Radiator holes and ham make for a great day

There we were – my mother and I – driving in the old brown van on the way to Kearney. It was the day, the day I was to leave home and go to college.

Sure, I was excited about the opportunity and the adventure ahead – but it was hard. Since my father passed away, my family had become a special team and I was one of the captains. We all had a role – mine was caregiver to the multitudes lower in age than me. But I also had a role of being my mother’s friend.

To say we liked each other as people, I think, is an understatement. She was one of those rare people who could let you be who you are, yet she was always trying to point us to the straight path. With seven of us wiggling around the path, that was no small task.

But it was now the morning for me to go – fly the coop, leave the nest, spread my wings and every other bird term that exists.

So we headed for the Sandhills – those miles and miles of nothing but Nebraska desert riddled with cacti and a few cowboys, until we would eventually reach Kearney. Halfway through the barren expanse, the matriarch commented how the van seemed to be getting hot. The temperature gauge was definitely moving, in a direction we didn’t want to see. Higher and higher . . .

The next town was just a few miles away and the pouring steam was more than just an indicator it was time for us to stop. The brown van was saying the end of the road was near.

So we pulled into a tiny town and looked for a service station. Right on main street, a big metal sign proclaimed “(Somebody) and Son Could Get It Done.” They were our people.

With a dip of Copenhagen and a swipe of a dirty hand across his nose, a very tall man dressed in oily coveralls headed for the injured vehicle.

“Well, heck, you’ve got a hole in your radiator,” he exclaimed. “Isn’t that the darndest thing? It’s pretty big, too. This is going to take a while.”

Our itinerary didn’t have car repairs listed. The plan was to get to Kearney, unload my junk, cry for an hour and then Mom would be on her way home – back in time to get the kids from school and be in the barn milking by 5 p.m.

“I don’t have a radiator on hand,” he said. “I’ll have to send the boy for one and that’s going to take a little time. But you really don’t have any other choice.”

There we were, in a town of about 250 or so. I’m not really sure. What were we to do?

With no vehicle, we decided to walk down the street to a café in a grey/blue metal building. They were open, the sign said. The street was lined with pickups, complete with rifle racks in the back windows and Black Labs pacing in the boxes.

As the door creaked open and the screen door slammed, the obvious out-of-towners stuck out like a sore thumb. The regulars, sitting around their big round tables, drinking coffee – well, they didn’t know what to make of us.

Every eye watched our every move and it was so quiet you could hear the ice crack in the water glasses.

We sat down and Mom gave me a wink, while I fidgeted with a menu that listed grits as an item.

We ordered omelets and ice tea – a man with a John Deere hat leaned over to our table and said the ones with ham were the best.

“They make the best ham here,” he said.

So ham it was. Why argue with an expert?

“Yep, not sure what they do with it, but around here, we eat a lot of ham because it’s just so doggone good.”

When the plates arrived, everyone stared at us to see what we thought of the amazing ham. And they were right – one bite and we were hooked. It was the best ham either of us had ever tasted. Salty, sort of sweet. Fantastic, we told them.

That broke the ice. Apparently, since we liked the ham which made them famous, we were in. We spent the next few hours hearing about how Clyde broke his hip but the doctor was able to put a few pins in, to hold him together.

We heard that Wilma was diabetic and would be right back – she needed to run home and take her medication.

And there was John, who said the world was going to hell in a handbasket and the government was corrupt.

Can’t forget Leroy, who said John was paranoid and needed to get out a little more.

Max, the apparent “silent partner” of the establishment, got up several times to call the service station for a report on the repairs. Eventually, Mr. Radiator told him to stop calling because he was slowing down the process. But he was sure he’d have us on our way by mid-afternoon.

The time factor didn’t matter anymore. The itinerary was out the window. With nothing else to do and nowhere else to go, we decided to make the best of it.

We laughed, played cards and talked. My mom told the group how she was taking her firstborn to college – Gladys swiped a few tears from her eyes. Her husband, Stan, was even touched. Leroy said he was excited for me and for Mom because she’d have one less kid in the house.

As we talked about life, love, arthritis, quilting and milking cows, I told them how I wanted to be a journalist. Several women topped my mom for record-breaking numbers of children and horrifying childbirth stories.

Eventually, it was time for lunch. Again, they recommended the ham. So around the tables came the plates. We sampled ham and scalloped potatoes, grilled ham and cheese with the best pickles. There was ham and bean soup, of course, but we opted to stay away from the gas.

Sure, we could have ordered burgers and hot beef, but since the ham was recommended and we were now fitting in, we decided to stay with something tried and true.

As we ate apple pie that afternoon, well into our sixth hour of conversation, we both realized what a wonderful day it had been. This was probably the first time I had ever been alone with my mother without the other six siblings. And this was one of those rare moments I got to see her just be Cheri, just a woman having a conversation with other people. We weren’t in a hurry, we were just enjoying the time and “our last day of me being a kid.”

When Mr. Radiator came to tell us the van was fixed, we were actually disappointed. It was time to go back to reality. We hugged Clyde, Stan, Gladys and Leroy. Max had gone home to take a nap. They wished us good luck and said they were so happy to have met us.

What a wonderful treasure that day was – when my mom was just another person, when time stood still and we got to spend it together.

We were so fortunate there were no radiators in that town . . . and that they made the best ham. Coincidence? I don’t think so.

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