Sunday, September 13, 2009


Take a look at the map of Iowa -- Des Moines, the tiny town of Pella, the tiny town of Oskaloosa.

It was 7 a.m. Friday. There were snow flurries. Four foot, five foot snowdrifts were on both sides of state highway 163, that was taking us to William Penn College in Oskaloosa. I'd booked a 9:30 a.m. lecture-demonstration for a tiny $125 fee. (Lectures or master classes, between engagements, helped balance the budget.)

The college president's convocations committee was expecting us to arrive at 7:30 a.m. to setup sound and dressing facilities (access to a toilet was a big deal for dancers arriving for a morning show). We'd spent the night in a dorm in Pella. (Free accommodations were also a big deal for the dancers.)

Oskaloosa was 17 miles southeast of Pella. After the lecture-demonstration, we were going to head back north, then west to Des Moines -- return the rented station wagon bus and the U-Haul trailer -- board a train for Denver, and three performances in Colorado.

It had been snowing off and on. The tire chains were on. I was driving. Bill the stage manager was sleeping off his busy night. (Bill fell in love with someone new in every town we visited.) The dancers (four girls, four guys ) were clutching their thermos jugs, sipping and smoking. (In those days a lot of dancers smoked, though I'd asked them not to -- the smoke made me cough).

My breath made vapor on the windshield. The snow flurries worried me. The edge of the road was almost invisible. I thanked God for the telephone poles -- they were my guidelines.

I took off a glove to check the defroster -- felt cold air coming up through the rim. Did I forget to turn on the heater? I reached for the heater's dial. The car skidded. My foot reflexively went for the brake -- whoa -- DON'T BRAKE, never brake on a skid!

I put my foot on the gas pedal ... Nothing happened. Was it stuck? Were we out of gas? The gauge said half full. I needed to drive faster -- the convocations committee and the president himself, were probably waiting. WHOA! Where were the telephone poles? Had I turned off the main road?

I tucked the toe of my right foot under the gas pedal to lift it -- my God -- it was frozen. The windshield was fogged over. I switched on the wipers. Wipers didn't go on! I couldn't see the road! Tapping the brake, skidding, I managed to stop the station wagon -- with a U-Haul attached to the axle, it was heart-racing, tricky.

In a fake, hearty, cheery tone, I said, "Hey kids, someone has to go outside and clean the windshield!"

No one moved.

I got out. I didn't have a tool, just my gloved hand. One of the girls got out and went to work. With a comb wrapped in a hanky she cleared the driver's side of the windshield. Back in the car, though her work helped, I saw the glass starting to cloud up again.

"Jeez, it's cold!" Bill groaned and opened his eyes. "How 'bout a little more heat, Em? Are we here? Where are we?"

"We're nowhere -- maybe on the road, maybe not," murmured dancer, artistic director Em. I wanted to explain, didn't dare explain, or share with the dancers, the terror that came over me. I was sweating, scared. Would the people in Oskaloosa realize something was wrong when we didn't show up? Would they phone the state police? Would anyone find us before nightfall? Find us tomorrow?

I opened my window, reached as far as I could -- used my knitted hat to wipe the windshield and clear a see-through hole to use if -- IF I managed to start the car again.

The girls caught on. "This is horrible!" "I"m scared!" "We could freeze to death here!"

The boys, all good-looking, manly, tall guys wearing more elegant outfits than the girls, discussed the warm clothes in their suitcases, wondering if the bags in the U-Haul could be accessed. "Jeez, it's too cold to go out." "I'm chilled to the bone!" "I'm going to catch a bad cold."

I got the weak-sounding starter to get the engine putt-putting. With my toe lifting up the gas pedal, the tires whirled. With me reaching out of the open window, ignoring the moans from the kids, I maintained a see-through circle on the windshield. We were traveling maybe 3 m.p.h.

The boys moaned. "I need a bathroom!" "Wish I had a donut." "I gotta do a barre before the show!" "Truck is coming," someone yelled. "Is it going to hit us?"

I tapped the brake. Opened my door. Flew out onto the road, and waved and waved and waved at the truck. There hadn't been any other vehicles on the road. It was a tall yellow and white bread truck, red letters proclaiming "Butternut" on its sides.

The truck stopped. I looked up at the driver. "Hi! Can you help us? We're lost. We're stuck. We're going to Oskaloosa."

"I'm headin'' for Des Moines -- got a dozen deliveries to make. You musta missed the turn-off, lady. You're headin' north."

"Oh dear. We'll have to turn around. Can you give us a push?"

"U turn here? Be kinda hard. I can give you a pull." The ruddy-cheeked, heavyset, truck driver had a crucifix and a toy dog hanging from his mirror. He wasn't going to leave a lady in distress. He attached his chain to our front axle, and told me, "Get into first gear."

Bill jumped onto the Butternut truck's running board, took a dancer-like pose pointing up the hill as if he were Hermes, the messenger of the Gods, in a winged-cap, winged-shoes, pointing with a caduceus.

When Butternut Bread pulled into a Shell Gas station on the outskirts of Des Moines, we were fifty miles west of Oskaloosa. The driver accepted our effusive thanks, detached the chain and waved farewell. One hour and two taxi rides later, we were on the train to Denver.

I closed my eyes. All day I'd felt like a soldier on highway 163 -- on the front line in a war -- a private first class, leading the army, fighting for my life and the lives of my wounded buddies. I told myself, "Never, never, ever again, am I going to do what I had to do today."

Little did I know that it was a life lesson, preparing me for more, for bigger, tougher challenges. Teaching me that Butternut trucks do come along, but don't count on it.

I never did call the convocations committee. Maybe I'll send a copy of this post to the President of William Penn College -- the lesson I learned it more important than the lecture-demonstration I never got around to doing in Oskaloosa.

1 comment:

Carola in Moab Utah said...

What a contrast between the dancers who didn't help you at all and the Butternut truck guy.