She looked like a good pony: short, but sturdy and footsure. Her lines were pure economy. Not even Todd, whose appreciation of such things ran ahead of most, would call her elegant. The icon proudly worn on her chest indicated that General Motors played some role in weaving together her DNA, although as I pondered her scruffy coat, I couldn’t remember seeing a breed like this before. We tested her throughly as hardened Westerners are wont to do: I kicked her tire. She didn’t flinch. Satisfied, Seth signed the rental papers and we we climbed aboard.
For most of the day she preformed admirably. Seth, Todd and I rode the long downhill into the Dead Sea Basin. It was little more than an adventure in gravity. Which is why she only began to show signs of distress on the way back up.
Laboring through the 3,000 foot climb out of the Great Rift Valley in the late afternoon heat of a Judean summer with a load of men and their packs will challenge the heart of a thoroughbred. A bastard is likely to roll over, stiffen, and die. In our case, the transmission searched wildly for gear combinations to assist the wailing engine. We contributed to the cause as best we could by flipping the air conditioner switch. It did little to silence the death rattle.
From my position in the back seat, I could not see clearly, but when I stuck my hand out the window, I felt froth flying back from the corners of her mouth.
Are we going to make it? It was a question with no answer.
Nearly to Jerusalem, on the steepest grade, the oil pressure light began a tease. It fluttered in red. “Wow, look at me.” “Stop! Don’t look.” “Here I am.” “Peek-a-boo!” “Surprise!” We discussed the possible meanings of this omen.
While we were thus distracted, the engine compelled the trunk to join the rebellion. Without warning, the rear end of the car suddenly yawned. Or gasped, really. The trunk lid flew up against the stops, bounced hard, then closed again. Once practiced, it did this with great regularity. “Wheeeze!” “Wheeeeeze!” Given the desert heat, I surmised that it was some sort of self-survival mechanism designed in a Korean laboratory to gulp extra air. I marveled at the cleverness of this design. Evidently the Israeli soldiers did too. They waved us through the checkpoint, slack jawed, as three sweaty white boys in their cheap Chevy bounced by, eyes rolled back, foaming at the mouth, with full flaps out.
Needless to say, we did make the summit of the Mt of Olives that day and stumbled down to the stable in East Jerusalem. We tied the trunk closed with some string we found in the garbage along the side of the road and walked to our hostel. One more ride was necessary though. Seth and Todd needed a transfer to the airport in the morning.
On the morrow, our mount rolled down the Mediterranean side of the hill so smoothly that we forgot the struggle from the day before. I waved goodbye to my friends at the terminal and began the return journey, a long uphill, to Jerusalem.
The protests began at the first incline. The trunk began gasping (someone with malicious intent had opened the boot in the night and broken our string). The teasing red light on the dash grew into an entire dancing cabaret, and then, with a single shudder, the little pony expired. We drifted to the side. Her joints stiffened in death. Her grill was frozen in a grin.
Fortunately, the rental company had provided me with a business card containing a 24-hour help line. I dialed it. Unfortunately, a prerecorded voice rattled something in Arabic, then hung up. Just to be sadistic, I repeated the exercise.
I decided to wait until the office opened to try again. A half hour later I did get a live Arab speaker, but our conversation did not go well.
“Can you help me?” I asked. “I’m not sure what just happened to the car. Maybe I ran out of gas.” The needle was quite low, I confessed.
Rawan (we became fast friends over the course of the day) asked, “Is there someone there who can help you? It would be better.”
Better for whom? I almost said.
“Not really.” I answered. “I’m on the side of the highway near Ramallah. There is no one around.”
“Walk to the gas station and ask them to help. There is one close. It would take us more than an hour to get to you.”
Slightly disgruntled, I got out, locked the doors, and tied the trunk shut with some string I found in the garbage along the side of the road. I began walking, not entirely sure where I would happen upon a gas station.
About an hour later, foaming a bit from the corners of my mouth, I staggered into the pumps. The attendant was smiling. My flaps were out.
“Good morning,” he chirped in Hebrew.
“No,” I countered with a wheeze. “Bad morning. I may have run out of gas.”
“Oooh. That sucks,” he mustered like an American. “I’ll help you.”
We rooted around in the garbage along the side of the road until we found suitable plastic containers for carrying benzine. One was a pepsi bottle. He filled me up and waved goodbye. I slung myself back over the guardrail and returned to the highway.
The carcass of the little car was right where I left it. I poured the life-giving liquid in the tank (using another pepsi bottle as a funnel) and tried a second start. Nothing.
About that time an emergency vehicle (roadside assistance) pulled up. His lights were flashing. A wiry guy with a clip-on kippa and bright green vest sprang out. I told him my car died. He replied, “No problem. God . . . ,” he pointed up, searching for just the right words of consolation, “is behind everything.”
I kinda wished He was behind my car.
My Rescue-Theologian went back to his vehicle. He returned with more benzine. We poured it in and tried a restart with no success.
He then fooled with the battery cables and was genuinely surprised by the sparks that flew when he bumped the wrench against the car frame. I was rather amazed as well, but more by the height of his jump than by the sparks that prompted the action. Squinting, he then shot starting fluid into the carburetor. I cranked the engine enthusiastically. All of this piddling yielded nothing, but we both felt better when it was over.
“C-C-Call.” he stammered at last, pretending to hold a phone to his head. He gave me a salute, jumped back in his van and drove away. He wouldn’t take any money. I believe he was content to have inserted a heavenly perspective into the situation. That’s a ministry, I thought.
I called a more lowly source. It was Rawan. I again explained my location. I was not confident of our exchange, but said she would send someone out to find me.
An hour passed with no a sign of the posse. Another hour. I called Rawan.
“There are three cars looking for you,” She exclaimed. “Where are you?”
I tried again to review the place. She did not understand. I had a brainstorm. I asked her, “How would you drive to the airport?” I thought if I could get her to think through the route, we would have it.
“I don’t drive,” said the rental car woman flatly. “I don’t know the roads. And I don’t go to the airport.”
Needless to say it was a long day in the sun. Six hours later, three cars pulled up. I was thirsty enough to drink benzine from a coke bottle found on the side of the road.
“Where are you?” one of the men demanded. His hands were waving in the air.
“Right here,” I replied, pointing to the earth. “I’ve been here the whole time.”
He looked at his watch and did a little math in his head. “Ohhh,” he said at last. “That’s too long.”
“Really?” I muttered under my breath.
The mechanic who had been a part of the search-and-rescue party, worked under the hood for a while. He checked some wires with a probe, administered mouth to mouth to various orifices of plastic, then spit. It was to no avail. She was too far gone.
“We need a winch.”
I thought to myself. Yes. And if you find one, take this pony to the glue factory.