39 miles south of Sacramento a horrible popping noise rang out from underneath the Bomb Squad Mobile. Startled, we pulled off at the Turner Road Exit. We took turns looking underneath the hood, revving the engine and listening, trying to discover the cause of the noise. Strangely, the engine was still at full power and the truck seemed to be driving as usual.
But we decided not the take any chances, busted out our AAA cards and called it in. Three out of four of us had AAA Plus. Only Shawn was stuck with the Basic plan. If you don’t have AAA Plus, we strongly recommend upgrading immediately. Free towing up to 100 miles, just about how far we were from our gig in Winters. The lady from the Call Center said a tow rig out of Lodi should be there within the hour. We hung out in the BSM with doors open trying to stay out of the mid-afternoon Central Valley heat. At last a bright yellow tow truck appeared on heat-blurred horizon like a mirage. Matt, the driver, whipped it around and backed up against our rig. He hopped out and went to work. We described the sound to him and he preliminarily diagnosed the problem as a blown Transfer Case. He chained the BSM down, the four of us climbed up into the cab and headed off to our gig. On the way cell phones we buzzed as Paul Lacques called every accordion player he knew in the Sacramento area to try to track down a reliable mechanic. Luckily, Richie Lawrence, the pride of the deep water port of Stockton, answered the call and directed us to Barbosa’s Tranny Shop on Railroad Ave in Winters. PL made the arrangements on the phone. If we could get there by 5 pm they’d work on it the next day.
We pulled into Barbossa’s auto repair in the heart of charming and bucolic Winters with about ten minutes to spare. They put her on the rack and confirmed Matt’s suspcicions. Blown Transfer Case. We’d need a whole new one which they could get the next day. OK, we said. Dave Fleming from the Palms helped us ferry our gear to the club down the street. At least we were going to make the gig. As we cross the street and start walking to the gig a man who appears to be mildly drunk accosts us. “We’re playing pool. Free beer. Do you guys play pool?” As big city Angelenos who play a weekly gig on Skid Row we all automatically recoil, keep walking along trying to avoid eye contact. But he persists. “Follow me. It’s right on the way.” For some reason Rick, Shawn, and Rob follow.
We walked through a messy, cluttered office of typewriters and reference books, the tools of the newspaper business a generation ago. There’s not a computer to be seen. All the way in the back past the presses themselves sits a fine Brunswick table beneath a long Budwiser pool lamp. There’s a kegulater in the corner and a rack of pint glasses. An old man and his wife sit on chairs by the table. He must be 90. There’s a bicycle bell attached to his mug. He takes a last sip and finishes his glass. He sets down the mug and rings the bell. His son Charlie (the one who pulled us in) grabs his cup and automatically refills it as he continues to tell us more about where we are. “He started this paper in the 40s. Did you see the pre-Colombian art?” He points out a display case next to an old Hamms Beer Sign with a waterfall on it. There’s a dozen or so ancient-looking figurines with handmade descriptions beneath them in old type face. Charlie explains that early Native Americans carved these out of stone then tossed them into their fields for protection. We play pool with two of the founder’s sons and the Winters plummer. Shawn and Rick wander back to the club but RW can’t tear himself away from the talk of history and girls. They all agree that the North Carolina accent is the sexiest of all accents. We’re all getting along famously, enjoying the novelty of each others very different daily experiences. So far the truck breakdown doesn’t hurt at all. In fact, it’s only helped us to let go of the illusion of control of life on the road. It usually takes a day or two to surrender to the unswimable current of the road but the breakdown has accelerated the process.
At 6 pm sharp the Winters newspaper office shuts down and the pool game is over. A quick pow wow inside The Palms, Hawks and Rick Shea: acoustic or electric? We’re on the proscenium stage (built 1875) of The Palms, 25 yards west of Barbossa’s, surrounded by amps, telecasters, mandolin and dobro, each on eager standby. This room has a great vibe: acoustic, by a landslide. Dave, proprietor and mastermind of this elegant emporium, has procured tacos from The Puebla (highest rating, ISHILA Food Ratings Board). Brother Peter Lacques is in attendance, big bonus for brother Paul and Hawks. We eat, we sound check, we play. But not before Paul L., thinking there’s a closed curtain, walks out on stage carrying his dobro, talking on the cell phone, in front of the whole patiently waiting audience.The show is great. Rick Shea comes out firing on D-18, with the two Pauls and Shawn backing him up, gets the big encore. Rob comes out, Rick moves stage left, and now it’s the Hawks, Rick jumping to mandolin, Richie Lawrence adding his always tasteful squeezebox. The room sounds wonderful and the crowd seems with us all the way, Hope Against Hope feels majestic, a guy in the audience whoops at the line “after you and me, the Snake and Colorado will run free,” then we end on Wonder Valley Fight Song, and a Marine in the audience whoops/grunts when we mention the 29 Palms Marine base.
Katherine and Doran, a mother-daughter guardian angel team manifested from the ether, drive us 15 minutes down dark dirt roads through silent fields, to their spiritually enlightened new concrete floor homestead towering 15 feet above the surrounding Central Valley alfalfa. A dreamlike interlude, morning bringing sweet rain and pillowy clouds, silvery drops on the pond surrounding the native grass fields, black swans in the pond, a little bird battles a hawk overhead, and the Hawks make themselves an omelette feast with eggs plucked from the 30 chickens that circle the front yard. A living room jamfest with Rick, Paul L., and Rob brings forth new alt country rocker “Yolo County Airport,” then long chats with Doran and Katherine, and the Hawks are in no hurry to hit the road. Luckily the car isn’t ready till 4 p.m., and the guardian angels drive us back to our man Charles at Barbosa’s Auto Repair, he maintains the mystical positive vibrations of this strange town, the car is fixed and runs great. $900 exchanged for a new transfer case (calm down, you 4 wheelers out there) briefly bursts the bubble of our bucolia, but a new one forms.
Grateful farewells to Dave, Doran, and Katherine, and we dive into stop and go I-80 West traffic all the way to San Francisco, Rob retrieves memories from his chaotic four years as a City By The Bay day trader, guides us to the Hotel Utah, a funky room so underground that they don’t tell the local newspapers who’s playing. This was our first electric show with Rick in a while, twas very good, the telecasters prevailed. The Hawks song “Byrd From West Virginia” threw its usual emotional gremlins into the room, walking through the foibles and moment of truth of the eldest Senator. It was good to see Hawks family units and #1 Hawks recorder Gabe Shepherd in the chilly night.A night in Marin at the Waller and Lacques northern headquarters, thank you Matthew and Nicole and elders of the Waller clan, and we get a groggy start north, passing once again through, yes, Winters, land of dreams, more carnitas and relleno at Taqueria #43, hanging around Dave at The Palms while he’s trying to work, and there’s just no more stalling to do, Hawks and Shea load into the Bomb Squad Suburban.