My first car was a 1951 Chevy Power Glide, a beastly machine my grandfather dubbed, The Boiler. I bought it for $80 in 1970, the summer I turned nineteen.
It was a far cry from my father’s, sleek ’66 Pontiac LeMans which I occasionally got to drive in high school. That one had some kick to it. I remember gunning the LeMans down Shaw Street in Braintree, the back road that lead to Fore River Shipyard about ten miles south of Boston. By the time I reached the old Quintree Drive-In, the needle was usually pushing eighty.
The Boiler was another matter. It was the drab color of a battleship and as slow-moving. Top-speed was forty. Beyond that, the old rattletrap vibrated uncontrollably; the steering wheel may as well have been a jack hammer.
There were lots of things going on under the hood, too, like misfiring spark plugs and screeching fan belts. And… it leaked oil.
I remember a gas station attendant once telling me to check the oil from time to time. He had just checked under the hood (they used to do that in 1970 when gasoline cost thirty-five cents a gallon) and was showing me the dipstick where there was a slight trace of oil way south of the “low” line.
“Hey, buddy,” he said, snidely, “to keep this rig running you’re gonna need barrels of oil and buckets of faith. Keep checking on both.”
In 1970, faith was easy. It was alone-time talks with God at St. Clare’s Church just before Sunday Mass or thumb rides home with perfect strangers whenever The Boiler broke down. Faith was a feeling that everything would work out, that there weren’t any roadblocks that could turn me back. Faith was being nineteen-years-old.
And then Injustice ran a red light. In time, Hardship, too, took to the road, broad siding me at will. In my rearview mirror, Doubt was a tailgater I could not shake.
Too often, I felt alone when life seemed to turn on me, when God appeared to flee the scenes of my accidents. Those were the times I needed to check under the hood. Those were the times when faith was a bone-dry dipstick.
And then kids with Down syndrome entered my life. There was the old-time radio show I put together for nursing home patients. A few dozen college students with learning disabilities depended upon me to show them ways to develop study skills. I learned how to hike with teens who were blind. A guy in a homeless shelter taught me how to fix wheels on grocery carts.
I’ve been a social worker for thirty years. Today, faith is a woman with a hunched back and lung disease who tells me reading scripture makes her stand tall. It’s the hospice chaplain, with stuffed-animal owls and elephants, who brings smiles to the faces of people who are dying. It’s a life review discussion with the old trombonist whose dilapidated house is filled with sheet music and loose pages from a weather-beaten bible.
Buckets of faith. They’re out there – many times in unlikely places.
My ’51 Chevy is long-gone and so, too, is the dipstick. The hybrid I drive has a dashboard panel that flashes the percentage of remaining oil in the crankcase. What it doesn’t measure, however, is my flow of faith. That’s when I have to get under another kind of hood. That’s where faith checks come in.
Faith – it’s what keeps me running.