The last speaker ended at 10:30, Saturday night. I was at St. Michael’s College in Toronto for the 50th Anniversary Conference, commemorating G.K. Chesterton’s death. A memorial Mass was scheduled for the morning with Gerald Emmett Cardinal Carter; but as a Biblical and Reformed Christian (that’s evangelical-speak for Protestant), I thought I might leave without disturbance. No loss of acquired merit; no penalty for renouncing this task of supererogation. We separated brethren are given a special dispensation, I think. Check it out in Vatican II. In any case, I had left my wife and three children back in Buffalo with my parents and wanted to get back to them. I still had a two-hour trip ahead of me. Like a true Hobbit, I longed for home, even the surrogate home of a kinsman. I had had my adventure: a trip to Canada. I was there; and now, like Bilbo Baggins, it was time to go back again.
I strolled to my car, a 1972 AMC Matador station wagon. Owning an old car is an act of faith; the triumph of hope over reason. I have long held that the automobile was not a recent invention, as many imagine, but was actually given to mankind at the time of the Fall. It is part of our curse to be saddled with these motorized carts until Christ returns, in order that we might learn patience. Suffering, after all, produces patience, and cars certainly make us suffer.
My intuitive theology proved correct. My car wouldn’t start. The Adamic curse was still in full effect. An electrically arcing solenoid barred my path like an angel with a flaming sword. I was not allowed to travel home. I made my way back to the conference hall for help. Jeff and Laurie Carson, a Canadian couple whom I had befriended, helped me jump the battery and wiggle the finicky solenoid, but the engine just wouldn’t kick over.
As I pondered my predicament—a broken car, a stranger in a strange land, with $40 in my pocket—I remembered one of my favorite G.K. Chesterton quotes: “An inconvenience rightly considered, is an adventure.” Now was the time for putting this wisdom to good use. One could either stand around lamenting one’s helpless state or just enjoy it. I chose the latter. Chesterton would have been proud of me.
Providentially, as we Evangelical Calvinist types are known to refer to fortuitous events, a tow truck appeared out of nowhere. My Canadian couple went on their way.
One of the unusual things about the conference had been the number of non-Catholics in attendance. I met an Orthodox professor and a Pentecostal minister. There were a number of Anglicans whom I met as well. Two Evangelicals addressed the conference: Lyle Dorsett, curator of the Wade “Christian Writer’s” collection at Wheaton College, and J.H. McClatchey, an English professor from the same institution. Michael Coren, an English journalist, addressed the conference as a Jew looking at Chesterton and the accusations leveled at C. K. because of his brother Cecil’s anti-Semitism. In many ways, Chesterton’s admirers form a body universal; Chestertonian Catholicism is an ecumenical movement in itself
The tow-truck fellows couldn’t get the Matador started, so I was towed to the all-night station down near the lake. It was there that I met my three companions for the evening, three automotive comforters who would console me with their mechanical wisdom: Hewey, Dewey, and Lewey. I called my wife at 12:00 and told her not to wait for me. My evening was in the hands of God.
Now Chesterton says that “every man is an allegory. He is an earthly story with a heavenly meaning.” And I don’t doubt for one minute that this is true. In each of these automotive mavens one could see the reflection of his Maker. And, excluding the pagan notion of chance, I realized that I had been thrown into their presence for a purpose.
Hewey, for instance, was a parable of the common man, a decent chap who pumped gas and seemed to mind his own business. He appeared to be the only one who took in money. Perhaps he was the only one who could count.
Dewey, an oriental chap, was my mechanic. One didn’t doubt that he was thoroughly familiar with his copy of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. He could hear the sound of one cylinder clapping. He grinned a lot and shook his head: “Won’t work. Can’t get it to work,” he motioned at the engine. How true. This high priest of technology had hit upon a truth to which I could give full assent. That old Matador seemed to have fought its last fight.
Lewey, who, to be truthful, had a screw loose, kept talking to himself, muttering about what a rotten world this is. He was one of those people who always seem angry. Damn this, damn that. He kept asking me about various aspects of the engine. It was all Canadian to me. He’d flick his cigarette, utter an oath, and storm off.
I felt like Job. I was robbed of everything familiar, suffering under the weight of possible financial ruin, given three comforters who could not comfort. Behind my worries concerning this world’s trivialities was a hidden player, the mysterious God who ordains all things. Like the character Sunday in Chesterton’s Man Who Was Thursday, our Maker sends us cryptic notes in the events of our lives. Nothing happens without cause; nothing exists that is not used to reflect his glory. Even the rebellious sinner unwittingly reflects his divine origin; as Chesterton says in his poem Ultimate:
“I am,” he says his bankrupt creed;
“I am,” and is again a clod:
The sparrow starts, the grasses stir,
For he has said the name of God.
After cleaning and properly tightening the solenoid, the electric arcing stopped. Nevertheless, the car still wouldn’t start. Hewey, Dewey, and Lewey scratched their collective heads and decided it was the starter. Dewey did the grunt work and replaced the burned out unit. Sure enough, the dead engine would now crank, but it wouldn’t start. It was something more than the starter. Maybe it was in the fuel line . . .
The memorial dinner was marvelous, and, like most formal affairs, had been opened with prayer. Immediately, a toast was offered. “To the Queen!” For a second I paused. I couldn’t remember the protocol for Americans. Do we toast foreign potentates? But then I thought, what the heck, she’s a fine old girl, and after all, she is a mother. And who wouldn’t toast his mother. And anyway, you can’t consider a British sovereign a potentate. So I raised my glass to Bess II. I felt like a character out of The Napoleon of Notting Hill and realized that something needed to be said in defense of our parochial little Republic. I flashed a bicentennial glance at my table and raised my glass a second time. “To the Constitution.” We dined.
The tow-truck men had mentioned that the area of the garage was dubbed Hooker Row. Ladies of the night, apparently, plied their trade when the police allowed. I saw none, though I could discern the proverbial flashing red light from a house window a block away. I remembered the words of Solomon to his son: “The lips of the adulteress drip honey and her speech is smoother than oil; but in the end she is bitter as gall. . . . Her feet go down to death. . . . Drink water from your own cistern, running water from your own well,” I couldn’t remember anything Chesterton had said about chastity, but knew he would have agreed with Solomon.
Ian Boyd, the tall thin priest and editor of The Chesterton Review, was the spirit who made the conference succeed. There was nothing of the Chesterton figure in him, nor of the Father Brown. He seemed to know everyone, and it’s quite possible he did. Everyone I talked to had either correspondence with him, or had just talked with him. His vibrant, high-strung spirit seemed always ready to share his love of Chesterton with everyone.
Elihu the Albanian arrived around 3:15. He towed cars for a living and apparently was a mechanic as well. He walked over to my car, listened for a moment, and gave the diagnosis: timing chain. Elihu was a shrewd man, and he shared his insights into economics as well as free automotive advice. He had nothing good to say about the Collectivists in his Communist homeland. “I came here with $125 in my pocket; now I own my own tow truck and can work when I want. If I want more money, I work harder. If I want to take off, I stop working.” I could not help but think of Chesterton’s idealistic distributism as this fellow talked. This man had come from poverty, socialism; he now lived well through the benefits of Western economic enterprise, capitalism. Why was it that a great spirit and mind like Chesterton’s couldn’t understand the wealth-producing mechanism of free enterprise? He certainly knew that socialism wouldn’t work—witness his constant debates with Shaw. But, the distributism he proposed seemed just like a form of inefficient capitalism. Maybe he had had a bad experience as a child with a capitalist nanny. Well, we must allow our lovable avuncular mentors their hobbyhorses.
Hewey added up my bill. Including the tow, three hours work, a new starter, etc., etc., the bill came to $179. He had Elihu check the figures. Maybe he couldn’t add after all.
As I left the service station and my comforters, I glanced at the name of the street. The name of the avenue was Fleeceland. How appropriate. I had not been fleeced—having stood over my mechanics, I knew they had done their best. But I was indeed the Jason of my house. In a Chestertonian sense, I knew that I had found a fleece, a golden fleece of patient good-natured adventure in a strange land, And I was bringing back to my family the news of my great discovery. And this was my Chestertonian treasure: Truth can be found all around us—in a piece of chalk, in a hat blown away by the wind, in a literature convention, and in a broken-down car in an all-night gas station on a lonely roadway somewhere in Toronto. All one had to do was look.
That is what Chesterton taught me.