It was a little touch and go as to whether or not we would be able to meet this time, as we had, yes, more snow on Tuesday morning. And three more snow days, including Thursday (naturally, after I had already arranged for the day off and scheduled a sub). But the main roads were clear, and I was off and running; that is, until I saw that my gas gauge was on a quarter of a tank.
Now, just a few weeks ago, during one of our many arctic blasts, I knocked the gas cap to the ground and it rolled under the car while I was filling the car with gas, leading me to proclaim that there should be a law that women do not have to pump their own gas, ever.
And here I was, temperature 9 degrees, wind chill below zero, pavement icy, preparing to fill the damn tank. I pulled the little lever to open the gas tank door, got out of the car, ran my credit card through the card reader, turned to remove the gas cap (reminding myself to be vewy, vewy careful with that wascally gas cap) and...
...the little door to the gas tank was still shut. As in frozen shut. As in I don't have enough gas to go much more than 45 or 50 miles into a 150 drive and I CAN'T GET THE DAMN DOOR TO POP OPEN.
I didn't want to scratch the paint, so using my keys to chip away the ice was not a viable option. I dug around in the car and found a wooden clothespin (and don't ask me why there was a clothespin in the front seat of the car, because I really have no idea whatsoever) and tried to chip away the ice (which was in the crack between the little door and the car body and nearly impossible to reach), but the clothespin broke after a few stabs. The emery board I found broke before I could worry about its surface scratching the paint. Then, I found a pen. A plain old Bic stick pen, the kind my son favors, with a removable cap. A removable cap with a pointy part for clipping it onto a shirt pocket. Or for painstakingly sawing at the ice around the little door to the gas tank, which is exactly what I used it for. And twenty minutes after arriving at the gas station, I finally got the ice chipped away, the little door opened, the gas cap off and not dropped, and the tank filled.
(In case you were wondering, no one, and I mean NO ONE, offered any help, and you CANNOT TELL ME the guy working inside the convenience store didn't notice my struggle, although, on second thought, he came out to diddle around with a pump near me while I was waiting for the tank to fill, and he was wearing shorts and a t-shirt, so maybe I'm wrong about him being aware of anything around him.)
I was finally on my way and, after regaining feeling in my extremities, spent a pleasant two hours toodling down the highway, entertaining myself by singing at the top of my lungs to the radio. I was counting the miles to St. Robert, the halfway point between Joplin and St. Louis, according to my friend Marshall. Marshall knows this because he is something very important in the Army and has to travel there frequently to go to Fort Leonard Wood, a base located just outside the town (I'll tell you how I know this part in a minute). He also told me there was a Panera Bread "right by the highway" (if you have ESP, because GPS isn't going to help you here).
As I was nearing St. Robert, I got a call from Dana. She had just arrived and couldn't find the Panera ANYWHERE, in spite of using GPS to find it. She was surprised how a town as small as this one could hide a Panera so well, and she was not seeing much in the way of civilization. I said, "Marshall SAID it was close to the highway!" Dana finally had to pee so badly that she decided to stop somewhere and ask for directions. A few minutes later, she called me back, said in spite of her filthy, lying GPS, she was now at Panera, and told me to make sure I turned right when I exited the highway. Roger that.
A minute or two later, I exited at St. Robert and dutifully turned right at the end of the exit ramp. No Panera. I kept driving. No Panera. I kept driving. No civilization. Remembering Dana saying there wasn't much in the way of civilization, I thought I must be on the right track.
Until I wasn't anymore.
Because ahead of me, with no warning I SWEAR, and with nowhere to turn around, was Fort Leonard Wood.
I got in line behind the other cars, all waiting to drive through Checkpoint Charlie. All with some sort of credentials and reasons to be there. All wearing nifty Army clothes. I started getting a little panicky. Okay, a LOT panicky. How was I going to explain this?
I inched forward until I reached the guard, rolled down my window and said, "I don't know what happened. I was just trying to find Panera." The guard (when did the Army start recruiting 15 year old kids, by the way, or am I just getting old?) burst out laughing, showed me where I could cut through some orange cones, turn around, and head back to town, and gave me impeccable directions to Panera. Which, it turned out, WAS sort of right by the highway, but you wouldn't know it if coming from the direction of the highway unless you could swivel your head around like an owl as you drove (or used the powers of ESP, which I do not possess).
(I would have liked to have taken a picture of the entrance to the base and inserted it here, but I got in a little trouble taking pictures on an air force base one time and thought it best to avoid pissing off the army, too.)
Dana was waiting for me inside Panera. We ate lunch and talked and laughed and took stupid pictures of ourselves and talked and laughed some more. The time flew by all too quickly, but with any luck, it won't be another year until we get together again. Because spending time with a good friend is worth nearly losing your toes to the cold.
And getting lost.
And almost joining the army.