So I’d been thinking about a Thanksgiving story this year, had seen a number of them, and realized I hadn’t written anything ahead of time. I had so much to be thankful for that it would take far more than you’d want to read to explain it all, so for the sake of this story, I’ll make that part short. I am thankful beyond words for my family – who when the chips are down, band together like no one’s business. (I’m sure I’ll write about that someday). I’m thankful for my friends, who do such an amazing job of flipping me crap when I need it (and sometimes when I don’t). And I’m thankful for the blessings of health. The talk around the Thanksgiving table was full of surprises, and I’m truly grateful that God’s seen fit to let me be around another year. It was on the way down to my mom’s for this Thanksgiving that today’s story, much to my surprise, unfolded.
I headed there on Wednesday afternoon to get an early start helping out with getting things ready. I was driving down a road that I used to drive a couple of times daily, but hadn’t driven down in some time, when my mind suddenly shifted gears faster than a dual clutch automatic transmission in a time machine.
Suddenly I was a 20 again.
Not driving my wife’s Honda wagon with a 17 pound turkey in the back.
Not coming back home to visit as an adult.
Not planning on being part of creating a Thanksgiving feast for 8.
The time machine had deposited me inside memories that washed over me like a dump truck full of water balloons, each one bringing another thought, story, or reminder that flashed into my consciousness as it popped, until I was completely soaked in the spring of 1982.
I was almost finished with my second year going to a local community college, and I had a friend named Jill. She was my absolute best friend at the time, and we hung out as friends do. She was still in high school, I was a couple of years older, and we all went to the same church, same youth group, and so on. One day I had some car troubles (the car in question was a 1965 Saab 95, 3 cylinder, 2 stroke, 46 cubic inches of raw, unbridled power – of COURSE I had car trouble), and without me even asking, she offered to loan me her car one day if I could pick her up from tennis practice after school.
This was a no brainer, and I immediately took her up on her offer.
Now something to know about her car, it was about a ‘74 Ford Torino, originally came from the factory with a 302 cubic inch V-8 engine that had been customized over time to be a V-5. The rest of the car was great, but this thing was the personification of the phrase, “Not firing on all cylinders.” Three of the cylinders were just along for the ride, and what a ride it was. (It was actually hard to comprehend the concept of having three cylinders not firing. If the Saab had had three cylinders not firing, that car would be parked.)
I drove it to school, and I realized that since I’d been spending a huge amount of time under the hood of cars in general, it wouldn’t take much to just do a tuneup on her car as a thank you for letting me borrow it, so I bought 8 plugs, points, condenser, and a rotor and cap, typical tuneup stuff for a car of that vintage, and it cost less than 20.00 for the parts.
I drove it into the middle stall of the three car garage that my dad and I had built. Even though it was the only car in there, the garage felt a little crowded. It had never seen a car that big, and I popped the hood to start working on it. What was really a challenge at the time was just figuring out where everything was. I mean, it wasn’t hard to work, on, it’s just that that 302 V-5 (soon to be V-8 again) was so huge compared to the 3 cylinder engine I could pull out of the Saab and carry by myself to where it needed to be.
So I yanked all the plugs out – sure enough, three were pretty bad, and gapped the 8 new ones so they were set right, then popped them in, put new points in, gapped them, replaced the cap and rotor, making sure that all 8 plug wires were connected in the right order, then replaced the condenser and then, finally, got my timing light out and made sure all the plugs were firing when they were supposed to. It wasn’t hard, but it did take just a touch more than the hour I’d budgeted for it, and I was getting worried that I might not make it in time to pick her up from tennis practice like I’d promised.
I fired it up, and it started beautifully. It ran on all 8 cylinders, and was so smooth you could hardly tell it was running.
I allowed myself a smile, then suddenly realized as I looked at my watch that I was cutting it a little close. I ran into the house to clean up, then tried like you wouldn’t believe to keep from driving like a madman to pick her up in time.
A couple of green traffic lights helped me get there with a few seconds to spare. She saw me as she came bouncing off the tennis court as I eased her car gently onto the unpaved parking lot. You couldn’t even hear the engine anymore. All you could hear was the tires, slowly crunching on the gravel.
She got to the car, and was just starting to get in on the passenger’s side when she realized it was her car she was about to be a passenger in, so she playfully informed me that she was driving. She ran around to the driver’s door. I played along and skootched over to the passenger’s side, and she got in the driver’s seat.
The engine was still running, just purring, no longer doing the “thoof thoof thoof” that the custom V-5 had been doing under the hood for so long. She automatically put her seatbelt on while I was still fumbling with mine. I looked over at her and saw she was giving me “the look” that made it crystal clear that the car wasn’t moving till I had my seatbelt on and my tray table in the full upright and locked position… (okay, ignore the tray table thing) So I hurried up and got mine on as well.
Understand, she had no clue about what I’d done.
So she put it in drive, like she always did.
And then she gave it 5 cylinders worth of gas, like she always did.
And she expected to have 5 cylinders pull the car out of the parking lot, like they always did.
But Jill did not know, at that moment, that she had 8 cylinders reporting for duty under the hood.
With the gas pedal close to floored, those 8 cylinders did exactly what they were designed to do, and the engine roared. The tires spun, and Jill sprayed gravel all OVER that parking lot before she stomped on the brakes, looked at me in total shock (and just a little delight) and said,
“WHAT have you DONE to my CAR?”
“I, um… I fixed a few things…”
She couldn’t believe it – and insisted on paying me.
I didn’t want any money for it – it really didn’t cost much to do it, and it was so much fun to see that amazed look. I think, in the end, she managed to give me $10.00 – which was close enough to the price, but what was worth more than all the money she could have ever given me was the look on her face when she hit the gas that first time.
She drove the car for the rest of that summer and into the next winter, and as there are people who are in your life for a reason, a season, or a lifetime, Jill was in my life for a season. That summer, she and I still saw each other, but she had a special friend named Mike, and Mike and Jill were inseparable. On the one hand, I was, as anyone would be, heartbroken that she’d chosen someone else, but she and Mike were such a couple, and it seemed that there was something so much bigger going on than just Mike and Jill, that anything other than bowing out gracefully simply wasn’t an option, and so I did the best I could.
That summer was hard, but like I said, Jill was in my life – in our lives – for a season.
I got the Saab working again…
School started again…
Life was, for the most part, going okay. We made it through Thanksgiving and Christmas of that year, were barely a couple of weeks into the New Year when one Thursday morning the phone rang.
I still remember being home that cold morning – when the phone rang.
I still remember the pastor’s wife’s voice on the phone, crying.
I still remember sitting down, collapsing, really, as I heard her say there’d been an accident.
I heard everything, almost as if I were an uninvolved third party, but this was happening, and happening right then.
I heard disjointed words.
I heard something about a patch of ice, and about a pickup truck in the oncoming lane.
And I heard that both Mike and Jill, who’d been on their way to school that cold, clear morning, took an unexpected detour and left this life.
The next week was a blur.
The funeral for them was huge. I think there were 1500 people there. I’m not sure. There were many, many tears, but I remember walking past the casket, and looking inside, and while Jill’s body was there – Jill’s spirit was gone, flying as freely as the angel she was.
As you can tell, I still think about my friend Jill, and I miss her.
But I’m thankful for the time I had, and for the friendship that we had those many years ago.
I’ve learned that time machines can be wonderful ways to reach back into the past, bringing back memories that you’d forgotten were there. But I also learned you have to be a little careful, as along with the memories come emotions that you might have forgotten were there, too.
I wiped my eyes with the back of my hand as I stepped out of the time machine, and came back to Thanksgiving, 2011, where the smell of the turkey was just starting to waft through the house. I asked mom if she knew where “the picture” of Jill was.
There was only one that I knew of. She never wanted to be in any pictures, and was pretty adamant about that, but one day, that spring that I fixed the car for her, we were doing homework in the camping trailer my parents had. I was fiddling with my mom’s Yashica rangefinder 35mm camera. It took a bit to learn how to focus a rangefinder camera, which was achieved by getting two images to line up one over the other, and once you figured it out, it took some practice to get any image in focus. So I told Jill all I was doing was checking the focus, but inside, I really wanted at least one picture of my friend – and I was able to capture the only picture I have of her, doing her algebra homework after school one day.
And I got to thinking.
The Jill-shaped hole she left in our hearts will never be filled, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized Jill hadn’t left.
She’d just gone home.