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Ode to a Skylark's saviors

The 1,500-mile trip to St. Petersburg had seemed like a piece of cake. Blasting the radio and air conditioner, a friend and I sang and sped our way through close to 18 hours of U.S. highways without a care. We had even begun to call ourselves Thelma and Louise.

The rattling noise began somewhere in southern Georgia. But we just ignored it and turned the radio up a few more notches. Near Jacksonville, the rattle under my hood had grown to a thunderous rumble, and the temperature, oil and "Service Engine Soon" lights blinked on. We pulled into a rest area, and the old Skylark died right in the parking lot, spewing out huge, smoky clouds and smelling like scorched sneakers.

All our bravado and our sense of adventure died along with it. Thelma and Louise, carefree cross-country nomads, had turned into two whimpering 21-year-olds who knew nothing about cars.

Our rescue came in the form of J.

F. Hart, a Wells Fargo security guard who calmed us down, made us laugh and checked the car. He told us we had a broken water pump and would need a tow truck. (Until then, I had never even heard of a water pump.)

Hart's replacement, Thomas Cliver, who used to be an auto mechanic, gave me a quick lesson on how much water pumps usually cost and how to tell if mechanics are trying to snow you.

Hart and Cliver made sure we found a tow truck and hotel for the night, and Hart even stayed with us after his shift was over. ("If you girls want to take a nap in your car," Hart had said, patting the gun on his right hip, "we'll make sure you're safe here.") A motorist stopped to see if we needed help, then looked at the two guards and said, "Well, I can see you're already with the safest guys in town."

Though my friend and I didn't think we were in danger, the two guards eased our fears and helped us when we needed it. Their help went well beyond the law-enforcement duties they were hired to perform.

Gov. Lawton Chiles ordered the 24-hour security in September 1993, after a British tourist was killed and his companion wounded as they napped in their locked car at a rest stop.

As of today, though, the state will end 24-hour security at 70 of its rest stops, limiting security guards such as Hart and Cliver to nighttime duty only.

Money is tight because state lawmakers want to build more prisons; evidently, the safety and peace of mind of Florida's traveling residents and visitors aren't very high on the state's list of priorities. The 24-hour rest stop security program may be gone, but at least two travelers can attest that it was a success in ways that lawmakers never even envisioned.

Amy Piniak is an intern in the editorial department at the Times.