I would never have encountered the mysterious woman that I began to think of later as the Phantom of Luhr Beach if it hadn’t been for a series of malfunctioning fuel pumps in my old ’71 Ford pickup.
Those old mechanical fuel pumps of the carburetor days were easier to change out than the ones they bury in the fuel tank now. On my way to work a few days before I encountered this woman, the truck went crazy, sputtering on the hills and dying over and over. I limped in, wondering how I was going to get home, fifty miles from Seattle.
We had several editions on deadline, needing a lot of copy to put them to bed. Vence, our managing editor, had grown up tinkering with internal combustion engines out in the Wynoochee Valley on the Olympic Peninsula. He said he would work on my truck if I would kill off all the editions in need of copy. It was a hell of a deal for me, because I am a far better writer than I am a mechanic. I got on the phone and started calling contacts and pounding the keys of my well-broken-in office typewriter.
Vence replaced the points, condenser and coil. He would come in every half-hour of so, his tie flipped over his shoulder and his white shirt sleeves rolled up above his massive forearms, wash off the grease and quickly scan the stories I ground out before putting them through the window to the copy editors.
The truck still was dead, so he drove back to the parts store and bought a fuel pump and installed it. I closed a couple of editions before lunch, and we took the truck to lunch to see if that had solved the problem. It ran fine to lunch and back, and I spent the afternoon hammering out stories.
Then on the way home in the early darkness of winter, in one of those pea-soup Puget Sound fogs that made me think of hansom cabs and Jack the Ripper, the truck died again. The fog was so dense in South Seattle that I had to walk directly to a street sign and look up at it to find out where I was.
I called Vence from the first pay phone I found to ask for advice, and he came and got me in his big Ford 4x4, older than mine but in perfect running order. He towed me all the way home, fifty miles, using what he called a “Wynoochee rig”: a short tow chain, no more than ten feet between my front bumper and his hitch, moving at speeds up to 55. I had my face out the window to see, since there was no power in the truck and the windshield was icing over. The plan was for me to signal when I was going to hit the brakes, then apply pressure gradually, and he would let my truck’s weight slow him as he braked, keeping the chain taut. It worked just like that.
It felt like my face was freezing solid. There was ice in my beard and eyebrows when we got to my place. At one point we zoomed right by a state trooper in the fog who had stopped somebody else, and he never looked around to see the blacked-out truck behind Vence — pure dumb luck.
The next day I removed the rebuilt fuel pump that had quit working so fast, and took it to town in my old ’66 Cadillac to exchange. By now Vence had showed me how to remove and install fuel pumps, and I put the third one in by Coleman lantern light after I got home from work, tightened everything down with a hose clamp and let it idle for a while. Then I drove around on Christmas Eve buying presents, and drove to Puget Marina in Olympia to pick up my new boat trailer to replace the one destroyed in October — which is a whole other story. Over Christmas I got the duck boat on its new trailer and the repaired outboard mounted and bolted down, and invited young Lucas, son of a friend of mine, to go duck hunting the day after Christmas. It seemed only fair after his first trip with me ended in the disaster that wrecked my trailer and messed up my brand-new Mercury motor.
The exchanged fuel pump expired on the Luhr Beach boat launch on Puget Sound at dead low tide at 4:30 in the morning.
The tide was beginning to turn, which would put my entire rig under water if I remained stuck there at the bottom of the launch. My only hope was that later-arriving duck hunters or salmon fishermen would be able to help me get the rig above the high-tide mark.
At five o’clock, headlights came down the dark road and into the launch area — a big Oldsmobile towing a decked runabout with a windshield and canvas canopy and a big inboard-outboard motor.
The driver was a lithe, dark-haired, quite attractive woman in a tweed pant suit and modest heels, dressed for the city.
She was exasperated to find the launch blocked by my disabled rig. She seemed driven by a terrible urgency to get her boat on the water. You realize, she said in a tight voice, that there is no way I can launch past you. Hands on her hips, head canted, blaming me for blocking her access. I have to get my boat launched!
Her frustration would have been normal in a fisherman, but not that tight-held almost-panic. I didn’t know what to say; no way we could rig a tow from her city car to the stranded truck and tow it out of the way. She almost stamped a foot in frustration.
Look, she said, are you any good at backing up boats?
Lucas snorted. Shit, I could get your boat past our truck.
Watch your mouth, young man, she said crisply. And to me, Well?
Sure, I said, I can get your boat past my rig. But your fenders might get banged up on the rocks on the beach.
If you get me in the water, I will leave you my car keys so you can go for help, she said, surprising the heck out of me. But I need to get going, right now!
It was as if she was on a clocked run to a rendezvous. I imagined a mysterious freighter, making its way down the Nisqually Reach, lookouts on the bridge watching for her. But that was none of my business. She said there probably was a pay phone up at the diner on the freeway where I could call for help. I said yes there was, I had used that phone before.
Never mind about the fenders. I have to leave immediately!
The power steering in the Olds made maneuvering easy; I backed her boat carefully past my disabled truck, half on the one-lane launch pavement and half on the rocky beach. I was very careful not to put the rear wheels in the water, where the sand got soft, but managed to get the boat deep enough to float off the trailer with the motor tilted up. Lucas and I launched her boat since we had hip boots. I have no idea how she had planned to launch in heels, even just two-inch heels.
She stepped deftly up on the dry end of the trailer when I pulled the bow in to the beach, and held out a hand for me to balance her while Lucas held the bow. She hopped nimbly onto the front deck without even getting her feet wet, sidled by the windshield and vanished into the cockpit, her voice floating behind her.
Push me out now, please.
We pushed, the boat glided out, the lower unit of the inboard-outboard whined down into the water and she immediately keyed the engine to life.
What do I do with your car keys, I called.
Leave them under the front seat and lock the door when you’re done with my car.
She already was reversing out, totally unconcerned about her vehicle. She vanished in the dark before I even got her car off the launch.
That lady was strange, Lucas said. Do things like that happen a lot out here? The look on his face was priceless.
First time for everything, I said.
Before I headed for the diner, a group of duck hunters showed up in a big Ford pickup like mine — with a functioning fuel pump. They hooked my chain to the rear of their boat trailer and easily pulled us clear of the launch and well above high tide, but not before I offloaded my own boat. It was looking like a long day stranded on Nisqually before any help could reach us, so we might as well go hunting.
I left Lucas and my Labrador Harry with the boat and drove to the diner. I noticed that she had a pile of unopened mail on the front seat, addressed to general delivery Olympia, with return addresses all over the place. But my reporter brain was not in gear and I did not memorize the name of the addressee, or look for the registration slip. It never occurred to me to invade the privacy of this unlikeliest of guardian angels.
I found the pay phone, called home and told my wife another fuel pump had failed, please call for reinforcements. I hung around until she called back and said Lucas’s dad wouldn’t be able to get there with a new fuel pump until well after dark. It was a work day for everybody else. So I went back and locked the car up and we went hunting.
Of course after all that, it seemed as if ducks had abandoned the area entirely. The foot well in the blind we were using was full of water that seemed too cold to still be liquid, and a steady icy rain soaked us. Lucas was miserable and I was uncomfortable so we quit early and went in.
The woman’s car was gone.
We never saw her again.
But her boat trailer was still there, pushed to one side of the launch. That boat trailer stayed there for at least two years, being successively stripped of anything that could be taken until just the bare frame remained.
She had been wound up as tight as the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland, late for a very important date. Somebody came and got the car and ditched the trailer, which made me think she didn’t need it anymore. Maybe her runabout was sitting on the deck of that imagined freighter, outbound for unknown ports of call.