We relied on the kindness of strangers

It would be our second-longest trip in our 16-year-old VW van. But only if we could complete it.

We — my wife, two daughters, aged 8 and 3, and I — were passing through Pennsylvania on our way to a family wedding in Toronto.

Outside Pittsburgh, we stopped for provisions. As we tried to leave, I had trouble getting the van into gear. After all the years and miles, it could be finicky, but it finally slipped into first and shifted easily as we returned to the highway.

A short hour later, we turned off Interstate 79 at the Lake Arthur exit, where we planned to spend that night. As I slowed to merge onto US 422, I attempted to downshift. The gear shift went to neutral and stayed there. We coasted onto the shoulder. I spent several frustrating minutes trying, without success, to engage any gear.

So, there we were, nearly 500 miles from home, not knowing how, when or if our vehicle would go again. This was not just our transportation. It provided accommodations. We had modified the interior for camping.

The first car we hailed stopped. It was a local couple who gave Nancy, my wife, a ride to the nearest public phone and back. They stopped, they said, because of our North Carolina license plate. They had been involved in an accident while driving through our state a year or so earlier. Several of our citizens had been so kind and helpful during that ordeal, they didn’t hesitate to return the favor.

Nancy checked the Yellow Pages for a tow truck that honored AAA membership. Fortunately, this service was available in nearby Portersville, which was not shown in our Rand McNally Road Atlas.

The owner-driver arrived shortly and hooked up the van. We all piled into his spacious cab. He ran one of two auto-repair shops in Portersville. His specialty was domestic cars. In the meantime, his wife was trying to contact the meachanic who handled the foreign market to see if we could drop the van off at his place. The latter mechanic and his wife were out for the evening, and the babysitter didn’t have the authority to accept the vehicle.

The van spent the night at the domestic-auto repair shop, across the road from the owner’s rural home. The owner’s wife gave us a ride to the local motel, which she had already called on our behalf. She would continue arranging to get the van over to the foreign-car garage.

We took the cooler and a few groceries from the van. Supper was an indoor picnic at the small motel, which sat behind its owners’ home. It was definitely economy class. The black and white TV picked up one channel. But it was adequate, and the charge was $20 for the four of us. Even in 1983, that wasn’t a lot for a motel room. The owners let us use the phone in their house freely the next morning as we talked with both mechanics and looked into the possibility of renting a vehicle to continue our journey.

We walked to a nearby diner for breakfast, after which the foreign-car mechanic’s wife, in their wrecker, picked up the van and then me and took us to their shop — beside their house. Nancy and the girls waited at the motel, unsure when they would see me or the van again. The motel operator graciously extended their stay well beyond check-out time. Nancy volunteered to change our beds in return.

I continued to wonder if we would be back on the road that day and, if so, whether we would be in our van or in a rented car. The foreign-car mechanic was cheerfully optimistic. It was probably just the clutch, he said. No big deal.

I had to wait while he and his son-in-law finished fixing a Datsun. Then I learned that to get to the clutch of a VW van, you have to pull the engine and transmission out. No big deal. They removed both in 10 minutes flat, and showed me the pieces of what used to be the clutch. Of course, he had a clutch for a 1967 VW. (Who wouldn’t?) Within an hour, I was ready to roll.

The repair bill was $85, parts and labor. I had paid more than that for a tail pipe at home before the trip. My personal check was fine without accompanying identification.

We were back on I-79 by midafternoon. We decided to drive through to Toronto, no matter how late it got. A campsite awaited us. We wanted to put a lot of distance between us and the trying experience of the preceding 20 hours. Yet we left with warm feelings for all those we encountered. They treated us as guests rather than customers, friends rather than strangers. They were determined, one way or another, to make sure we got out of our predicament with as little distress as possible.