After breaking down on the U.S. 1, Bess the Book Bus gets a ride back to town on "Old Sweetheart"

Kerchunk. That’s how Monday started. The engine went kerchunk, all power was lost, and three check engine lights switched on. There are only a few things that can delay the 2011 Transitions/VSP Success is in Sight tour and an engine killing kerchunk is on that short list.

When the kerchunk hit, we were heading South on U.S. 1 to an event in Millinocket, ME. We pulled over to the shoulder and sat on the edge of nowhere, almost halfway between Houlton and Millinocket. Finding a mechanic was going to be a certain challenge. Bess is a 2004 Dodge Sprinter with a Mercedes diesel engine. The nearest Mercedes mechanic was 80 miles away in Bangor. Finding a tow truck willing to take us that far was nearly impossible, even with the help of AAA.

As they called dozens of towing companies, receiving one refusal after another, we made calls to possible mechanics. A passing driver saw our flashing hazards and pulled over to check on the situation. Lori was driving her son Nate to golf practice and had to stop, worrying that no one else would. This was a stroke of good luck at the start of an otherwise bad day. Her husband is a volunteer firefighter in Danforth and knew most of the mechanics and tow trucks in the area. Lori and Nate waited until Tom arrived to take their place. And although we thought everything was under control, he chose to keep us company on the side of the road.

The first hour passed, then the second. AAA was having no luck finding a towing company. The wait lasted hours. Tom scoffed every time a tow truck refused to come out. The tow was either too far, Bess was too big, or the money made from the tow would not cover their expenses. One company wouldn’t come out because of the risk of moose on the road. In Maine, that is an actual concern. A 3,500 lb moose can total a semi. Logging trucks fearlessly flew by in both directions.

Aside from the trucks, the road was quiet. A few cars drove past, two of which were Tom’s friends. The allure of an open hood was too much to pass up. They pulled over and peered inside, nothing looked wrong. No leaks, no blown hoses, no nothing. Based on the description Jennifer gave, it could be the engine’s turbo, the fuel filter or even a sensor. A kerchunk in the engine is a non-technical term and couldn’t rule out much.

It was almost noon when Hayes Towing, the only tow truck that would agree to come out, arrived. We waved down the dusty flatbed and the driver stepped out. Jennifer greeted him as he unwrapped the chains and turned on the lift. The tow truck, “Old Sweetheart”, hardly looked big (or sturdy) enough to tow Bess.


“Well, I can get her up,” he said. “Let’s hope I can tow her and get her back down.” From behind his mirrored sunglasses, it was hard to tell if it was a joke. Still, he dropped to ground and hooked the chains to Bess’s carriage. The wench turned on and rattled the chains. It was shaky for a moment as fluid leaked from Old Sweetheart’s bed. Slowly, Bess and her 3,000 books rolled forward and climbed aboard the truck. Todd could offer no guarantee, but he would try to tow us in. Todd was friendly despite the fact that he had to have his own truck, the one now towing Bess, towed back to the shop by his 15-year-old son and repaired mid way to rescuing us. He had blown a fuel pump and had to replace it prior to coming back out to get Bess. His initial hour drive from Staceyville had now taken him three hours. The tow to Bangor would take an additional two hours, and then he had an hour drive home. This was not going to be a money making endeavor for him, but he knew he was the only driver that had agreed to come out.

As we climbed into the cab, Todd offered us a soda and off we went. To get to Bangor, we would need to find a safe place to turn around. As we were turning, Todd got a call. It turned out to be a mechanic friend in Houlton recommending York Toyota, which was great news as it did not seem that Old Sweetheart was going to make the trip to Bangor. Her clutch was failing and the bed was still leaking hydraulic fluid. The ride to town was spent talking and trying to avoid red lights as Todd babied the shifter on his seven speed transmission through the hills and into Houlton.

Getting Bess down was went smoothly. The hydraulic bed shifted and gravity took care of the rest. Before Todd made the hour drive back home, we wanted to thank him for his help and hard work. Coming to get Bess was out of the way and dozens of closer tow trucks turned down the job. Despite his own mechanical challenges, Todd was not willing to leave us stranded. He knew getting Bess the Book Bus back on the road meant getting books into the hands of children. It’s because of people like Todd, people that embody the Fueling Good movement, that we can continue across the country. We sent him with a stack of books for his own children and a spot grant of a Citgo gas card worth $130. Thanks for Fueling Good, Todd.

Bess’s first breakdown at the start of the trip had set us back, $7,000, but it did not stop us. We were halfway to recouping those costs when the kerchunk sounded. The new repairs mean an additional setback of $1,200 and a serious blow to our budget, but this will not stop us either. We are determined to keep Success in Sight for our kids. The Fueling Good spirit embodied by Lori, Tom, and Todd kept our spirits up too. Fueling Good means doing what you can, when you can, for who you can, where and how you can despite life’s obstacles. We can do that. And thanks to DONATIONS from the folks fueling good at the Citgo refinery in Sulphur, LA and SVS Vision, a Transitions and VSP partner in Detroit, we are $600 closer to being back on track.