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Homespun Yarns

How to navigate an avalanche with just a free bootlace


My old World War II Dodge Power Wagon sat there, fender kinked in and defiant. Its defiance was to start it and keep it running. My family had just finished a government homestead in Kenai, Alaska. This old geezer truck had to be driven to Anchorage, a three-hour drive in the dead of winter. The trip wound around the fiord-like terrain along Cook Inlet.

A friend jump-started me in Kenai and wished me well, as I turned on the nearly non-functioning heater. None of the windows would open, and the windshield had more cracks than open areas. Visibility was a challenge. Looking at the truck, it was obvious that it needed a wheel alignment, as both front wheels splayed out in dizzying misadjustment.

I started out in good shape with a thermos of coffee and a bundle of sandwiches a lady friend provided in Kenai. The first hour or so, the old flat-head engine purred along as I dug into my sandwiches. But soon it began to snow heavily. The ancient windshield wipers did little to give me good visibility, but... they did work.Remember: this vehicle was in service in the early 1940's, which gave it a life span of 40 years at the time.

I didn't worry about traction in the ever-increasing snow because of the huge tires and deeply embedded treads.The trouble, however, happened when through the bleary windshield I saw slowed traffic in front of me. With the lumbering truck, I rarely went faster than 45 miles per hour.

A long line of slowly moving traffic developed in front of me. Soon the traffic resembled a major freeway’s slow pace. I noted the rapidly declining daylight and had hoped to be in Anchorage by sundown. We had only five hours of daylight at this time of year.

Soon our lane of cars had stopped. I jumped out of the rig and wisely kept the engine running.

I yelled to a fellow traveler, “Hey, what’s going on? Why are we stopped?”

He yelled back, “My wife just heard on the radio that there are some serious avalanches on our highway. Might be one ahead.”

My heart sank because my small gas tank had just enough to make it to Anchorage but not for long-term idling.

After a half an hour we were allowed to move slowly forward. Then it happened:

Some spring or doodad that held the gas peddle in proper place broke and let the peddle fall down to the floor of the cab. This caused the motor to race wildly. I’m not gifted in mechanical things, so I just stuck my right foot under the gas peddle, and the engine idled again. What to do? Plus it was getting darker by the minute.

If the engine died, I’d never start the rig with the weak battery. So I bent over and unlaced my long shoelace in my left boot, all the while keeping my right toe under the gas peddle to keep the motor running.

Then I tied the lace around the gas peddle and heard the motor purr again.

Let me explain how clutches worked: to move ahead or change gears, you had to push down with your left foot and change gears at the same time. With my new gas set-up and each gear change, I had to let the gas peddle flop down, to get gas for the gear change, and then pull up on the shoelace. It was very complicated... but it worked.

Ahead, in the early gloom, we saw the avalanche area. I saw that some 30 feet of snow had covered both lanes, with some snow spilling into the inlet. The road crew had dozed a flat area on top of the huge mass of snow so cars could snake up and over the road obstruction.

My faithful old red truck, in low gear, climbed up and over the area, and some distance later, I found myself on the flat, smooth highway.

It was nearly dark when I drove into my driveway in Anchorage. After a short prayer of thanks to the Lord, I slowly removed the lace from the gas peddle and put it on my boot, and then greeted my family.

Who ever said you had to be a crack mechanic to fix auto-motive problems?


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