August 3, 1996
Good Morning from the Zundelsite:
On Monday, July 29, I left my office to drive up to Central
California to see my oldest son on a medical emergency. I have just now
returned to a bushelful of letters and some magnificent news - about more
of which tomorrow, as soon as I can get my bearings.
To say that it was an eventful trip is speaking euphemistically.
It started with a blown tire on Interstate 5 near Gustine.
"I-Five," as it is called, is probably one of the world's busiest
yest most monotonous freeways, the worst of which is a five-hour stretch
through the Imperial and San Joaquin Valleys - a stretch of dry, hot flatlands.
There are very few settlements between what is called the "Grapevine",
a mountain pass north of Los Angeles, and Stockton, a mid-sized valley town,
where I was heading on that afternoon.
I later heard on the news that it was the hottest day on record, and with
a flat tire in the middle of nowhere - with no shade, no water, no anything
for miles and miles and miles - it felt like being in the middle of a furnace
going full blast.
I got out of my car, raised my hood, took a T-shirt out of my suitcase to
fashion an emergency flag, and stood next to my crippled vehicle, attempting
to flag someone down to notify Highway Patrol to call emergency road service
for me. I thought that it would be a matter of minutes. In the past, I had
dealt with stalled vehicles, and I knew that it never took long for Highway
Patrol to show up.
I would say that an average of 10-15 cars and trucks per minute passed me
by - double that number going in the opposite direction on the freeway that
was divived by a rather wide strip. I could be clearly seen both ways.
Nobody stopped. Nobody honked even once. As far as I could see, nobody waved
at me, and here I was - first standing by the hood, then sitting on the
trunk ledge because I was getting weak-kneed from the heat, and finally
sitting on the grass because the heat was such that I was beginning to think
I was back in the tropics. I knew that kind of sun. It is a killer sun.
You don't survive it easily for long without a huge sombrero.
It was about 2 p.m. in the afternoon, and I was beginning to feel myself
getting disoriented. I was also extremely thirsty.
The cars and trucks just kept on whipping by. Not one slowed down or stopped.
After about an hour of this, I realized that this was now the pattern. Nobody
WAS going to stop. Worse yet, apparently no one was using their cellular
phone to call a highway cop - which would have been easy to do.
When I felt myself getting extremely dehydrated, I thought I'd better get
into the car - at least that would give me some shade.
It was incredibly hot inside as well, and I remember thinking that I might
have to stay overnight and that this would be dangerous because these huge,
huge trucks were shooting by me like torpedoes.
My car was shaking with each blast, and I was afraid that, at night, with
perhaps the battery being drained by the emergency lights that were flashing,
I could easily be hit. Besides, it doesn't cool much at night in the Valley,
and I didn't think I could afford to close the windows and lock myself in
There was an orchard about 300 feet from where my car was stalled, and I
was beginning to think that I might have to sleep on the ground in that
orchard. Not that that would be easy - there was a chain link fence that
I would have to climb.
I kept looking at my watch, and by the time I had waited for two hours with
nobody stopping to help, I was clearly starting to hallucinate. I noticed
something very, very strange - and that was an enormous ocean of indifference.
Just huge black waves of nothingness. My mind refused to care.
By then, I was slumped over the steering wheel, just rocking with each air
blast from the passing trucks. I spent another hour like that, swimming
in these waves of total, absolute indifference and inertia. I thought that
this was IT - that what was now upon me was a heat stroke. I was quite certain
I would die. Not that I gave a hoot.
And all the while, wild things were dancing in my head - things I observed,
One of these odd mirages became a brand new van that stopped about 5:30,
out of which climbed two hugely fat black ladies who spoke what I assumed
to be Swahili. Those two got out of the van, pulled me out of my seat, propped
me up against the car, and asked in this strange, odd language if I had
lost my mind. They asked this by using their hands.
I realized by and by, and only after putting out enormous mental
effort through that enormous fog of nothingness, that what they spoke was
not Swahili but the guttural, almost incomprehensible language of deaf mutes.
I asked them in a voice that was somebody else's voice to give me a ride
to the next town or at least to the next telephone. They packed me into
the back seat of a wonderfully air conditioned van and drove to what I later
realized was a little valley town, Gustine.
Then they took off in a huge cloud of dust after they gave me a vigorous
scolding for traveling alone.
I kind of weaved inside a small convenience store and asked the clerk if
he would please call Triple-A, my emergency road service.
He said: "I can't do that."
I said: "I'm very sick. Please call."
He said: "I can't. I'm not allowed to. It took me six months to get
this crummy job."
I was still on the edge of fainting. I wanted to sit down. The only thing
I could see was a set of stairs behind the counter, next to the cash register,
and so I said: "Please. Can't I sit down there, for just a minute,
to pull myself together?"
He said: "Are you crazy, or what?"
"I'm just so sick. I'm going to faint any minute."
"Well, go across the street. There is another shop. Maybe they'll help
To make it across the street and into the next convenience store turned
out to be a monumental undertaking, but somehow I made it across and inside.
The clerk there was a Mexican with a huge pony tail. I held onto the counter
for dear life and asked the pony tail to please make that life-saving phone
call. And bless his heart, he did.
There was a small bench by the window, just large enough for two - and there
I sat down, and he came and sat next to me. He didn't say a word. It was
a kind, quiet gesture I will remember for a long time.
By that time, my vision was completely gone; my hearing almost gone. The
world was black, and all my energies were focused on not fainting. Somehow
I pulled a sentence out of my brain and said: "Get me some orange juice."
He said: "It costs a dollar."
To open that purse and fish for that money was something that I could no
longer do. And so I said: "Just take it out of my purse."
"I'll get you a glass of cold water."
That helped some. Not enough.
He said after a while: "Maybe if you would go to the rest room and
cool your face, you would feel better."
I kind of guessed the direction and somehow made it inside. I turned on
the faucet and let the cold water run over my wrists. That helped enormously.
I could stop shaking, and that black ocean drained away and I could see
When I came out, I told the clerk: "I let the water run over my ankles."
I meant to say "wrists," but that word was no longer retrievable.
He had decided, by that time, to take a risk on that small can of orange
juice, and I had recovered sufficient coordination to give him a handful
of coins. So that settled that. That can of orange juice made me coherent
and coordinated enough to ask and pay for a second, and then a candy bar.
It took another hour for Triple-A to come. For some odd reason still unexplained
to me, the tire could not be changed on the road. It was almost dark by
the time the owner of the tire shop, to where road service hauled my car,
was finished putting on a new tire.
It was a long, long wait.
While I was waiting, another customer sat opposite me, and I said to him:
"This is Gustine, isn't it? Don't you guys have Highway Patrol in Gustine?"
"They're cutting back on everything. If you know what I mean."
I told him I remembered Gustine from some twelve years ago when I did autograph
programs for many small service clubs in the happy flush of a new book -
my autobiography, just published. I used to do dozens and dozens of small
valley towns in those years. I remember those small town luncheons with
fondness, the town of Gustine being one.
Wonderful places. Wonderful people.
I used to do a 30-minute program for a bunch of young, successful, smartly
dressed professionals and business folks, sell tons of books, have a good
time, and walk away a star - $600-$800 richer. I told him that, remembering.
"Not now you couldn't," said my counterpart. "This town is
dead. Every second small business has gone under. You drive along main street,
and all you see is boarded-up windows. Life isn't what it used to be, if
you know what I mean."
I said: "Who is at fault?"
At that, he leaned over me and said in what felt like a hiss: "Big
business, if you know what I mean. That's what we call it. Big business.
Big business. It kills the little guy. It kills America."
This, then, was my experience in 1996. It has been sobering.
Folk wisdom has it that there is a lesson we take away from everything experienced.
My lesson from that afternoon is that, in 1996, on one of America's most-traveled
freeways, you can die like a dog, and for no good reason - with nobody any
Thought for the Day:
"The human race's prospect of survival were considerably better when
we were defenseless against tigers than they are today when we have become
defenseless against ourselves."
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