The Act of Grace That Saved a Road Trip

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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    A great reminder just how important it is to be trusting and trustworthy. I’ve had several similar experiences and I believe there are pockets of folks in various areas of the world that exude these traits. One area is Northern Michigan, including the UP. I was in Atlanta, MI and blew a hole in one of my snowmobile exhaust pipes. Stopped at a gas station and asked if there were any welders around. The answer was “Oh sure, go down the street there until you come to a cinder block garage. It will look like no one is there. Knock on the garage door. Jimmy will help you.” Sure enough, Jimmy came out, assessed the situation, invited me to pull my sled into his shop, and carefully removed the pipe, prepped it, professionally welded it up, then reassembled it. Perfect. I was preparing myself for the inevitable ‘How much you got’ response when I asked “How much?” He contemplated a moment, and responded “17 dollars.” I gave him $40 and a big hug.

    Similar story, Xmas Eve, 8pm Raton, NM, brutal cold. Stopped for fuel on the last leg of an all day run from Phoenix to Denver. Checked the fluids in a newly acquired, used K10 Blazer, that I thought was all sorted prior to the drive. However, upon closing that huge Chevy hood, the locking pin punched right through the mounting plate, leaving the hood unable to latch, and clearly unsafe for a highway. In the days before cell phones, I went to the convenience store pay phone(book), looking for a repair shop, nobody answered, obviously, Xmas Eve. Out of desperation, I used the CB radio and called out into the cold, pleading for help. A kind local responded, knew an older welder, called him and gave me directions to his home / shop. 30 minutes later, the perfectly welded pin in place, I was back on the highway. I forget his name, but he actually tried to refuse any payment. A pair of $20’s left on his bench, and thanks for a small town act of kindness.

    On-road karma is something I wholly believe in. I do my best to stop and lend a hand whenever I can. From lending a phone to changing a spare to running for parts, I’ve done what I can to help those stranded.

    I myself have been stranded and the kindness of others has never failed me. Pay it forward, folks.

    vermont. 1970. dirt road just after heavy rain. mud, mud, mud.. driving econoline van, pulling empty canoe trailer. I was a stupid 20 something. slid into a ditch. bad. guy from vermont power and electric came by. hitched me up to his 4X and spent more than a half hour tugging me out. I tried to give him some money; buy him a beer; anything to show my gratitude. He said, nope. I’m okay. But you now owe one to humanity. I’ve been trying to pay it back ever since.

    First, MA to OH in a 2002 in one day is pretty good pace.
    Second, I must have a primal fear of losing my wallet, as I put – and keep – it in a pants pocket any time I Ieave the boundary of my property.

    Another Vermont story.
    I was enjoying a great ride on a beautiful day in my ‘56 Nomad. The gas gauge didn’t work, something I was saving for a “rainy day”. Needless to say, the car stopped.
    Several minutes went by, I was fumbling with my cell phone figuring out who I could call, when the first and only vehicle approached. It was a young kid, pickup pulling a trailer, had his own landscape business. He stopped, asked if I needed help. I answered that I just needed some gas, which he had with him and graciously offered to pour it in for me. He was completely fascinated by the location of the gas filler, under the left taillight. He had never seen anything like that before. I offered him cash, he resisted, but I stuck it in his shirt pocket. I hope that it sparked some interest in his young brain about the old car hobby.

    “The agony of defoot”? You should be shot. (Although I have to admit it did make me laugh out loud.) How many of our kids will get the reference to The Wide World of Sports opening sequence? — Also, the human side of your writing is just wonderful.

    Thirty years ago on a road trip in a Suburban with my dad and grandfather (85 years old) in North Dakota. My dad was a polio survivor but relied on an respirator to aid breathing, powered by the battery. It had been raining but we were on a well-graveled road and making time, heading south to our evening destination in Wyoming. We crested a rise that was the South Dakota state line and the road surface went from gravel to greased mud — no chance to slow, only slide and try to steer. Which worked for a few hundred yards until the crown eased us into a ravine, nose first into an embankment, rear end off the road as well. Mind you, this was not a well-traveled road — we hadn’t seen traffic in over an hour. This was a time before cellphones but it hardly mattered because we were off any grid known to man. I began to tear apart the remains of a wooden plank fence and placed boards under the rears in a futile plan to get at least one tire onto something resembling traction but futility reigned. As we contemplated our fate, over the hill came an eight-wheel oilfield truck. With a winch. The driver calmly sized up the need and with barely a word hooked and yanked and five minutes later we were back on the road. Driver wouldn’t take proffered funds, just departed with a wave. I’m not sure who was looking down on us that day but we gave thanks when we arrived in Casper.

    Not a rescue for me, but a being a rescurer (if you can call it that). On a trip from Cincinnati to Natchitoches, Louisiana, we stopped for gas at Jackson, Tennessee. Pulled up to the pump and noticed a young guy going all around the back of a ’57 chevy. Seemed to be looking for something. I finally asked him if he needed some help with whatever his problem was and he replied – “just bought the car, nothing showing on the gas gauge, and I can’t find where to put the gas in.” I casually reached over and flipped the chrome cover under the left tail light open – and his eyes bugged out of his head. Thanked me profusely, and we continued on our merry way.

    Don’t leave your spare credit card in your glove box!
    That’s the first place a thief will look. Keep it somewhere like under your spare in the trunk, under the carpet under your seat, or find some other creative place .

    Iron Butt? Been watching a lot of workout videos? LOL. Nice to see someone who was as you wrote “Being a Saint”. They are still out there!

    … somewhere three hundred miles from my latest home I lost a cylinder, [ sure its a 250, not a 230 as I rebuild it the week prior ] with my James Bond rolls of smoke billowing out of the back my 25 year old 67 SWB chevy flat nose van and I soldiered on, much to the chagrin of those behind me… and- my -411 geared- three- on -the- tree- time bomb making a Westfalia- look- fast- by- comparison, doghouse open, four- quart- jugs- of- oil pouring directly into the top of the old 6 cylinder… screw it / let it blow closer to home I said… got fairly close to Cape Breton Island, fuelled up, two more jugs of oil and off I went in the darkness… a hour later and dangerously low on fuel I pulled into Isle Madame to a lonely gas station ‘I think it used to be there’ only to find it all locked up for the night, 930 pm, Saturday of course… so I parked and decided close enough, great spot to sleep.. just push that Yamaha 2 stroke outta the way to make room…when someone came up and knocked on my window asking what was up with me telling him and saying I will sleep on it for the night…okay done/night nite… another ten minutes later another window knock and there is this middle aged, me being 20 stupid years old as noted earlier/above, man in a tuxedo smiling away at me… ‘need gas I hear.’.. yup for sure I do.. with tuxedo man filling me up and another jug of oil…. turns out he was at his 25th wedding anniversary and the first knock knock guy was attending and let him know…. resulting in him leaving the celebration, with apparently the entire community of 1500, to help me out…. well this alone qualifies as karma at its best until I went to give him a credit card… this was the days of ‘schick schick’ card machines that took an imprint… which was far far away at his home…. FFS, I had no cash ….’its okay, you can go’… but wait, I had this old piggy bank that looked like a cash register that I took with me…I haven’t seen it in years and only found it ’cause I was packing to move again… hang on while I rip the arse out it…. ‘no no, don’t bother’… bah, in for a penny lol, I will look anyway….. ten dollars in quarters and dimes poured out…. I looked up inside it,… ‘paper jammed in there I said’/ then shook the hell out it… in the darkness a gold mine! ..and of all things twenty dollars in paper Canadian Tire ‘bonus’ money in 3 cent to 50 cent denominations….. he laughed , I laughed, he said ‘ I can use that too ‘ and although a few bucks short the total, this story, and 80’s memory, has stuck with me til now… about time I honoured that kindness in this little story… so thanks man, u saved my ass, I got the job, and paid it forward many times on Cape Breton Island….cheers

    Rob, just so you know, Kugel is paying it forward. A few months back, I stopped to help a stranded 2002 on I-85 headed to Greenville SC for some vintage BMW affair. No sooner had I stopped than a white tii pulls over, also offering to help. Turns out it was Kugel’s new owners, on their way to the same event. Good Kugel karma.

    And thats why my wallet has a chain and is attatched to my pants! IF i lose the wallet, I’ve got bigger problems.

    Hey Rob, I was at that MidAmerica 02Fest in 2014 (I know for sure since I can see just a glimpse of my car in the second picture) and you never mentioned your karma with Megan. Next time you attend, join our caravan–amongst the caravan members we generally have enough tools, parts and expertise to rebuild a 2002 if it comes to that…

    When I was in college (and driving a Renault 4CV) I somehow managed to lock my self out of the car–not an easy task when the driver’s door only locks with a key–but somehow I managed to do it–while stopping to help another 4CV driver whose engine had caught on fire. In front of a gas station. We managed to put it out (small fire!) and get him going again. Then I discovered I was locked out, with the ignition on. The station attendant watched all this going on–one 4CV was rare enough; two were nearly unheard of, even in 1964–and asked if I needed help. I asked for a hammer and screwdriver, which he promptly loaned me (my tools were also locked up). He figured I would either pry or break a vent window. He was wrong. A 4CV, like the original Beetle has external door hinges. I used the hammer and screwdriver to drive out the passenger side hinge pins, remove the door, and retrieve the keys from the ignition. Drove the hinge pins back in and was on my way, with a thank you to the service station attendant.

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