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May 4, 2015

Harford, Pennsylvania is a community consisting of maybe six streets, located just off Interstate 81, about halfway between Scranton and Binghamton, New York. The population is 244. I know this because I had occasion to pass by Harford on Friday as I made the 10 hour drive home from Princeton, New Jersey.

Outside of the Winter months, I sometimes get an itch to ‘head out on the highway’ as Steppenwolf put it. Last month saw me flying in and out of Newark, Vancouver, St. Louis, Orlando, Tampa, and Philadelphia, with connections through United Airline’s hub at Chicago’s notorious O’Hare. I’d had enough of airplanes and airports for a while, and felt the need to ‘chill’. So, with iPod fully loaded (including Simon & Garfunkel, Jim Croce, CSNY, Queen, Thorogood, Steppenwolf, Neil Young, and of course, the Fab Four), I began my driving adventure on Thursday morning, leaving home in London Ontario headed for Princeton. Ten hours later, I arrived in time to get a good night’s rest. Next morning, I made a presentation to the Board of Trustees at Lawrenceville School just down the road (a great school, by the way, and I say that with some authority, having recently completed my analysis of a survey of their last fifteen years of alumni).

At Noon that same day, I embarked on the long trek home, hoping to complete the journey before my family settled into bed. Perhaps you’ll say I’m crazy to drive 20 hours in two days, all for one short meeting. I am crazy but, truth be told, it didn’t take much more time to complete this drive than it sometimes takes to fly, with getting to the airport, waiting for departure, taxiing at times for what seems longer than the actual flight, making connections, more waiting, collecting a rental car, and so on. Truth be told, I felt more fresh upon my return home Friday night after 10 hours on the road than I would have if I’d traveled by air. Don’t underestimate the price of all those changes in pressure, up and down and up and down. Good weather, great music from the 60s and 70s (good music doesn’t have an expiry date), and a chariot built for cruising down the highway… it all makes for quite a pleasurable experience.

The Interstate Highway System, championed by Dwight Eisenhower in the mid-1950s, achieves its purpose, making this part of the world very small. It has been the primary structural support of America’s love for the automobile, and perhaps also its hatred of big trucks. Parts of the system also provide a nice scenic tour to help pass the time. I’m particularly fond of upstate New York in the Autumn months.

When you’re focused on getting from A to B, however, the IHS comes with its own price. You lose the flavour of small towns and winding roads, and the character of the people who live there. Example: Harford, Pennsylvania.

As with so many of life’s wonderful experiences, my stop in Harford was not planned… well, not by me, anyway. Prompted by my dashboard warning light, I began to pay close attention to the air pressure reading for the front right tire. With all other tires reading 38 psi, over a ten minute span of monitoring, this one dropped to 23 psi. Not wanting to find myself being towed from the side of the highway, I turned off at the next exit, looking for a solution. Down one hill, up another, and a sharp turn to the right found me presenting myself at Bennett’s Garage & Spring Shop. The dashboard gauge now read 16 psi. I strode inside, found a young man working underneath a vehicle and explained my dilemma. He wiped his hands, left his work, and walked through a door to the shop office. An older man, looking eerily like the first, emerged to greet me. The name, Dan, was embroidered on his shirt.

With few words exchanged, Dan had me pull the car into an open bay and proceeded to remove and inspect the tire. Perhaps 20 minutes later, a rather large hole created by the offending bolt, was plugged and I was ready to be back on the road. We walked together into the shop office where I discovered a woman playing with their grandson who looked about a year old or so. While grandma was doing the bookkeeping, this boy continually tugged on her ears and reached for the mouse on the desktop. I waited while grandpa punched up my bill. I remember wondering how much this was going to cost, but was resolved not to fret over it. The tire was fixed and I was ready to resume my journey.

Here’s the thing. Out here, in the middle of nowhere, population of 244, the bill was placed on the counter in front of me. $18.80! My immediate response was involuntary. “Eighteen dollars,” I said, “that’s too little. Double it!” Honestly, it would cost more than that back home even if I scheduled an appointment for the same work. I guess Dan never heard of the notion called ‘minimum charge’. Dan would have none of it, and charged my card with $18.80. Whoever saw a $15 labour charge for any kind of auto repair? The plug cost $2.51. There was a $0.23 environmental fee, and the difference was sales tax.

I paid the bill (and am still shaking my head). For their part, Dan and his wife resumed the visit with their grandson (perhaps another mechanic in training). As I re-entered the Interstate Highway System, I reminded myself that some of my most enjoyable drives involved ignoring the navigator, getting off the highway, and just wandering the backroads.

In a world that seems often to be governed by, “Don’t ask and you won’t get”; “Get while the getting is good”; and “I win – you lose”; Dan Bennett has chosen a different path on higher ground. This short stop along the highway could have cost much more than it did. In truth, it should have cost much more than it did.

Life is a journey. Dan Bennett, you made my journey that day a memorable one.

With sincere thanks,

Kevin Graham

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