Tom Yoder’s Coefficient of Friction

tom yoder's coefficient of frictionThunk!

I was pulling away from a stop sign midway between Coeur d’Alene and Spokane when the driveshaft snapped in two. A loud thunk, then the motor revving wildly for a moment until I got off the gas and shut the ignition down. The steering wheel locked and I coasted into the middle of the intersection. Cars drove around me unhurried as I crawled down to check the damage. I couldn’t see the driveshaft. Feeling blindly along it, hot twisted metal cut and burned my fingers. I stood up.


One aquamarine 1972 Volvo Wagon. Driveshaft and front u-joint twisted and broken. Eastern Washington, near Spokane. Fortunately, also near a phone booth. In those days they were everywhere.

Of course I’d been asking for it. For hundreds of miles there’d been a thumping noise whenever I accelerated from a standing start. It thumped like a dog’s foot hitting the floor as it scratches itself. A big dog. The thumping died down as the car gained speed, and it ran normally on the highway. I let the problem fester, if only to keep boredom at bay. Breakdowns had become my entertainment. My trip was turning out all wrong.

I had imagined a journey, some modest adventure on which I might meet people in places I’d never live and learn something about life. I was driving home from college, visiting friends and family along the way and hoping to see the world. The adventure and discovery segment was to be Route 2, an old narrow highway stretching from Wisconsin to Washington State across Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana and Idaho.

In retrospect, my plan was flawed from the start. I didn’t know anyone along Route 2. I had no plans to be in any once place for any length of time. I was too young to go into bars and not in the most socially adept part of my life. Meeting people was just not a realistic goal. And so it went. On the entire trip, I met just two strangers. Both were ex-cops. One quit being a reservation policeman when he found out he couldn’t smoke weed on duty. The other was the tow truck driver.

I had been stupid and lucky. The parking brake cable had caught the driveshaft as it fell. Otherwise, the front end of it could have dug into the asphalt, causing the back of the car to go pole vaulting over it before the axle twisted out. That kind of sport I didn’t need. But at least it was an obvious, tangible breakdown. For most of the trip I’d been beset with car trouble I could not find the source of.

I overhauled the carburetors in Appleton, WI and Havre, MT. I changed the plugs and wires, tuned and timed the ignition, adjusted the valves, and still, every so often the car would stumble and jerk like a spooked horse. It would run fine for an hour or more and then hardly run at all. I tried everything I knew at least twice and couldn’t fix it. When I finally got to Yakima, a second cousin nailed it immediately. The distributor advance weights were badly worn. But by then, Route 2 was the distant past.

Between the sudden, intermittent stumbling and the thumping driveshaft I had part of what I wanted from my trip all along–the unknown. So what if I was failing to connect with people or the land. At any moment, the car might stop working. I had a tape of the soundtrack to Das Boot and played it frequently to heighten the suspense. But when the driveshaft finally snapped, I could stop the tape. I wasn’t bored anymore. I was fully engaged.

The tow truck driver had it figured out. We talked all the way to Spokane, and at some point it came out he’d been a cop.

“That can’t be easy,” I opined, “Society asks you to put on a gun and—”

“Oh that’s all crap,” He interjected, “You’re just trying to get home at night.” He rose to his point. “It’s all about the coefficient of friction. It’s your tires on a wet road or a bullet in your Kevlar vest. It’s on your side or it’s not. It’s the only thing between you and getting home.”

The Volvo was my first car and on it I learned a lot about cars, ruining it thoroughly. But that was all mechanical knowledge. I’d taken the trip to gain experience of a different sort, which taught me that I couldn’t learn about a place by driving through it. I have to stop. This involves the coefficient of friction.

Tom Yoder

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