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The Act of Grace that Saved a Road Trip

by Staff
Rob Siegel

This is a little story about how, no matter how much you plan, something completely unexpected can mess you up, and the only thing that can save you is a simple act of kindness from a stranger. Such was the case 10 years ago.

In the spring of 2014, I took my 1972 BMW 2002tii on a road trip to “MidAmerica 02Fest” in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. Although I’d taken road trips in my ’73 3.0CSi to other events, this was the first one I’d taken in a 2002 in 25 years.

Preparation-wise, it got off to a very rocky start. In a previous trip to “The Vintage” event in 2012, the head gasket in a friend’s BMW 2002tii blew. He and another professional mechanic-friend replaced it in the hotel parking lot, but it raised the question of whether a head gasket is a likely-to-fail part in what was then a 40-year-old car, and I became obsessed with the idea that it’d be better to replace the one in my car in the comfort of my own garage than risk roadside failure on the 3000-mile trip to MidAmerica 02Fest. So I did.

The wisdom of this can be debated. While there’s little doubt that a freshly-resurfaced and rebuilt head on a properly-installed fresh head gasket should all but eliminate the specter that said head gasket will fail in East Awfulgosh, you can usually get some degree of warning that a head gasket is failing by doing a leak-down test, looking for oil in the radiator, and checking for exhaust gasses in the coolant.

But I was a man on a preventive maintenance mission, and in I went. While I was in the process of decapitating the 2002tii, a professional wrench friend warned, “Never pull off a head unless you’re prepared to deal with what you find.” It was great advice that, unfortunately, came a little too late, because I found that the cylinder walls had some score marks on them, and what is seen cannot be unseen. I elected to do a block-in-car refresh—drop the oil pan, undo the rod end caps, pull the pistons and rods out, ball-hone the cylinders, re-ring the pistons, replace the rod bearings while you’re in there, put it all back together.

flex hone cleaner scrubber
Chekov’s dingleberry hone. If you own one, it has to get used at some point. Rob Siegel

I did all that, but when I was revving up the engine to set the timing, heard an alarming knocking sound. I had little choice but to pull it all back apart. I found that I hadn’t torqued the #4 rod bearing cap down, and one of the nuts had come completely off. The #4 bearing had clearly gotten hammered, so I replaced it. I took the rod and cap into my regular machine shop to check for damage (they were fine).

engine bolt sheared off
Oh no! Rob Siegel

In the middle of all this, I broke my left foot while walking down the two steps from my attached garage into the basement. I did it stone-cold sober with a spaz misplacement that caused a folding-under of the foot, resulting in a Jones fracture that looked like I had a golf ball surgically implanted under my skin. I didn’t include this in my recent piece about “when cars attack” because it had nothing to do with the car—it was my own clumsiness.

foot injury swelling
Oh no #2! (the agony of defoot). Rob Siegel

To secure the fracture, they put a little titanium screw in my left foot, but I still wore “das boot” on it to protect it from the pain that came whenever it was jostled. At this point, I had less than a week until I’d need to leave for MidAmerica 02Fest. Getting things together didn’t seem possible with me hobbling around, but I decided to try. I got the car running a few days before the must-depart date. The traditional rule of thumb for a new rebuild is to put 500 miles on it while varying the speed but laying off wide-open throttle, then change the oil, and then stand on it, but there wasn’t time. I needed to know now if my motor was going to grenade, so in the 270 miles I put on it, I got on it pretty good. And yes, fortunately I found that I could still operate the clutch pedal with “das boot” on.

BMW 2002 tii engine
The engine reassembled. Again. Rob Siegel

I changed the oil the night before departure, adjusted the valves in the morning when they were dead cold, and hit the road.

BMW 2002 tii rear black white
The 2002tii backing out to begin the trip at 4:30am. Rob Siegel

OK, I’ll admit that none of the above really has anything directly to do with the act of grace that happened next, but as a trial lawyer will say, “It goes to frame of mind.”

So here’s what happened. The first day of the trip had a few small hiccups that required minor rest area intervention—a loose fan belt and a loud rumble that I traced to the A/C compressor bracket having loosened up. I stayed that night at a Motel 6 somewhere in Ohio, fueling up first so I wouldn’t have to do it in the morning. So far so good.

Mid-morning of the second day of the trip, I pulled into a convenience store to fuel up, and for the life of me I couldn’t find my wallet. I checked all the reasonable places—in my backpack, in the glovebox, on the floor, under the seats, between the seats and the transmission tunnel—and nothing. I found the receipt for the hotel room the night before and asked if I’d left it in the room, and they said they didn’t have it. I didn’t get a receipt for the gas station the night before, so there was no way to call and ask if I’d left it there. For someone who sweats the details on tools and spare parts for a road trip, I suddenly realized what a precarious situation I was in not having a spare credit card or spare cash located somewhere other than in the AWOL wallet.

My first thought was that I needed to drive to the closest Bank of America (where I have my main account), present my charming but identification-bereft self and say, “I’ll take any ID test you want, but please give me some of my money.” At the time, I think I still had an internet-connected flip phone, the kind where you had to hit a key three times to select a character to spell a word. Here in New England, you can’t throw a 10mm socket without hitting a Bank of America branch, but after I fumbled my way through the branch locator on this not-yet-a-real-smartphone, I found that the nearest one was 250 miles away in Cincinnati. And at present, I didn’t even have the gas to get there.

Well, crap.

I did, however, have my checkbook, as that was in my backpack. I took the checkbook and a copy of my book Memoirs of a Hack Mechanic as it showed me on the cover with the very car I had at the gas pump, went inside, talked with the girl at the register, and held up the book and pointed at the pump as if it was some kind of ID and asked if I could pay for the fill-up by check. (All ginned up on whatever drug the brain secretes when you lose your wallet and realize you’ve got a big problem, I probably said something very close to “Hi. My name’s Rob Siegel. I lost my wallet. But I’m a writer. See? This is me. And that’s the car. So you can trust me.”)

Not surprisingly, the girl looked at me like I was from Mars. Of course, I am from Mars, but there was no way she’d know that.

Rob Siegel Memoirs of a Hack Mechanic
You’d totally accept this as ID with a check, right? I mean I have that trustworthy kind of face. Rob Siegel

However, the other cashier—a woman a few years older—heard the near-desperation in my voice and asked, “Can I see the check?” She looked at me and the checkbook, and made a decision. “I can help you,” she said. “Come on outside with me.”

We went to the pump, she took out a credit card, swiped it, and I filled the tank with an even $50 of high-test. I thanked her profusely. I looked at the generic-sounding “Quik Mark” or whatever the sign in front of the building said, cocked my head at it, and asked her, “Do I make the check out to them?”

She surprised me when she said “No, Megan Smith.” [It’s not really Smith; the name has been changed to protect the innocent.]

Slowly the light bulb went on: She wasn’t swiping a business card for the convenience store. It was her credit card. She was personally trusting me and spotting me the tank of gas. I stumbled out a big emotional thank you, hugged her, and in the “For” field on the bottom of the check, wrote “Being a saint.”

We said our goodbyes, and I pulled the 2002tii away from the pump and into a parking spot. Before I drove 250 miles—which wasn’t directly on the way to Eureka Springs—I wanted to be absolutely certain the wallet wasn’t somewhere in the car. I tore everything apart again, probably the fourth time I’d done so. This time, I dumped the entire contents of every compartment of my backpack out onto the floor, and out dropped the wallet. I have no idea what crevice it had been hiding in, but clearly it was not part of the known universe.

With the wallet now in hand, I pulled out $50 in cash, ran back inside, found Megan, gave the universal “God I am such an idiot” eye roll and hand gesture, handed her the cash, and she handed me back the check. I thanked her for the third time, and headed off to Eureka Springs.

But not before taking one of the credit cards out of my wallet and putting it in my glove box, a habit I follow to this day on every road trip.

The rest of the trip, both the drive down, the event itself, and the trip back, were wonderful. If you’ve never attended a car event that’s entirely dedicated to your specific make and model, it’s a thing of beauty, both the snaking line of the cars themselves on a windy road, and a room full of like-minded wackos who all share your peculiar passion.

BMW 2002 tii road trip
Whether in motion … Rob Siegel
BMW 2002 tii parking lot group
… or stationary, there’s nothing like a flock of the car that’s your poison. Rob Siegel

And, since I’d traveled farther than anyone else, I won the coveted “Iron Butt” trophy.

BMW 2002 tii Iron Butt award
It’s a major award! Rob Siegel

But the real prize, the thing I’ll remember my entire life, was the interaction at the convenience store. I’ve held onto the check, as it’s a keepsake, one of those lovely reminders of what a wonderful thing it is to the recipient of grace, generosity, kindness, and trust. I’d forgotten where I’d put it, but by utter coincidence, I ran across it this week while looking for … not my wallet, but an infrequently-used credit card that I’d removed from my wallet.

Check written for 50 bucks
Not kidding about any of that. Rob Siegel

So, Ms. “Smith,” if you read this and recognize the story, and you’re ever in the Boston area and lose your wallet or run out of gas or, really, need anything, I’ve got your back.



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