The old 1957 Ford Custom was a rust-bucket, but it was his! No more driving the old family station wagon and seeing the smirks on the faces of his buddies as he drove past where they sat waiting for the first bell at school. The tired old station wagon was finally parked in the tall grass of the vacant lot across the street, visited only once in awhile when spare parts were needed for the real car. This beauty was going to be the envy of all the guys in the gang, if he could only get it legal to run on the street.
Lots of hours went into my big brother’s first real car. It wasn’t all that much to look at; none of the old cars available in my hometown down on the Mexican border were. The big problem was that we lived within an hour or two from the Gulf of Mexico and the humid air which blew constantly inland carried with it lots of saline. Growing up, I don’t think I ever saw a car older than five years old which didn’t have “cancer” around the windshield or back glass, or on the quarter-panels. Everything just rusted and that was that. So, big brother had to make choices about the essential repairs to make and what parts of the car to “pretty up”, while resigning himself to a few telltale spots of the brown iron oxide. As he worked on the automobile, I hung around for a few of the jobs, disappearing adeptly when it appeared that an unappetizing task would be foisted off on the baby brother. I’m fairly sure that my “help” was pretty useless to my wanna-be hot-rodder sibling.
Still, I was happy to ride with him the day he decided the old flivver was finally ready to pass the state safety inspection. I had stood behind the car, watching the lights flash, as he stepped on the brakes and flipped the turn signal lever to the left and then to the right, moving to the front to be sure that they were functioning there too. The headlights both came on and even changed as he stepped on the bright switch on the floor (yeah, it was built in the fifties, you know). The horn honked, which was required as well. Satisfied that it was ready, we jumped in and headed to the Sears service department. He was confident that the car would be legal to drive to school the next Monday! Finally, his hard work would pay off! Never mind that he was almost out of money and couldn’t really buy any more gas for it. He did have fifteen dollars dollars in his pocket today, knowing that the inspection would cost twelve. Nothing could stop him from impressing the crowd after this weekend!
An hour later, I stood with him as the mechanic explained that there was no way this car was passing the inspection. He was incredulous as the man showed him how the headlights were aimed incorrectly, one going downward and to the left, the other pointing slightly upward and straight ahead. It would cost another fifteen dollars to adjust them. No, he couldn’t pass the car today if my brother would promise to bring it back for the adjustment next week. He also spent a moment talking about a slight exhaust leak which should probably be fixed too, opening the hood to show where the fumes were escaping. My brother was thoroughly disgusted, and he made sure the mechanic knew it. He pushed the hood closed carelessly, and hurried me into the car, leaving a cloud of smoky exhaust and a layer of rubber on the concrete floor of the shop as we left. We got on the expressway and headed the six or seven miles for home, flying along the highway at seventy or seventy-five miles per hour as he continued to vent his anger.
All was well for a moment or two, but then suddenly we felt a solid “bump” toward the front of the vehicle. He ceased in mid-sentence of his harangue against the mechanic and had just time to ask, “What was that?” when the hood of the car flew up in front of us. Caught in the wind our great speed caused, the hood reached the end of its normal travel path and continued on, blocking the windshield and smashing into the top of the car, caving it in with a crash, right above our heads. Fortunately, stepping on the brake and sticking his head out of the side window, he got the car stopped safely by the side of the freeway, with the passing motorists staring and laughing as they realized what had happened. My brother wasn’t laughing. Muttering under his breath (and over it, a time or two), he grabbed his tool box and with a little help from me, removed the bolts which held the ruined hood to the hinges. Once free, we simply heaved the battered and twisted piece of rusty metal into the grass beside the car and drove home. Inside the car, it was as quiet as a funeral home; my brother, fuming and angry at himself now as well as at the mechanic; me, just wanting to avoid becoming the target of another outburst, knowing better than to open my mouth.
Sometimes, I think trouble follows us, not because we are jinxed, nor even because we deserve it, but simply because we are so easily distracted from the important tasks which should have our attention. My brother, in his exasperation at not getting what he wanted, forgot to make sure the car was ready to go back out onto the highway. It wasn’t the mechanic’s fault and I will assert that it wasn’t even the little brother’s fault. Anger colored the young man’s thought processes and left no room for normal precautions. Obviously, it was a lot longer than just the time it took to get the money saved up for the headlight adjustment before that car saw the road again. All for a moment’s stupidity, a second of taking his eyes off the fundamentals.
A friend reminded me today (in so many words), that most of what we deem important is simply peripheral. We are so preoccupied with the little unimportant details of our lives, sometimes depressed by them and at other times delighted with them, that we forget our priorities. We get angry when things don’t go as planned, or, if you’re like me, get so engrossed in the trivial aspects of the daily schedule that the absolutely crucial needs go wanting and unfulfilled. Then, at the end of the day, as the roof is caving in on me, I realize that I’ve once again forgotten to do the absolutely necessary, the critical tasks.
This afternoon, I ran an errand and came back to the music store to find two men who both “needed” to talk with me. One started impatiently, before the other could get a word in. “I really need to sell you that item we talked about a couple of weeks ago. I bought a new sound system the other day on a whim and now I kind of need some money,” he said imperiously. I knew the item he was speaking about (it is something I want), but I also knew that the other man had been waiting longer to see me, so I asked this first fellow if he could wait just a moment, while I spoke with the other guy. The other man also wanted to sell me something, but there was a difference. “We don’t have anything else to sell, and we need food.” The words came almost timidly. The instrument he offered was battered and of little value, but it was all he had. I didn’t want it and don’t need it.
It was important that one of these men walk out of my store with money in his hand. It was not so important that the other one do so. The one man still had options, something the hungry man was out of. I had a choice to make. I could listen to the loud, insistent voice, the one asking me to buy the item I wanted. I could listen to the quiet, timid voice, the one who had something I didn’t want, but who needed something I had. I hope I made the right choice.
We’re faced with important decisions everyday. The decisions don’t often come with captions which say, “Be Careful! Don’t make a mistake!” Most of the time, they come with no fanfare whatsoever, sneaking into our day stealthily, asking us to just do the right thing. It’s not always easy to concentrate on the essential, the absolutely necessary, because the flashy and boisterous “urgent” activities make their demands with regularity and it’s difficult to ignore them. Sometimes we can’t even recognize the “red herrings” which are thrown out to distract us from the important tasks until it’s too late. By then, we can’t see where we’re going and the roof is caving in on us with a horrible din.
The old rust-bucket is a dim memory now, lost in the long distant past. Its lesson lives on in my mind though, sounding its clarion-clear message even now, forty years later. Distractions are unimportant, false scents which are meant to throw us off track. A clear mind and a steady pace bring us closer to the finish line every day. Press on, looking to the goal and the ultimate reward!
“The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.”
(Steven R Covey~Author and motivational speaker)
“…let us throw off every weight that hinders us and the sin that entangles us and let us run with perseverance the race laid out for us.”