March 15, 2010

Ross Eldridge

—Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA

The Saints Preserve Us in Shamrock, Texas

In late October 1979 I was the designated passenger as a friend drove us across America from east to west in his enormous gas-guzzling, eleven-year-old Ford, heaped with things we thought we’d need for winter in the Rocky Mountains. That included a pup-tent.

We hit old Route 66 and used the tent for the first time outside Oklahoma City, setting it up in a grassy field that seemed to be owned by the KOA. It was dark when we got the tent up. In the morning, I pushed open the flap and realized we were sharing the field with a herd of cows. No KOA office, no toilets, no showers.

We hustled out of there. On the Interstate we made good time until we reached the Texas Panhandle. Suddenly, as we came over a rise in the highway, the car’s bonnet started steaming, then billowing, and the car began to lurch about. My friend got it off onto the shoulder where the engine gave up completely. We pried the bonnet open and boiling liquids sprayed about.

I’m sure we were cussing and panicking. There was, however, a sign by the highway indicating a service station not far ahead. My friend set off on foot, and I quivered with fright in the car. At least it was a sunny afternoon.

My friend returned in a tow-truck driven by someone from the garage up ahead. The mechanic hitched up the dead Ford and we drove into Shamrock, Texas.

In 1979, it looked a bit like the end of the Earth. I’d been accustomed to beaches in Bermuda, not dust and tumbleweeds and wooden, raised sidewalks. There were a fair number of boarded-up store-fronts; everything needed a lick of paint. The mechanic said he’d look at the car, and we went looking for a Coke. When we returned the mechanic said things looked bad: The radiator had completely disintegrated. With no way to get hold of a new radiator to fit the old car, we were buggered.

Then I said something odd but not unexpected. I told my friend that if he quit smoking right then (something I’d done recently, so I was insufferable about it) everything would work out. My friend agreed, though not happily, and we wandered around Shamrock waiting for the miracle. An hour later, back at the garage, our mechanic was smiling. He’d been to the town’s dump and had found a 1968 Ford, our model, and cut the radiator out of it. We paid $100 for our afternoon in Shamrock, which was a fair bit in 1979.

I’d asked what exactly the people in Shamrock did, with it being little more than a service station. The oddest thing, it turned out. Every March the Shamrock Post Office receives many, many cards and letters to be posted from there with the Shamrock cancellation mark on the envelope. Cards and letters celebrating St. Patrick’s Day, going all over the world.

It was late October and the town was quiet and dusty as we drove back to the Interstate.

We pushed on to Santa Fe, New Mexico, and then into Durango, Colorado, which seemed like the Promised Land after the Texas Panhandle. But every St. Patrick’s Day I think of shamrocks, and 1968 Fords in Texas.


Ross Eldridge lives in a tiny North Sea town on the coast of England near the Scottish border. He reads a good deal, has a go at photography, and researches family history. Ross has written a weekly newspaper column, but is now content to blog at Barking Mad in Amble by the Sea, dedicated primarily to his little dog, Cailean.

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