Traveling west in early summer 1970, we crossed the Kansas state line, emerging onto a private portion of the interstate with no speed limit. Having never driven over seventy miles per hour, I gently push the accelerator pedal on my '65 Ford Custom easing up to seventy and then to seventy- five. The engine whined but I continued to eighty. As the speedometer reached eighty-five, something popped under the hood. The engine shut down, not responding. Pulling onto the shoulder, we coasted to a stop.
This is probably a good time to tell you that when I took driver's education in high school, my teacher, also my football coach, did me a favor by putting me in a car with three attractive females. Practicing on our school's driving course was enjoyable. I even learned a little about driving. During a lecture on engine maintenance, however, my coach/teacher negated that favor by pointing out to everyone that if my car had a problem, any one of the girls in my car had a better chance of repairing it than I did. What made this embarrassing was that his assessment was true. My skills as a mechanic are nil.
Back in Kansas, I got out of the car and lifted the hood - I knew how to do that much. Beyond that, I was clueless. Fortunately, in only a short time, a state trooper stopped to help. Soon, we were being towed to Lawrence, KS and for a brief moment, it felt like we were going ninety miles per hour as we swayed behind the tow truck, which dropped us off at a private auto shop.
Like me, the mechanic was unsure of the problem. He did not instill confidence, telling me, "I just got out of the Air Force where I fixed planes." He further indicated that his auto mechanic experience was limited. Doubts about the wisdom of letting this guy work on my car crept into my mind, but I'm a trusting soul and I had limited options. Not knowing what else to do, I gave in and allowed him to take my engine apart. By day's end, engine parts were scattered about and the mechanic was no closer to determining the problem.
More background information would help at this point. In 1970, I was a young, poor graduate student heading to Reno, NV for a summer job. I had no credit card and had taken just enough cash out of my bank account before the trip to reach Reno and rent a place. This stop in Lawrence was not planned.
I asked for a recommendation of an inexpensive hotel. The mechanic's recommendation had minimal impact on my cash, but my wife and I were unprepared for the hotel's late night activities. People kept coming and going at all hours of the evening impacting our sleep. It was as if the hotel rented rooms by the hour, and during that hour, there was considerable headboard-against-the-wall action. So far, I was not impressed with Kansas.
After two nights in the hotel with one-hour rates, on the third day out mechanic had a "eureka" moment. "It's the timing gear," he said. Following this revelation came the arduous process of putting our engine back together. By the end of the day, we were back on the interstate heading west with a sizable dent in my cash reserve.
Almost immediately I noticed my clutch was slipping, not working properly. Everything else seemed fine, so I pressed on. Less than an hour after leaving Lawrence we approached Manhattan, KS. Suddenly, the oil light flashed red. Even I knew that was not a good thing.
As luck would have it, we were near an exit, which I took, stopping at the only gas station. There was no mechanic on duty, but there was a very helpful man slightly younger than us, working at the station. He told us we needed to take the car to the Ford dealer but that it was closed for the day. We would have to spend another night in Kansas!
Let me sum up our situation. We were isolated out by the interstate with only the gas station and farmer's fields as far as one can see, we had a car that could not be driven, we were almost out of money, and it was late in the day with most places closed. This is exactly what I told our new friend from the gas station. His response "Let me make a phone call. I have a friend who might be able to put you up for the night." That sounded good to me. I told you I was a trusting soul, plus I was feeling a little desperate. To protect my sanity, I had allowed my mind to slip into adventure mode - you know, don't worry, it's an adventure.
Maybe this would be a good time for a little more background information. The previous year, 1969, was monumental. I graduated from college, began graduate school, married, my father died and my wife's father declared bankruptcy. I couldn't ask my mother for money because I didn't think she had it to spare. Given my father-in-law's situation, I was reluctant to ask him for money. So when I say I was feeling a little desperate, I'm not just being dramatic.
"Good news, my friend will let you spend the night," the young man told us. I was starting to like Kansas. It can't be all bad. After all, Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz was from Kansas. "Come on, I'll give you a ride over to her place." We made arrangements for him to pick us up the next morning. I assumed that his friend was his girlfriend, maybe our age, probably living in an apartment. Imagine my surprise when we pulled up in front of a large wooden-framed house out in the country.
"Wait here." He exited the car and met a woman who looked to be about 30 years old. Inside the house were several young children. He spoke with her for a few minutes and then motioned us over. He introduced us to Millie, who graciously invited us in as our new young friend left. Millie introduced us to her kids; the only one I remember was the twelve-year-old girl. You will understand why later. Then she introduced us to her husband, who had just returned from Viet Nam. He was not happy to have us as guests in his home and I certainly could understand his viewpoint. Still he was polite.
Then we were introduced to the dog and a light-brown spider monkey, a pet the father brought back from Viet Nam. Millie apologized for the condition of her home explaining that they had just move in and were not settled yet. One thing that hadn't been completed was placing screens on the windows. This was the beginning of summer and it was already hot. Without air conditioning, all the windows were open sans screens.
I couldn't believe how many bugs there were in Kansas, especially moths. They were flying throughout the inside of the house. But what was really interesting was the monkey was jumping from furniture to doorframe to wherever it needed in order to catch the bugs and eat them. It was like watching poetry in motion. My wife didn't see the beauty in the monkey that I saw. In fact, she didn't seem to like the monkey at all.
Millie and family had just finished eating and offered us the extra spaghetti. As we ate at the kitchen table, a rather large moth for some odd reason took a nosedive into my wife's plate. Before she could react and complain about the additional protein that just landed, there was a flash of light brown as the spider monkey dashed onto the table. Its little hand darted onto my wife's plate and without disturbing one piece of spaghetti, artfully removed the moth and quickly popped it into its mouth. Then off it went chasing other bugs. I was very impressed as I continued to finish my meal. My wife, on the other hand, lost her apatite.
After a little polite conversation, I was ready for sleep. The nights at the hourly-rate hotel had not been restful. Millie showed us to her twelve-year-old daughter's bedroom offering a double bed with tall bedposts. I took a bath first and climbed into bed while my wife bathed. Because it was hot, I slept in a tee shirt and gym shorts, with only a sheet for cover. The bedroom light was off but the hall light was on, shining through the bedroom door just to the left of my head and the bed headboard.
As I lay there waiting for my wife to arrive, I heard something above my head. Looking up, I saw the dark outline of the monkey silhouetted by the hall light. It was hanging from the top of the doorframe looking down at me. This is interesting, I thought. As I watched, it leaped from the doorframe to the bedpost just above my head. My interest grew as the monkey slowly climbed down the bedpost onto the bed next to my pillow. I didn't move. Then it crawled under the sheet. As far as I knew, there were not bugs under the sheet. I was perplexed. The next thing I know, it was on my lower right leg. Still, I did not move. Slowly, it eased up to my thigh. If it gets any closer to my crotch, I'm going to have to do something, I thought. Concern was overtaking my curiosity.
But then it stopped and laid its head on my leg. I could feel its little hands flexing, gently grabbing my leg like a baker kneading bread. Instantly, I realized it was going to sleep, treating my leg like a tree limb. At this moment my wife entered the bedroom. She climbed into bed and pulled the sheet over her. "Uh, I need to tell you something." I said. "That monkey is sleeping on my leg." I'm a tease and she didn't believe me until she looked under the sheet. I can't remember her reaction; it's too long ago. All I know was that she kept her distance that night, maybe because it was so hot. More likely it was because of the monkey, who stayed on my leg until morning. I was very careful in my movements during the night so as not to disturb the little guy.
In the morning as we were eating breakfast, Millie mentioned that the monkey usually sleeps with her twelve-year-old daughter and she should have warned us we might have a visitor. My wife said nothing; she just looked around protecting her food. I told Millie it wasn't a problem for me and that I sort of enjoyed the experience. "It's a good thing you're a sound sleeper," Millie said, "because if you move suddenly while it is sleeping with you, the monkey will pee all over you." I guess I'm glad I didn't know that last night, I thought. Anyway, it didn't matter; my sleeping with the monkey was going to be a one-night stand.
Millie and family and the young man really helped us in our time of need. With my car at the Ford dealer, we would have to spend one more night in Kansas. At this point we called my wife's parents who wired us money. With the new cash, we slept in a regular hotel that night. We eventually made it to Reno, but I will always remember the night I slept with a monkey.
James W. Mercer works in the area of hydrogeology and has published numerous technical articles. In 1985, he was awarded the Wesley W. Horner Award of the American Society of Civil Engineers for work performed at Love Canal. In 1994, he received the American Institute of Hydrology's Theis Award for contributions to groundwater hydrology. The Scrolls is his first novel. He currently lives in the Washington, D.C. area.