The Born Again Car
"l pledge $300," one hand goes up, then another, "Four hundred." Nudged by his wife, Mr. Friesen reluctantly raises his arm, "$200." "I know you had a good crop of grapes this year," Rev. Hubert swiftly admonishes from the pulpit. "We need a whole train-car of raisins from you." Shame-faced, Mr. Friesen agrees. In 30 minutes the California farmers pledge enough proceeds from their crops to buy a spanking new, black station wagon for our family. How grand! We will return to the mission field in India in style and the congregation of the Reedley, California Mennonite Church will be a big step closer to Heaven.
We just have time to break in the car before we sail from San Francisco. Dad and Paul build a wooden rack on top for the luggage, I vomit in the back seat, and Grace brings us near death practicing her driving. The new car is ready for its journey to the other side of the world, past China and Singapore, through oceans, and on to the heathen land.
As we say tearful good-byes at the dock, Dad futilely runs up and down the dock shouting orders, but grows silent when the new car is wrapped in a large net, lifted by crane, and deposited in the bowels of the S. S. Marine Swallow. We are off! During the next four weeks while we dash about the ship getting into as much trouble as is possible on this troupe ship, the car slumbers in the hold. But Dad enjoys worrying so slips down into the dark, dank chamber to check. Every day the report is the same; the new car is doing just fine. God is with us and our precious car, for sure. Well, of course, since most of southern California and some folks in Minnesota are on their knees praying for us!
Life at the mission station on the hot Indian plains generally moves slowly, but things sure pick up when we arrive with the new car. Dad erects a special shed in which to house the wagon, purchasing a padlock to keep it safe. Petrol is scarce but on occasion Dad announces he is going to "get the car out." What a clamor this raises! The entire compound rushes to watch. Annoyed with the chattering and unsolicited advice, Dad directs five school-boys armed with large sticks to chase out the rats nesting in the car. That done, he slowly backs out. Women screech and clutch their children who wrench free and dare one another to touch the moving vehicle. Then another group of boys rush forward to brush away the dust that has turned the black car to brown. Everything ready, Dad announces where he is going??to the train station, or to Hyderabad City 40 miles and 4 hours away, or to another mission station. This sets off a new hullabaloo. "I need to visit a friend who lives near the train station," or "My mother is dying and lives near the city," or "I need to see the doctor at Jorchela." So fifteen or 16 are packed into the car, six or eight on the running boards, and two young boys on the back bumper, grinning triumphantly at their friends. The car zooms down the drive, but, rounding a curve, the two bumper travelers fall off and run home, laughing and boasting of their daring escapade. Dad mutters something about making a rule against taking people along and bounces out of the compound and down the dusty road.
Driving in India is like having one's personal roller coaster. Where there are roads the surface resembles grandma's washboard, where there aren't we bump along the narrow paths made by ox carts, and in some places there are no roads at all. But the last five miles into the city are paved, so we eagerly watch the speedometer?? 10, then 20 miles an hour! The wind blasts our faces as we hang our heads out the windows, whizzing past ox carts, camels, and elephants. The natives stop just to watch, open-mouthed, and I feel just a bit superior and then feel guilty for it.
Bridges being a rarity, getting stuck crossing the occasional river or stream is almost guaranteed. Then we just wait for the next cart to come along, hitch the oxen to the front fender, and pay the owner for pulling us out. Meanwhile, we are allowed to wade in the water as long as we watch for snakes and scorpions. Wading is also permitted when the car springs a flat. We search out a stream so that Dad can submerge the inner tube, find where the air fizzles out of the puncture, and patch it.
Driving at night in our new car is more exciting than watching movies. We travel alone in the darkness with just our headlights to guide the way. Twinkling pinpoints of light from oil lamps in far distant villages add a sense of mystery. We silently peer out the windows at snakes, insects, and even an occasional tiger caught in the beam of our headlights. Finally, the bouncing car lulls me to sleep and Dad lovingly carries me to bed when we get home. These are the best times of all.
Time to go touring, Dad announces to Mom. She sighs and asks him to take Joanne and me along; she needs a rest. Dad and the carpenter have built a small house on wheels to pull behind the car so that we can comfortably travel from village to village preaching the gospel and saving souls. The trailer house has bunks and even a small stall where we pour water over our heads to wash off. Evenings the cook makes a wood fire in the dirt to cook a little curry and Dad lights the Coleman lantern, hangs it high, and waits. The light attracts crowds and bugs alike. Then Dad preaches, the bugs buzz, the people listen, and Joanne and I fall asleep. These are good times too.
Uncle John Wiebe gets one of his grand ideas. The children need to be brought home from boarding school for Christmas break so why not fetch them with our new car? It is only 500 miles away and saves train fare. The journey back is a two-week adventure. The back seats were left behind to make room for us 12 children; the four adults squeeze into the front seat. No room for shoes or topees (hats) so these are crammed into pillowcases and tied to the back bumper. Luggage is secured on the car's roof. Paul and John claim seats on the hood over the headlights and warn of potholes or slow moving ox carts ahead.
Packed in tighter than seeds in a papaya, we alternately whine, cry, or fight so Uncle John tells us an endless stream of stories. "Tell it again," we cry when he tells the story of the boy who was chased through a graveyard one dark night, only to discover that it was his own corduroy pants that swished, sounding ever so much footsteps. At night we throw a tarp on the ground, lie down, and fall asleep, too weary to worry about snakes or scorpions. Not to worry, God and our new car are nearby.
The car serves us so well that we begin to take it for granted. But all this changes in one single, disastrous moment . The new car, rather than bumping along dusty, rutted trails, has suddenly plunged to the bottom of a deep river and become a death-trap.
We soon learn the terrible story. Mom, two of my sisters, and the missionary Kasper family who were on their way to escort us home from boarding school for our annual winterbreak approached the Krishna River but found no bridge. Instead, paying a small fee, the new car and a heavy lorry were allowed to board a large barge tied to the side of a ferryboat. They crossed the river safely but just as they were preparing to disembark, the car and the lorry became unbalanced. The barge tipped, spilling the vehicles and their passengers 30 feet down to the bottom of the murky river. Mother, six-month old Lois, and 12-year-old Joanne escaped through a back window, floated up, and were rescued by fishermen. Mr. Kasper and one son standing on the deck swam to shore, but for Mrs. Kasper and their other son, caught in the door, the car became their tomb.
The funerals are dispensed with quickly due to the heat and attention turns to the new car that is being resurrected from the deep. The sight of our old friend only adds to our grief. Seeping water, the poor car is filled with mud, beaten, and dented. The upholstery already smells of decay. Must we bury this dear friend as well? "No," says Dad. "We'll ship it to Madras. Maybe, just maybe, it can be repaired." So we travel home and wait.
Two months later, on our way back to school, we stop by the repair shop in Madras to check on our old friend. The engine is in pieces on the floor. Beside it are springs, the skeletal remains of the seats. "Yes," says the chief mechanic, vigorously nodding his head and smiling, "It will be ok. It will be done in six months time, for certain." "Good as new," he promises, shaking our hands. We sigh and smile with relief. And sure enough, six months later our beloved car, now born-again, is ready for whatever adventures lie ahead and for all I know, it is still bouncing along the rutted roads of the Indian plains.
Our Car and the Krishna River
It was late afternoon and the sun was low in the horizon when the pilot of the towboat ordered us to return to our van on the barge. Since there was no bridge across the Krishna River on our route, we had driven our van onto the barge, then climbed on the towboat for the trip across. A large, overloaded lorry was also being transported across. Now the barge was to be disconnected and pushed to shore.
Mom, Loey (a few months old) and I (age 12) were traveling with the Kasper family: Julius and Linda Kasper and their sons, 6-year-old Jackie and 4-year old Julius. We were on our way to see a mission doctor about Mrs. Kasper's health problems and some dizzy spells I was having. The Kaspers had decided that it would be easiest to use our van since it held more passengers. It had three seats, with windows in the front and middle that could be opened. Dad had added a sizable rack on top, which was accessible by a metal ladder that crossed the right middle window. Our family had traveled many miles in this vehicle back in the States and many more in India. Now our journey to see the missionary doctor was almost at an end.
Obeying the pilot's instructions, Mom got into the middle seat of the car, holding Loey. I climbed into the back seat and pushed a space for myself among the bedrolls and suitcases. Mrs. Kasper put Julius in the middle of the front seat and started to get in, while Mr. Kasper, Jackie and the lorry driver waited on the deck of the barge. Suddenly the barge began to tilt as it was being pushed toward the shore with long poles. With the weight of the overloaded, imbalanced lorry, there was no second chance. The tilt became a full pitch, and our car and the lorry slid into the river.
All windows were open, so the car quickly filled with water. The first sensation I had was that time suddenly slowed down. The sunlight disappeared, replaced by the murky water that filled all the air space around me. My body floated free of the bedrolls. I couldn't see Mom or Loey. I remember seeing light through the rear window and thinking that I was dying and would soon know what Helen looked like. I don't remember being scared.
One last memory etched itself into my foggy brain--the feeling of metal bars under my hands. I have no memory of a plan or of any purposeful action on my part; yet some subconscious part of my brain must have taken over and I managed to pull myself out of the car. When I came to the river's surface, I still had no clear understanding of what was occurring. I began swimming, and then felt myself being pulled up into a boat. I was hanging on to my glasses tightly and was focused on not losing them.
The fishermen that rescued me took me back to the barge. Arms reached down and pulled me up. Mom came running over and hugged and hugged me, squishing Loey between us. She was crying. Mr. Kasper and Jackie were standing at the edge of the barge, peering out at the now-quiet river. Mrs. Kasper and Julius were missing. Divers had been sent down to see if they could find them, but by now the sun was setting and the search in these crocodile-infested waters had to be postponed until daybreak.
On our way to the missionary doctor's compound, Mother told me she had grabbed Loey as soon as the water started coming into the windows, and had managed to pull herself out of the window as the car was going down. Unable to swim, she had held Loey up as high as she could when she neared the surface. Someone on the barge saw Loey and grabbed her, and another person dove in to save Mom. Even knowing she couldn't swim, she tried to go back into the river to save me, but was held back.
At the compound, kind missionaries took us in, gave us warm clothes and a place to sleep. Any sleep we managed to get was full of nightmares and the feeling of drowning. I'm sure Mr. Kasper never slept, waiting for the sun to rise. In the morning he and the doctor went back to the river as the divers continued their search. They found Mrs. Kasper in the front of the car. Her sandal had been caught in the right front door as it slammed shut during the fall, making it impossible for her to get free. Little Julius was found in the middle of the front seat. The bodies were brought to the compound and prepared for the funeral.
I don't remember much about the funeral. I still couldn't believe this had happened. I do remember it seemed so fast to have to say goodbye to people and bury them immediately. The missionaries must have contacted Dad during the night, because he got there in time for the funeral. He kept hugging Mom, Loey and me and thanking God we were alive. I don't remember traveling home. I don't remember much of the next month or two, when the rest of my siblings came home for Christmas vacation. I do remember having to drink raw liver juice for the severe anemia the doctor had diagnosed; Mom added tomato juice to it, thinking that would make it taste better but it didn't. And I do remember that the folks in our compound were so amazed that Mom and Loey had escaped the car. Loey soon became known as "Mosesama" since she had been brought out of the water. Somehow no one seemed to notice that I had survived too.
Life was a blur for quite a while. Partly this was from the trauma of the accident. Partly it was because I felt so responsible for the deaths of two people. Now Mr. Kasper had lost his wife and son, and Jackie had lost his mother and little brother. I felt so guilty for being ill, resulting in the Kasper's decision to join us on this trip. I was determined not to let anyone know if I felt ill anymore since something else bad could happen. It wasn't until much later when I was again experiencing anemia that I learned that the dizziness I had experienced when I was twelve was likely connected to this condition, compounded by puberty and living at a high elevation. This helped a bit, but I never quite overcame this sense of guilt at the deaths of Mrs. Kasper and Julius.
As I think back at this accident, I'm aware that there were two unusual occurrences in our survival. For one thing, the left middle window Mom got out of with Loey would have been blocked once the car hit the bottom since the car came to rest on that side. The front right window would have been inaccessible because that is where Mrs. Kasper was caught. The only opening that offered escape after the car settled was the narrow middle window with the ladder covering much of it. An adult like Mom could never have gotten through that alone, much less with a baby in her arms. Evidently, though, a skinny kid like me could get through since that must have been how I escaped. The other extraordinary occurrence was that Mom and Loey came up right next to the barge--not farther away where people might not have seen Loey as she was held up, and not under the barge, which would have meant certain death. I was the one to come up farther downstream, but I could swim and there were fishermen's boats nearby.
I learned something important from this experience. As I look back, I remember that facing death wasn't frightening to me. It felt peaceful and I was curious about what was coming next. I think that's how it will feel when my time actually does come.