The back of a Florida State Trooper’s police car doesn’t smell like I thought it would. I figured bad aftershave, stale coffee, and tired sweat would be the eau de jour. This one just had that pungent new car smell wafting through the steel divider.
What would have been an average, long, and boring 11 hour trip from Tennessee down I-75 to Florida turned into what my mother likes to call, “an ordeal”.
Somewhere around Macon, Georgia, we stopped to buy some of the state’s renowned peaches and pecans. My father’s (borrowed) Jeep Grand Cherokee evidently wasn’t enjoying the states other renowned feature – 96 degrees with 96% humidity. A sickly sweet, and all too familiar scent of antifreeze was steaming up from the engine block. I checked the overflow tank – check. The water pump – check. The radiator – check. Considering we still had 7 hours of driving, I wasn’t keen to have engine trouble. This was, after all, not far from the filming location of Deliverance, and we all know how that story ended.
By the time we hit southern Georgia, I needed a refuel and realized something was seriously wrong. The water pump was squealing in agony with every churn of the big V-8, and the temperature was hovering somewhere around 215 degrees. However, it appeared that the coolant was only leaking when the engine was stopped – which meant, of course, just don’t stop. A responsible man would have pulled over for the night and found a mechanic in the morning. I’m still relatively young, and thoroughly irresponsible at times, so of course I figured we could make it another 250 miles.
South of Gainsville, Florida, the worries really set in when the squealing water pump was causing pondering stares from other motorists. The other pondering stare came from Novita, who, sitting next to me, couldn’t figure out why chanting, “c’mon baby, you can do it!” would give any sense of aid to the situation.
I had her monitoring the temperature gauge like a hawk; daring it to waiver past 215. Suddenly, and without a hint of warning, it rocketed to 240 degrees and I frantically pulled over to avoid destroying the engine. Luckily or unluckily, I had been watching an unmarked state police trooper behind me for the past mile, so I waived him to pull over as I was pulling over. I immediately shut the engine off and lifted the hood. Sure enough, somehow all of the coolant had suddenly leaked out and the radiator was bone dry.
I haven’t watched enough episodes of Cops to know how to approach the police car, or, wait, do you wait for him to approach you, or, uh, do you stay in your steaming vehicle, or….? It turns out, I gave up and walked up to his passenger side window. The big dude wasn’t smiling.
“Hi there, thanks for stopping. My car overheated – what do you recommend I do?”
“May I see your license sir?”
“Sure, so, is there a town nearby or a way I can reach my mother?”
A long, dramatic pause with no response.
“Sir, do you live in Michigan?”
“No, the Philippines.”
“The what…? Where are you heading?”
“Indian Rocks Beach, Florida – near Clearwater”
“To visit my mother.”
“Does she live there?”
“Well they have a place there, but they spend most of the year in Tennessee.”
“But you have a Michigan license, driving a Jeep registered in Michigan, to visit your mother who kind of lives there, and Tennessee, and you live in the Philippines?”
He gives me a skeptical look and five more minutes roll by – as if to check out my story or my non-existant criminal record. He then gets his Blackberry out and lets me dial my mother’s handphone. How nice of him, I thought.
“Sir, there’s no town for at least 7 more miles. But you could walk to the gas station back a half-mile.”
“Any chance you can give us a ride?”
“I can’t do that sir.”
Somehow he sensed some desperation and gave in, finally offering us a ride. Great, so I went to grab my most valuable items – camera gear and passports in two backpacks.
“Sir, I will not take your bags.”, he sternly says in his best movie cop voice.
“It’s ok, I’ll hold them on my lap. I don’t want to leave the gear here and it’s not much stuff.”
“Sir!”, shouting now, “This car is not equipped to handle you and your gear. You will not bring those items into this car!”
I glance at the rather large, new, and capacious sedan with a surely cavernous trunk, but figure I have to play by his rules, so I put my camera gear back, only taking a very small bag with my wallet and passports.
It almost appeared as if he rested his hand on his gun, but that could be my imagination. “Sir! I will not tell you again. Get in the car immediately without any bags!”
Total douchebagness had set in apparently.
We pulled up to the gas station, and he let us out of the car, finally handing me back my license.
“Sir, you may walk back to the Jeep to retrieve your gear if you don’t feel safe leaving it. This isn’t the best of areas; lots of crime around here. Stay safe.”
I didn’t mind the sweltering half-hour walk back to the Jeep. I minded having only two options – walk in marshy ditches for half a mile loaded with cigarette butts, condom wrappers, and McDonalds straws, or straddle the line of life and death with semi trailers brushing past me at 80 miles per hour.
Per the trooper’s advice, I quickly grabbed my most important valuables and started making my way back to Novita at the gas station.
Remember Rambo: First Blood when Stallone was walking down the road minding his own business and the sheriff pulled over to give him crap? Yeah, so do I.
Halfway back to the gas station, another police car pulls over; the cop motioning for me to stop. Awesome.
In a rather sarcastic tone, “Sir, what are you doing?”
“Walking back from my broken-down Jeep.”
In his best RoboCop impersonation, “Sir, this is an interstate highway, it is illegal to walk here!”
“I’m sorry, but, as I said, my Jeep broke down. How should I get to a phone?”
Obviously hard of hearing, he skipped that inquiry and proceeded to, “Sir, may I see some I.D.?”.
“Sir, please get into the back of the car.”
“But another cop told me I could walk back to the Jeep.” – he obviously didn’t buy that,
“Sir, I already told you, it’s illegal to be out here. Another police officer wouldn’t have said that. Get into the car. And sir, confirm that your bags do not contain any weapons or explosive materials.”
Another ten minutes go by, he pulled up to the Jeep, ran the plates, ran my license and I had to go all through the explanation of living overseas.
“Sir, I’m going to give you a ride back to the gas station, but I usually would have to ticket and fine you for this offense.”
Yeah, I’ll remember that next time I choose to break down and walk a half-mile in the blistering sun.
Novita was waiting for me at a diner next to the gas station. She wasn’t expecting me to pull up in a cop car, and by this time, we had made a bit of a scene having arrived not once, but twice in an hour from the back of police cars, escorted by large cops. I was ready to put a black bandana around my head and give in to the expectation.
After contemplating the choices I decided a last-ditch effort was required. My mother drove all the way up to get us – 140 miles one way, but I wan’t about to leave the Jeep in B.F.E.
I grabbed 4 gallons of antifreeze and a bundle of Bars Leak tablets as a desperate last hope solution to hobble down to Clearwater Beach. Luckily it worked. Limping and moaning, I got the Jeep to agree to 140 miles; finally arriving 16 hours after we left Tennessee. Turns out the water pump was totally shot, and the mechanic couldn’t believe I had made it that far. If he only knew.
Fortunately, that was the horrible beginning to a great week in Indian Rocks Beach.
There would be no sequel to Deliverance after all.