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Food Feature: Over and Dunn

How I was left high and dry and almost missed the annual family putt-putt tournament

Each summer my stepmother's side of the family meets at the beach in Nags Head, N.C., for the annual "Rowell Family Putt-Putt Tournament." Being with the family at the beach is great, but let's not kid ourselves; the chance to keep the trophy for a whole year is what really draws us all there.

I usually go up I-85 to Raleigh and then take back roads over to the coast. This past year, I went with a change of scenery and took I-20 East over to I-95 North to get to Raleigh.

I headed out a little before noon Sunday and the gas started running low just after I got on I-95 and started heading into North Carolina. I stopped at the first station I found. It seemed pretty old — they didn't even have "pay at the pump."

I got back on the interstate and realized I was going to make it to Raleigh sooner than I would have if I had taken the usual I-85 route. Just as I was basking in the glory of my quickness, the cruise control gave out and the car completely shut off. Luckily I was near an exit so I coasted down it and pulled over to the side.

No matter what I tried, I couldn't get the car to start again so I walked to the nearest gas station (that, of course, didn't have a garage) and called a tow truck. Tony the tow truck driver soon showed up, gave the car a good look, and informed me he had no idea what was wrong with it.

Evidently the routine for broken-down travelers is to dump them off at the local Motel 8 and then leave with the car, promising it is going to the best (only?) garage in town.

On the way to the motel, I asked Tony where I was. He said I was in Dunn, N.C. I had never heard of it and soon found out why. Other than the Motel 8 and the small diner next to it, there wasn't much.

Once in my luxurious hotel suite, I called my father who was already enjoying the comforts of the beachfront cottage we'd rented. He figured whatever the problem was, I should be back on the road by the next afternoon. An entire 24 hours in Dunn, N.C., didn't sound like fun but at least I would make it to the beach before the putt-putt tournament. I was planning to win, finally, and drink champagne out of the trophy until I passed out.

I spent most of the next morning at the little diner near the motel calling the garage: "Have you figured out what's wrong with my car yet?"

"We aren't quite sure yet, but Billie Bob is getting ready to look at it."

Thank God they were getting Billie Bob on the case. I felt better already. Tony the tow truck driver picked me up at the diner and took me over to the garage a little after noon. By then Billie Bob had spotted the problem: water in the gas tank.

But how in the world did water get in the gas tank? He explained to me that after heavy rains groundwater can seep into old underground tanks at less-than-modern stations. This information made the old station that didn't have pay at the pump even more memorable.

After flushing the tank and putting fresh gas in, I heard the car start and figured I soon would be on my way. Hold the phone, though. Billie Bob didn't like the sounds the car was making and was afraid more damage had been done.

They soon decided I needed a new catalytic converter. They could only get the part from Jimmy down the street and the soonest they could do that would be Thursday, the day after the putt-putt tournament.

I was struck with the revelation that instead of spending the week at the beach, I was going to spend it in Dunn, N.C. The idea was unbearable so I soon thought of ways to get to the beach: Greyhound? "Not in Dunn." Rental car? "You mean to take out of Dunn?" I swear this place was something else.

It was finally the end of the day and a nice lady at the garage gave me a ride back to the Motel 8 where I rented another room and called Dad to see what he thought. Parents always come to the rescue, and he offered to drive the three-and-a-half hours to get me. This gave the garage an extra few days to figure out what was really wrong with my car (in other words, to come up with something that would be even more expensive).

I called the garage every day and they finally deduced the catalytic converter was fine but I needed a new alternator ($500 compared to $150). I got a ride back to Dunn from my cousins at the end of the week to pick up the old Prelude and head back to Atlanta $500 lighter.

The real hero in all of this of course was Dad, who got me to the tournament on time. How did I do? For yet another year, I was outplayed by most of the family. I had a good excuse this time though: The stress of being in Dunn threw my game off. I wonder what my excuse will be next year.

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