Tuesday, February 23, 2010

How to Fix a Car

When the battery light finally went on, we were halfway to Huntington and well aware of our growing problems. Power steering doesn't just turn off, you know, unless something is really wrong. Plus there was the whole thing with the flashers, and how they didn't so much flash as not. And the temperature gauge being stuck anywhere between beginning red to as-far-red-as-red-can-be really gave us the confidence we needed to soldier on.

What you need to know about me and cars is that, in my life, I have had a lot of break-downs. I have been stranded loads of times, and I've gotten used to it. That's why we have cell phones.

Three-ish years ago, my Dad completely wrecked his car. So, our Car Guy lent us one. We also got a rental from Other Guy's insurance company, which I couldn't drive because I was under 25 and Mom didn't want to have to struggle getting my name on the rental agreement. The lender car was a Ford Taurus, and Mom took the rental up to see her parents, leaving me with that car to drive around.

As I drove, I noticed that the car was strange. I didn't exactly like it. Something was wrong.

I mentioned this to my brother. It was weird, that car. Something wasn't the way it ought to be.

Then, as I drove to Warsaw to pick Dad up from his Guatemala trip, I realized what the problem was.

I had never driven a car that didn't totally, absolutely suck in every conceivable way.

In fact, even cars I have thought were really nice, have turned to crap the second we bought them, because everything we touch turns to crap.

To clarify, I think everything I touch turns to crap, because I have had things happen to cars declared free of engine problems almost from the first moment I start driving them, just because if something has the opportunity to strand me at the side of the road, it will embrace that opportunity, leaving me sitting at a gas station in Warsaw, laughing hysterically because my car doesn't want to start anymore, then calling Dad again and again until he finally picks up, because my car always started again the second I called him to tell him about it.

Strange, how it worked that way.

Jennifer and I were going to Fort Wayne. We were doing this because she needed sock yarn and a long circular needle, because she wanted to get rid of her ladders between the double pointed needles she had been using.

Rachael, we got her Dream in Color Smooshy. Mmm....Dream in Color....

Of course, we got the yarn the following day. Because when we got halfway to Huntington, the magic belt that keeps things running stopped keeping things running, leading to our race back to Wabash, pausing only to let the engine cool down (which would have happened faster had we been able to turn the engine off, but we couldn't because if we had, we so wouldn't ever have gotten the thing started again).

Right as we reached the spot where we could see the Culvers Barn (which Culvers painted a logo on as a kind of barnyard billboard), we had to pull over again. Jen then looked over at me and said, "Is my engine even running anymore?"

The answer, of course, was no.

Poor Jen's Poor Car had died. And I knew the reason why.

Cut to Laura, driving the aforementioned Ford Taurus, on her way to Knit Night in North Manchester, because this was before Laura got her fabulous job (and her own Taurus).

It is dark. This is because it is winter, just like it is now. Laura is driving the Taurus because her own car's lights don't so much light things up. Also, the last time she drove the Honda, this car almost ran her over, which wouldn't have been that big of a deal except for the fact that Laura's mother had been in the car to witness it, and Laura's mother had no idea how often said almost-getting-run-over happened. I mean, a gubernatorial candidate did it. And now he's the governor, cutting crazy money from education.

Suddenly, the lights on the Taurus' console dim dramatically. Laura herself gasps, putting a palm to her forehead. Then she tries to move over, as 16 has begun to curve gently, but she cannot, as the power steering has gone out. Shockingly, various lights begin to go on, from the check engine to the ABS light that Laura still knows nothing about, the temperature gauge begins to rise, rise, rise until it borders on overheating. Laura struggles to turn the car around, then drives 20mph on her way home.

Meanwhile, one of those giant trucks with the four wheels in the back (why even have those? Really. They just would make your car have more trouble on snow and ice, wouldn't they?) begins to tailgate Laura. With its brights on. Laura, now on a cell phone, is relating to her mother what has happened. Then she tells her mother about Truck Guy, who is a total and complete jerk. Laura's flashing lights are on, after all. He should know better.

However, soon after pulling into her driveway, the truck giving two little hoots goodbye, Laura realizes her lights didn't work at all through the entire drive home. Truck Guy had been lighting her way, making sure no one ran into her from behind.

I love Truck Guy.

So when Jen's car began to display the same symptoms, I knew what the problem was. It was the big fancy belt that goes all over inside your engine, the one that makes everything that's supposed to happen happen. This, according to other experts, is the Fan Belt. However, since it now powers much more than just the fan, it has many other names, like the accessory belt or the serpentine belt or the v-belt, according to Wikipedia, where I get all my car facts. Take a peek.

Who even knows about this stuff? I mean, how does a person learn about things like that when there are five or more names for the same belt? That's like calling a book by five titles. That's crazy.

Needless to say, the car didn't get very far after that. The engine wouldn't start again. I mean, would you? Jen called her dad and he came, we feasted on Sun Chips in the meantime as we were both starving (I was really starving and those chips were amazing). Her father came, and cigarette in hand, bent over her engine, tugging on the belt which had totally fallen off due to those tension things being worn out. The belt seemed fine, but it would just have fallen off again if put back on.

Long story short, her car was toast.

We got in Jen's dad's car, went back to her apartment, and went from there to Kokomo. The next morning, Jen's dad and her brother-in-law towed the car back to her apartment and fixed it, just like that. As Jen read the abandoned instructions, she noted that one ought to drain the coolant (I think that was the liquid in question--Jen?), her father replied, "Instructions are for dumb***es," and the two men went on with their work.

And now, "Nellie" is totally fixed. They just fixed it. Like, on their own.

Coming from a family in which a key-ring is utilized to keep the toilet from running (ineffectually), this is insanely cool. They bought the part, they took it home, they ripped off the alternator and the old tension system and then, just like that, they put the car back together the way it was supposed to be, only better.

In my family, sometimes Dad will buy oil at the store and settle down to change the oil in one or all of our cars. When he's finished, he'll track some in, leaving stains on the carpet, and then he won't understand why Mom gets upset--he's doing her a favor! If he hadn't changed the oil, she would have needed to take the car in, after all, to have it serviced.

Then Dad will hand you your keys and report that your car is burning oil.

"No it isn't, Dad," you'll say, and you'll be right. I mean, your oil level doesn't go down, after all.

"It's dripping onto the engine and burning," he replies, and the next time you drive the car, you'll notice he's right. Only, your car didn't do that until he touched it. Then, after 3000 miles of dumping more oil into the oil tank-thing, you get your car actually serviced. Afterward, as you pick it up, you are taken aside by the Car Guy, who tells you that whoever did your oil change the last time didn't so much reattach your oil pan as they ought to have, leading to oil drippage. He then advises you not to go back to the same guy. And because your Car Guy knows your dad and you think this whole experience is hilarious, you tell him your father did it the last time, and the two of you laugh about it.

That's what kind of family I come from.

So imagine my shock when I discover that people I know just fix their cars. All on their own.

It's like magic, only with a toolbox. That is probably the coolest thing I've ever heard of. They don't fix cars as their jobs, they just can. Like, I'm not a chef, but I can cook a mean roast chicken. Or like I'm not a professional reader or TV watcher or knitter, but I do those things constantly and I do them well. They just know how.

I wondered, on our way to Fort Wayne, how a person learned to fix cars. I couldn't imagine someone just signing up for a class and learning all of it. It seemed to me that the people who could fix cars took those classes to learn how to fix them with special computerized equipment. Basic car repair classes are for people like me, who have hardly ever used tools to fix anything, aside from taking off the plastic covering on their dashboards to try and fix their car radios which only work when they put their hand into the tape deck and lift the whole radio assemblage up, which causes some kind of wire to touch as it ought to all along, so both speakers work instead of just part of one.

I did that a bunch of times. Never worked, though. Or, it only worked for a little while and wasn't really worth the effort.

In my world, here is how a person fixes their car:

1. Notice noise.

2. Turn radio up to hide noise.

3. Notice burning smell.

4. Buy air freshener you aren't allergic to.

5. Wait.

6. When car begins to have trouble starting, put a set of jumper cables in the trunk. In fact, keep them there. Also, don't drive beyond Wabash or North Manchester, just in case.

7. When car suddenly blossoms smoke, call Dad and beg for advise. When he tells you to call someone who knows what he's talking about, claim you don't have the number because you know it will take you at least three hours to find it anyway, so you might as well ask for it again before you start searching.

8. Discover car will no longer start.

9. Dial number for car guy, discover number is stored on phone.

10. Hang up in fear, due to the shame of having put off car repair for so long.

11. Car guy picks up car with his towing apparatus, car now gone.

12. Pick car up, paying for repair.

13. Forget car's woes, pretending that car cannot break and therefore you don't have to worry about it doing so ever again.

If I took a car class, it would be full of other people just like me. People who will never really learn to fix their cars, but they will learn where to go to get their car fixed, and maybe where to buy replacement wiper blades. To me, learning to fix a car seems a lot like learning a language, it's best if you start young and grow up around it.

Maybe I'm wrong about that. But I still don't see myself leaning over a car engine and saying the funniest thing I've ever heard a person say about a car, "What the H*** is wrong with this s***?"

And you know, I don't have an answer to that question. I don't think I ever will.


  1. Was that last quote from my dad? Sounds like something he would say. It also sounds like what my brother-in-law said when he looked under the hood along with, "we've got a bleeder here."

    I'm lucky I have car-men in my family :)

  2. Also, I think most people still call it the fan belt, at least, I don't think I've ever heard serpentine (?) belt in casual conversation.

    I would like to take that class you speak of as well. I think Kevin (bro-in-law) should teach it. We would just have to get past him smirking at us every time we pointed to a part and asked, "what's that?", which is what I did to him while they were fixing my car.

  3. Both of those quotes were your dad. And they were fabulous. Your dad is like an awesome quote factory. Every time I see him, he says something I want to put on a T-shirt.