He pulled up in a dusty red 1997 Chrysler Town & Country minivan. A German Shepard, about the size of a small giraffe, sat in the front seat. The driver smiled a toothy grin and rolled down his window.
“Got yourself a flat, huh?” he said.
He was right. I was sitting at a Casey’s gas station in a small town in Iowa called Story City, pondering my unfortunate lot in life. The 2013 Mini Cooper Paceman I was testing had the equivalent of a soft-flesh puncture wound in the front left tire. I was with two friends named Wayne and Pete.
The guy in the minivan? His name was Mr. Sanford.
Full disclosure here: Three guys over 6-feet should not drive a Paceman to Kansas City for any reason. No recommendo. You’re gonna look goofy. People will chuckle silently behind your back. You’ll also need a wooden paddle to wedge people out of the backseat. I will admit it was my idea, including the part where we also brought two tents, sleeping bags, backpacks, laptops, my collection of vintage ambient rock albums (not really), and six different video recording cameras (really). I made this plan before actually seeing the car.
It should be fairly obvious that Story City is not a well-known community. It’s a bit off the map, somewhere between Des Moines and The Edge of All Time Immortal – right before you get to The Cliff of the Eternal Abyss. The town finally installed high-speed Internet last week. The public safety officials work part-time at Pamida. You might say they are a little behind.
Mr. Sanford operates a company called Sanford’s Emergency 24 Hr AA Towing and has for four decades. I like how specific the name is. You can’t really question their service offerings. The AA is a nice touch because you don’t want to get your Mini Cooper fixed by a company with a BB grade.
“Do you know anything about no-flat tires?” I asked.
“I don’t think that matters too much,” he said with a wink.
He climbed out of his car and bent down on one knee. He was spry, probably around 72 with crusty white hair. Black marks on his hands seemed like the remains of a tough tire repair job he did back in 1984.
“You know what to do?” I asked. My voice might have broke a little, like I was asking the popular girl for a date in junior high.
“I’ll be honest with you,” he said, with a slight glint in his eye he had perfected with many previous customers. “After only 43 years on the job, I am still learning. We’ll use a tire repair kit and see if that works.”
My first thought: I’m about to be schooled. Trouble, right here in Story City.
I asked my friends to unfold themselves out of the Paceman. (It took about 45 minutes, not including the wedging process.) Mr. Sanford handed Wayne what looked like a short piece of sticky licorice wrapped in a tan piece of paper. With expert precision, Mr. Sanford pushed a metal piece into the tire hole about half the size of an eraser head. (I’m not sure what we ran over while driving, but I think it is now dead. It might also have been holding a dinner fork.)
For some reason, the no-flat technology kicks in when the pressure drops below a certain PSI. The tire uses reinforced rubber. A sensor monitors air pressure, or the lack thereof. All for a little peace of mind I guess. If you get a flat, a friendly little notice appears. It reads something like this:
“Hey there, Mini Cooper driver. We’re all cool here. We’re good. But we noticed your left front tire is running low, so we’d like to give you a head’s up. Yo dog. Ya might want to keep ‘er under 50 miles per hour and drive no more than about 50 miles on that tire. The engineers in Germany have told us that’s about how long ya can run on a no-flat before she punctures like a Norwegian dike. What we are trying to say here is, go ahead and make your way to a repair center, pronto. No probs. Oh, and we’re sorry about the headroom in the back. All of our engineers here are kinda short. Please go back to your normal super-cool life.”
At the station, Mr. Sanford motioned for Wayne to hand over the licorice.
Working like a tire elf, Mr. Sanford pushed the piece in and did a quick snip-snip. Then he told Wayne to spit. Tiny air bubbles started to form, which either meant Wayne’s saliva had a touch of nitric acid and we’d need to take him to the hospital soon for some tests or the tire repair thingy did not work.
“That didn’t work,” Mr. Sanford said. He tried it again. No dice.
“I know a guy…” he said, deflating my confidence.
At this point in the story, I will admit to a morbid and defeatist attitude. I’m bad and I know it. I failed to see how this would all be resolved in a timely manner. Actually, I failed to see how it would be resolved at all.
I hope you understand the irony. We were in the middle of Iowa driving a sporty Mini Cooper with low-profile tires. One of the tires had a puncture wound. There was a man named Mr. Sanford who said he knew a guy. And, we were at the Casey’s gas station. Excuse the pun, but we were flat-lined.
“Sounds good. Can we give him a call?” I said. I think the girl at school was getting testy because my voice cracked again.
“He’s at church,” Mr. Sanford told me, winking again. That seemed reasonable enough. It was Sunday morning in the most conservative state in the country besides North Dakota. Church is not optional. We called him anyway. Then we called him again. Then we texted him. Then we called Tires Plus. And BMW. And, the roadside helpers. And Chuck Norris.
Nothing. The Paceman was not exactly rebounding.
For me, learning how to trust is an interesting exercise. I trust things that are trustworthy. Big comfy chairs, bridges built within the last decade, people who work at Wal-Mart. But I was having trouble trusting Mr. Sanford. I wasn’t sure if it was the limp, the dog, or the dusty minivan.
He stopped and stared at me for a second.
Well, I explained, this is not my car. I’m a journalist and it’s a loaner. I am not the ideal buyer of a Mini Cooper. We’re out of the petite league here, given my size. I have no problem waiting until tomorrow.
As my daughter would say, it was an awks moment.
Eventually, Mr. Sanford decided to oblige my line of reasoning. He suggested I jump in his Town & Country and take me to the local campground to see if they had any tent sites. My friends looked at me like I was about to eat a giraffe for lunch. I climbed in behind Mr. Sanford’s dog.
We found the campground. He showed me a stream near the camp sites and suggested we borrow fishing poles. We took a circuitous route, as though neither of us had anything else to do but see Iowa. Eventually, we went back to the Cooper. Then, we decided to wait for the tire shop owner to turn his phone back on after church. And for an angel to appear. And for someone to start walking on water. And, again, for Chuck Norris.
Finally, the tire shop owner called back. Almost inconceivably, the owner had a photographic memory. He knew he had a low-profile tire in his shop that would fit a 2013 Mini Cooper Paceman. But he was going to go to dinner first with his family in Ames and he would meet us after that.
We went to Happy Chef and waited.
Mr. Sanford has a slight limp and his hands turn inward, as though he was born premature. He stoops a bit, likely from years of changing tires and hooking up towing equipment. He was not in a rush.
Finally, we left to meet his friend. I had not warmed up to the idea that a man down in Ames who owns a discount tire shop could recall, with instant precision, that he had a low-profile 19-inch tire that could fit a Mini Cooper. It was less than fathomable to me. I started squirming a bit on the drive down.
“You don’t trust me, do you?” said Mr. Sanford, a bit sternly and without a wink. “I see you have a hard time with patience. When I tell you I know we can find a tire, then you just have to believe what I am telling you.”
There was a stony silence. But Mr Sanford was right.
At the tire shop, the owner, who was also in his 70s, showed up wearing flip-flops and a gold cross dangling from his neck. He unlocked his shop and walked straight to the tire. It was the right size. Just a few weeks earlier, he had driven all the way to Hollywood to buy a flat-bed worth of low-profile racing tires. Imagine that. He would sell me one used for $100, including labor. The three of us worked for about an hour removing the punctured tire and installing the new one. We worked steadily, intentionally.
The tire shop owner had told us we better install the tires on the left rear, so we had to move that existing tire to the front. That would mean getting another jack, so we drove to Mr. Sanford’s shop. On the way, he revealed a curious detail. He was the proud owner of not one sports car, not two, but five. One of them was a 1983 Maserati Biturbo Si. One was a 1972 Camaro SS. He also owned 12 trucks, three dogs, and one farm.
Then my jaw had dropped a little. During our drive, he told me his former wife called him three to eight times per day. They had gotten married five years ago, but after their wedding day, his bride announced she was not willing to move to Story City. She was staying put in Des Moines.
They divorced right away, and now he had a third wife. (His first wife left him after his only daughter had died of meningitis. She was too filled with grief.) As we drove, he pointed out skid marks and told me who had died in a crash. In town, he waved at almost every neighbor – folks who had benefited from his AA towing company at one time.
At the shop, he showed me his Camaro and the Biturbo. I met his dogs. We found the extra lift. I asked him about his current wife. After an open heart surgery, she was not doing too well. Her days were numbered. Eventually, we packed up again and headed to the gas station.
We pulled up to the Mini Cooper, and within 15 minutes had replaced and rotated the two tires. All told, the entire ordeal took about six hours.
But it wasn’t an ordeal. For me, Mr. Sanford – crippled from an unknown illness or a birth defect, smiling through missing teeth – had a warmth that only comes with age. Story City was a respite, my place of unexpected restitution. I do have a trust problem. I’m deprived of it. It took a greasy, elderly tow-truck operator from Iowa to teach me that.
So how did it all end? Well, the tire fit perfectly. I think it is better than the one we left behind. I used an ATM machine at the gas station and took out the $80 I needed to pay for the tire repair and replacement.
Folding up their limbs like Chinese acrobatic stars in Las Vegas, my friends re-situated themselves in the Paceman. I shook Mr. Sanford’s hand and did the winking this time. He smile knowingly. My redemption radiated.
“Thank you,” I said.
“I’m happy to help,” said Mr. Sanford. Happy indeed.