Why the Chickens Crossed the Road

The two fools were at it again. This time in Portugal, April 1992.


Many years ago, the two fools were on  a two-week car trip through Portugal. They had left the walled city of Óbidos and were heading north toward Coimbra and Aveiro. They had no reservations, save the plane tickets to and from Lisbon, and an off-the-beaten-path guidebook of itineraries with directions like; “… take a left at the red house with a fence around it.”

Now, Fool Number Two had this thing about car trips with unknown destinations—she was always afraid of running out of gas. So, shortly after they had left Óbidos, she said to Fool Number One, “I know there must be gas stations on these roads, but I don’t remember seeing any yesterday. We should make sure we stop at the first one we see—just in case.”

About an hour later they came across a small paint-faded wooden building that had two gas pumps. It was a lonely, dusty little gas station manned by two fellows who spoke no English. The fools knew only a few words of Portuguese; the rudimentary and universal “yes,” “no,” “please” and “thank you”—so, no, they didn’t speak any Portuguese either.

Fool Number One got out of the car and studied the two pumps. One was for diesel gas and the other pump had three choices with three prices posted above each nozzle. One of the men approached Fool Number One and picked up the middle nozzle.

“Não, não,” Fool Number One said as he pointed to the third nozzle. The man paused, but the fool insisted. Fool Number One wanted the cheapest-priced gas. While the attendant filled the tank, Fool Number Two took in the surroundings.

The houses along the road that they had just passed were modest-sized, and all had dirt driveways and large vegetable patches. Some had wooden out-buildings in the backyards, and fencing that appeared to hold small farm animals—Fool Number Two couldn’t see any, but the manure aroma gave them away. The two houses across the road from the gas station were much the same. Both had sharply pruned grapevines with light green shoots and leaves emerging from woody stalks. Fool Number Two could see some fruit trees that had either lemon or orange blossoms that she was sure were giving off their perfumed scents, but she was too far away to smell the blossoms, and the gasoline fumes erased any such spring pleasure. There also were many brown-feathered chickens, and a couple of roosters scratching about that didn’t seem to belong to any individual household.

Fool Number One then got back in the car—so much for the neighborhood sights. Off they went—for about two hundred yards. Spuuttchuupp, spuuttchuupp, lurch, jerk, spuuttchuupp, lurch, jerk. What the…

 “Oh, oh,” said Fool Number One. “I think the third nozzle was motor scooter gas—it’s an oil and gas mixture.”

They had to get back to the gas station. But how? They were afraid if they slowed down or stopped the car, it would stall and wouldn’t start again, and how would they ever arrange for a tow truck, etc, etc. That’s when they spotted a small traffic  roundabout up ahead, and so praying nothing else would happen, they sputtered, lurched, and jerked their way around it and back to the gas station.

Fool Number One pulled up to the pump again, and both gas attendants walked over to the “bucking bronco.” The man who filled the tank pointed to the third nozzle and shrugged his shoulders.

Fool Number One got out of the car and by using hand gestures,  the men had understood that he needed to siphon the gas mixture out of the tank. The fools  expected them to be angry  or even laugh at them. But no, they had a neutral, matter-of-fact look on their faces. One man fetched a bucket and a hose from the gas station’s shed-like building. Fool Number One watched incredulously as each one took turns sucking on the hose to get the gas to flow out of the tank. Only problem was…each time one of them got the gas up to their lips, they’d pull the hose out of their mouths and hold the end of the hose UP, not down into the bucket—guaranteeing the flow would stop. Fool Number One tried to intervene to solve their physics problem, but the men probably figured he was an idiot, and ignored him.

Just then a young, twenty-something, kid on a motor scooter put-putted by and noticed their dilemma. He pulled in and spoke to the attendants. He also had that “hard to read,” non-smiling facial look. It seemed he wanted the fools to go back down the road from where they came.

The fools  looked at each other. Maybe they were stupid, but they decided to have faith in the goodness of these non-smiling people, so, thanking and taking leave of the siphoners, they lurched and jerked out onto the road to follow the motor scooter.  A quarter of a mile down the road, the kid pointed to a large, weather-beaten barn up ahead on the left. It was set off from the road, and had its doors wide open. It looked like the barn was barely in shape to house any feedstock or animals. The motor-scooter kid sped up and drove up to the barn and went inside. He reappeared at the door and motioned for the fools to drive the car inside. They turned into the dirt yard and the bucking car’s tires began to spit up gravel bits, scattering a brood of chickens that were pecking around in the dirt in front of the barn doors.

The bright mid-day sun blinded them to the darkened interior, and before their eyes could adjust, a man opened Fool Number One’s door and motioned for the fools to get out of the car.

 Fool Number Two immediately thought, we were wrong about the non-smiling people, we’re gonna die!

But…what is that? Is that a car-lift?

The man drove the car onto the lift, shut the engine off, got out, and another man hit a lever that raised the rear of the car. They attached a hose to the carburetor and began draining the gas into a large oil barrel.

The fools were standing beside the lift trying to make sense of their surroundings. They could see over in the far left side of the building another man spray-painting a car part. There was a plastic sheet hanging from a beam, but it only partially contained the paint mist swirling in the air. The fools slowly realized this must be the local car repair shop. Just like the gas station…no need for a sign. They turned their attention back to the two men who were draining the car of scooter gas.

Oh no, no! thought Fool Number Two. The men were standing over the oil barrel getting ready to light up a cigarette!

Spray paint, gas fumes…

Yup, we’re gonna die! She thought.

She ran over to the men crying, “Não fumar!, Não fumar!” just as Fool Number One grabbed her arm and said, “One of us has to stay alive for the kids, get out of the barn—now!” Fool Number Two dashed outside and found herself among a clutch of clucking chickens high-tailing it across the road.

The two smokers, of course didn’t listen to her, and Fool Number One nervously watched as they finished their cigarettes, finished draining the gas, and finished putting just enough regular gas in the tank to get the fools back to the gas station. When he tried to pay them, the non-smiling men used hand gestures indicating”nothing” and grunted “Nao.” Fool Number One said, “obrigado” (thank you) and through gestures, indicated they could have the scooter gas.

The fools left and made their way back to the two straight-faced siphoners who filled the tank with gas from the middle nozzle.

Back on the road, still adrenaline-charged, they laughed about their near-miss disaster:

“All those helpful people who never smiled! They should have a rip-roaring laugh about us tonight with their friends or family.”

“And why did I readily agree, for the sake of the children, to run out of the barn without you? And why did you think sacrificing yourself to a ball of flames was a good idea? We both needed to get out of there!”

“Oh god, I don’t know,” Fool Number One laughed. “And what was I thinking offering the car mechanics the motor-scooter gas? Was I planning to take it with us??”

“Yeah, we were like two chickens with our heads cut off,” Fool Number Two, said.  “Hmm, come to think of it, maybe those chickens were the smart ones. At least they knew when to skedaddle.”

The fools depleted their nervous tension and turned their thoughts to the road again. Now, where were they headed? Oh yes, to look for the red house with the fence around it. What could go wrong?


  1. Julia Rayball

    Oh Kathy, I bet hubby never argued for the cheap gas again ! Knowing the amount of Portuguese people that I do, it’s safe to say they are a very proud to the point kind of people. I’m sure they did get a chuckle out of it but seems as though maybe you were not the first to get the wrong gas.

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