Writings by Cole Huffman


The Miles to Full

We visited a lot of places in June, including an unplanned stop in New Effington, South Dakota. According to the town’s website: “New Effington, [sic.] is a small, quiet little community of BIG hearted, dependable people.” Amen to that. I’m surprised such a tiny hamlet has a web address. I’m not surprised by the extra comma loitering in its opening sentence. From a small town myself, I had to move to the city to become what Lynne Truss calls a “punctuation vigilante.”

In her delightful Eats, Shoots, and Leaves, Truss tells an anecdote about humorist James Thurber, a writer for the New Yorker in the 1930s and 1940s. Thurber and his editor Harold Ross frequently clashed over comma frequency. Asked by a correspondent why he put a comma in the sentence, “After dinner, the men went into the living room,” Thurber explained, “This particular comma was Ross’s way of giving the men time to push back their chairs and stand up.” In the extra New Effington comma I pause to remember a cup of cold gasoline given by two of New Effington’s BIG hearted, dependable people.

I was driving north to Fargo with my two teenage daughters. In northern South Dakota I noticed we were getting low on fuel. Sisseton was up ahead, the next best chance for gas in wide open country. But then my 17-year-old son, driving himself from Memphis to Georgia that day, called right as my gas exit approached. In talking to him my mind completely shifted gears and I blew right past Sisseton’s stations.

Miles later the sickly yellow low fuel light tapped me on the retinas. Forget something!? Flushed, I pressed the Miles to Empty info button on the console—“Not Good, Idiot” it read. A hard prairie thunderstorm was cleaning the bugs off the windshield.

The map showed towns ahead just off I-29. Every town has to have a gas station, yes? By the time I exited for the closest one, New Effington, Miles to Empty sat at 11, and when I got to town it was down to 7.

I didn’t see the gas station when I turned onto Main Street. The clerk at the little grocery store told me I passed it. Because it was Saturday she added it’s usually closed on Saturdays, but the station owner lived in back of it and I could knock on the door and see if he’d turn on the pumps. Back down Main Street we went and now I saw a white ramshackle building with two pumps dating to the Carter Administration. No one was home.

I looked left and saw a man unloading his pickup in the rain. I asked him if there was another gas station nearby and he mentioned a casino “down the way,” but pointed at the pumps behind me and said the owner was likely at a volunteer fire department meeting. The building was directly across the street and I could knock on the door, he said. I did. No one was meeting.

My girls sat in our SUV at the soggy gas station. I stood fifty yards away under my umbrella. A dog was barking. The town was otherwise completely still and silent. How did I get us in this predicament, Lord?

Just then an old Blazer stopped in the street where I stood. The Native American couple inside heard me asking about gas in the store. They thought they had a gallon left in their red 2-gallon container in the back. That should be enough for me to follow them a few miles down the road to the gas station at the casino where the lady said she worked. A new version of Matthew 25 sprang to mind: I was a stranger and you fueled my truck.

Angels! My Christian friends say at this point in the story. Those were angels sent to help you. I don’t know. I gave my angel a $20 for the kindness and she held it up to the light, the reflex of a fulltime casino employee. In the moment as it was, one of my daughters questioning why I paid that much for a gallon of someone else’s lawnmower gas was perhaps more angelical, like Balaam’s angel: Your way is a reckless one before me!

I started up the truck and pressed the Miles to Empty button again. If the casino was less than 10 miles away we would make it. I was led to believe it was. But as we followed the old Blazer on back roads through vacant landscape, it seemed a longer trip. I kept checking Miles to Empty. My other daughter knew where we were going but asked anyway to quell her nerves. “To the casino for gas or to robbery and death,” I reassured her.

The casino finally appeared. The gas pumps were Obama Administration all the way, with TVs so customers could watch casino ads on endless loop during fueling. I thought briefly about going in and trying to win my $20 back, at roulette possibly. I would use my Miles to Empty lucky 7. God’s number, you know.

But then if the couple in the Blazer really were angels I didn’t want to make them have to tackle me. And besides, I was full. Thank you, Lord.

Posted by Cole Huffman at 10:52 AM