After my hospital visit and two weeks of R&R at Pastor Rex’s home, I was ready and eager to get on the road again. Although it’s just a job to pay the bills, there is something very satisfying about the open highway, a freedom and a beauty that’s hard to match.
I was told to pick up a car in Marianna, Florida and drive it up to Boston. I looked and found that Marianna is in the Florida panhandle, and soon learned that it is so small that there is no Greyhound, Amtrak or rental car agencies. I usually always rent cars to get to or from a pickup or delivery, because it’s easier and I’ve had bad experiences with Greyhound. But how to get to the small car dealership in Marianna?
I rented a car in Clearwater, but the closest place I could drop off to Marianna was the Panama City airport, 50 miles away. A cab ride would be well over $100, and that was cost prohibitive, Riff certainly wouldn’t pay for it, so I’d have to use that old driving fool cunning and spirit. I called my contact at the car dealership and asked for his advice. He said he’d get back to me, and when he did an hour later he told me about a retired gentleman named Bubba who picked up cars for them in other cities. He gave me Bubba’s number, and I called to see if I could make some type of arrangement.
“Hello? Hello? Is someone there?” asked Bubba when I called.
“Is this Bubba?”
“Depends. I could be. Who’s this calling?”
“Bill Thomas, sir. I was given your number by Steve at the Chevy dealership, he said you might be able to help me.”
“I might. But I don’t come easy and I don’t come cheap. I will be on the clock, and charge you $8 per hour.”
“Done? You mean we have a deal? You don’t even want to haggle? In all of my 80 years, I’ve never heard of such a thing.”
“Nope, no need to bargain, we have a deal. Can you meet me at the Panama City airport tomorrow at 10am?”
“I have a better plan, Bill. You call me when you are an hour away, and I’ll leave my house then. That’s when I’ll be on the clock, getting paid.”
“Sounds good, Bubba.”
“Hey, did you know that the Panama City airport isn’t in the same place anymore? They moved it. Well I mean, they didn’t move the airport, but they closed the old one and opened a new one. You get me?”
“Yes sir. I’ll call you in the morning.”
I stopped in Tallahassee for the night, and was right on time the next morning. I could see that I’d be at the airport to drop off the car at 10am, just as I thought. I planned to call Bubba at 9am, but he called me at 8:30. “Hello?” he said when I picked up. “Hello, can you hear me?”
“Good morning, Bubba.”
“Oh, Bill, I was just about to call you. I wanted to let you know that I’m on the clock, I’m leaving for the airport.”
“You don’t have to leave til 9am.”
“Maybe you never heard the old saying, the early bird gets the worm.”
“By the way, Bill, you should be aware that the Panama City airport has moved. They didn’t move the airport itself, but they did open a new facility.”
“Thanks, I have directions.”
“Do you need me to give you directions?”
“No, I can find my way. See you there.”
“I’m on the clock!” Bubba hung up, and I chuckled to myself. Another one of Bill’s people.
I got to the airport at 9:45 and drove my rental car to the Rental Return parking lot. As I got out of the car and started to head to the Terminal, my cell rang. “This is Bill.”
“Bill? Where are you? I’ve been at the airport waiting for you. Did something happen?”
“No, everything is fine. I’m here.”
“I’m at the airport..”
“The old one or the new one?”
“The new one. I just got here.”
“How come I can’t see you?”
“It’s a big place, Bubba. Where are you now?”
“I told you, I’m at the airport.”
“I mean where are you parked?”
“Oh, I’m not parked at all. I’m cruising and looking for you. I’m coming up to a sign that says Rental Returns.”
“What are you driving?”
“A blue Ford Taurus.” Just at that moment, I saw a blue Taurus driving slowly past the entrance I had just come in.
“Stop the car, Bubba.” The Taurus jolted to an abrupt stop. “Look to your right out of the passenger window.” I began to wave my arms.
“Bill, I’m gonna have to get back to you. There’s a man waving his arms like crazy at me, I think he may be in trouble. I’m gonna see if I can help him, I’ll call you back.” The car drove over to me, and Bubba rolled down his window. “You need some assistance, friend?”
“Bubba, it’s me.”
Bubba looked perplexed. “How did you know my name? Have we met, sir?”
I reached my hand out to shake. “Bill Thomas, I’m the driver you came to pick up.”
A broad smile spread across Bubba’s face. “Hello, Bill. What a coincidence, finding you when I was just looking for you. Pretty darn incredible. All ready to go?”
I got into the car and told him that I had to turn in my paperwork and keys at the Terminal. This began a long process of circling and missing the sign instructing us to turn. Bubba drove by it three times, as I tried desperately to point it out to him. So around and around we went, with him whistling the theme to THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW. We finally got to the Terminal, and he waited while I went inside. I ran as quickly as I could, but when I got back to the car Bubba was fuming. “What in the hell took you so long? I ain’t got all day.”
“Sorry Bubba, I went as quick as I could. Don’t worry about it, you’re on the clock.”
“Don’t throw that up in my face, I’m not your servant boy.”
“No sir, I didn’t mean that at all.”
“OK, your highness, where to?”
“The car dealership.”
“Which dealership? There’s a lot of them in Florida.”
“The one where you work. I’m sorry, I thought you knew.”
“I have news for you, young man. I am retired, and don’t work for anyone. Sometimes they call me when they need a car moved, and sometimes I help out. Well, most of the time actually, but I don’t answer to anyone or any corporation. You get me?”
“You should also know that I’m a veteran, I fought in Korea, which is more than I can say for you.” Bubba began huffing and puffing, then let out a long sigh and grinned from ear to ear. As he drove, his demeanor became very pleasant and affable, and he began to point out sights such as ponds and groves of trees. What was interesting is that he’d literally point, thrusting his arm and hand in the direction he was pointing. More than once he was indicating something outside of my window, and his hand would come flying towards my face. I’d have to duck or he surely would have punched me in the jaw. Not on purpose, of course, but the result would be the same. “You know, Bill, there’s nothing like the open road.” This time he pointed straight ahead, and banged his fist hard against the windshield. He shouted in pain and shook his right hand vigorously. “Wow, that smarts.”
“I bet it does.”
“You’d win that bet, my friend. Say, do you like good old southern style cooking?”
“Some people don’t, I suppose. But I don’t want to know those people. Anyhow, there’s a place near where I live that serves the best homestyle cooking you’ve ever laid your tongue on. Want to go there with me when we get done?”
“Wish I could, Bubba, but I have to drive a car up to Boston.”
“I am trying to tell you that this is the best cooking in the state of Florida. You get me?”
“Yes sir, I do. But I’ll have to take a rain check.”
Bubba got very sullen. “I don’t give out rain checks. I’m 80 years old, so its now or never.”
We got back to the dealership, and Bubba told me what I owed him. I thanked him sincerely, paid him, plus gave him something for his gas. “It was a pleasure meeting you, Bill. But if I can offer you some advice, you might want to work on your manners. That’s all I’m saying.”
Thirty minutes later, I started my long journey to Boston.