By this point in my role as a parent, I thought I’d told all the tellable stories to my kids. In fact, they know them so well that they tend to try to tell them for me when we meet someone new. However, I was surprised yesterday to discover one that Sydney, at least, hadn’t heard. We were talking with some family friends and the subject of Sydney locking her keys in the car when she went to fill up the tank came up. Naturally, that spurred a memory and a resulting story that I assumed my family had already heard, but one I knew would be new to this particular group of friends. As I launched into the narrative, the look on Sydney’s face told me she’d never heard this particular story before. Since I apparently haven’t been all that prolific in sharing this one, I figured I might as well write it down before I forget it and it is lost to history.
When I was 16, I purchased a 1979 Cadillac Coupe De Ville from my older sister who had previously purchased it from a rather eccentric artist friend of my father’s. To give you some idea for how nice of a vehicle this beast was, I’ll share what I know of it’s origin story. Steve Paschal, my father’s artist friend, was something of a gypsy painter who didn’t stay anywhere very long. Somehow or another, he had landed in Utah and made friends with my father who has a habit of making friends with a wide array of people. After a few years (I think about three) Steve got itchy to move again and started making plans to move his family to Hong Kong. Among the possessions he needed to liquidate before leaving was his wife’s Cadillac – an enormous beast of a vehicle that was painted banana yellow, drank gas like a thirsty camel drinks water, and had been the victim of some variety of major accident (I believe with a telephone pole) that smashed the hinge of the passenger-side door. The headliner was falling down, it burned oil like crazy, and about the only equipment in the dash-board that worked reliably was an old 8-track player (I didn’t own any 8-track tapes though). The air-adjustable shocks were shot, and the tires were about as bald and rotten as you can get while still holding air. It was longer than a long-bed pickup truck, and when I opened both doors the car took up three full parking spots
A week before leaving for Hong Kong, Steve offered this car to my sister and her husband for $200. They didn’t have $200. A little while later, he offered it to her for $100. They didn’t have $100. Just before leaving, Steve asked her how much she did have. I think the answer was something like $25. It was worth about that much. While it was a broken-down old beast, my sister still drove it for a while before deciding they didn’t need it anymore, and they sold it to me for $100. At this point my sister was pregnant with their first child, and I believe she and her husband figured they could make due with one car to save on expenses.
Their other car (a GMC S-15 small pickup) wasn’t the most reliable car on the market either. It was much newer than the Cadillac, but had experienced a rather hard life, having been used by a brick-mason in it’s prior employment. By the time this story started, it had already required a new clutch and starter, tires, and many of the gauges in the dash-board didn’t work — including the gas gauge. Not long after they sold me the Cadillac, their truck developed a rather bad habit of not starting randomly. We believed the relatively new starter (a rebuild) was at fault. Unfortunately, having spent my $100 on groceries and gas, my sister didn’t have money to take this new trouble to a mechanic, so the solution was to get out of the truck, get it rolling, slip it into gear, and pop the clutch to get the engine turning.
The only problem with this scenario was that getting a truck rolling (even the small variety that this thing represented) isn’t awesomely easy for anyone and just about impossible for a woman who was 8 months pregnant. After consulting together as a family, we decided the best option for the time being was to trade my sister the Cadillac for their unreliable truck. Overall, I didn’t mind the trade. I preferred their relatively newer 4×4 to my massive goober-mobile anyway, and I was pretty successful at finding places to park where it was a down-hill push to get it started just in case the starter decided randomly to act up.
One caveat I was given when I took over the truck was that I needed to reset the gas-gauge every time I filled up the tank, and that I needed to get gas before something like 240 miles. This was the way I managed fuel in my Caddy, so I wasn’t particularly concerned. I quite happily drove my sister’s truck for the next week or so without major incident (beyond the drama of starting it the two out of three times that the starter wouldn’t work). However, that all came to an abrupt end one Saturday afternoon.
I was driving down a major road in my home-town, a mile or so from my work (McDonalds), and several miles from both mine and my sister’s homes and thinking I should probably stop and fill up the tank in the next 50 or so miles, when the engine began to stutter and stall. My sister had neglected to tell me she didn’t have enough money to fill the tank completely the last time she fueled it. I was out of gas. I quickly pulled to the side of the road (the only place I could get out of traffic) only to realize both right-side tires were in deep gravel. Not only that, but the road was busy enough that there was no way I could push it up onto the roadway and push-start it there.
Angry and frustrated, I walked a few blocks to the nearest gas-station, borrowed their loaner gas can, bought a gallon of gas, and walked back to the truck hoping the starter would work this time. It didn’t. Turning the key resulted in a whining sound, but no cranking of the engine which meant among other things that the mechanical fuel pump wasn’t pumping gas. Even if I could get the truck rolling, it would take a while for the pump to push the gas through the lines and fill the bowl of the carb so the engine could start. At this point, the immature 16 year old male in me took over and I locked the door and slammed it shut. Almost immediately, but too late to do anything about it, I realized I had locked the keys in the truck. To make matters worse, the ignition was on. What little patience I had left evaporated.
At this point in history, cell phones were the domain of the affluent, and nobody in my family qualified for that club. Instead, I walked to my work and ducked behind the counter to use their phone to call my sister. The relief I felt when she answered the phone evaporated, however, when she told me she had a spare key but no way to get to me. She suggested I call my dad and see if he could go pick up the key and bring it to me before hanging up.
A call to Dad resulted in even more frustration… He was without a car. At the time, my car was the family backup, my mom had the other car, and nobody knew when she’d be home or how to get a hold of her. But wait… there was an option. My dad had bought an old moped a few years prior. It wasn’t that far from my home to my work, so Dad decided he’d see if he could get it started and bring me the key. Half an hour later, my frustrated father called back to say I’d have to find another way to get the key.
About this time, a lady I knew from church walked into the restaurant with her kids for a happy-meal. I approached her, told her my situation, and asked if she could give me a ride when her kids were done eating. She agreed and I thought I was out of the woods. However, just getting the keys wasn’t good enough. I’d need help pushing this stupid truck to a short dead-end dirt road a few yards from where it stopped where I could try to get it started using the method described above. Unfortunately for me, Liz (who’s last name escapes me at the moment) was five-foot nothin’, slightly built, and just as pregnant as my sister. I wouldn’t get much help from her, but at least I could get the keys. True to her word, as soon as the kids had eaten and played for a minute on the indoor-playground she took me to my sister’s and brought me back to the stalled-out truck.
After retrieving the keys I made an effort to push the truck out of the gravel while Liz watched. It failed miserably, and none of the passers-by offered to stop and help. In desperation, I approached the door of the house adjacent to where I had parked and knocked. At that point in time, knocking on a stranger’s door was about as pleasant to me as putting hot coals on my eyeballs, but I didn’t have much of a choice. Gathering my courage, I rang the doorbell hoping for some burly man who would have the horsepower I needed. I was sorely disappointed, however. The only people home were a 10 year old boy and his younger sibling. They may not be much help, but it was apparently all I was going to get.
As the four of us (me, a petite pregnant woman, and two kids) labored to get this truck off the side of the road and onto the only stretch of solid ground where I had any hope of getting it started, not a single person on that busy road stopped and offered to help. I was getting angrier by the second. Finally, after much struggle, we reached the dirt alleyway I had hoped for and I got the truck rolling fast enough to make an attempt. I jumped in and dumped the clutch. The truck shuddered as the tires skidded on the gravel and the engine turned over, but it didn’t start. Twice more we got it rolling, only to meet with the same results. I was running out of steam, and more importantly, I was almost out of alley. There was a barbed-wire fence only about 50 feet from where we were, and turning the truck around pushing it uphill was out of the question. I had one last chance to get this thing started and home.
About the time I was ready to step back out of the truck after this last failed attempt, I happened to look down and realized I had turned off the ignition at some point in the shenanigans. I about lost it, muttering all kinds of inappropriate imprecations to myself, but I managed to collect myself enough to switch on the ignition. After a last push, the engine caught and started about ten feet from the fence as I slammed one foot on the clutch and the other on both the brake and gas pedal to simultaneously keep the engine from stalling and the truck from running into the barbed-wire fence that was now immediately on my bumper. The subsequent turn-around was more of a half-doughnut or power-turn as I aggressively and angrily sent rock and gravel flying… I felt mildly better after that. After thanking my hxelpers the best I could, I drove straight home.
At the time, I was flipping hamburgers for a living, and any one paycheck was rarely more than $200, but after this experience I made arrangements with a trusted mechanic to replace the ‘defective’ starter out of my own pocket. $300 later, I had the truck back and was demanding my Cadillac in exchange. Unfortunately, that $300 was ultimately wasted. As it turned out the problem wasn’t with the starter. When the clutch had been replaced, the ring-gear around the flywheel that engages the starter had been bumped and loosened. These gears are only pressure-fitted, and this one had apparently slipped or stretched enough that if conditions were right the friction in the engine was enough that the gear would just slip and spin on the flywheel instead of turning the engine. A few hits with a welder fixed the problem for a few cents worth of welding wire.
At this point, I’ve learned the value of cheap towing coverage. Almost 15 years ago a very smart insurance agent told me that towing coverage would cost only about two dollars a month. Courtesy of this and a handful of other similar experiences with unreliable vehicles convinced me that this small insurance policy was well worth the cost. Were I to end up in this kind of a bind now, I’d pull out my handy cell phone and call up the tow-truck. Problem solved, but no real story to tell.