Boston Or Bust
Joseph Patrick McGrath McGrath


As I sat in my room with my friend Mike, we were packed and ready for a trip to Massachusetts. It was my sophomore year at Niagara University and we were leaving for Easter vacation. Niagara, being a Catholic College, had an unusually long vacation at this time. Mike Kovalchek was a close friend from New Jersey who was going home with me to see Boston. We planned to drive down to New Jersey after a few days and spend time around his home.
The weather looked somewhat ominous that day but that was the norm in Niagara Falls. When I first visited the campus, I was struck by the position of the trees that bordered in front of the dormitories. They were all bent back as if they were being cultivated that way intentionally. Once I got the first taste of the winter winds that blow up from the Niagara River Gorge, I understood why these trees looked like they were on their knees. It was early April now and we had begun to see the very welcome beginnings of spring.
The Easter vacation signified that our mid-term exams were over and it was time to relax. This meant enjoying a few cocktails. So Mike and I did just that as we sat around waiting for two new acquaintances to stop by and pick us up. They were the ones with the car and I had only met them once previously. It was one of those friend of a friend contacts which can turn out many different ways. What I knew conclusively was that Bear, Kevin McConnell, was from Hull, Massachusetts and his friend Terry, lived outside Albany.
Bear and Terry finally arrived a bit later in the afternoon than we expected. They had obviously been enjoying themselves somewhere and were conspicuously feeling no pain. “Are you guys ready”, Bear asked. Well, at that point we were more than ready and now a bit apprehensive. We quickly gathered our belongings, made our way to the elevator and were outside the dormitory walking toward the car. We were among the last few students leaving campus that day. Just to make things a bit more interesting, as we approached his car, the skies started turning very dark.
The car was not too old to cause immediate trepidation, but Bear was unconsciously intent on making us uncomfortable. “Everything is running well except the alternator light keeps coming on”, he said, with enough nonchalance to make me think either we didn’t have a problem or he had no idea what the implications were. Either way, Mike and I made eye contact and we were obviously on the same wavelength. “Have any idea what that might mean”, I whispered to him. “It usually has something to do with the battery”, he replied. “It means the battery might not be charging properly”. “Great”, I said under my breath. But we were already committed to go and there wasn’t any alternative that would be available this late in the day.
We were about to open the door when a head popped up that took Mike and I completely by surprise. It was a German shepherd dog who looked to be somewhere between a big pup and an adult dog. He looked friendly enough, but having company in the back seat was nothing I had planned on. “His name is Shane”, said Terry. “He is really friendly and won’t cause any trouble.” I thought to myself, if he is no trouble, why can’t he ride up front. Bear put on the radio as we departed the campus. It was approaching 5 p.m. and starting to get dark naturally. The combination of threatening skies and nighttime approaching was enough to shake me up a bit.
Our departure from campus coincided with a light snow starting to fall. We were only about 15 minutes into our journey when the snow started falling significantly harder. Searching for a radio station that had weather, we came upon an AM station out of Rochester. We were hit over the head immediately with bad news. The snow had gotten so heavy there, the New York Thruway from Rochester to Albany would be closing. The collegiate version of “oh no” came with a collective sigh. The campus was being closed for vacation, so turning back was not an option. We barely had enough money for gas and tolls to make it back to Boston, so stopping at a motel was also out of the question. Bear made up his mind quickly presenting us with his assessment. This snap decision at the time seemed like a bold and prudent choice, but clouded with happy hour tainted wisdom, ultimately proved flawed. There just didn’t appear to be many alternatives.
“We’ll just take Rte. 20 which runs kind of parallel to the Thruway”, said Bear. “Yeah”, said Terry “after we start traveling along 20, they will probably lift the Thruway restriction.” Mike and I really didn’t know any better. Bear seemed pretty confident and Terry was from Albany, New York so he knew the road. Besides that, the snow wasn’t too bad where we were and it was tough to imagine it making things so bad that we would be in any kind of jeopardy. So off we continued to get onto Rte. 20.
Things had settled in a bit over the next half-hour as we made our way heading toward Rte. 20. The snow continued at a steady pace but driving was still ok. We saw the signs for Rte. 20 and it was only 2 miles away. “So Terry, what type of highway is Rte. 20”, I asked unassumingly. Bear cut in “it’s a little like Rte. 1 in Massachusetts, he said. It is a bit small starting in Rochester but opens up near Syracuse.”
 “That is a pretty slow way through New York if it is like Rte. 1 in Massachusetts, I said, that is going to add quite a bit of time to our trip.” Bear jumped on that quickly, “well what the hell do propose”, he asked. “I was taken back a bit by his tone and defensive nature. “Well, I guess nothing, I responded. It is just going to take quite a while longer and this trip is 9 hours to begin with.” I had stated the obvious and tensions were running a bit high now. Terry, acting in the peacemaker role, attempted to calm things down. “It probably won’t be long before they open the Thruway and we can jump right on easily”, he offered. At this point there really wasn’t much more to discuss or debate. We were heading home come hell or high water. Mike and I exchanged glances but there was no room for discussion. We tacitly shrugged our shoulders with a common understanding. I patted the dog’s head and stared out the window.
The entry onto Rte. 20 coincided with a significant increase in the amount of snow that was falling. It seemed like someone hit a switch and we were in white out conditions. Everyone was quiet until Mike broke the silence. “Hey Bear, can you see anything?” We were all thinking the same thing but someone finally asked. It was a very obvious question but the implications were such that no one asked it quickly. Now the subject was broached and we would be dealing with the consequences. Bear, as I began to pick up on his personality, took his usual undaunted approach, “it’s a little tough, but we’ll take it slow.” All I could think was that either his eyesight was markedly better than mine was, or possibly, he had the navigational skills of a bat. Both of which I quickly dismissed. I knew exactly what he was thinking or at least should have been thinking. We were at what is known as a Rubicon. This is literally a point of no return. The campus was closed, we were short on cash, no friends in the area, and the weather was deteriorating quickly. I remember reading a story about a ship that attempted to navigate through Antarctica called the Endeavor. It took them eighteen months and they ultimately lost the ship. I was hoping we would do better on both accounts.
We crept along slowly with only a few cars passing us in the opposite direction. The few houses there were spread out maybe a half-mile apart. It was definitely a lonely setting and didn’t look like it would be improving dramatically any time soon. As I changed positions in the back seat, I noticed the alternator light was on. “Hey Bear, how long has the alternator light been on”, I asked. “For about half an hour”, he replied. Mike chimed in “do you think that is a problem.” Bear was obviously torn between concern and frustration, “Well Mike, let me pull out my crystal ball and give you the answer.” We all laughed nervously. Bear didn’t have an answer and continuing this line of questioning would only serve to push him in a direction that would heighten tensions.
Ten minutes later our question was answered. The car started to sputter and lose power. Bear steered the car to the side of the road. It coasted to a stop on the snowy shoulder of the road. He tried futilely to restart the engine a couple of times. The final attempt ended with both his hands smashing down heavily upon the steering wheel with an accompanying obscenity. There we were, stranded in the middle of nowhere. The snow was coming down very heavily and we were quite a distance between houses. No cars were passing in either direction. I couldn’t help but think this was inevitable anyway. You didn’t have to be the amazing Kreskin to predict this eventuality. The signs were there from the beginning. I had no choice in the matter but that didn’t mean anything now anyway. Time to deal with this situation and move on. “I’ll go for help, I said. There is a house up ahead and I’ll see if I can call someone.” Mike asked if I wanted company and he zipped up his jacket and started out with me.
  My coat had a hood attached and it came in very handy. The snow was blowing directly into our faces and it seemed like it was impossible to avoid. I had my hands in my pockets and my head down. Mike was in a similar posture and we were shoulder to shoulder as we walked through the driving snow. I had to yell to get his attention as the wind was blowing hard. “Mike, let’s cross the street here,” I shouted and motioned. As we approached the house, it looked old but was well kept. The driveway already had about eight inches of snow and the snowbanks on either side were evidence it had been a typical winter season in Rochester, which is actually the snowiest city in the United States. As we approached the front door, there was one light on in what looked the kitchen. I knocked briskly as the weather outside made me assume it would be difficult to hear anything inside or out. We waited momentarily hoping there would be someone around.
The door finally cracked open enough to show two older faces staring out at us with the door chain still attached. “What is it”, the voices asked in unison. What caught my attention first was how old they were. They appeared to be a married couple who were well into their eighties. They were understandably nervous as they peered out at us. “Our car broke down about a quarter mile back. It won’t start. We need to call for assistance”, I told them. They exchanged glances and nodded to each other signaling we would be allowed to enter. The elderly gentlemen watched us closely as we entered into a small hallway. His voice belied his age and he spoke crisply, “You picked a bad night to break down.” I laughed at this notion but realized he was more intent on breaking the ice than anything else. “I know, I went along. We are on our way home from college and really didn’t have a choice but to continue”. As I started to survey where the telephone might be, he pointed me in a direction toward the kitchen. I asked if there was any service stations close by or someone he could recommend. “If you get anyone out now it would be a minor miracle”, he offered. He slid a telephone directory towards me. He mumbled pessimistically ,“Good luck”.
He knew our fate before I even started dialing. After asking which God forsaken town we in there, I started dialing service stations that were in close proximity. It didn’t matter if I was calling for pizza delivery or the fire department. Nobody was going anywhere that night. My efforts were met with two very cynical types of response. Of the few stations that did answer, it was either incredulous indignation that I was insulting their intelligence by even asking or, just plain laughter. Neither of these was going to get us going any time soon. Both Mike and the elderly gentlemen were listening sporadically to my feeble attempts as they were conversing. I had exhausted the complete yellow page heading and announced the obvious, “Well, nobody is coming out tonight”.
Mike had garnered the names of the couple while I was calling. “Joe, this is Jim and his wife is Agnes,” Mike alerted me. I wasn’t sure if Mike was intentionally trying to ingratiate us to them, but he appeared to be off to a good start. “No luck on the phone”, he said. “None”, was my succinct response. We may as well go tell the others.” Jim and Agnes looked concerned but didn’t offer any alternatives immediately. I’m sure they were thinking about what might become us but didn’t say anything as Mike and I put up our hoods and went outside.
As we walked back to the car, we noticed the snow had actually gotten appreciably deeper in the short time we were inside. That didn’t improve my mood any but the snow was not blowing directly in our faces as we walked. “What the hell are we going to do now?” Mike asked. I really wasn’t sure and could offer no answer or comfort at that moment. I was genuinely concerned. As few options as we had in deciding to continue our trip home in the snow, now we were really stuck. I was thinking over the possibilities and said a quick “Our Father” to calm my nerves.
The car already had a moderate cover of snow on it as we approached. I opened up the door to the backseat and jumped in. “Any luck”, Terry asked quickly. I was careful how I responded as they had been sitting there a while probably discussing our limited choices. I wanted to put a good slant on it but the news was bad. “They are a very nice elderly couple, but everyone I called said no way”, was my opening. “They seem like a very hospitable pair and that might be our only option.” I had actually blurted out the only thought I had on what we might do. I hadn’t even thought it through myself. I suppose that if you are standing on the edge of cliff overlooking water, and there is an angry mob of man-eating savages running towards you, it is probably easy to come to a conclusion. My mind had already reflexively come to that point. The water, that is Jim and Agnes’ house, was our only choice.
Having broached the subject without thinking it through, I had to do some quick explaining. “I don’t see any way out of this except asking if we can stay there tonight”, I started. “They really did seem like nice people and I’m sure they realize what kind of predicament we are in”, I continued. Mike backed me up immediately, “it certainly won’t hurt to ask”. Bear and Terry looked at each other and rolled their eyes. I wasn’t sure if it was due to their distaste of the idea or whether they were skeptical about it actually happening. “Well, let’s go see what they say”, said Bear. We bundled up and started on our way. Shane was also coming along.

The walk to the house was against the wind again. We all had our heads down as we drudged through the snow. The wind was really howling. I was a bit in front of the others as we approached the house. As I stepped onto the driveway, there was a violent blue flash that looked like it came from the wire that ran from the telephone poll to the house. With that flash, all the lights in house went out simultaneously. Just like that, literally in a flash, the power in their house was gone. My heart sank and stomach got queasy immediately. Here we were, four strangers and a dog, getting ready to ask this elderly couple if we could stay in their house overnight, and the power goes kaput. I knew instantly they would be extremely nervous at best and probably dead set against it now. We were already at the driveway and I was at least going to ask.
I approached the front door with the others standing behind me holding the dog. This time I knocked gingerly making sure I didn’t spook them. The door opened so slowly that their reluctance was already evident. The two sets of eyes peering out at me were perceptibly different than my first visit less than an hour earlier. I had a very uncertain feeling thinking about their reaction to seeing all of us standing there. “Jim, Agnes, I started, we have no where to go. We don’t know what to do. I really hate to impose, but was wondering if we can stay here tonight”. I had stated my piece quickly, completely and with a sincere element of pathos in my voice. We were stuck and they knew it. It was their call but I realized they were probably very scared. If they had said no, I wouldn’t have surprised or blamed them. The door shut as they asked me to hold on. About 60 seconds or so had passed but it seemed like an eternity. The others were asking me what was going on. I told them they were probably talking it over. Nobody said anything further. The door finally opened and Jim said, “You four can stay but no dog.” “Ok, I said, we will take care of the dog first.”
I thought Bear would be very upset and might even decline to stay. I didn’t get a real sense about his attachment to Shane or how he would feel about this turn of events. My fears were quickly dispelled as he announced that he would bring the dog back to be car. “He’ll be fine as long as he is inside the car. Let’s hope it is driveable tomorrow”, he said. I understood he meant the inside and Shane’s nervous reaction to being left alone- not whether the engine would turn over. We were all very relieved. I asked Terry whether this would upset Bear and he assured me we would have known if Bear felt badly. “Believe me, he would have said something if he didn’t feel this was safe for the dog”, Terry said. We waited outside as a group until Bear returned.
We knocked on the door on Bear’s return. Jim opened the door and we walked into the hallway, which was now adorned with candles. I felt compelled to bring up the subject of the power. “Bad timing for you to lose your electricity”, I said. I was hoping that addressing it up front would allay their fears that we were responsible for it happening. Agnes said it wasn’t uncommon for that to happen, which made me feel better. “Are you boys hungry”, she asked. I was taken aback by the graciousness they were extending us. They had very modest surroundings and were probably on some type of fixed budget, but they were still offering us what they could. “I know I’m hungry”, Mike said. We all concurred and made our way into the kitchen. Mike was never shy about accepting food and this foreign setting wouldn’t unnerve his iron stomach.

I wasn’t expecting gourmet looking at the surroundings and realizing there was no power. In fact, I was wondering what they had in mind at all. This was going to take some creativity or we were in for something unusual. It turned out to be a combination of both. Jim emerged from the cellar with a flashlight holding what looked like a can. He said we could use this sterno to heat up Spam. Trying very hard not to look ungrateful and not knowing what the others were thinking, I fought hard not to say something along the lines that we didn’t want to impose. I had never actually had Spam. I had only heard jokes and put downs regarding this product. Mystery meat was among the more civil names I had heard associated with it. Dog food represented a closer designation and other names would require a thesaurus specializing in off color words. To put things in perspective though, we were all very hungry and had been eating in a college cafeteria recently. Food at Niagara was not prison camp bad, but our palettes had certainly been compromised.
  Agnes was busy peeling carrots while Jim prepared the sterno and began heating the Spam. We were seated around the kitchen table by candlelight. Here were two elderly hosts working diligently to make us more comfortable after just meeting us within the hour. I couldn’t help but wonder how many people would have dealt with us in a similar manner. I felt a genuine rush of love for these people. Agnes said she hoped we wouldn’t mind raw carrots and pulled a bag of potato chips out of a cupboard. Jim was finishing with the Spam. Mike asked if he could help and Agnes motioned to another cupboard where there were dishes and cups. Mike asked if they were going to be joining us. Agnes said, “no, you boys go ahead and eat. Jim and I ate earlier.” It was the moment of truth.
  Jim cut slices of Spam for each of us while Agnes distributed the carrots and we passed around the chips. Agnes asked if we all wanted milk to drink. I cut my Spam, which had the coloring and consistency of ham. I brought the fork up slowly to my mouth and guided it in cautiously. Well, surprisingly, not too bad. A little spicier than ham but the flavor was very acceptable. I looked around the table to judge the others feelings. The heads were down in a decidedly business like manner that meant everyone was making the best of it and appreciating the food. This was going very well.
  We ate quickly and everyone cleared their plates. We began a serenade of thanks for the food, but in reality, the whole gravity of the situation was catching up with us. We were more relaxed now and able to put this in some kind of context. We would be safe for the evening and not go hungry. We were with two gracious and special people who had taken us into their home. My fears about the car, the weather and what we would possibly do had completely dissipated. Jim asked us to join him in the living room. You could feel the warmth immediately entering at room. He had a wood stove that was cranking out some welcomed heat. There was a recliner and a small couch, which fit nicely in this small room. We all sat on the floor around the wood stove while Jim settled into the recliner. We could hear Agnes cleaning up in the kitchen as we relaxed and began to chat.

  Jim started things off asking about school. We gave him the overview of Niagara University and he was somewhat familiar with its history. We were still less than two hours away from campus and Niagara had a good reputation in Western New York. He knew of its Catholic affiliation and the successful basketball program. He looked around the room and said, “I don’t suppose any of you guys play on that team?” I wasn’t sure if he was making an assessment of our relative height, our skin pigmentation or whether it was just a throwaway conversational line. Bear couldn’t resist, or wanted to make a social commentary on the team. “Wrong size and wrong color”, was his rather simplified explanation. I felt compelled to take exception and let Jim have a more realistic idea the actual makeup of that squad. “There are about white five guys on the team, but only two play any significant minutes”, I corrected. I was hoping that my next comment might keep Bear in line and keep things on a positive note. “We have a very tolerant campus atmosphere. Mike and I have some black students on our floor and we all get along fine.” Agnes had finished in the kitchen and had joined us by sitting on the couch.
  I asked Jim about his family situation. He mentioned while motioning to a wall full of pictures that they had three children. Agnes got off the couch and made her way to the family pictures. She continued Jim’s introduction by showing us each of their children, who were all older than us, making her way along the wall to their grandchildren. There were quite a few kids who were now third generation. Agnes regretted that the closest child now lived about an hour away. Jim mentioned that it was difficult to travel that far which meant his other grandchildren were probably even further away. There was a tone of pride when they talked about each family and their history and accomplishments. Having her discuss these accomplishments with obvious pride made me feel better after the melancholy I sensed about the proximity and lack of contact they had indicated just minutes ago. They had gone on for close to a half-hour, but their obvious love and eagerness to talk made it interesting to us.
  It had gotten quite late at that point. Jim could probably see that our slumping postures meant we were ready to crash any time. “You guys must be ready for some sleep I suppose”, he said. I almost think we had become a nice distraction for them on what would have probably been just another quiet night. I think they actually enjoyed our company and were glad to have us. It wascertainly in contrast to what they felt when we initially knocked on the door. Agnes brought out some raggedy blankets and pillows. I don’t think they did a lot of entertaining and I also understood these were people of meager means. There was enough heat from the stove to keep us sufficiently warm and the blankets would serve as makeshift beds. They bade us goodnight and we extinguished all the candles except one large one, which gave us enough light to make out profiles. We could hear the door of their bedroom shut moments later.
  Although we were all next to exhaustion, there had to be some conversation around our bizarre excursion. Mike started out by commenting on our luck, “These have to be the nicest two people we could have ever hoped to meet.” Terry continued along those lines, “I still can’t believe they actually let us in.”

  Bear had not uttered a remotely positive word about mankind during the short time I had been in his company. When he started to talk, I was almost fearful he would find something negative about this experience. “I actually liked the Spam, he offered, I’ll never tell anyone I had it though.” I suppose that was the best he could do without completely breaking character. I had to try and sum up my thoughts on our situation in as few a words as possible as eyes were closing. “I wouldn’t have wanted to go anywhere else tonight and I feel privileged to know these people. Night fellas.”
  I assumed everyone slept like I had because I was the first stir and felt like I had emerged from a coma. The power had obviously come on as I could smell coffee and saw lights coming from the kitchen. The curtains were drawn open on a window in the hallway and I could see brilliant sunshine. I looked at my watch and it was almost 8 a.m. We had slept about nine hours straight. Jim came into the room with some news. “I hope you don’t mind, but I called a service truck for you. I told them to bring an alternator belt for the make and model of your car. I would have opened the hood but your dog was barking pretty loudly.” Bear perked up quickly, “Did he look ok?” “I think he is just fine”, Jim responded. I was thinking to myself, what more can he do to help us? It was quickly answered. “Agnes has some breakfast ready if you boys are hungry”, he offered. I’m going to bring the snow blower down to your car and start getting it out. The plow piled you in pretty good”, he said walking away. Mike said, “Somebody pinch me, this guy is a saint.”
  We were treated to a wonderful breakfast including eggs, bacon, pancakes, juice and coffee. Jim announced the arrival of the service truck and Bear promptly rose from the table, said thanks, and followed Jim outside. They were back within fifteen minutes. I knew we were short on cash and was wondering how we would handle paying the driver. Luckily, the driver was aware of our predicament and accepted just the cost of replacement alternator belt that was all we needed. The events of the previous night and the storm had given way to better spirits and a bright sunny day. We would be on our way in no time with suitable traveling weather.
It has been twenty years since we went through that experience. I have told that story on so many occasions it is always fresh in my memory. There are certain experiences you have in life that can never be forgotten. This is one that will never leave my memory. Twenty years later, it still gives me goosebumps when I think about it.



Copyright © 2002 Joseph Patrick McGrath McGrath
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