Editor’s note: This is a sloppy update from St. Augustine. I am a terrible father. We’ve been in the McDonald’s at the confluence of U.S. 1 and Florida 312 for hours. The big, blue Atlantic Ocean rumbles and churns just a mile away. I doubt there’s a cloud in the sky above St. Augustine. Yet I’ve squandered our afternoon here, trying to update the fragmented narrative while I get further and further behind. Last night we met Tony Eugene Reid in the other McDonald’s, the one on U.S. 1 adjacent to the Working for Jesus Garage and the Walton Family General Store. Tony. All the pain of poverty deep in his eyes. He’s 54. Been homeless since age 16. And we sat there, a bewildering array of electronic devices plugged in and charging. We must look like kings. Three computers for three people, one a 5-year-old kid. Strange place, this America.
Tony said he’d love nothing so much as to talk to his brother in Statesville, N.C. He kept repeating the number. Said he’d give us $5 if he could talk to his brother. Tony said William Michael Reid is the best brother in the world. I was embarrassed. Five bucks? Tony, please. I dialed the number and handed him the phone. Tony listened until he heard his brother’s voicemail message. His face collapsed. He wiped tears from his eyes when we parted. He thanked me for talking to him. Thanked me profusely. What a strange place, this America. I’m still thinking about Tony. The story that follows is not about Tony. It is a ramshackle update on the state of our six-wheeled home.
St. Augustine, April 6 – Yes, we’re still here.
And it turns out inertia has its hidden charms. Take the above photograph. I can be sentimental and saccharine as the next guy. And those three kids, 9-year-old twins Ben and Baker and 11-year-old sister Malachi, collectively have six of the bluest eyes and three of the sweetest dispositions you’ll find anywhere.
As our former auto mechanic might say, they were a blessing.
Just outside the walls of this anywhere-in-America McDonald’s, the sun-splashed Florida of tourist advertisements blossoms in every direction.
It’s a winsome Saturday afternoon, and this place is packed. What the hell is wrong with America? That is a rhetorical question.
We took the behemoth to Rick’s Muffler Shop this morning. Metaphysically speaking, we have changed teams. We have abandoned hope in Jesus and placed our faith in Little Ray Liotta. Here I am stealing from the irreplaceable George Carlin, who in his brilliant bit on religion said he prayed to Joe Pesci.
Our new mechanic, Lil’ Allen, does bear a striking resemblance to Mr. Liotta. In addition to being diminutive, Lil’ Allen is secular and licensed. Which is nice.
Lauri Lebo tells me we broke a cardinal rule by taking our RV to a Christian mechanic. I think this is a good rule, unless you are looking for a story. Then all bets are off.
I hope you like the story of our two days in the auto repair shop at Faith Quest Ministries. It started way back on Wednesday, though you could say it has its roots in Monday night, when we ran into Mark and Arturo in the parking lot of the Walton Family General Store.
It was Mark Badgley who, after trying and failing to fix our engine problems, hooked us up with the God-fearing folks at the Working for Jesus Garage.
God’s mechanic, Thursday, April 4
I just heard three people, alternative-looking, silver-hoops-dangling-from-the-nose types, thank Jesus before tearing into their Big Macs.
That’s only a sideshow. We took the behemoth to the Jesus hippie this morning. Now I’m wishing we hadn’t. I didn’t have to promise my soul or anything, but it’s getting to the point where I’d sell my soul for a smooth-running engine.
Our mechanic, his name is Mark. Just call him Mark H., to distinguish him from Mark B.
Every time Mark H. bumped his head on the underside of the behemoth’s hood and the “I love Jesus” cap flew off his head, I thought of “Idiocracy.”
But who’s the idiot here?
Again, who is the idiot?
Cast adrift in Florida, a thousand miles from any notion of home, with a wife and 5-year-old child in tow, who takes his laboring vehicle/home to an unlicensed mechanic who admits up front he got most of his repair chops from God?
I am the idiot.
Mark H. is a nice guy. I do not want to cast aspersions on Mark. I believe he did the best he could do. The onus is on me.
After he told a bit about Faith Quest Ministries, we prayed. We all said “amen.” Then we went out to pop the hood.
Now it’s hours later. Mark hasn’t really done anything yet. He’s waiting for parts. By name, one is a mass airflow meter ($180), the other a throttle position sensor ($92). Ten minutes in, Mark was “98 percent” sure it was the mass airflow meter.
An hour later, he was pretty sure it was the throttle position sensor. Now, he thinks it may be a combination of the two.
The parts won’t be here till 4 at the earliest, so we drove out of the little dirt passageway that leads to the humble headquarters of Faith Quest Ministries and 100 feet south to the McDonald’s.
He’s done nothing yet. Strangely enough, our truck’s running worse than it ever has.
We had planned to go to the Castillo de San Marcos National Monument to secure Max another junior ranger badge. The behemoth rumbled over the dirt and then stalled out before Becky could nose it out onto U.S. 1. Then it stalled again.
I took over, and with liberal use of the accelerator, managed to guide it back to the front door of the Working for Jesus 24/7 Garage. It took Mark 30 minutes just to get it running again. Hence our decision to stay close to Jesus until the parts arrived.
Now, it is fairly obvious even to an idiot like me that Mark is throwing darts here. But I’m willing to give him enough rope to hang us all. Still, I’m not sure any story is worth this kind of automotive agony.
Right now, we’re looking at $300 in parts. I have no real confidence said parts will fix our problem. And that’s before you consider the labor equation: $60/hour or an agreement on our part to become involved in a church somewhere. Well, I do like the radical Jesus who helps the poor and doesn’t lobby for tax breaks for the rich. That Jesus, he was an old-time newsman, out to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comforted.
And I would like to study the Bible. So, who knows?
A little about Mark: He’s from Ohio. He hates snow. He’s got a yawning gap in his lower mouth where his teeth should be. He’s got beach-boy blond hair that curls out from under his Jesus ballcap. His grandma, sweet as she was, once asked him when he was going to get his hair cut.
“When Jesus cuts his,” he told her. Sweet as she was.
Is that even possible? Do they have barbershops in heaven? All of which brings to mind the absolutely wonderful line uttered by “The Colonel,” Walter Brennan’s character in “Meet John Doe.”
“I don’t read no papers and I don’t listen to no radios, either. I know the world was shaved by a drunken barber, and I don’t have to read it.”
Thank God for Walter Brennan, I always say. And watch out for those Helots. It’s here, just after a minute in:
Mark is 48. He’s got a 20-year-old son in Ohio. He has no contact with him. He has been married four times. He got out of jail about a year and a half ago. He was in Ocala after his fourth DUI. On the second DUI, he said, they also got him with an 8-ball of cocaine.
But it wasn’t the coke that laid him low. It was the beer. And he didn’t even like to get drunk, really. He just loved the taste of beer.
Did I say we prayed? Jesus, did we ever.
Mark asked the Lord for an easy fix to our engine troubles. The Lord, in His infinite wisdom, seems to be holding out. I can see where this story might be worth $500 and a breakdown somewhere between here and Miami.
Mark’s got a girlfriend now. He prayed on it. Asked Jesus to send him someone. She’s 15 years his senior. Her name is Linda. They are looking at a November wedding, if not sooner.
They opened up to each other one Sunday after sunrise service on the beach. The pastor is a long-haired Jesus cowboy, Mark said. He didn’t say that exactly. Linda told Mark her concerns. As luck would have it, they were just about everything he’d prayed on the night before. He told her his concerns, and they were the things she had prayed over.
He served in Desert Storm. The Big Red 1. He drove to the front to pick up prisoners of war. He said it was awesome. He’s got a Desert Storm tattoo on his left forearm. Tattoo on his right arm reads “ONNRY.” I asked him about it. It was his cat, who died in 2007.
“I hate cats,” he said. “But this guy, he was my wife’s cat. When she left me, he stayed around. Little rascal wormed his way into my heart.”
Mark thought he was going to Saudi Arabia to stay. He rejoined the Army to get away from his troubles. God had other plans, of course. I’ve heard He moves in mysterious ways.
Let me repeat: Mark is a nice guy. He loves Jesus. I believe him.
Did I mention he’s not a licensed mechanic? He confided this up front. His shirt bears the log of Faith Quest Ministries, WFJ 24/7. Working for Jesus, 24/7, baby!
That’s where we stand, as of 1:42 p.m. Thursday.
Mark has no idea what he’s doing, does he?
And who’s the idiot here?
Friday, April 5/Saturday April 6
And so, a quick recap of yesterday’s behemoth-related tomfoolery:
We returned to the WFJ Garage after 4:30. Mark tried the mass airflow meter. It didn’t change anything. He ripped it out and reinstalled the old one. He tried the throttle position sensor. Same thing. He was working his ass off. To no avail.
At the 11th hour, he wondered about the O2 sensor. If I had a hundred dollars for every time someone mentioned the O2 sensor in connection with our illuminated “check engine” light, I’d have at least a grand. He ordered the part and invited us to return in the morning.
Friday morning dawned wet, both outside the camper and in. Now we have another problem. Mark called around 8:30 and told us the part wouldn’t arrive till after lunch. We loitered about, went to the adjacent McDonald’s, got precious little accomplished and drove over that well-traveled dirt path to the WFJ Garage sometime around 1.
Oh, I forgot. One more anecdote about Thursday night. It comes under the “Things could always be worse” header. Mark’s phone rang while he was puzzling over our engine. It was Anna.
Anna has a white van. Mark diagnosed her problem as a leaky water pump. Now he had to tell her it’s not the water pump. It’s the intake manifold. All I could think is we gotta get out of here before we have a blown head gasket.
“I’m going to have to pull the whole top of the engine off that thing,” he said with a weary shrug.
Oh, poor Anna. And poor Mark. He says his boss at FQM pays him a stipend of $100 a week, plus room and board. The boss? His name is David Bliss. He’s a rosy-cheeked, well-fed fellow who goes by the name of David Bliss.
Becky calls him “Big Daddy Bliss.”
Anyway. There we stood. Mark went to work on removing the old O2 sensor. Our friend Mark Badgley had tried to do the same on the beach Tuesday. He couldn’t get it off, so he gave up. Mark II succeeded where Mark I had failed.
He popped in the new O2 sensor. I started the engine. Damn if it didn’t purr. He reset the computer. Check engine light off. Hallelujah!
We went into his office. He drew up the bill. One hundred dollars, 19 cents. I gave him $100.25. I let him keep the six cents. Big Daddy Bliss had said earlier that we couldn’t pay him for the labor, but we could give a “love offering.”
I thought about how hard Mark had worked. I thought about how he really deserved a tip. But I figured it best to wait and see.
I collected Becky and Max. We drove across town, looking for Warnick building supply. Big Daddy Bliss told us we’d find waterproof tape there. Forty bucks a roll, but it’s a Godsend for leaks. That’s what he uses on all his RVs (here at FQM, they recondition old RVs and lease them to down-and-out folks in need of homes. Mark says the cost to the lessee is about $450 a month on a $5,000 lease.
We drove, happy as if we had been born again. I felt more than a little bad about my lack of faith in Mark. The check engine light stayed off, and the behemoth ran smoother than I can remember. We got all the way across 16. We passed Rick’s Muffler Shop, which had been recommended to me by a nice guy on the beach Tuesday who had stopped for a while to puzzle over our engine with Mark Badgley and a bloke named Andy from Seattle, a Boeing retiree who wore a Mariners tank top and chain smoked Marlboro lights.
Anyway, we came upon Johnny’s Cafe, which was our signal to turn left across Route 1. Just as I merged into the left-turn lane, the engine died. Died. I turned the key. It didn’t start. I turned the key again. Still no luck.
I thanked God for AAA. I got out and popped the hood. I touched a few wires and plugs. I had been watching Mark. I figured my guess was as good as his.
I got back into the driver’s seat. I turned the key. It started. We turned around and limped back across town. I had Becky call Mark. In 15 minutes, we had safely arrived back at the Working for Jesus Garage. I popped the hood.
Mark wandered over. His blue eyes, deeply inset beneath the hood of his forehead, looked lost.
“Why? Why? Why?” he said.
This is not the sort of thing that would inspire confidence. Fortunately, my confidence had long since been shattered.
Big Daddy Bliss wandered over. He asked a few probing questions. Mostly, he seemed to want me to say Mark had fixed our initial problem. If we could agree to that, perhaps we might see where this new problem was nothing more than coincidence.
Bad luck, perhaps.
They took turns pushing down on the throttle. Big Daddy said it sounded like a fuel problem. He threw Mark under the behemoth to check the fuel pump. I said I thought the fuel pump was new as of last November. I called Jay at Key Center Auto Repair back on the Key Peninsula to check. I love Jay. He called me right back and said yes, they had replaced the fuel filter.
Big Daddy dragged Mark out from under the behemoth.
Then he said he was taking off.
“You need anything?” he asked Mark.
“Yes,” came the defeated reply.
Big Daddy nodded his head.
Then he laid his palms on the top of the radiator. He said a mostly silent prayer.
I smiled to myself. I knew this was going to be worth at least $100.
Big Daddy said Amen.
Then he walked off. As he moved past the driver’s door, he lifted his right hand. His words trailed behind him.
“I’ve done my part,” he said.
Well, Mark stood dumbfounded for another 15 minutes or so. It was painful for all of us. I felt bad for him. I felt bad for me. I’m sure he felt bad enough for the both of us.
He really looked as if he’d taken a spiritual beating.
Big Daddy came back. He said he had to preach a sermon in a half hour, but he wanted to do right by us. He told us to come back in the morning. He said he’d cover the cost of a campground for the night. Said it was only $15 at a place, sounded like “Favored Ike’s.”
He fished into his pocket for cash. He handed me $13. I took it without shame.
I had Becky look it up. It’s Favor-Dykes. It’s $18. But it’s been filled all weekend. We didn’t even try. We spent that $13 on lo mein and white wine. Max discovered he likes vegetable lo mein. So, it was a revelation.
We got up this morning. I figured it was time to cut our losses. We’d milked the WFJ Garage story for all it was worth. Could expect nothing more save diminishing returns. We’d gotten out for $87. We got a new O2 sensor. Who knows? Maybe we needed it.
We called Rick’s Muffler Shop. They’re open Saturdays till noon. They said they’d be able to look at it, but probably not fix it.
We had breakfast. Oatmeal and grapefruit. A healthy day. When we were ready, I started the engine. The behemoth took off on its own power. It went through the parking lot at 10 mph, and I never touched the accelerator.
God, he do move in mysterious ways.
We made it to Rick’s. Along the way, the behemoth sputtered a little and offered something new: an ominous moaning noise. We made it. I told Little Ray the whole saga, chapter and verse, though I didn’t mention Mark or Jesus by name. He fiddled with the engine for a bit, then we went inside so he could check the computer.
He said sorry for our plight.
I told him it wasn’t his fault.
“Sometimes it is,” he said.
I liked Lil’ Allen.
Lil’ Allen then turned us over to Little Rick. Rick the Muffler Man Jr. He was unfailingly nice. He suggested campgrounds we might try. Even told us we could camp in his lot if we wanted.
We walked away contented. We’ll spend the weekend in St. Augustine. Perhaps Jesus will fix our engine by Monday. I haven’t surrendered all hope.
Whatever happens, we’ll have the secular mechanics check it over Monday.
That’s fine with me. Even God, after all, rested on Sunday.