Wednesday, June 16, 2010


Late one night in a remote parking lot in the early 1960s, Sheldon's clunky old American car wouldn't start. The car was equipped with a standard shift, of course. Automatics probably existed when it was built, but they weren't common. For want of a better alternative, Sheldon pushed the car to the top of a gentle declivity at one side of the parking lot, with an eye to clutch-starting it.

It's not difficult to make a car move on the level, but the slightest slope changes everything. It took all Sheldon's early-twenties strength and stamina to push the car to the top. He started it rolling downhill, jumped in, and at the optimum moment -- when the car was rolling just fast enough to have a chance of starting, with still enough hill in front to maintain momentum -- put it in gear and popped the clutch.

The car wasn't buying any. It chugged, spluttered, and shuddered to a stop.

In the absence of any obvious alternative, Sheldon and the car struggled up the hill and rolled down again. Heartbreakingly, the car fumbled and jerked to a halt again.

In those days before cell phones, the option of a tow truck may not have been available, even in the unlikely event that Sheldon was prepared to pay for one. There was nothing for it but to undertake the weary trek up the parking lot yet again. This, Sheldon realized, would have to be the last attempt of this kind; he wouldn't have it in him to push the car up a fourth time.

With a flash of the kind of insight that can come in a desperate corner, Sheldon noticed, or first took seriously, that it was a windy night, and the wind was blowing down the hill. He opened all four doors to catch the wind, and tried again. This time the car chugged, spluttered, spluttered again, and caught. Sheldon was saved.