Derecho, or Out of Gas in Fairfield

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     Derecho. That’s what the weather gurus called it. And soon that unfamiliar word was on everyone’s lips. It was sensational. That unique weather phenomenon consisted of a dry, hot, widespread and intense windstorm whooshing across a substantial part of the country. It occurred in the middle of the hot summer of 2012, and it made quite an impression.

      That derecho included southwest Virginia in its mischief making and caused lots of trees to be toppled, branches to be strewn, and in turn resulted in widespread power outages. As many well remember, Roanoke was hit hard and for much of a week thousands of homes were dark, air conditioners silent in the stifling air.

     Marybeth and I missed the initial excitement of the derecho, since we were attending a family reunion in Tidewater. The tentacles of the storm, though far-reaching, had missed that end of the state. Anyway, the heat we’ve experienced in Roanoke here lately reminds me of all that, and of a little adventure we had at the time.

     It happened that Marybeth and I were scheduled to help serve communion at church on the Sunday after the derecho passed through, so before dawn on that morning we left the cabin in the east to make it across the state and to church on time. 

     Traveling east on I64 we turned south when we reached I-81 at Staunton. It was beautiful on that July morning and traffic was light. Marybeth was cat napping in the seat next to me and I was day dreaming when I noticed the gas gauge. The needle was teasing the empty mark.

     I pulled off at the Edelweiss Restaurant exit and was surprised to find that the power was out and the stores were all closed. That meant no gas pumping at either of the two stations so no fuel for the thirsty Honda. At one of the establishments we met a local, a middle-aged woman wearing less clothes than perhaps she ought. She said that the power was out “way up and down the valley.” With a ‘hmmm’ we pulled back onto the interstate and nursed the Civic south. The little orange low fuel light was by then broadcasting full time. That meant we had about 30 miles before dead-in-the-water status.

     When I exited at Fairfield hopes were high that we could find some go-juice, especially since the combo McDonalds and Shell station parking lot showed lots of activity, even cars at the fuel pumps. Yay! Unfortunately, the scene was misleading. Yes, there were people, travelers, milling about but there was no power in Fairfield either and therefore, again, no way to get gas, not to mention even an Egg McMuffin.

     Rats, we were kind of stuck there in Fairfield, the admirable qualities of the town notwithstanding. With sufficient petrol to get us only a short piece down the valley and with little to nil hope of finding accessible gas that close by we sat and contemplated or, more accurately for my part, anxiously fidgeted. We were further bugged about missing serving communion, something we are only asked to do once per year. You’d think we could at least reliably show up for that.                 

     Oh well, such as it was. Marybeth stayed with the car while I took a stroll through Fairfield to plan our next move. It was quiet; still early on Sunday morning, and nobody was around beyond the activity of the out-of-action gas station/fast food place. I ended up at a house on top of a hill on the edge of the village. I remembered that a former patient of mine whom I hadn’t seen in years once owned a house in Fairfield and although pretty unlikely, “This might be the place.” There were no vehicles around it, and not only did it look like no one was home on that day, it appeared that nobody had been around in quite some time.

    I took a notion to knock on the door. I waited a few minutes but got no answer. I rapped again and gave up. But I had an idea. I wandered around the side of the rambling old clapboard farmhouse and into the overgrown backyard, and there I spied my quarry. An old lawn tractor was parked up against the rear of the house under a deteriorating shed roof. And yes, there was a red gasoline can sitting next to it. 

     When I grabbed the handle of the jug it jumped into the air, clearly conveying the message that it was practically empty. Hmm, I wasn’t giving up just yet though. I unscrewed the gas cap of the tank of the mower itself and found the reservoir almost full! I scavenged an old rusty hinge-cum-screwdriver and with it I unscrewed the hose clamp on the fuel line and jiggled loose the tube from where it attached to the mower’s carburetor. Then, with the various components held just so, I transferred the precious liquid into the plastic jug. With treasure in hand I hoofed it back to Marybeth and the car. No officers of the law confronted me on the way, but if one had my explanation would have been a big shrug and a sheepish grin.

      After the transfusion of the vintage mower fuel into the gullet of the Honda Civic we took off south again with what I optimistically hoped to be a range of about 50 miles.

     It turned out to be enough. We made it to the outskirts of Roanoke and found the power on and gas for the getting. Even though we didn’t make it in time to serve communion at church, our friends covered for us and it worked out fine. And more importantly, we experienced a different kind of communion that day, the grace of God and his children who ever -even indirectly- provide for us in what’s often simple, everyday fashion. 

     A week later I replaced the gas can, full, at the Fairfield house. Still nobody home. And I have yet to know who owns the place. I guess I could’ve left a note of gratitude for lending us the gas, but I didn’t. I did, however, take to heart once more the importance of helping each other in ways great and small, simple and complex. 

     How else can one get through this life if not for the helping hand of Christ, or other universal creator, lent through motley creatures like me and you?

Johnny Robinson