“So where can I get gas?” I asked the politely smiling elderly gentleman behind the store counter. He had brown eyes, wore heavy glasses and had a round moustache that drooped down almost all the way to his chin.
“I don’t know!” said the man in a pleasant sing song voice, as if he was trying to mock the whole world.
We were driving back from Munising in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan after a long day at the beautiful Pictured Rocks Lakeshore. I had run out of gas. It was past 8:30 pm. We still needed to drive another hour and a half to get to our vacation rental.
The sun sets late in this region and normally there is enough light until 10pm at this time in July, but the weather was getting bad and severe thunderstorms were expected. The phone reception was a bit patchy and it was hard to get the GPS to function reliably. We had found this store at the picturesque little town of Seney. But there was no gas at this gas station or the one on the other side of the intersection. In fact, we had already tried the other one before coming to this store.
“Is there a shortage of gas supply in this area?” I asked again, trying to understand the gravity of the situation. There was a long pause. The man was excruciatingly slow and measured with his responses.
“I don’t know!” said the man finally in the same sing song voice. His brown eyes looked at me kindly as if he was trying to pity me. His response was overly cryptic and honestly a bit annoying to me. Perhaps he was trying not to give me the bad news. He appeared to start closing the store for the day. I looked around to see if I could buy something just to get him to talk some more.
Animal furs, pelts and hides hung from the ceiling. Stuffed deer heads with antlers adorned the wall.
Suddenly there was a loud crack of thunder.
It was now getting darker and it had started to rain heavily. I shivered at the thought of spending the night in the car.
“Sir, when do you think you will have gas? I asked him respectfully - expecting to draw a less cryptic response this time. I could sense a hint of desperation in my own voice.
“I don’t know!” said the man again in the same voice. He now seemed to be gripping on to a wooden handle or something similar, while trying to move out of his place. I couldn’t see exactly what he was doing. I thought to myself he could be reaching for his gun. After all, this region had a lot of talented hunters, and he could be one of them.
That’s when I glanced at a little poster on the window that said: “An average 911 response here is 23 minutes. A gun shot travels at 1400 feet per second”. It’s just an ad for a gun, I consoled myself and tried to smile weakly.
The man seemed to read my thoughts. He cleared his throat and finally spoke very slowly: “How far do you need to go?”
I said we were going to Sault Ste. Marie.
He looked at me strangely.
Then he said: “You mean Soo Ste. Marie.”
I felt like an idiot.
I had said Sault as the word “salt”. It was a French word and had to be pronounced as “Soo”.
“Do you have at least a gallon left?” he asked quietly.
Now it was my turn to shrug my shoulders and say: “I don’t know!”.
All I knew was that the fuel indicator needle was almost approaching “E” on the dashboard, meaning the tank was running empty. There could be some reserve gas left, but I had no clue how much was left in the tank.
“What mileage do you get?” he continued to probe.
“I don’t know”, I shrugged again. I had not done such mental math for a long time. It could be anywhere between 10 miles per gallon to 40 miles per gallon depending on the road conditions.
He seemed to be thinking for a moment.
“Why do you ask”, I ventured.
“Well – you could drive to Newberry and try for gas there; it is 25 miles from here” he said looking out the window.
I was seriously weighing the uncertainty of the two alternatives in my mind. Either wait here until the gas truck arrived - for which there was no guarantee or venture out towards Newberry - where there was no guarantee of finding gas.
The clock ticked slowly towards the top of the hour. I think he wanted to close the store now.
“There’s my gas truck!” exclaimed the man suddenly, breaking my reverie.
He was now slowly shuffling towards the door. For the first time I realized that he was disabled and was walking slowly but steadily with his crutches.
“I have to ask you to move your car, so that the truck can come in”, he said while stepping out of the store to welcome the gas truck.
“Of course!” I mumbled with a huge sigh of relief.
When the gas truck arrived, the whole atmosphere changed. The young driver of the truck jumped out and greeted the store owner. Within minutes he had opened the main valve on the perimeter and was pumping gallons of the much awaited fuel underground, filling up all the thirsty pumps.
“Shall I go ahead and fill up now?” I asked the store person as soon as the refill was completed by the truck.
“Oh Yeah”, said the elderly man. He sounded cheerful and positive for a change.
I thanked him profusely and bowed out of his store. It was now pitch dark, but it had stopped raining. The road ahead glistened in the moonlight as I could hear several cars starting up in the neighborhood. The news of the arrival of the gas truck had spread like wildfire.