A Matter of Timing
IT was a warm late spring morning in Oregon as I sped up the Pacific Highway 5 in my VW micro bus. I was about halfway between Medford and Grants Pass on a very beautiful but lonely, desolate stretch of road when something profound occurred that I would reflect on many times in my life. It was 1982 and I had just turned thirty years old that April. How I ended up in Oregon looking for the meaning of life is another story. It is enough to say that I was divorced and had left three young boys behind in Arizona.
That is also where I had bought a used green VW bus to hold my every belonging I owned and headed for the great North West via California. I ended up discovering and attending a small country church in Applegate, Oregon that was very non-denominational and very Protestant. For someone like me who was raised a Catholic, it almost felt sacrilegious in a way, like I was entering the house of the enemy. It was at this church that I had learned about The Food Bank Outreach Center north of Applegate in a town called Grants Pass that was looking for volunteers on Saturday’s to help distribute food to those in desperate need. I decided to visit and check it out. I found that I enjoyed helping people and it took my mind off the inner turmoil and conflicts I was experiencing.
I looked forward to the Saturday experience very much not only because of the people I met and helped but for the ride to and from Grants Pass. There were only two way’s one could travel from the Applegate and both would take about 45 minutes.
One was a country ride that took me through mountain passes and into open valleys going past farms and ranches along the way.The road was like a beautiful ribbon weaving this way and that and reminded me of racing along The La Mans motor race in France. I fell in love with that ride.
The other was to backtrack to the town of Medford and then take highway 5 north. It was an OK scenic drive but not nearly as much fun, so I did not take it much at all, until, one Saturday.
I had met a girl by the name of Jan at church the Sunday before and she expressed an interest in helping out at the foodbank after I filled her about it. The catch was she lived in Medford so “would I mind picking her up on the way.” By doing that we would have to take the roundabout route I hardly ever took.
After picking up Jan I found the highway exchange and headed north climbing steadily to a higher elevation until the road flattened out on a huge plateau. I loved this stretch of the freeway because you could see for miles in all directions and view the Rouge river intersecting the highway at many points as it weaved back and forth. Middle of nowhere was an understatement. Nothing around except high prairie, sky and the lonely road we were on.
………….Then it happened.
My VW bus had been a great companion up until that point taking me on many miles across the western United States without any trouble at all. At first there was a loud backfire and then she started missing and coughing with smoke belching from the rear end exhaust pipe. Fear gripped me as I pulled to shoulder of the road and rolled to a stop. I gunned the engine just a bit to see if it would clear whatever might be causing the trouble, but my green machine violently shook.
As I shut the bus down, I turned to Jan and in my best, I am not that concerned voice that came out two octaves higher than normal, “I wonder what this is all about.”
Jan turned to me looking very worried and asked “What do you think happened”
“I dunno” I answered trying to gulp in air and calm down my racing heart as I exited the driver’s side front door. “But I am going to find out”
As I reached the back of the bus, smoke was billowing out the vents on the door that sealed the engine from the elements. I opened the panel and allowed the smoke to clear and then peered inside. Everything looked OK….except….. “what’s this” I said.
Jan looked over the car seat and said “What’s, what?”
“Strange” I said as I shook my head in disbelief. “Why is one spark plug wire no longer attached to the engine. The plug is still attached to the wire and lying next to the engine block.”
“This is just plain crazy” I said trying to get a handle on what I was looking at in the engine.
I reached for the lose wire and plug and discovered a very hot spark plug. My fingers seared from the intense heat that sent my whole body jerking backward. That was a dumb move I thought to myself and I stuck a couple my pinkies in my mouth as I surveyed the land around the vehicle.
As I returned to the front and climbed back into the bus, I looked at Jan and she had her closed and what appeared to be praying. When she opened her eyes, I explained to her what happened.
I then voiced my plan “ I am going to let the engine and spark plug cool down and then try and re-attach it with the tools set I have in back”
Almost as an afterthought I said “I have no idea what caused that to happen. I have never even heard of something like this even happening before. Why would a spark plug become disconnected from the engine like that?”
Jan just shook her head, but I knew she was concerned from the look on her face. “Now what the heck are we going to do out here in the middle of now where”
I thought to myself. “Well I guess there is always a reason for everything” I uttered putting my best spiritual voice forward.
As the word “everything” barely crossed my lips, when out of nowhere came a small tapping sound on the window of the middle sliding door directly behind me. What the? I thought as I snapped my head around in the direction of the noise. I realized it was a dark figure standing on the outside looking in at me. My first reaction and thought was “all the years of training in karate is going to come in handy now”
I remembered, quickly surveying the situation and thinking what my options would be and how I would be the first line of defense for the women sitting next to me. Jan had her window open before I knew it and was poking her head out to face this dark figure.
“Jan, put your head back in the darn car” I said irritatingly as I prepared to spring sidewise between the two front seats and into the middle section of the van and then to slide the side door open.
I figured it would be faster than getting out of the front door and taking myself around the outside of the car. I was running on pure adrenaline at this point with my heart racing. I figured I had no choice but to deal with this threat head on and as quickly as possible since Jan had made herself and me so vulnerable by opening the window. What Jan said next slowed me down to a small degree and made me feel that maybe we were not facing a potential threat.
“Are you OK buddy. What has happened to you” I heard her say as I slide the side door open and faced this figure head on. What I was looking at appeared to be a young teen age boy no older than 15 or16.
His face as well as his cloths were very dirty and around his eye’s and cheeks were big dirty smug spots. My first thought was he had spit on to a rag or something and tried to clean his face.
“Hello” I greeted him as I surveyed him up and down. I then said the only thing I could think of at the moment. “What are you doing out here?”
A million thoughts were racing through my mind at that moment as I fought to calm myself down.
“It’s a long story but the ride I had, dropped me off out here last night” He said looking first at me and then at Jan.
“Would it be possible if you could drop me off at the nearest town”
“Sure” I said wondering if I spoke to soon as I once again looked him over for a potential hidden weapon such as a knife, gun or bazooka. Man, do I have a suspicious mind I thought to myself.
“What is your name man” Jan piped in thrusting out her hand out through the window. “Justin” he said as he first shook Jan and then my hand.
“I am John, and this is Jan” I responded.
With that short exchange of words of introduction I informed him that I did not know if “we ourselves” would be heading to the “nearest town” and it would be 45 minutes to an hour before the engine would be cool enough for me to attempt to try and reconnect the wayward spark plug to the engine. We would find out then if my bus was going to be moving on its own power and would “he” like to have a seat in my vehicle, and we could all visit with one another until that moment of truth. Accepting my invitation, I found Justin room on the middle seat directly behind Jan and myself. I was more than curious about this young man so after explaining to him where my companion and I were headed that morning I then asked him how he ended up out in the middle of nowhere.
For the next forty-five minutes or so, Justin told me a story of a journey that had begun a little more than two and half years before. He said his relationship with his parents had deteriorated so badly that after one explosive evening he decided to run away. At the age of fourteen, he hitchhiked from Seattle, Washington and made his way south until he ended up in southern California. Not having any money and no means to support himself at such a young age he fell in with and made friends with many other children his age who were homeless in the LA area.
They would try and support each other and stay in small groups for protection by sleeping under bridges or in empty buildings and gong through garbage in the back of restaurants for food and always sharing what little they had with each other. He said he was always scared and was beaten up many times by people that were older and stronger than he. He said he eventually ended up outside of Hollywood and became a young male prostitute. He had a roof over his head most the time and ate better but he hated every moment. He stressed emphatically that he was not gay, but he had no other choice on how to support himself.
He said much of the time he just wanted to die. Eventually he said he decided to leave and make his way home but, on the day, he was to take off he was once again beaten up and what little money he had saved was taken from him. He left anyway by hitch hiking north on the freeways and turning tricks along the way to pay for food from his rides and the truckers he meets. The night before he met us, Justin said he had picked up a ride at a truck stop outside of Ashland, a town just inside the border of Oregon.
When he refused to perform sex on the truck driver he was riding with, the driver cast him out of the cab of the truck in the middle of the night, in the middle of nowhere with only the clothes on his back. He made his way to the other side of the berm by the side of the road and curled up and cried himself to sleep. He was jolted awake by the loud backfire and a badly sounding engine. As he peered over the edge dirt berm, there sat a green VW micro bus and me at the back with two fingers in my mouth looking around.
I interrupted him for the first time through the course of his story and asked him when the last time he had talked with his folks and he told me he had not since leaving 2 and a half years ago. He wanted to and even tried twice by dialing their phone number but when someone answered he hung up because he did not know what to say. He was ashamed and disgusted with himself for all he had done and been through and really didn’t know if they wanted to even talk to him again.
It was then I realized that his mom and dad didn’t even know if he was alive or dead after all this time. I was a father myself of three young boys, so it crushed my soul when I felt the implications of what he had just said. O my God, O my God I repeated over and over in my head. I felt like someone had punched me in the gut.
It was then I realized it had been over an hour and that should have been plenty of time for the engine to have cooled down. I asked Justin if he wanted to help me so the two of us proceeded to the back of the vehicle and after about 5 minutes attached the wayward sparkplug back onto a cold engine block.
As both of us climbed back in to the van, Jan spoke for the first time in over an hour by asking “If you do not mind, could we say a short prayer first before you try starting the car”
I agreed and we did so in front of Justin. Staring out the front window I took in a deep breath and turned the key. The engine fired right up and purred just like a kitten. My two passengers cheered as I sat spellbound by the implications of what just occurred. What were the odds?
As we made our way to Grants Pass in high spirits, I told Justin that I was not real good at this God thing since I had just discovered Him just a couple of months before and I was told that things really do not happen for no reason.
When we made it to the outreach center, I explained all that had happened to Roy, the leader of the organization, who then insisted on feeding Justin and giving him shower and clean clothes. Then Roy approached Justin and recommended that he give his parents a call that very moment. Justin hesitated and looked bewildered so Roy once again said it might be a good idea if he made the call for him and break the ice and see what the reception would be.
With that Justin agreed. Jan and I made our way out of the room so the two of them could have some privacy as they huddled around the phone. We watched through the window as Roy appeared to pray with Justin and then dialed the phone. I watched his face hoping that someone would pick up the phone on the other end. He started talking slowly at first and then became very animated.
When he turned and handed the phone to Justin, I could see tears streaming down his face and Justin in turn had slumped down into a chair by the side of the desk and was just hanging on. By the looks of it he needed all the support he could get. Tears just started flowing out of this young man and I knew the same thing was happening on the other end of the phone. With that I turned and went down the stairs and out of the building and into the allay and began crying myself. I remembered thinking it had been a very long time since I had cried that hard. Maybe since I was a kid.
After about an hour or so I returned and found Roy and He explained haltingly with tears flowing out like a sprinkler.
“You know John, I think Justin’s parents had thought something really bad had happened to that boy. They told me they had gotten the police and the FBI involved with his disappearance. I really believe they had lost all hope of him returning after all this time. You should have heard them” Roy paused a moment between gasps and the continued
“I got back on the phone with his dad after they were done and could hear his mother in the background crying. They insisted on wiring me money for a bus ticket for him.”
“John” He quietly continued “I was wondering if you and Jan wouldn’t mind spending the night and driving him to the bus station in the morning. I have already called for the times of departure”
“Are you kidding me, of course we will” Was all I could think to say.
I was so stunned by the events of the last few hours I sat overwhelmed not knowing what else to do. My usual sarcastic, funny self-had completely disappeared and deserted me. “How was all this possible? How in God’s name was this all possible?” I thought as I replayed it all in my head.
I hung out with Justin that evening and then the next morning drove him to the bus stop. I could see anticipation all across his face. He was shaking. After buying his ticket and waiting for the bus to arrive that Justin, this young man of 16 and half years revealed to me that he had decided on taking his own life yesterday morning.
It was then he told me he cried out “If there is a God, and you are really there, please…. please help me.”
That is when my spark plug decided to have a mind of its own.
A Matter of Timing
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