Just the Other Day: Chai

I was on my way to northern California, pulling a Scamp trailer.  It was late, around midnight, and I was in the middle of nowhere Nevada when the state trooper turned on his lights to pull me over.  I wasn’t speeding so I had no idea why I was being stopped.


I greeted him, “Good evening. I usually know why I’m getting pulled over, but tonight I have no idea.” The officer laughed, then informed me, “You don’t have any lights on the trailer.” “Really?” I was surprised. “I just had the wiring on the car fixed before this trip and the trailer is brand new.” He told me, “Your brake lights are working, but you don’t have any marker lights.” I sighed with disappointment. “That’s exactly what I had it in for.”


The officer shined his flashlight for me as I wiggled the wiring connection between the car and the trailer to see if they would come on. No such luck. I opened the back hatch of my car and got into the spare tire compartment, showing him the part. “This is the new controller they just installed.” I checked all the connections – they looked good. I was at a loss.


He asked me, “Where are you going? “North of Sacramento.” I replied. “I can’t let you drive down the road without marker lights.” He said, but he also had a couple suggestions. “I can call a tow service for you, or there’s a rest area a few miles up the road. If you turn your flashers on, I’ll follow you to make sure you get there safe. You can you spend the night and in the morning drive into Reno to get your lights checked out.” “I’d really appreciate it if you’d follow me to the rest area.” I said, not wanting to spend the money for a tow truck.


Although I got on the road bright and early the next morning, I was behind schedule. I didn’t stop in Reno to check the lights. I would be dropping the Scamp off during daylight hours and driving home without a trailer. All the lights on the car were working, so I headed for Cobb, California, north of Sacramento.


As I got nearer to my destination, I passed a sign that read, “Welcome to Lake County, California.” It caused me to laugh, as I live in Lake County, Minnesota. I said out loud, “Two thousand miles and thirty-one hours of driving and I end up right where I started – Lake County.”


It was a gorgeous morning for a drive. At 65 degrees, the air smelled very fresh and the clear skies were a brilliant blue. I turned off Highway 29 onto county road 137 – the final stretch to my destination.  The drive was thrilling with big hills, deep valleys and a continuous ribbon of winding curves. As I drove up into the mountains, I passed farm fields of fresh produce and orchards with dark green citrus trees in perfect rows. It’s a beautiful part of California with all the agriculture and a pleasant contrast to the big cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco or San Diego. The places most people think of when California comes to mind.


As I rounded a curve, there was a red Saturn stalled on the opposite side of the road. The driver was on the shoulder, outside his car, looking at a cell phone. I checked my phone and had no signal. I really didn’t have time, but I thought, if I was stranded where there was no cell phone service, I would want someone to stop and help me. I made a quick U-turn, to go back to see if I could help him. I pulled up behind him and got out of my car.


“Need a hand?” I asked. “It’s my battery.” He said, explaining, “It’s only holding seven volts.”  I offered, “I don’t have cables, but if you have a pair, I could give you a jump start.” He explained he didn’t have jumper cables with him, but suggested, “My car has a manual transmission, maybe we could push it and bump start it.” “That should work.” I said.


The man was wearing a green camouflage US Air Force t-shirt. “Is that a real Air Force t-shirt?” I asked. He laughed, “No. It’s just more of a joke, but I have real Air Force shirts at home.” “You served then?” I asked. “Yes, at Castle Air Force Base from ’83 to ’87. Castle closed a few years after that.” He told me.


I learned his name was Chai, but I wasn’t clear how he was saying it. He spelled it, C-H-A-I. That’s what he said. What I heard was C-H-I-A, “Chia. Like a Chia Pet?” “It’s pronounced Kye, rhymes with guy.” He told me. I finally got it. Chai said he was born in Thailand and came to the United States when he was nineteen years old. “I joined the Air Force because I could earn my citizenship that way.” He said, “Plus I learned a trade without paying for a tech school.”


Getting back to the business of trying to bump start the car, he said, “You get in and I’ll push.” He told me he couldn’t push very far as he had a heart condition. “Dude,” I insisted, “if you have a heart condition, YOU get in and I’ll push.” “Are you sure? I feel bad having you push my car.” He said, to which I replied, “And I will feel even worse if you have a heart attack pushing it. Now get in.” We shared a laugh over that and Chai got into the driver’s seat.


“Okay, I’m ready.” He called out the window. Placing both hands on the edge of the trunk lid, I leaned into the vehicle. I pushed with all my strength but the car wouldn’t budge. Chai called out the window, “Oops. I had the parking brake set. It’s off now.” I laughed, then started pushing. Once I had the car rolling, Chai popped the clutch, but the car didn’t start. “Let’s try it again.” I called up to him and started pushing. He popped the clutch a second time, still the car didn’t start. “Let’s go again.” I hollered. After the third failed attempt, the car still wouldn’t start, and we reached a point where we were now going to be pushing it uphill.


Chai set the parking brake and got out. “I’m going to have to walk home and get another battery. Seven volts just isn’t enough to start it.” He said. “That’s an odd thing to say,” I said, “Most people wouldn’t know how many volts a battery was holding. How do you know it has seven volts?” Chai answered, “I tested it with a volt meter. In the Air Force I was an electrician and worked on automotive electrical systems.” “Oh really?” I said, smiling, thinking about my taillight trouble.


I told Chai about my problem. He said, “You should have a little box mounted in your car that would control those lights.” “Yes,” I said, “it’s in the spare tire compartment. Could you take a look at it?” “Let me grab my meter.” He said. I opened the rear hatch, and wheel well cover in my car. Chai spotted the controller right off and began testing it. “Your controller is bad.” He told me. “Its brand new; I just had it installed three days ago.” I said. He replied, “Oh, well if it’s brand new, then it’s not bad – it’s defective.” We shared a good laugh about that.


Chai said, “I can run a jumper wire to bypass the controller if you’d like, then your lights will work again.” I responded, “I would really appreciate that.” He grabbed a small piece of wire, a couple connectors and a crimping tool. In just a few minutes he had the lights working. “I really appreciate this, Chai. What do I owe you?” I asked. “Nothing. It’s my way of saying thanks for stopping to see if I needed help.”


I stopped to help him, but he ended up helping me.


I was now late for my appointment to drop off the Scamp. I thought to myself, “You’re already late, what’s it going to hurt to be a little later? This guy has a heart condition and Lord knows how far he has to walk through these hills.” I asked Chai, “You said you were going to walk home. I’m on my way to Cobb; which way do you live?” His eyes lit up, “I’m right on your way. I live on 137, about three miles before you get to Cobb.” “This day is just full of coincidences. Jump in, I’ll give you a ride.” I said.


On the way to his house we passed a KFC restaurant. I made some comment about it and he asked, “Do you like KFC?” I laughed. “It’s my weakness.” I confessed. When we got close to his house, he said, “You can let me off at the gate, I only live a few doors down.” Chai gave me his phone number. “When you’re done with your trailer deal, call me. I’d like to treat you to lunch for helping me.” He said. I laughed, “But I didn’t help you. You helped me.” We said our farewells and I drove on down the road.


I called Leigh. “Sorry I’m late,” I said, “I’ll be there with your Scamp in five minutes.” “Don’t worry about it,” she said, “I’m just excited to get it.” It took longer than expected to show her how everything worked on the trailer. I was there for almost three hours, but I don’t mind. I wanted to be sure she was comfortable using her new trailer.


Leaving her house, I planned to head straight home but I thought more about Chai. I think he really wanted to go to lunch, so I called him. “It took me longer than I thought.” I said, “Do you still have time to go eat?”  “Of course,” he answered, “can you pick me up at the gate?”  “I’ll be there in five minutes.” I replied.


When Chai got in the passenger seat, I asked him, “Do you need a ride back to your car?” “No,” he said, “I put a new battery in it, it started right up and I drove it home. I picked up my friend, John, and he went with me to drive one of the cars back to my house. He’s going to go eat with us, then I’ll run him home.” “Perfect.” I said, then suggested, “There’s a McDonald’s up ahead, do you want to stop there?” “No way!” Chai said, “You told me you had a weakness for KFC and I’m going to treat you to KFC.” We shared a good laugh about that, then drove to the Colonel’s place.


We had some nice conversation during dinner. Chai asked if I had ever been to the Redwood Forest. I told him I had not. “Man, you should go! It’s not very far from here at all.” He said. John added, “Yeah, you’re already this far west, you might as well go. It’s awesome.” I told them, “I would love to, but that’s a trip I’m going to save for when my wife can be with me.” With that, we said our farewells and I jumped in the car to head east.


Just the other day, I was cleaning out a box of old papers. I came across the notes I had written about that day when I met Chai, including where he wrote down his phone number for me. That was one year ago. My wife and I have since been to the Redwood Forest, but I never did write the story. I wondered if he still had the same phone number. I picked the phone up and called. There was no answer, so I left a message, “Hey, this is Tom. I’m looking for Chai; wondering if you remember me. If this is his number, give me a call back.” Unfortunately, I forgot how he pronounced his name, and I said Chia, like a Chia Pet.


Over the past year I have often thought of Chai. How ironic it was that I didn’t have time to stop and help him, but I stopped anyway, and he ended up helping me! It’s funny how things work out that way sometimes.


Almost immediately, my phone rang. “Hi Tom. It’s pronounced Kye, rhymes with guy. Of course, I remember you. You helped me with my car that day.” He said. I laughed, “But I didn’t help you. You helped me.”