Barrels of Oil and Buckets of Faith

chevy car
(Photo: Court Prather)

By Rich H. Kenney, Jr.

My first car was a 1951 Chevy Powerglide, a beastly machine my grandfather dubbed, The Boiler. I bought it for $80 in 1970, the summer I turned nineteen.

It was a far cry from my father’s sleek ’66 Pontiac LeMans, which I occasionally got to drive in high school. That one had some kick to it. I remember gunning the LeMans down Shaw Street in Braintree, Massachusetts, the back road that led to Fore River Shipyard about 10 miles south of Boston. By the time I reached the old Quintree Drive-In, the needle was usually pushing 80.

The Boiler was another matter. It was the drab color of a battleship and as slow-moving. Top-speed was 40 mph. Beyond that, the old rattletrap vibrated uncontrollably; the steering wheel may as well have been a jackhammer.

There were lots of things going on under the hood, too, like clouds of steam and screeching fan belts. And… it leaked oil.

“Faith was a feeling that everything would work out, that there weren’t any roadblocks that could turn me back. Faith was being 19 years old.”

I remember a gas station attendant once telling me to check the oil from time to time. He had just checked under the hood (they used to do that in 1970 when gasoline cost 35 cents a gallon) and was showing me the dipstick where there was a slight trace of oil way south of the “low” line.

“Hey, buddy,” he said, snidely, “to keep this rig running you’re gonna need barrels of oil and buckets of faith. Keep checking on both.”

In 1970, faith was easy. It was alone-time talks with God at St. Clare’s Church just before Sunday Mass or thumb rides home with perfect strangers whenever The Boiler broke down. Faith was a feeling that everything would work out, that there weren’t any roadblocks that could turn me back. Faith was being 19 years old.

And then Injustice ran a red light. In time, Hardship, too, took to the road, broadsiding me at will. In my rearview mirror, Doubt was a tailgater I could not shake.

Too often, I felt alone when life seemed to turn on me, when God appeared to flee the scenes of my accidents. Those were the times I needed to check under the hood. Those were the times when faith was a bone-dry dipstick.

And then kids with Down syndrome entered my life. There was the old-time radio show I put together for nursing home residents. I learned how to hike with teens who were blind. A guy in a homeless shelter taught me how to fix wheels on grocery carts. There was a 1940s-era trombonist hospice patient whose dilapidated house was filled with sheet music and loose pages from a weather-beaten Bible.  

I’ve been a social worker for 30 years. Today, I teach college students about the possibilities of a noble profession and how helping is really a two-way street. I tell them about grocery shopping for a home-bound woman who thanked me with toast and tangerine jam. I tell them about the man with a hunched back and lung disease who explained how reading Scripture made him stand tall. I tell them about the young girl with an intellectual disability who sang me her song.

My ’51 Chevy is long-gone and so, too, is the oil I used to fill it. As for faith, the last time I checked, I seemed to have an ample supply. Faith—it’s what keeps me running.  

Editor’s note: A version of this article was originally published on the author’s blog.

Rich H. Kenney, Jr. is the Social Work Program director and associate professor at Chadron State College in Chadron, Nebraska. His essays and poetry have been published in Social Work Today, Cloudbank, and Plainsongs. 

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