For the last few years our Indian adventure has been enhanced greatly by having a vehicle provided by Acts of Mercy. This gift provides us extraordinary freedom to be able to focus on Achiever Academy during the school day and then have dinner, shop a little, and even take in some sights during our free time in the evenings and weekends.
Some of you have told us how much you enjoyed our adventures in the little white van that we drove for 5 summers. It was a peach of a vehicle: no air conditioning, windows that sometimes refused to roll down, doors that sometimes couldn't be coaxed open, and a head clearance so low that I couldn't sit up straight in the drivers seat. The day we crammed 12 people inside, it looked like a clown car at a circus. But despite our neglect and disregard for its temperamental need for fuel and water, it valiantly served us faithfully... until now. Sadly, we must report that the little white van has passed on.
On the day of our arrival a few weeks ago, John Christian apologized that, this year, the only vehicle that was available for us was a 1990's era, well-worn Jeep Scrambler, that looks like it has been “rode-hard and put up wet”. We first met the Jeep back in 2009, during my first visit to India and when we were invited to stay longer that year, I immediately responded, “If we stay, will you let me drive that Jeep?” They did, I did, and my fondness for this Jeep began.
Some of you may know that as a boy I always dreamed of owning a Jeep someday. During the summer of 1968 my father found a 1953 Willis CJ-3B ¼ ton jeep with a four cylinder F head motor. “Jeeper” already had over 100,000 miles on it when I bought it
The first thing we did was roll down the windows, for the Jeep has no air conditioning. Not much of a surprise there, but I was surprised a few days later when the window knob broke off in my hands. Minor details. I maneuvered the Jeep out of the gate at John's farm, Fresh Winds, and as I attempted to make the turn, I realized that I was in for a workout for there is no power steering. I can handle it. As we happily rattle and bump our way along toward the highway, we soon discover there is no turn signal either. No problem. I can easily stick my arm out the right window (which is always rolled down) because I'm driving from the right side of the vehicle.
The 2 gaping holes in the floorboard, which sit just behind the engine, were more of a concern. Pulling out of the gates of Fresh Winds, it had been amusing to watch the dirt road through the holes in the floor. Roaring down the highway, dirt and grime billowing up from the roadbed, the heat from the engine is stifling. At one point, Susan wondered if the soles of her sandals would melt from the intense heat and later, we learned not to put our plastic grocery bags too close for fear they may melt.
The first week we were here there was somewhat of a love/hate relationship between the two of us. Just to clarify - this was between myself and the jeep, not between me and my bride! Susan enjoys the freedom of having our own vehicle, as do I, but sometimes I suspect she also delights in the entertainment of watching me try desperately to find the gears. It's almost as entertaining as the steady flow of trucks, cars, ox carts, water buffalo, goats, pigs, and monkeys that share the road with us frequently. I'm certain that as we headed out from Fresh Winds that first morning, John probably winced a time or two (and laughed) as he heard me grinding the gears all the way to the highway.
The Jeep has a manual transmission, and while this would normally not be a problem for me, it has been a long time since I have driven a standard transmission, much less one that does not have synchronized gears. How embarrassing and nerve-racking to try to back out of Achiever Academy into traffic just as a busload of people is careening down the street in one direction and a multi-ton dump truck is bearing down from the other and several cows are meandering through it all. I’m sitting there embarrassed, gears grinding, trying desperately to put the jeep in gear. Any gear will do, but all of them elude me. And all of this, on the wrong side of the road.
At this point, I'm sure my daughter, Rebekah, must be quite entertained. Yes, Rebekah, I remember your frustration at learning to drive the red pickup truck and today, I can say I feel your pain. I think I might have told you to just relax and it would come and of course it did. For you. For me, it took a while longer.
Justin (Acts of Mercy driver, handyman and jack-of-all-trades) and I made 2 trips together in the Jeep that first week and both times, I watched closely as he slipped effortlessly through the gears trying to see some magic touch, but all to no avail. Yep, all 4 were really there, but seem to magically disappear when I took over the driving. On one of our trips together, Justin and I delivered a load of 10' long wood scaffolding poles to the construction site where Acts of Mercy is building homes for widows. On our first day in the Jeep, Susan noticed another minor issue: the passenger seat was not bolted down, giving her a little swing back and forth, each time she crawled up into the cab. She didn't mind too much (if she remembered to hold on tight) and this feature actually came in handy the day we delivered the poles. We headed to the scaffolding-pole-yard and as we filled the jeep, we discovered the bed was too short, requiring some ballast on the end of the poles to keep them in the bed. First, we secured the poles to the jeep and then lashed them to each other. Next, we removed the passenger seat from the cab, balancing it top of the pile of poles and off we went, with me riding the wobbly seat all the way to the next village, like the Grand Marshal of the Rose Parade. Sometimes, there are some adventures when you're this big, in a country of small people. To be fair, Justin tried to insist that I should drive and he would ride the poles. But secretly, I was too embarrassed by my gear-challenged driving so I “offered” (really insisted) to ride in the back.
I cannot explain why I struggled so all through the first week here but struggle I did. I even thought of seeking advice from my daughter-in-law, Bethany, who used to race dragsters in her teens. Surely she could teach this old man a thing about gears. One day I would find 2nd gear and rev the engine between the 3 speed bumps on the road heading to or from our house. The next day, 4th gear was the only one that would reveal itself and I would slip-clutch just to get up enough speed to get out of the way of traffic and pray I would not strike the many pedestrians that seemed to taunt me walking down the middle of my lane of traffic – oh wait, am I on the wrong side of the road?
In addition to the shifting problem, the Jeep has a couple of other issues. The first thing I noticed was that the metal bracket that holds the sideboards on the back was rattling against the cab. Although there are an infinite number of noises on the roads of India, and especially in this Jeep, this one seemed to bother me the most. Finding a rag on the floorboard, I folded it and wedged it between the cab and sideboard, where it remains still – until the day when we will need to plug a leak somewhere, probably.
It also did not take long for us to discover that the horn did not work. It is supposed to work with an after-manufacture modification with a toggle-switch mounted on the dash, but despite my best efforts at urgent and sometimes frenzied toggling, it wouldn't make a sound. The first thing you learn when driving in India is that a horn is an absolute necessity. John Christian often tells me that next to the brakes, the horn is the second most important safety device on a vehicle in India. Every commercial vehicle (and many private ones) have signs on the back reminding you to “Sound Horn” when passing. Sometimes, I wonder if they want you to sound the horn so pedestrians and motorcycles know just when to jump out in front of you as you try to pass. After John Christian discovered we were driving without a horn, he immediately informed Justin that our safety was in danger. Justin took the Jeep to a repair shop that morning and now it works more than 50% of the time. We just pray the other 50%.
On Thursday of our first week here, John and Carol invited us to dinner at their home. Bumping along happily, we ground through the gears and slip-clutched our way to “Fresh Winds”, which is located about 7 kilometers north of Mahab. I'm sure they could hear us coming a kilometer away. We enjoyed a wonderful home cooked meal and had a delightful time laughing and sharing with our dear friends until around 9pm. But when the lightening began to flash and the wind shook the windows, we decided it was time to head for home. We said hurried goodbyes and rushed off in the Jeep, just as it began to rain. It was then that we discovered the biggest problem of all. The windshield wipers don't work. As we pulled out from their rural farm road onto the busy highway, we were dismayed to learn that apparently every other traveler decided to hurry home at the same time, for the traffic was a nonstop caravan of trucks and cars. Apparently, Indian vehicles don't come with light dimmer switches because through the hundreds of sparkling raindrops on the windshield, in the pitch dark night, the constant pierce of headlights made us both cringe. And pray. I steered the jeep over toward the shoulder. Susan panicked. “We're going to hit a pedestrian!” I veered back toward the center stripe. Cars continued to pass 3 and 4 wide in a 2 lane highway. I veered back to the left again. We prayed some more. At one point, Susan gave some of that wifely advise that every guy dreads... “Honey, do you think we should pull over?” Once again, I managed to stifle the thoughts in my head.... 'yeah, right!” I just wanted to get home so I did what every guy does when he finds himself in this situation. I just pretended I didn't hear her stifled screams and just kept on driving. We made it home safely, closed the gate behind us, turned off the engine, and sat a few minutes in silent thanksgiving, both for our safety and for our great adventure.
On Friday night, we decided to celebrate the successful end of our first week here by visiting our favorite restaurant for steak and fries. We had a wonderful dinner but the celebration was just beginning for on the drive home, for the very first time, after 7 days of prodding and praying, the Jeep finally gave up the fight and revealed to me the elusive 3rd gear. I wasn't sure what I did differently that night, but I wasn't going to argue with Jeep at this point! Long after the Jeep was parked safely in front of our home, I reflected on what I experienced. For a while I thought maybe the linkage was twisted because 3rd and 4th gears were not in line. There are four forward gears and one reverse. (I’m not including the Hi/Low or four wheel transfer case.) Forward and all the way left is 1st, down and left is 2nd, all the way right and forward is 3rd, all the way right and down is reverse with 4th nestled down the center between 2nd and reverse. I don’t know if my memory is bad or maybe this gear pattern is unusual. I remember 4 speeds with 3rd and 4th in line at the center and reverse to the right and I remember 5 speeds with 5th over reverse. But I don’t remember experiencing this pattern before. I also realize that driving in India, on the wrong side of the road, on the wrong side of the floor shifter might change one's perspective. But despite the fact that I do not have “home court advantage” in India, I do have the advantage that I am left-handed and for once, I'm on the right side of left-handedness!
By Sunday, I was excited that my gear-shifting skills had improved and as we headed to meet John and Carol for the drive to church in Chennai, I was excited about my accomplishment. We pulled up to Fresh Winds and I jumped out of the Jeep and immediately bellowed, “I FOUND 3rd GEAR!!!” John and Carol burst into fits of laughter and I think they may have thought I was a little crazy (maybe more than a little). But I was, indeed, a very excited Jeep driver. I think Susan thought I was over-reacting but by then, I really was feeling exuberant.
I received an email from my daughter, Robyn, recently that reminded me how important it is to see God in the little things. I've spent my life not paying attention to such a small thing as 3rd gear but today, I am thankful that God has brought me joy in such a simple pleasure as 3rd gear. I can enjoy the journey without being concerned with the mechanics of shifting and I'm delighted the Jeep has finally yielded her secrets to me. Yes, Robyn, it is a small thing, and maybe I should be embarrassed that it took me so long to master such a simple skill. But the mastery is indeed a sweet blessing as well as a marvelous journey down memory lane. It is also a stark reminder of how spoiled I am to live the life I have lived. How many people have no transportation, or ride as a sardine in the crowded public buses, some hanging out of the doors and holding or dear life?
Thank you Lord Jesus for the blessing of a Jeep. No AC, no synchronizer gears, no windshield wipers, holes in the floor, broken window handles - but freedom to move and memories to relive, as well as new adventurous memories to create.
Bumping happily along on the Indian road …
“Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the Kingdom.”