Al America. Here’s the ad: “Ever flown from Tel Aviv to Milan? Expect the same from us. All our employees are trained by El Al, the safest airline in the world.”

4) Badges? Badges? Oh, Yes, You Need Some Stinkin Badges Airways. Passports are required for all domestic U.S. flights (an Ann Coulter idea). If you hold a foreign passport, it must be submitted 48 hours in advance so it can be authenticated.

5) Rambo Airlines. All members of the crew, including stewardesses, are ex-military, trained in hand-to-hand combat, and heavily armed. Go ahead. Try to take over the plane. Make their day.

And now here’s my idea, and it’s not original. I first heard it thirty years ago from Archie Bunker on “All In The Family.” He was having an argument with his son-in-law, the Meathead, about airplane hijackings, and Archie’s solution was as follows: “When you get on a plane, they give everybody a gun. There’s maybe two or three hijackers at most, and they’re outnumbered. End of problem.”

I laughed at the time. That was the idea. But in the intervening years, I have seen the kernel of truth embedded in the joke. Because…well, why do we fear flying?

It’s because we’re helpless, isn’t it? And not only are we vulnerable, we are aware that every other decent, law-abiding non-terrorist passenger is also vulnerable. Our current system of airline security is 100% effective at disarming people who pose no threat to anyone, so all the bad guys need is one gun, or a few blades, and the rest of the passengers are as good as dead. The presence of air marshals might provide some comfort if they were not so easily identifiable, but at present, they might as well wear signs that say, “KILL ME FIRST.” They actually make airplanes more dangerous because terrorists are spared even the trouble of smuggling a gun aboard. All they have to do is kill the guy in the blue blazer and take his.

A central problem with our air security system, and one that has been completely overlooked, is rooted in the belief that you can make people safer by rendering them powerless to defend themselves. But our federal aviation geniuses did not invent this idea. In fact, it has been tried in many places, and it appears to be one of those notions that cannot be discredited no matter how often or how spectacularly it fails whenever it is implemented.

On April 28, 1996, a lunatic went on a killing spree in Port Arthur, Tasmania. Ten days later, nationwide gun control legislation went into effect in Australia, featuring buybacks, new registration requirements, and confiscation of guns. Though it was already very difficult to own a handgun (legally), the new laws took away hundreds of thousands of rifles and shotguns as well. In a matter of months, the Australian people were effectively disarmed.

In the U.K., the impetus was a mass murder in Dunblane, Scotland, in 1997. By February 1998, possession of a handgun had become a criminal offense throughout the realm.

The results were entirely predictable. While homicides and suicides remained about the same, there were immediate increases in all categories of violent street crime---assaults, sexual assaults, robberies and armed robberies---as criminals faced a victim population that had been rendered, for the bad guys, conveniently helpless. In 2000, a Crime Victim Survey conducted by the Dutch Ministry of Justice determined that, among the seventeen countries they categorize as “industrialized,” the three most dangerous were England, Wales and Australia. Residents of those countries were more likely to be victimized by crime than residents of any other country. The results, at least in the U.K., were confirmed two years later when the UN Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute found that in England, in 2001, 55 crimes had been committed for every 100 residents.

Of particular concern to the citizenry of these countries was a terrifying crime that had been almost unheard of before---the home invasion.

In a place like the U.S., invading a home is something no halfway sane criminal would even consider, because even if the residents are an elderly and infirm couple, there is always a decent chance they keep a loaded .38 under a couch cushion. Unless a criminal can be certain there is no weapon inside, a home invasion is simply too dangerous a proposition. With the guns gone in Australia and England, the home invasion became a much safer play.

And the same dynamic is present in a hijacking. It may be difficult to get in the airplane with a weapon, just as it may be difficult to get in the house, but once you’re in, your victims are helpless and have nowhere to run. You can slaughter them at your leisure, fly the airplane into a building, demand ransom---whatever your agenda, the passengers are the least of your problems.

But on Archie Bunker Air, the passengers are a big problem. They outnumber you, many of them are armed and you don’t know which ones, and if you try to take over the plane, they’ll get desperate.

And OK, I suppose I’m not going to hand every passenger a gun at check-in. But I’m not going to make it too difficult to carry a piece onto an airplane either. Maybe all we require at “The Arch” is a concealed-carry permit, which are now easily obtainable in a number of states. Maybe we even require a one-hour NRA-designed course at a local shooting range. Whatever. Just so long as we make it easy enough that on any random flight of say, a hundred passengers, a dozen or so will be packing.

As Archie himself would say: “End of problem.”

Copyright 2005 Michael Kubacki

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

STUPID BOWLING QUESTIONS

In the summer of 2005, Tex attended a bowling camp at the Thunderbird Lanes in Northeast Philly. At the first meeting, their coach’s opening lecture concluded with this observation:

“Remember. There are no stupid questions about bowling.”

The program consisted of two three-hour sessions each week, for six weeks, and the Thunderbird Lanes are just far enough from our home that it made little sense for me to drop him off, drive home, and then drive back to pick him up. In other words, I spent a lot of time at the Thunderbird Lanes last summer doing sudoku puzzles, drinking beer, watching young bowlers hone their skills, and pondering Coach Don’s words.

Though I am not a professional bowler or a qualified bowling coach, I have decided Coach is wrong on this point. Indeed, I am convinced there are stupid bowling questions. YOU decide. I submit the following for your consideration:

1. What’s the ball for?

2. What are you supposed to put in the little holes?

3. When is the best time to stick your head in the ball-return chute?

4. Is it legal to throw overhand?

5. Some guy told me there’s a federal law that says you can’t talk on a cell phone while you’re bowling. Is that true?

6. Are you allowed to dribble a bowling ball before you shoot? You know, like in basketball?

7. There’s no “I” in “TEAM,” but there is an “I” in “BOWLING TEAM.” So what do you do?

8. Since you get two balls to knock down all the pins, can you roll them both at once?

9. Do pros ever use a lumpy ball? If so, why?

10. Can you choose how many pins there are, or does it have to be a certain number?

11. Is it ever a good idea to throw the ball in the gutter? Like for strategy?

Copyright 2005 Michael Kubacki

Thursday, March 10, 2005

MILE MARKER 89.7

Andy Fazio
Andy’s Service Center
139 S. Blakely St.
Dunmore, PA 18512

Dear Andy:

Since you and I are both fans and admirers of Father Jack Doris, let me say a word about him before describing the series of events that befell me on February 14.

Jack is a friend of mine. We eat pizza together. We watched the Superbowl together. We argue about Notre Dame football. But over the years, and I don’t know exactly how this happened, he has also become a sort of spiritual advisor. He would probably laugh to hear me call him that (even though he’s a priest), but there it is.

It works like this. Every now and then, I’ll give him a call and drive up the turnpike, to Dunmore, to see him. It might be a personal problem I want to talk about, or it might be some political topic that’s been on my mind. Sometimes, there’s no reason at all I could put my finger on---I’ll just feel the need to sit and talk with him a while. And whatever it is, I always feel better afterwards. In fact, I’m sure that’s the reason I do it. The problems may still be there, and the worries, and everything else. I mean, the guy is not a magician. But I always leave feeling braced, and optimistic, and ready to ford a stream if I have to.

I live in Philadelphia, so these trips to see Jack have taken on a pilgrimage quality in my head, partly because I don’t much enjoy driving, but also because I seem to encounter extraordinary difficulties every time I attempt the journey. From Philly to Allentown, I’m fine. From Allentown to the Lehigh Tunnel, I’m cool. But I emerge from the tunnel into a different and dreadful place. Hurricanes. Blizzards. Wind that can blow a car into the median. Rain so hard you have to pull over and wait it out. I’ve seen rock slides. I’ve seen dead deer the size of elephants. I’ve seen tractor-trailers going sideways. Winter or summer, it makes no difference. It’s only a two-hour trip from Philadelphia, and almost all of it is on major highways, but I have NEVER undertaken one of these pilgrimages without, at some point, thinking, “Gosh, maybe I should pull off and find a motel somewhere, and try again tomorrow.” Never.

I’ve heard people describe the Bermuda Triangle this way, that there’s something you can feel, something that’s wrong, something that’s out to get you. And yet, when I have driven up to Dunmore at other times, there’s been no problem. If my family is in the car, or if I’m going to a ballgame or a party or something, the sun is always shining and the birds are always chirping, and I zip through the glorious woodlands and mountains of the Poconos with a song on my lips and peace in my heart. If it’s not a “pilgrimage,” I have nothing to fear. But when I’m alone, and I’m on my way to a private conference with Jack, well, anything can happen, and most of it isn’t good. I’d be safer driving from Baghdad to Fallujah with a Star of David on the side of my car.

And yet…. Well, that’s the nature of a pilgrimage, isn’t it? You don’t get something for nothing. If you want to talk to that hermit on top of the mountain and find out the meaning of life, first you’ve got to climb the mountain. Muslims go to Mecca every year, and sometimes they get trampled in stampedes and sometimes there are epidemics, but still they go, millions of them. The journey itself has a spiritual value, and the more difficult it is, the better. Unless you’re Paris Hilton, you don’t take a limo to Lourdes. You walk, or you limp, or you crawl.

Not that I cherish my moments of terror on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, you understand. In fact, if I had known I would have to traverse the Twilight Zone when I first began making these little journeys, I might have thought better of it and made other arrangements. Jack comes to Philly on a regular basis, and I could possibly have made a date to buy him a cheesesteak at Tony Luke’s. But I didn’t, and now it’s too late. If I tried to do that now, I’m certain it just wouldn’t work. I’m a pilgrim now, and the journey to Dunmore cannot be separated from the experience and discarded. It wouldn’t feel the same. I NEED to be swallowed up each time, like Jonah, by the gaping mouth of the Lehigh Tunnel, not knowing what awaits me on the other side. I accept it. I do it intentionally. It’s worth it to me. A wise man once wrote, “We are all on the path to ordination; some of us take the high road and some take the low.” Me? I take the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

All of which brings me to the events of February 14, which began, as many of my weekdays do, by dropping off my son at school in downtown Philadelphia. As I proceeded along Spring Garden Street toward the Expressway, the first snowflakes began to fall. A “wintry mix,” the radio called it, that would turn to rain. OK. I can handle that, though I wondered what the “wintry mix” would look like on the other side of the Lehigh Tunnel. At least I knew what I was facing, I thought. Often I don’t.

The snow didn’t stop, but as I rolled northward, past Allentown, past the tunnel, past Lehighton, it didn’t seem to be getting worse either. With the temperature in the mid-thirties, the road was wet but not icy, and traffic was moving normally. I was going about 55, and I was being passed more often than I was passing. On the hills that characterize the northern reaches of the turnpike, there were some trucks moving very slowly, but there are trucks moving slowly on those hills on the driest day in July.

Looking back on the accident, I think what happened was that I came to the top of a wind-swept hill that was perhaps a bit more exposed to the elements than the roadway before it, and perhaps the ambient temperature was more like 31 degrees than the 34 degrees I was used to. In any event, there was ice. I didn’t see any ice, and I hadn’t seen any all the way up from Philly. But ice there must have been, because when I turned the steering wheel a quarter-inch to the left in order to pass a slow-moving vehicle, I instantly lost control and began to slide.

Anyone who has had a life-threatening experience will tell you it seems to unfold in slow motion. They say that because it’s true. I remember every millisecond vividly---what I did, what I thought, what I saw. I wish I didn’t remember it quite so well, because the memory of it has washed over me several times since, when I wasn’t expecting it, and made me shudder.

The turn I was trying to execute when I began to spin out was only about 8 or 10 degrees of arc, but the car simply continued to turn in that direction as I worked the wheel and the brakes frantically, all to no effect. Twenty degrees. Thirty degrees. Forty-five. Seventy. I was now nearly sideways on the road, helpless, when a scream formed inside my head. It was a single word. It was a bad word. In fact, it was a very bad word, and I will not share it with you because Father Jack will also read this letter and there is no need for him to see it in print. Use your imagination. I suspect that in your career as a mechanic, tow-truck operator and entrepreneur, you may have heard it once or twice. It has occurred to me since the accident that there are people who, in my situation, would instinctively have offered up a prayer, though it would have had to be a brief one. “Please!” or “God!” or “Jesus!” might do the trick. Maybe you’re one of those people, and if so, you’re a better man than I am. There are a lot of men better than I am, I suppose.

As the Honda proceeded past the 90 degree (sideways) position, with no hint of stopping, it became clear to me I was headed for a full 180-degree turn. Hope dawned. A false hope, as it turned out, but I realized that if my angular momentum were sufficient, I might spin PAST the 180 to a complete 360 and again be heading northbound in the northbound lanes. I could then regain control and proceed calmly on my way. I would not only live to tell about it, but I would become, for a moment anyway, the coolest guy in Carbon County. Women who happened to witness the maneuver would instantly swoon, and offer to have my children.

All this raced through the old bean in a hundredth of a second---it’s amazing how the mind works when you have nothing to lose---and I turned the wheel as hard as I could in the direction I was spinning. Nothing. It was locked. I tried turning it the other way, and then jamming it back to the left, but nothing happened. I was sliding. I was out of control. What was going to happen was going to happen. I would never be the coolest guy in Carbon County.

In the next instant, I was fully backward, facing south and sliding northward, but I had stopped spinning. The car had spun 180 degrees, I still had no control, and I had no idea what would happen next. It was at this point I began to question my romantic attachment to the notion of a pilgrimage. Why hadn’t I just called Jack on the phone, I wondered. He has a phone, you know. He probably has four or five phones, and an email address, and a fax machine. What was I thinking? And how important was this particular mission anyway? OK, I had a little problem and I wanted to talk to Jack about it. But everybody has problems, right? Maybe I should have given myself a slap in the face and sucked it up. Maybe I should have been a man about it. For some reason, I thought I NEEDED to talk to him about it, in person, and now I was sliding backwards on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, and I didn't like my chances of coming out of this without a permanent impairment of a body function or maybe even a permanent impairment of all my body functions, so I was performing a long-overdue cost-benefit analysis on the whole endeavor. There was a downside to this pilgrimage business, and perhaps I hadn’t given sufficient weight to it before.

And who the hell was this Jack Doris anyway? A nice enough guy, of course, and he can tend a flock with the best of them, but he’s not exactly Dr. Phil, is he? I mean, he doesn’t even have a TV show. What made me think a few words with a guy who cares way too much about Notre Dame football was worth submitting all my favorite internal organs to the whims of gravity and momentum and centrifugal force and all that other Isaac Newton stuff you had to study in high school? I hated all those physical forces now, momentum in particular. There was a kid in elementary school---Stuart Sorkin---who sucker-punched me in the sixth grade and knocked me silly, and I got a D in Citizenship as a result, and I have harbored a secret loathing for Stuart Sorkin for the past 42 years, but now I hated momentum even more. I really, really, really hated momentum. I was none too fond of my high school physics teacher, to tell you the truth. Even Isaac Newton---I mean, he was a great scientist and all, and I admit he wasn’t responsible for my predicament, but at the time, I had no use for him either.

I guess I was just in a bad mood.

But these were my thoughts as, looking south, I slid north on the Pennsylvania Turnpike at 45 mph for what seemed like a week or two. I had a lot of time, maybe too much time, to think. Those who know me would tell you I usually have an optimistic attitude toward life, but this was a real test of the spirit, and I failed. I found it hard even to search for the bluebird in my current situation. He had flown away.

I braced for impact.

I began now to slide eastward, and I’m not sure why. You would have to ask my high school physics teacher. I realize it’s hard to keep track of the geography here, but “eastward” means I was now drifting sideways toward the shoulder and the guardrail. Most of my momentum was still backwards, of course.

This cheered me somewhat. I had been worried about being rammed by a vehicle traveling northward in the normal, approved fashion, so the shoulder was an attractive option. At least I would be off the roadway. It was not something I anticipated with any eagerness, the collision with the guardrail, but if there had to be a collision, and there did, the guardrail was preferable to an 18-wheeler. I allowed myself another moment of hope. I was going to slide into the guardrail sideways. If I survived my first marriage, I could surely survive that. I had my seatbelt on, the Honda was fully equipped with airbags, and my insurance was all paid up. I would dance away from this disaster! I briefly regretted not having worn a tuxedo so I could carelessly flick a speck of dust from my immaculate cuff as I emerged laughing, James-Bond-like, from the smoldering wreckage and raced off across the Pocono moguls with Ursula Andress on the back of my jet-powered snowmobile. The odds, of course, were that Ursula was nowhere in the neighborhood, but I was going to live! That much was almost certain! Whatever else happened---well, the rest was whipped cream and chocolate sauce.

In fact, the impact was more violent than I would have liked. I hit hard. This is the part I don’t remember all that well. I didn’t lose consciousness, but when I finally came to rest, my head was bleeding and my left hand was twice the size of my right. I still have no idea how these injuries occurred. I was dizzy. I wasn’t dancing. But I was OK.

As luck would have it, a salt truck was sitting in a cutout off the road a quarter mile south. He had witnessed my adventures, and now proceeded slowly down the shoulder toward me. I opened the sunroof and gave him the OK sign. He stopped the truck, exited, and strolled over to the Honda.

“How ya doing?” he asked.

“OK,” I replied. “I’m a little foggy.”

“Is it driveable?” he asked.

I thought about that. The engine was still running. I was willing to give it a try. Since I was facing the wrong way, though, I would have to inch my way along the shoulder until I reached an area where I could turn around.

I tried it. The car went into gear, the wheels turned, everything seemed to be working, but I couldn’t steer. I got out and looked at the wheels, but didn’t see the problem. The gentleman from the salt truck returned.

“Want me to call a tow truck?”

“Thanks,” I answered.

So I waited. Cars and trucks zoomed by. The snow continued to fall. Salt trucks lumbered past, spreading crystals. I called Jack.

“Listen,” he said, “there’s a guy here in town named Andy, and he has a shop and a tow truck. I can call him if you want. He’s a great guy and he won’t rip you off.”

“Thanks, Jack,” I said, “but I’m still way down the turnpike from you and there’s a truck coming already.”

At that point, the truck arrived. Schlier’s Towing, out of White Haven. With a gruff hello, the grim driver set about hooking me up. As he was doing so, a state police car appeared, lights flashing, and cautiously approached the scene of the crime. At length, its occupant emerged and joined our little party.

Now, I guess I hadn’t been expecting a hug from Trooper Kugler, or a “Welcome to Carbon County” packet from the Chamber of Commerce, but it did strike me that a sympathetic inquiry regarding the blood dripping from my head would have been an excellent way for the trooper to break the ice and get the conversational ball rolling.

“It’s just a few drops, Officer,” I would say. “Don’t trouble yourself.”

“We have many qualified brain surgeons in the area, should you require their services, sir,” he might continue.

“Some other time perhaps. I’ll just soldier on,” I would reply.

“Stiff upper lip, sir? That’s the spirit! You’ll find that a manly attitude of strength and self-reliance will make you many friends here in Carbon County!”

It might have begun that way, and should have, in my opinion. But Trooper Kugler was apparently blind to the finer shades on the conversational palette. Or perhaps he simply felt it was important for me to understand from the get-go that, at least in Carbon County, man was not placed on this earth for pleasure alone.

“I’ll have your license, registration and insurance card, sir,” is what he actually said. I handed them over.

“Were you using a cell phone at the time of the accident?”

“No.”

“Were you wearing a seatbelt?”

“Yes.”

“What happened?”

I told him.

“How fast were you going when you attempted to pass the vehicle in front of you?”

“Fifty? Fifty-five? I really don’t know.”

“I’m going to take your documents back to my car now. Please remain with your vehicle.” And he departed.

The Honda was on the hook by this time, so I waited in the cab of the tow truck. Then I waited outside. Then I went back in the cab. Ten minutes later, Trooper Kugler returned with a traffic ticket.

I scanned this document as he explained how to plead guilty, how to plead not guilty, how to request a hearing, and so forth. “Driving too fast for conditions” was the charge. The tariff was $110, but of course, nobody cares much about the fine itself. It’s the points on the license and the insurance premiums you worry about. I would have to report to Jim Thorpe, the county seat, at some future date and seek justice from a magistrate who, considering my luck so far, would probably be Trooper Kugler’s loving Uncle Fred.

He blathered on. There seemed no end to the procedural nuances he was legally obligated to impart. Is this how you welcome an out-of-town visitor who accidentally embeds himself in one of your guardrails, I wondered? When was the blind kid going to show up and start playing the banjo music from “Deliverance”? Sure, I was glad to be alive, but I now understood I was a slight underdog to make it through the rest of the day without some greasy fat guy forcing me to squeal like a pig for his amusement. I had let my guard down when I survived the crash, I realized. I had thought my tribulations were over, but here I was, still the hapless pilgrim buffeted by the unknown horrors of the land beyond the Lehigh Tunnel. The snow continued to fall. It was getting colder. My head hurt. The trees all around me seemed to drip with a nameless menace.

“Drive carefully, sir,” the trooper concluded, and took his leave. State police humor, I suppose. Drive carefully indeed! What an absurd thing to say to somebody whose car is on a towing hook.

My sullen driver from Schlier’s Towing fired up the truck and got us rolling.

“Where we going?” I asked.

“We have a shop in White Haven,” he said. “It’s not far.”

His cell phone trilled and he took the call as I considered my position. Now that Trooper Kugler had finished his bit of dirty work, I had apparently been captured by the Schlier operation. They could be the sweetest folks in the Poconos, of course, though my sour, laconic driver provided me with little evidence in that direction. More likely, I would simply represent a nice little payday for all concerned. I lacked options, and I would have even fewer of them once my car was up on a lift in a White Haven garage. And what were the odds they would be able to find the necessary parts for a 2002 Civic in such a place? Would I be spending the night? Two nights? The rest of my life?

The driver clicked off his phone and pulled over to an area with a wide shoulder. There was also a crossover here, a gap in the median. We had traveled perhaps half a mile.

“There’s another accident, and it’s more serious than yours. The car is blocking the right-hand lane on the southbound side. I’m the only tow truck in the area, so I have to leave you here with your car. I’ll send somebody else from the shop.”

“How long will that take?”

“A half hour, maybe forty-five minutes. I have to do it.”

“Go ahead,” I said.

He left the cab and started unhooking the Honda. In seconds, I was dialing my cell phone.

“Jack, the driver here is unhooking my car. He has to go to another accident. Can you get that guy Andy down here to tow me back to Dunmore?”

“I’ll call him now and give him your number.” Click.

Seconds later, my cell phone rang.

“Mike, this is Andy’s Service. Where are you?”

I told him.

“Is there air in all your tires?”

“Yes.”

“OK. Andy’s on his way.”

The driver returned to the cab just as I was finishing my call. I explained what I had done. He didn’t like it.

“I told you I’d get another truck out here for you.”

“I know, but I’ll be better off in Dunmore. I know people there.”

He made a sort of snorting noise at this news. I gathered he thought it was amusing that I would know people anywhere. “All right,” he said finally, “just fill this out.” He handed me a clipboard with a form on it that was already partially filled in.

I glanced at it, then looked at him. “What is it?” I asked.

“Fifty dollars for the hook-up and two dollars a mile. Fifty-two dollars.”

I looked at him calmly, betraying no emotion, as I quickly assessed the danger. I didn’t want this man angry with me. He was bigger than I am, and he didn’t seem to like me very much. I was alone out here, and would be alone, on the side of the road, in a snowstorm, for an hour. I had no partners in this area code. And my head hurt.

On the other hand, I wasn’t going to pay him any fifty-two dollars.

“You haven’t really provided me any service here, have you?” I asked.

“I told you I’d send another truck.” He grabbed the clipboard and shook it at me. “Look---I have to have one of these for every tow on the turnpike.”

“But you’re not towing me. You’re leaving me here.”

“I have to leave you. It’s an emergency. And you’ve gotta sign this!”

“OK. Listen. Let’s be reasonable. Take twenty bucks and let’s forget about it.”

This was the wrong thing to say, I guess. His brow furrowed and his face clenched in anger. For a moment, I thought the top of his head was going to blow off. Then his lips flapped for a few seconds but he couldn’t get any words out.

“Get out of the cab,” he hissed at me finally. I was halfway out the door when he added: “I think I’ll have Trooper Kugler come and talk to you.”

I walked behind the truck and climbed into the dead Honda as he roared off. As parting shots go, I had to admit the crack about Trooper Kugler was a doozie, and every bit as effective as a kidney punch. The very thought of another interview with Trooper Kugler filled me with nausea, and of course, there was now nothing else I could think about. Trooper Kugler??? I was done with him, wasn’t I? Wasn’t he just the guy in Act I who brings a distressing bit of news about Lady Winifred and ruins the tea party? Apparently not! Now it seemed that Trooper Kugler was a featured player, a major villain who would return in Act II to shoot the maid, and would only be brought to ground in Act III after he had poisoned the punchbowl.

Yes, I had to hand it to that tow-truck driver. If he had offered to return with a tire iron and beat me to a jelly, I would not have been nearly as upset as I was now. Trooper Kugler! I had only recently formed an opinion that the world would be a better place if only it contained fewer and better Trooper Kuglers, but now I was to be confronted with them everywhere. I saw them behind every tree. They were multiplying like rabbits. I would never be free of the army of Trooper Kuglers who were even now closing in, surrounding me. Soon they would all be running my plates through their computers, demanding my license and registration, asking me questions, sneering at my replies, and burying me in their little yellow citations. I would be forced to leave my home and family and spend the rest of my life in Jim Thorpe defending myself before the magistrate who just happened to be Trooper Kugler’s loving Uncle Fred.

As I waited for the army to descend, I turned the key in the ignition. Nothing. The battery was dead. OK. Here was a silver lining of sorts. Maybe this was the bluebird I had been seeking. Perhaps I would freeze to death before my rendezvous with justice.

To conserve my body heat, I pulled myself into a ball with my hands in my armpits, and waited. There was nothing to do. After a short while, I fell into a kind of trance, and began to imagine what my life would be like now that I had made it onto Carbon County’s Most Wanted list.

First off, there was no chance Trooper Kugler would issue a mere citation for my latest crime spree. When he finally appeared, he was the sort who would be angry with himself for not having summarily executed me the first time around. As a two-time loser, I was facing the hoosegow for certain, complete with tight cuffs behind the back, the rough pat-down, the body cavity search, the lone phone call, and the clang of a metal door behind me. I am 53 years old and I have never been arrested, and when you are 53 years old and have never been arrested, you tend to assume you will never be arrested, and that this is one of those life experiences from which you have been mercifully spared. But of course, my assumption had been formed in a world without a Trooper Kugler. I had not known he existed until an hour before. Only now did I see, with a bitter laugh, how foolish I had been.

I continued along this line of thought for some time, musing next about the accommodations I might expect at the Jim Thorpe lock-up, and the interesting people I would meet. And the chow!

This was pierogie country, I knew---and the pierogies here were the genuine article, shaped in the withered hands of devout old Polish ladies, fried in cast iron, and dressed with sour cream or onions or even homemade applesauce. Then there were the sausages that could still be found here and there in the tiny ethnic enclaves hidden in the hills and hollows. You had to KNOW somebody to get these sausages, but they existed. I remember the kielbasa I obtained five years ago, at Christmastime, from a friend who had been subjected to an extensive genealogical interrogation from the butcher who made and sold it. Only when my friend had been able to establish his local roots to the butcher’s satisfaction was he permitted to buy.

At the St. Mary’s Church Bazaar in 2004, I feasted on potato pancakes so crisp, so lovingly seasoned, that they made me cry out. Behind the exquisite potato flavor, in every bite, was a hint of fresh grease that rested upon them as delicately as a benediction but could not be seen on the pancakes themselves. “How great thou art!” I exclaimed. And I meant it. I have attended countless masses that never came close to touching me with the glory of God the way those pancakes did. As I shoved them on back, past the tonsils, I made a conscious effort to etch every detail of the experience in my memory, with the idea that on my deathbed, I could remember those pancakes and think: “I was happy then.”

But there would be none of that now. No pierogies, no sausages, no potato pancakes. I would be dining in the cooler at the Jim Thorpe municipal building. My fellow miscreants and I would be fed from a bucket of baked beans, perhaps garnished with a few squirrel bits scraped off the highway. A local lady, a light-heavyweight, would serve it up in our tin cups with a steely smile, like one of those women in the Old Testament who went around driving stakes through people’s heads. When she left, my cellmate would demand my food, but I would have to defend it to the death even though I didn’t want it, because to give it up would mean I would be his plaything for the rest of the night.

I checked the clock on my cell phone, the only working clock I had. Forty minutes had passed. Was it possible Trooper Kugler had bigger fish to fry? Was he now using his “jaws of life” to pry someone’s body from the crumpled wreck on the southbound lanes? The Schlier’s tow-truck driver had certainly reported me by now, and I remained at mile-marker 89.7 awaiting the brand of rough justice Trooper Kugler would be more than willing to dispense, but was there a delay? Had fate intervened? Was it conceivable my truck from Dunmore would arrive first?

The car windows were completely covered with ice and my visible world had been reduced to the interior of the Honda---dashboard, glovebox, EZ-Pass transponder. I went outside and scraped, then resumed my fetal position in the driver’s seat. Now, at least, I could see what was coming. Fifty minutes. No sign of Trooper Kugler, but no sign of the tow truck either.

I refused to hope. Here, north of the Lehigh Tunnel, hope is how they get you. Better to be ready for anything, and take what comes. The calaboose? Fine, bring it on. An asteroid? Sure, why not? Jezebel was a queen of Israel and she was torn apart by dogs, so what did I have to complain about? At least I had my potato pancakes. They were in the bank, and nobody could take them away from me.

Fifty-four minutes. Fifty-five. Fifty-six. In the distance, coming south, a white pickup was approaching. Was it a tow truck? Was it Andy? BE Andy, I thought, in spite of my earlier vow. Rescue me! Transport me to Dunmore, to Jack, to the rectory at St. Mary’s! Only by completing my mission, I saw now, could this curse be lifted. When you embark on a pilgrimage, you must complete it or lose all. How could I have forgotten this simple precept? BE Andy, dammit! BE Andy.

The pickup slowed as it approached the crossover. Yes! It was a tow truck, and it came to a brief stop at the gap in the median, then scooted across the northbound lanes to join me on the widened shoulder. I was out of the Honda before it came to a stop.

And now, Andy, here is what I want you to understand. This is the reason I’m writing you this letter.

If you’re like most guys, if you’re like me, you’re not famous and you’re never going to be. Nobody is ever going to erect a statue of you, and you’re never going to be invited to the MTV Music Awards. You make a living, you enjoy your chow, you say your prayers, you have a family who loves you and maybe some friends who like you and think you’re a decent human being, and you count yourself darned lucky to have all that going for you. You look at a sunset every now and then, and think life is pretty sweet. I know. I’m the same way. Nobody, though, is going to mistake you for Clint Eastwood, are they?

But at 1:00pm on February 14, 2005, at mile-marker 89.7 on the northbound lanes of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, you were more than just some guy pulling up in a tow truck. You were something more than Clint Eastwood. In fact, you were more than Clint Eastwood and Mother Teresa and Nelson Mandela all rolled into one, at least to me. As I stood by the Honda, waiting for you to come to a stop, I knew in my soul that my problems were over, and I would now complete my mission. I felt a rush of excitement and hope race through me, which was just as quickly replaced by a feeling of peace and a sense that everything had been made right at last. And I thought: “Wow! This is what those lepers felt like when Christ showed up.”

As you may recall, my first words to you, even before you got out of the truck, were, “My hero!” I meant it as a joke, but you gave me a funny look. I imagine that when you drive a tow truck, you encounter people under varying amounts of stress, and you sometimes have to be careful. I understand. I did manage to resist the urge to kiss you, so give me some credit for that anyway.

I also want to thank you for the prompt and logical diagnosis of the Honda once you got it up on the lift. It was the strut on the driver-side front wheel, you decided, and you and your assistant started calling around looking for a replacement.

As the number of calls reached double digits, I could tell you were growing pessimistic about finding the necessary part by the end of the day. I wasn’t. I never had a doubt. What’s more, I didn’t care. I was three blocks from the rectory, and safety. If Jack had to put me up for the night, so be it. We would get a pizza. Maybe he would want to talk about the problem of evil in the world. He gets that way sometimes. It’s fun.

I was sitting in your reception area while your assistant dialed, clicked off, dialed again. Finally, he said, “This is it. If this guy doesn’t have it….” He dialed. He talked. He hung up. He turned to me.

“Well, guess what,” he said.

“Any chance you can do it today?” I asked. It was 3:15.

“I don’t see why not.”

“OK. I’m going up to St. Mary’s. Andy has my cell phone number.”

St. Mary’s is on a hill in Dunmore, and it felt perfectly correct climbing it to complete my pilgrimage. The snow had stopped. There was even some sunshine peeking through. I took long strides, with my back straight and my chest out, and filled my lungs with the crisp mountain air. I was Marco Polo completing his trip across Asia, walking the last few steps to the court of Kubla Khan. I had had my ups and downs on this day, but I was coming to the end of the trail.

I rang the bell at the rectory, and a woman admitted me. “Oh,” she said, “you must be Michael. Father Doris is expecting you. He’s in his study.”

I mounted the stairs and peered into his lair. The door was open. Jack rose from the desk and greeted me. We shook hands. He sat me on the couch and had me tell him my story. He offered to fetch me a doctor. I politely declined.

We eventually worked our way around to the purpose of my visit, and we talked for an hour or so. I will draw a curtain over that part of the story, except to say this. In “A Boy Named Sue,” by Johnny Cash, Johnny wraps up the story with the lyric, “I come away with a different point of view.” That’s what usually happens when I talk to Jack, and it happened on this occasion as well.

At 4:45, my phone rang, and it was you folks telling me the Honda was fixed. And of course, it was. Everything worked. It’s not a pretty car anymore, but everything works. Amazing. I drove back to the rectory to say my farewells.

Twilight had arrived as I waved goodbye to Jack and climbed into the Honda for the drive back to Philadelphia. The sun had broken through in the late afternoon, and much of the pavement was now dry.

The first drop of rain appeared on the windshield as I pulled out of the church driveway onto Chestnut Street. By the time I reached the ramp for 81-S, about ten blocks away, the rain had become a steady drizzle, and as I passed through the booth to enter the Pennsylvania Turnpike, the skies burst forth with a crash of thunder (the first I had heard since August) and a pelting rain.

Hunched over the steering wheel and squinting through the glass, with the wipers now switched to “high,” I proceeded slowly and warily home, toward a sympathetic family, a cold beer, and a cat purring contentedly on my lap. I passed no one. The left lane was a closed book to me. Trooper Kugler, I mused happily, posed no present danger. He was probably home now, sitting with Mrs. Kugler and the little Kuglers around the dinner table. May the Lord bless them and their simple repast, I thought, though if the blessing fell a bit less heavily on Trooper Kugler himself than on his family, that would be OK with me too. One must forgive, of course, because forgiveness is the best revenge. But forgetting is another matter.

It poured all the way to the Lehigh Tunnel.

Warmest wishes,

Michael

Copyright Michael Kubacki 2005