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Oct-21-2012 13:44printcomments

Random Acts: the Man from Iron Mountain... Up In Michigan

There's no such thing as a small act of kindness. Every act creates a ripple with no logical end. ~Scott Adams

1935 Chevy

(DAYTONA BEACH, FL) - The year was 1959. We were driving, in fact moving, my wife and I and our two small boys, from Edmonton to Toronto. Second day out, in Manitoba, we pulled into a rest area a few miles from Portage La Prairie. And as the boys spilled out of their hours of confinement, churning and tumbling over the grass, and we sought a picnic table and a moment of relaxation from highway fixation, I noticed a man and a young boy under an adjacent tree beside an ancient pre-War Chevy, with its hood raised.

They had spread a white sheet over the grass, on which was a jumble of parts and pieces, blackened and oily as were their hands, as they sat looking at the sheet as though consulting a jigsaw puzzle.

I walked over to them, noting as I did the Chevy's Michigan license plate.

"Hi," I said. "Long way from home, aren't you?"

"Ahuh," he nodded. "On our way to Alaska. Heard there was plenty of work up there. I'm from Iron Mountain, Michigan and things are pretty slow there."

I looked at the sagging Chevy. It looked like it wouldn't make it as far as the highway. "What seems to be the trouble?'

He had a small piece of metal in one hand. With the other he gestured at the scattered pieces on the sheet at his feet. "Carburetor. I got it all torn down, but this thing is broke."

I know about as much about what's under the hood of a car as I do about obstetrics and gynecology, and I wouldn't know a carburetor if I tripped over it.

"So what you need is to get to a Chev dealer?"

"Well, yeah, but it'd be a long shot in a small town. Need a big city dealership or an auto parts outfit. No, but if I could get to a good blacksmith, he could probably fabricate this." He juggled the metal piece. "Question is, how to get to a blacksmith."

"I'll take you," I said, and then was immediately sorry that I'd said it. There was my wife, the boys, our trip, and we needed to make Winnipeg that night.

But I did it, despite the silence that greeted that announcement, and the whoops of the boys, free to play longer in the rest area, joined by the stranger's son, as the two of us, the stranger and I, drove into Portage, found a blacksmith who supplied the duplicate piece. By the time we returned the sun was setting.

"Will you be okay?" I asked him, as he fell to work reassembling the (to me) impossible array of oily pieces on the sheet.

"Sure I'll be on my way in no time." He paused. "Look, I don't have much money -"

"No problem. I hope you make it to Alaska." Like that was about as likely as Sputnik getting into space two years earlier.

We left them there and rolled into Winnipeg.

In subsequent days, we headed south to Grand Forks, North Dakota, then through Minnesota, creasing the top of Wisconsin and into upper Michigan. It was the route of choice those days, prior to the Trans-Canada's completion above Superior. You crossed upper Michigan and the mammoth bridge at Mackinac, drove down the State, crossed at Detroit to Sarnia and thence Toronto.

Our routine on the road was set. Each night when we stopped, we had dinner, got a motel and then I would gas up and service the car for a quick escape the next morning.

On this particular night, over dinner, we decided to drive for a while longer, it was such a beautiful evening with hours of daylight left. We drove into the dense forest of northern Michigan. With the coming of darkness we were enveloped by the dark forest around us, the two-lane highway was almost like a tunnel bathed in the headlights.

I remembered suddenly that I had forgotten to gas up, and as if I'd been prompted, my eyes flew to the luminous dial where the arrow was dead on Empty. And almost at the same time the engine sputtered, there was a sudden losing of power and in seconds we were coasting to a dead stop on the highway's shoulder, where the engine gave it up and we were sitting in silence in the absolute darkness.

"We're out of gas," I said unnecessarily. There was a jabber of four voices as we all reacted, looking around at the black forest.

"I'll have to walk and find somebody," I said. "You and the boys lock the doors and sit tight."

I walked straight up the highway in the total darkness, idiotically thinking of Hedmingway's short story "Up In Michigan." It had to do, as I recall, with the aimlessness of youth.

After about three miles, I saw a light of some kind winking through the trees to my right, and then found a narrow driveway that gave on a small clearing. The light was a small neon sign, advertising a little grocery store in the front of a farm house. The owner nodded at my tale of woe, got out a jeep and a gerry can which he filled with five gallons of gas from his bowser in front. "Jump in." he said.

He drove me back to the car, where my wife and the boys were still frozen with fright and apprehension. He poured in the gas, primed the carburetor, which I never would have known about, the car roared into life, and he slung the gerry can back into the jeep.

"What do I owe you?" I asked, relieved.

"It's on the house," he said. "Glad to be of help. Maybe you can help somebody else sometime."

"Thanks," I said. "I will."

"You can get a full tank and a motel at the next town." He pointed into the darkness ahead.

"How far is it?"

"About five miles. The town is Iron Mountain."


Bill Annett grew up a writing brat; his father, Ross Annett, at a time when Scott Fitzgerald and P.G. Wodehouse were regular contributors, wrote the longest series of short stories in the Saturday Evening Post's history, with the sole exception of the unsinkable Tugboat Annie.

At 18, Bill's first short story was included in the anthology “Canadian Short Stories.” Alarmed, his father enrolled Bill in law school in Manitoba to ensure his going straight. For a time, it worked, although Bill did an arabesque into an English major, followed, logically, by corporation finance, investment banking and business administration at NYU and the Wharton School. He added G.I. education in the Army's CID at Fort Dix, New Jersey during the Korean altercation.

He also contributed to The American Banker and Venture in New York, INC. in Boston, the International Mining Journal in London, Hong Kong Business, Financial Times and Financial Post in Toronto.

Bill has written six books, including a page-turner on mutual funds, a send-up on the securities industry, three corporate histories and a novel, the latter no doubt inspired by his current occupation in Daytona Beach as a law-abiding beach comber.

You can write to Bill Annett at this address:



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Sean Flynn was a photojournalist in Vietnam, taken captive in 1970 in Cambodia and never seen again.