Darryl Levings: The little car that couldn’t visits Arkansas

07/05/2014 7:00 AM

07/05/2014 6:44 PM

It was back when both my bride and I were ill-paid journalistic larvae at The Star that we decided on a low-cost camping/canoeing trip on the Buffalo River in Arkansas.

We piled the tent, sleeping bags and Lady Brett of Inverness, our very classy Gordon setter, into the English MGB-GT and roared south. Somewhere around Carthage, Mo., we tanked up, let her ladyship do her stuff and continued the journey.

Down the road, oddly, the car sputtered and died ascending one of the nubby Arkansas mountains in heavy traffic. I managed to roll back down to a scenic overlook, where the motor roared to life again. Hmm, I thought, maybe Yorkie, our mechanic, who was practically on retainer, needed to tune the carbs.

But we made it into Lost Valley, cooked a little campfire supper. The sky lit up silently a few times. Heat lightning, I assured my bride. Looking forward to the next day’s float, we crawled inside the two-man Eureka, a luxury. (Background info: I’ve slept through a thunderstorm with just a sheet of plastic over me and proposed to my beloved under a snow-covered tarp at Bennett Springs, Mo.)

But floating came early. We woke when a third of the tent floor was inches deep in water. The dog scrabbled for high ground, which more or less meant my face. Driven out of its banks by a huge thunderstorm, the valley’s creek had joined us in our shelter. Fortunately, we’d pitched the tent high enough that we were not swept away.

By the next morning, the heavens were bankrupt of tears, as the poets say, but canoeing was out; The Buffalo was unnavigable. Instead, we drove the 20 or so miles to Harrison, the nearest sizable town, to throw our sopping bags into a coin dryer.

This accomplished, we loaded up the still warm bags and the appreciative Brett to go back to camp. We were on the town’s outskirts when the car went into paroxysms of coughing and wheezed to a stop. Flatlined. Could not be revived. So I hiked to a house, where the Yellow Pages confirmed that no one sold English roadsters in that part of the Boston Mountains. Imagine that. After a couple of calls, I arranged for a tow truck.

Presently, a cranky good ol’ boy and his girlfriend arrived. Turned out they were in a bad/sad mood. It was Aug. 16, 1977. Word just in from Memphis was that Elvis had left the big arena.

The tow guy sneered at Lady Brett. Said he wasn’t having no dog up in his cab. This was Arkansas, mind you.

So the elegant Brett (named after the Hemingway character) and I rode in back among the chains and hooks through Harrison. Our destination was a small colony of “damned hippies” who happened to run a garage. No, they really were hippies. Women in shapeless dresses, babies nearly bare-assed, the dudes waiting to be called up for the next Cheech and Chong film.

As the Number Uno Elvis fan unhooked the MG, he spat and offered that he wouldn’t let this bunch touch no damned car of his. And then the truck rattled off. If the radio hadn’t been playing “It’s cryin’ time again, you’re going to leave me,” it shoulda.

The stoners popped the hood and poked and tinkered. Fuel pump, they said. Ouch, I said. Can you even get one down here? They checked. An auto supply place had something that might work, but it was closing for the evening.

So we spent the night in a motel, no TV, no phone. And would you believe it, no mini-bar? Pretty cheap. The fuel pump, however, was not. Our vacation bills were adding up.

Next morning, we got out there as they were finishing. Cranked her up. VROOM VROOM! Took a test run up the steep hill nearby. VROOM, COUGH, GASP, silence. We rolled backward down the hill into the single repair bay.

Must be the filter, they said. Another trip into town, another stress fracture in our credit card. It was installed. VROOM VROOM! Another race up the ascent. COUGH, GASP. Rolled back down the hill. Again.

Well, let’s look at them there dual carbs, they said.

Do you have any idea what MG carburetors cost? I didn’t either, same as I didn’t know what diamond-studded watches cost. But I was pretty sure I couldn’t afford ’em.

I am not a mechanic. I don’t fix things. My role is to break things for others to fix and keep the economy moving. But for once, I figured something out.

No, let’s not, I said. Do the math: a non-functioning pump and fouled filter. Look at the bloody gas tank! They scrounged up a fountain Coke glass, and we opened the tank plug. What settled in the glass was pink high octane on top of what resembled Missouri River mud. Thank you, Carthage.

The next run to town was for a couple of cans of Heet and some fresh gas. This time VROOM VROOM meant VROOM VROOM. We paid the cannabis clan what was left of our travel cash, went back to camp and jammed everything back in the car for the drive home. The mood was similar to Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow, except the emperor still had a bit of cash under the mattress back in Paris.

So I suggested to my debtor-prison-bound partner in life that the map showed a state road that promised a pretty drive overlooking the river. Wouldn’t that be a nice way to end the trip?

As it turned out, the average state road in Arkansas in 1977 — pre-Walmart, pre-Tyson, apparently pre-roadgrader — was a little rougher than what we expect in Missouri. Might’ve called it a cow path, but our cows had better sense.

The Titanic couldn’t have done better. We hit a rockberg buried in the road surface. Rammed a hole in the header.

Do you have any idea how much an MG header costs?

To reach Darryl Levings, call 816-234-4689 or send email to levings@kcstar.com.

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