Friday, September 13, 2013

Old Friends

An under-rated aspect about cross-country road trips is employing the element of surprise. During life, friends and family members scatter across the country, rarely to be seen again. One of Arnie’s friends moved to Fort Wayne, Indiana from Baltimore—with Arnie’s help, in fact—back in 1987. He later settled in Gregory, South Dakota. His name is Al Althoff.

Arnie knew Al from the Pilgrim Lutheran Church in Baltimore. Their relationship went back thirty years. Al was a fifth and sixth grade school teacher before moving with his wife and two children to attend seminary school in Fort Wayne. Al convinced Arnie to drive his large, manual transmission moving truck to Indiana. Arnie had little experience driving a stick shift automobile, let alone a giant moving van, but was bribed with the promise of a turkey and ham dinner on the other end.

Recharging the Tesla in Wyoming, Arnie picked up his phone. Riiiiiing…riiiiing…


“Al? Do you who this is?”


“It’s Arnie Able…from Baltimore.”

The author could not see the look on Al’s face, but he imagined his lower jaw dropping to his carpeted living room floor. The old friends have not seen each other—nor communicated—in twenty-some years. Arnie told his story over the phone and Al provided his home address. The next day, the sleek black Tesla with a grill loaded with insects appeared in Al’s rural Gregory, South Dakota driveway.

As Arnie attempted to call Al on the phone from the driveway, the pastor with the gray beard and glasses gazed from his front porch with a suspicious smile.

“Why did you get into this project again?”

They shook hands and exchanged pleasantries. 

“Well, we only have a couple miles left on the battery,” Arnie said—nine to be exact. “Where’s this RV park?”

Al led Arnie and Reggie to Ace’s RV Park, which is owned and operated by a family from his congregation—St. John’s Lutheran Church. They plugged in and went for lunch.

Gregory, South Dakota was a town of 1300 people and no stoplights. The nearest traffic light was 37 miles away. The nearest WalMart was over 100 miles away. At 4 o’clock on a Wednesday afternoon the local cafĂ© was closed. So where do locals find a meal in such a small town at that hour? The bowling alley, of course.

As the trio walked in the door of Bubba’s Bar and Bowling, a table of six old women turned their heads and eyed them as if they stepped out of a spaceship and their skin was green. No one was bowling. The fellas continued past the ten lanes of tenpin into the back room and sat at a round table across from the bar. The local news played on the television behind the beer taps.

“So what did Anita think about your trip?” Al asked in reference to Arnie’s wife.

“She didn’t want to come.”

“Well obviously!”

“How do you like South Dakota?”

“It’s a great state to live in,” Al said. “The neighbors look out for each other; we can leave the kids on their own—they learned to fish and hunt (pheasant and deer). Nobody bothers us here.

“I don’t want people to think I didn’t like Baltimore. My daughter was born there. I had a good time in Baltimore; I had a good time in Detroit. But once I moved to the rural areas I found peace,” Al said. “Best thing is, there’s no income tax.”

Over lunch, Arnie and Al reminisced about old times—about the time they raised $20,000 at a fundraiser during an Orioles game at Memorial Stadium for Andrew Carlson, a disabled child. Arnie and Al went on a fishing trip that day. It rained and they barely made it in time for the game—where Al was to throw out the first pitch. After all these years he kept the ball, and recently gave it to his daughter for Christmas.

Living in a small town offered Al the opportunity to embrace different roles. In addition to his duties as a pastor, Al was an EMT for the fire department. He helped organize 800 lunches in four hours to support the police department in their search of a fugitive who murdered a woman. He followed with a sad story of how he baptized a baby girl, then ministered her funeral four months later. Al was one of the firefighters called to the rescue when her family’s home burned to the ground. Three years ago Al retired as a pastor due to health reasons, but the peace of the country and time with his wife, children and grandchildren kept his spirits up. 

A hot beef sandwich, a chicken burrito and Reuben later, they drove to the Gregory library where Al’s wife Diane finished work for the day, and returned home. The Tesla needed about three more hours to charge, so as Diane prepared coffee cake, Al led Arnie and Reggie to his basement to show them his pride and joy: A miniature town with enough train tracks to run through the house, train engines, train cars, a couple hundred miniature buildings—houses, churches, gas stations, parking garages, a cemetery, restaurants, water tower, trees, people, you name it and it was probably there—and 1500 Matchbox and Hot Wheels cars.

“The kids used to buy them for me as a Christmas present when they were fifty cents,” Al said.

“We should find him a Tesla,” said Reggie.

“Actually, I have a black Tesla somewhere around here.”


“Yeah, I found it when it was more of a concept car,” Al said. “Seems I got a Tesla before you, Arnie.”

The three of them laughed and commenced an all-out search for the miniature car.

“Here’s a Volt,” Arnie said.

After nearly a half an hour—they had all night—they abandoned their search and joined Diane for coffee and more stories upstairs in the kitchen. Al promised to send a photo when he found the mini-Tesla.

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