Hank Willems ’76
“As we were passing the Firestone tire factory, I remarked, “All I can smell is burning rubber.” A minute later a car passed, the driver gesturing frantically. Glancing around, we realized that our tire was on fire.”
At the end of December 1972, I drove from Long Island to Oberlin for the beginning of Winter Term with my lacrosse teammates John Rembisz and Jerry Greenfield, and Jerry’s large dog, Malcom. We rode four abreast in Jerry’s decrepit Ford pickup through New Jersey, across Pennsylvania and into Ohio. It rained hard all day.
As we were passing Akron, then the home of the Firestone tire factory, I remarked on the air pollution, “All I can smell is burning rubber.” A minute later a car passed on our left, the driver gesturing frantically. Glancing around, we realized that our left rear tire was on fire.
We pulled off at the first exit, parked at the periphery of a gas station near the foot of the exit ramp and put the fire out. The proprietors observed us from two folding chairs in an empty garage bay. As the rain poured down we jacked the truck, pulled the ruined tire off and inspected the damage.
“Looks like the brake seized and the drum got hot enough to light the tire.” John said. Jerry thought the fire might have started when brake fluid leaked onto the red-hot drum.
By this time the two mechanics showed mild interest but held their position. The scene was a classic: three East Coast longhairs and a dog stranded at the edge of a gritty, red neck city. It didn’t help that we had less than fifty dollars collectively.
Rembisz led the way to the garage. He was by no means a physical specimen, just a wiry guy of average height. But as anyone who knew him would attest, John Rembisz had “cojones grandes.”
They rose from their chairs as we came in and Rembisz said, “I need to buy a quart of brake fluid and borrow a hacksaw and a pair of vice grips.” They laughed. John said, “Look man, don’t be like that. Loan me the tools and we’ll be out of here in a half hour.”
That got them interested. One brought the brake fluid and the other got the tools. We went back out into the rain, cut the brake line with the hacksaw, crimped it with the vice grips, topped up the fluid and bled the remaining three valves.
After we had the spare on, Rembisz walked back, handed the tools over and gave them a million dollar smile. “Thanks, man. We’ve got eighty miles to go.”
We pulled back onto the highway and pushed on to Oberlin. The truck rode pretty well, except that when you hit the brake, it jumped about a foot to the right. We kept it in the right lane and completed the trip without further incident. A week later, Loubob Weigele, another teammate, replaced the rear axle. The truck lasted out the year.
Sadly, John Rembisz has passed on, but his name conjures a vivid image in the minds of all who knew him. Jerry, Loubob and I stay in touch. A few years ago, as we reminisced about that trip after the annual alumni lacrosse game, we agreed that it’s not easy to get to Oberlin, but once you’re there, you know it was worth the effort.
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