An Ode to Balou


An Ode to Balou                                     Photo by Hayden Carmichael

In his last charge up a hill outside of Longview Washington, Balou did what he had done for the last ten years. He was doing his best to safely get me home. He had dodged butterflies in Mendicino only to get broad sided in Montery. He had steered his way in and out of relationships and been bumped and attacked by mindless folks in parking lots. After several trips through out BC and multiple adventures to places like San Francisco and Portland, and Bend Oregon, wear and tear got the best of my humble PT Cruiser. I must confess that while I did make sure he got routine checks each year, one factor did escape my attention. It seems that things these days are designed to fall apart. For example this machine I am now writing upon may have a shelf life 8 years and then some video card or memory bit will go “pffft”. and I will be left with this task of magically down loading my photos, files into this magical place “the cloud”.

I liked Balou’s simplicity. He was curved and round and spoke of a time where your actions had to match your words. His shape reminded you of a time when you kept a broken down vehicle for spare parts for your next purchase. I liked the analog features like a clock with arms verses digits. I liked the fact the radio had knobs verses buttons. These features had appealed to my step Dad, the wise and noble “wrench”, who chose to pay off the mortgage verse indulge in a modified time machine. For me, what Balou provided was a unique indulgence to make the move between analog to digital life styles. Like his name, I was looking for something to handle the bear necessities, which included moving my kids, soccer and lacrosse gear and a portal to take me to new places both in body and mind.

Balou was rather humble in his ways. A few times, a light would light up on the dash and I would refresh him with fluids. His battery wore out and I made the effort to replace it my self. Thankfully I have befriended a few mechanics that I trust and so there were routine replacements of brakes and plugs seemed to keep him happy. There was always the same question when I rolled out of the garage “so when are you going to replace that car?”. Yet Balou continued to roll up the miles. He seldom over heated even when I filled him full of camping gear and set off for hot and hilly climbs.

So when I first noticed a yellow light and heard a rather calm ding, my first impulse was to simply get to the side of the road and let him cool off. Now with each trip around the sun, you learn a few things that seem to pop up in your head like that light that was flashing from my dashboard. Some may call it common sense and others may call it pure instinct or dumb luck. I prefer to call it “Plan B”. It is your fall back position, your safe harbor. It is perhaps an imaginary checklist for when poop hits the fan. Alive? Check. Broken Limbs? Nope. Odd sounds or large bodies of air going by your head? Negative. Take for example the simple conclusion that any object propelled by an engine will purr along until you turn it off. Should an engine shut down without your consent or a flip of a switch, you now need to have a plan B. On a sailing vessel you can always hoist the sails. In a plane, you have few moments to find a place to crash. In a fast moving vehicle passing a transport truck in the fast lane while going up a hill, when the engine dies, you slow down and begin to roll backwards. This situation simply becomes a physics question about velocity and gravity. What not considered in the equation are all the other vehicles on the said highway and the affects of an ncline on that highway.

Thankfully, as I made my way to the side of the road. Balou and I found a path unobstructed by trucks, camper vans and ecologically conscious pieces of light alloys and low fuel consumption. Instinctively, as a yellow light flashed and the rpms went to zero, I remained unnaturally calm and weaved backwards through the throngs of summer traffic to get both Balou and I to the side of the highway unscathed. Yes, my humble stead had been to the repair shop for minor prangs. It was one of the selling points as to why I bought the vehicle in the first place. Balous had been wounded by accidental hit and run folks in a parking lot, twice! Above his “Marines” bumper sticker I had recently jury-rigged a red and silver duct tape combo until I could afford the deductible to replace a three hundred dollar piece of plastic. He had been side swiped by a new driver who quickly launched of a green light, putting my son into a state of shock when the police officer said I might have to go to jail.

Over more than a decade, my wounded ally had made what was to be his last drive with me. He had left me near a row of trees where I found shade and made my calls to roadside assistance and to my guardian angels. I popped Ballou’s hood and saw no smoke. Secretly I was hoping for a simple hiccup and sputter and he would be rolling again. Yet as I stared at Balou’s motionless engine, I recalled a film that shocked my whole third grade class. Yes, in some Disney movies, they shot the dog.

Under the trees, I set up a folding chair and watched a few butterflies fly from nearby flowers. I listened to my phone on hold and the load rumble of route 5. Like others, I was now that guy with a car that would not start. I smiled at Balou. Folks sometimes called him a hot wheels car. With his Marine’s Bumper sticker,bright red paint job and accent pinstrip, my humble stead now baked in the hot August sun. If this was his last gesture it was a good one. He was an indulgence that I had picked up from a Budget dealer over a decade ago. I wanted something bigger for my kids. Ballou volunteered to move us about with his perky style. My Dad had always wanted one. He liked “the style” and as a mechanic he had fixed a lot of vehicles with style. Secretly, I wanted a touchstone to link me with my Dad.

As I looked at Balou, I wondered what my Dad would say. Of course there would be the factual remarks about semi erratic maintenance and the shelf life of a timing belt. Yet he had also remarked more than once that despite the situation “it is a lovely day, the sun is shining and you are more than welcome to enjoy this day with me”. He and I had traversed across the United States twice in vehicles that had panache to break down. Thankfully he could fix many things including my own life. In Salt Lake City, while the vehicle was in the shop, he amazed me with odd facts both about American and Utah History. Like Balou, my Dad was always up to take me to any destination. Either with his odd stories and miles behind the wheel, I pieced together some clues as to how to become a man. Like Balou, he had a special sense of flair yet practicality. He took me places off the beaten road and showed me how to enjoy the simple things in life. So as I sat and ignored the roar of highway five nearby, I let a weeks worth of travelling merge into ten years of rolling down the highway with Balou.

If the flapping of a butterfly’s wing can affect a turn of event, then what can be said of thousands of miles rolling down a highway? On my fourteenth birthday, my Dad and Mom delivered my birthday gift to me at my camp in Cape Cod. I had signed up to be a caddy for the whole summer. In the back of what would eventually be my first automobile was a brand new red and silver Schwinn 10 speed bicycle. My Dad had picked out the colour and type of bike. I would remember this when I put the silver pin stripe onto my candy apple red Balaou. Five years later, that bike and vehicle crossed the country to take me to University in Ontario. Like other road trips, my Dad shared his wisdom including driving at night to avoid airplanes in Nebraska and finding fantastic lemonade and ac in an amazing museum in Minden.


I must share that my “Dad” was on of two fathers in my life. He was the next man to marry my Mom. I had made the odd decision to move to California leaving my true father and his wife behind. I cannot explain the jumping of ships no more than I can rationalize why I bought a vehicle that I could barely afford. It seems that there was something there that offered a different path to follow. Each weekend, we, my step Dad, Mom and I plus a faithful hound name Mike would set off on adventures. The road and a vehicle was always involved. When I started to ask about engines and how they worked, he steered me away to other paths. One path was what I am doing now, following his footsteps by sharing a yarn with no particular destination. Having survived a sinking of his ship in the North sea, a marriage that separated him from his two kids and two cross country journeys to find another job fixing machines, I think he wanted an easier path for his new child s. That being said, when I first introduced to my new “brother in law” the Marine , there was a hidden understanding that my Dad had advised him to toughen me up.

While I waited for the tow to come, I made a list of lessons learn and options to follow. This making of list was an effort to “put my best foot forward”. In his neat block writing my Dad used to outline both bills and later lesson plans. While he patiently taught me how to drive a fickle clutch, he was giving me lessons in how to engage in life. With my stepsister at my side, I was tested to see if I could drive a clutch on the hills of San Francisco as I was being followed by my parents. I learned simple lessons by simple mistakes. I learned with tough love and accountability. Somewhere in the mix, I grasped the concept that it was not always about you. There was always a time and place to indulge in ego play yet having a simple plan and initiating that plan sent you off in a new direction and sometimes that was not a bad thing.

After confirming that that there was not a duck but my cell phone ringing inside of  Balou, the tow driver towed me into town. He was in the middle of working a 20 hour shifts, had a cold cup of coffee and a pack of unopened cigarettes. I sat and listened as he told me about his local neighbors and the two vets who celebrated the forth of July and how they never talked of their times in Viet Nam. I told him that wars are seldom understood. My Dad survived a torpedo and then strafing kamikaze bullets and yet his country as a merchant marine was never acknowledge until after his death. I shared that it was good to listen to tales that made no sense, that sometimes a voice just needed an ear. While this young man was launching back into his work, I gave him my Dad’s patented strong handshake and looked him in the eye and thank him for his service. No matter what the situation, troubles will pass. Folks always appreciate a smile and bit of giddy up even in the oddest of situations.

I was recently told that you have to focus on those things you can control. I was not able to control the damages for Balou nor the tapping of the keys as the estimate was being made. It was now four in the afternoon; the water from the jug tasted great and my bank was pondering my financial demise. Weighing the options, I could fix Balou, tow him back to Canada or sell him to the junkyard. A mechanic ,who sounded too much like my Dad, introduced the final option. He spelled out simple facts; the car’s blue book value was less than the money I would have to put into it. Some where in those miles between here and there, I do recall a few folks saying you needed to learn when to cut your loses. Now remember, this is from a generation who survived wars, depressions, financial woes and fair to midline marital bliss. Yes, in the old school blue collared world of nuts and bolts, sometimes you had to shot the dog. I paused to give Balou a salute and to thank him. As I rolled out of town the next day, I counted at least thirty PT’s rolling down the road. I also found three bridges in nearby trees so squirrels to could safely navigate through traffic. Balou would appreciate the humor this place had to offer and I could sense thumbs up from my old man. “Cut your loses kid, move on and rebuild”.

Sometimes stories come to abrupt endings. When you least expect it, the road curves and you find your self at a dead end. I remember a bug once hit the windshield and my Dad said, “bet you he cant do that again”. If my journeys with Balou were about anything they were attempt to capture a few brief moments of joy: Those sunsets my son took after attempting to body surf in the pacific, The laughter of one of my players putting on a clown nose in traffic. As the road rolled by, was I actually taking the time see what was in front of my face?

Each year, I retreated to the road to bring back the unpredictable. I launched into assumed plans knowing full well that it was the pieces in between that would make the puzzle fit. I was told “never to take things for granted” and as I held a cheque in my hand and passed it over to the bank clerk, there was an emptiness that passed over me like the surf that I had seen on the coast. Waves travel across oceans only to crash upon the shore. While they are stlll part of the same ocean, each has its own potential. Among the phones calls and text that followed my roadside retreat, I had the good fortune to have a new found friend offer to rescue me. Perhaps that old car was still up to his tricks. Yes, I had failed to replace his timing belt yet now I was being rescued by a lovely lass who thought nothing of picking up a wayward sailor four hours away. Instead of cutting my loses perhaps I was now casting off and setting off on a new adventure.

Now, I am safely home. In the parking lot is remnant oil stain from Balou. I still have my Ford Explorer and so I have a plan to restore a set of wheels that is neither plastic and up to roll a few miles. I will pay attention to maintenance and I will share the wit of my father each day. Some folks wonder why you name an automobile. I figure that after the warranties wear out and the oil starts to leak, the vehicle has earned it’s stripes to have a name. Face it, automobiles are part of the fabric of any person’s life. Those who mend the gaskets and sigh when a maintenance check has been been ignored have the challenge of putting the pieces back together. Blue collared and with greasy hands, they attempt to clean up messy situations. Common sense seems to be in short supply these days. Enough of sending pictures off to illusionary clouds. We need more tales of road trips and bad decisions that make great stories. We need drivers who know where the oil goes and how to bail out of traffic. We need to listen to lessons of the past and move them into the future.

I am not sure what the future will bring. From the past, there are the wise words of FDR who said “what we have to fear most is fear itself”. A generation grew up with curved fenders and rounded hoods. Being in the middle of the road worked for Ike and being some where in the middle worked for a whole class of folks. To paraphrase Jimmy Buffet, There was always a fine line between Saturday night drive ins and houses of faith on Sunday morning. I heard tell that they also spoke of heaven as a place where all the dogs you have owned come to great you. Well it makes me smile to imagine Pop finally driving Balou , his strong and weathered hands admiring the silver pin stripes and at least a few hounds poking their head out the back window flapping their ears in the passing wind. What song will the radio be playing? Will the lyrics be changed? Pop and Balou, can you hear me?

‘Put your best foot forward

but don’t be so stubborn to ignore the prickly pears.

Always take the time to look under those rocks for the unexpected

and be thankful for the surprises you may find

Make life beareable

By be loving and kind

A good set of wheels and a full tank of gas,

and some wisdom from the past

and you may get the chance to explore

the rare destinations of life.