Check Engine Light

In the early 90s I listened to the Car Talk guys radio show on NPR religiously. I loved hearing them laugh. I loved how they made fun of people and their cars, even while making them feel hugged through the airwaves. When they held a contest to attend their company picnic, I jumped on it. Tell us, they asked, in 26 words or less, why you should be invited. I went out and bought a postcard with an old sticker-covered Jalopy on the cover. On it I wrote, “I work for myself so my company picnics tend to be a little lonely.”

A few weeks later Doug Berman, their producer, phoned to tell me I’d won the contest! They flew me and three friends (Fergus, my boyfriend at the time, and Jacqui and Lorne—a couple we often hung with) from Seattle to Boston where we were picked up in a stretch limousine and driven to the snazzy Charles Hotel down the street from the Car Talk Guys’ Dewey, Cheatem & Howe law offices. On the beds in the rooms were care packages for all four of us: huge yellow felt dice (to hang from our rear view mirrors, presumably); Car Talk hats, T-shirts, and mugs; and maybe some other whimsical items I’ve long thrown out or forgotten.

The next morning I was met in front of the hotel by none other than Tom and Ray. I instantly liked them both. They were driving their famous1962 Dodge Dart. It was a convertible and before driving off to the company picnic we three had to put up with a quick photo op by Doug (Dougie) Berman where we sat on top of the back seat and the brothers Tappet engulfed me in their loving arms. I still have the photograph somewhere of me wearing a white tank top; the boys in shorts and Bermuda shirts, if I remember that right. All three of us wore huge smiles.

 The day was hot and sunny. The picnic on the lawns of MIT was unremarkable. Basic BBQ food. A few booths in which to lose your money—like Dunk the Producer. Lots of paying guests: fans of WBUR come to see their auto heroes, milling about. I met Tom’s wife, a much younger woman from somewhere in eastern Europe, I think. She was quiet, as was Tom, relatively speaking, that is, because his much shorter brother Ray was the life of the party. He and his adorable wife and children greeted everyone as if they were their best friends. His belly laughter echoed off the grassy fields throughout the afternoon. I had to get up on a stage with them and was introduced to the crowd as the winner of the company picnic contest. My fifteen minutes of glow stayed with me for a long time.

On the next radio show I called in to thank them all for hosting me and for showing my friends and me a lovely time. They thanked me profusely for the gifts I’d brought: a plastic ferry boat with toy cars, and a picture book of Seattle written in Chinese. They wished me well and I them.

A few years later, while a producer at Microsoft, one of my colleagues brainstormed the idea of an online version of Car Talk during a meeting. I said, “I know them. Well, I went to their company picnic. They might not remember me.” So I wrote them and, no, they had not forgotten “Lisa from Seattle!” and I put them in touch with the Microsoft people, who eventually produced their website presence, which, I hope made them lots of money.

Tom died this week. Of complications of Alzheimer’s. Tough way to go. Sometimes more so for the family and friends than the person suffering. Last year I spent some time doing activities with ALZ patients at a posh residential home a few blocks from my house here in Burlington, Vermont. The residents who suffered memory loss were in turns happy and confused; angry and content. One of the ladies constantly cleaned the floor with an imaginary cloth. Another woman packed up her room every day and waited for her mother to come get her. It was heartbreaking, especially since she never had a single visitor.

I can’t imagine the pain Ray must have experienced watching his partner, his brother, his friend, tumble down into the darkness. I wonder if he felt a little like his right arm was slowly being sawed off.

I sent condolences to Doug Berman to pass on to Ray and all the rest of the clan there. Sundays haven’t been the same in a long time; not since Car Talk started playing only old shows. Now everyone knows why. Here I thought maybe they were tired of talking shop. But I was wrong—they were just too busy dealing with a rusting engine of their own.

Thanks for the fun memories, boys.

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