Storytelling, as anybody who’s ever attempted it knows so well, is much like painting your house – a matter of love and hate. A painful task if I ever knew one, long hours of applying multiple layers, each producing a new and often unexpected effect and many, many rough patches that seem to defy the paintbrush. And later, when it has all dried up, you realize you’ve missed critical spots and have to start all over again or live with it forever.
Then there’s the challenge of memory and time. While the latter passes, stories evolve in our minds like as many flowers in bloom but the former soon fails to recall details and eventually, the flowers change color and threaten to die. To prevent this, we add and embellish and improvise.
But a story is often just that, a story. It’s doesn’t necessarily have to be a precise biographical account nor does it always seek to record sacred historical facts. It might be a pure invention as much as it could be based on actual events, I don’t think it matters. What does, in the end, is the style.
So although the story I’m about to tell actually happened, that was many, many years in a long gone past and I am aware that the fine details must have eroded or shifted in my head. Take no offense. Since this was all over long ago, the only realities that remain today are those that exist in the mind of everyone involved. I wish I could tap into the others’. Here’s mine…
“Once upon a time, when I still lived in Montreal, I got a call from Pascal. He was a friend from my sister’s diving circle who worked part-time for a towing company, helping to recover submerged vehicles. He told me he was going down to New York to pick-up and tow back a smashed mini-van and wanted some company – slash help – for the road.
This was on a Friday. We’d be leaving the next morning. I was getting on a plane to a Club Med diving assignment the following Monday early. The drive down to New York took roughly 8 hours, we could get there and back in a long day. I said yes.
We left in the middle of the night to arrive in Queens before noon. The drive down was uneventful; we talked about diving, traffic was light, the tow truck relatively comfortable. In Queens, Pascal had gotten decent directions and we managed to find our address. It was all sorted out quickly and we hooked up the min-van, lifting up the front wheels with the hydraulic arm, and got under way towards Quebec at a slower pace.
No sooner had we joined the highway, though, than the truck’s engine began acting up. If I remember well, it was overheating. We eventually had to pull over to the side, which is a grave offense on US highways, passable of a $650,000 fine, 45 years imprisonment, or both. Pascal was much more mechanically savvy then me back then and he popped the hood open to deal with our issue. To this day, I carry this vivid vision of him perched on the bumper and leaning under the hood, armed with a heavy hammer, his arm swinging up and down at the poor broken engine in a deafening clash of metal against metal.
His hot fix was not working. A highway patrol cruiser stopped by to see what the trouble was and it was explained we could not stay there, or else. We agreed. Managing to get the engine started, we barely made it to the next exit and it died for good. I seem to remember that a belt had gone.
It was then that genius struck. The mini-van we were towing had had a front end collision, but it was a rear-wheel drive and the engine was intact. The van still hooked up, we would use the two remaining wheels to push the tow truck to a garage. Pascal jumped in the truck to steer and I sat behind in the van, turned the engine on, shifted to Drive, and did the only bit of driving I’ve ever done without having to touch the wheel. I’d watch his tail lights and break when he was. Then he’d give me a thumbs up and we’d accelerate slowly.
Of course, the tow truck was 2 or 3 times heavier than the mini-van, and soon my engine began overheating too. Our bad luck was escalating and we were getting desperate, headed away from the highway on a very small road towards a hypothetical garage on a Sunday. But against all odds we found the place open and I stopped us in front of the gas pump so that Pascal could go inquire about the possibility of a mechanic being on site. While he was out, the van’s engine stalled and would not restart. Pascal came back; there wasn’t a mechanic here, we’d have to drive down to the dealer some 10 miles down the road.
The owner was getting very annoyed to have us blocking two of his pumps. He wanted us gone. Out of desperation, I cranked the starter once more and the engine finally – if reluctantly – came to life. I pushed us forward and unto our next leg. Within a few kilometers, the poor van was overheating again and we had to stop to let it cool off.
We were now in the countryside and pulled up at a small rest area next to an isolated little lake. Only one car was parked there and a couple were standing next to it, peering at the lake through binoculars. They looked at us with perplexed eyes when they realized the car was pushing the tow truck but got back to their watch.
Following their gaze, I noticed a small row-boat on the far end of the lake with a silhouette in it leaning overboard. A closer look then revealed another shape in the water next to the boat, bobbling up and down in an occasional splash of water and arm movements. It looked rather strange and we went over to the people with the binoculars to inquire.
To our shocked surprise, it turned out the person in the water was trying very hard – but unsuccessfully – to drown. The boat’s occupant was attempting a rescue and coaxing the suicidal swimmer back on the boat, unsuccessfully too. The swimmer was probably naturally buoyant and his attempts were comically impeded by Archimede’s principle. He would submerge himself for a few seconds but then pop up again out of control, his legs and arms wildly trashing around as he tried to pull himself underwater. He’d then stop for a while, exhausted, and later try again. It was all completely surreal; Pascal and I looked at each other in disbelief.
Could we help? we asked. No, they said, someone had already gone for help. (In those days, cell phones had not yet become an epidemic. I’m not actually sure they were even invented.) We nodded and decided to move on. Time was passing and the day was shrinking fast.
The mini-van had recovered and accepted to start again. We made it to the dealership. They were still open and luckily had the part we needed in stock. It was bought and installed in no time and we got back on the road again, keeping a careful eye on the tow truck’s gauges.
Back then, driving through Us-Canada customs was easy as pie and a driver’s license might not even had been needed. Arriving in Montreal late at night, I got a few hours of sleep and got up again to fly off to the Caribbean. Those were the sunny, salty, shinny years. But that’s another story.
Nowadays, New York has become very dear to me. It’s still 8 hours away – cheap direct flights are rather rare. And when I get there, I always wish I could stay. Some day I will.”