I have a rather checkered driving history. Not in terms of wrecks. I can take evasive action to avoid oncoming idiots like Barnum or Bailey could juggle.
What I mean by “checkered,” is that I have driven more than my fair share of rolling dumpster fires.
There were times growing up I prayed I would wake up in the morning to find a 4-wheeled horse drawn wagon in our driveway. Not because I thought they were cool. It just would have been nice to get an upgrade.
But, knowing my family, even that would’ve been a disaster. It would’ve had square wheels and been drawn by asses instead of horses. It would’ve been painted sky blue and pink and Bond-O. The baseball cards between the giant wheel spokes wouldn’t have been for decoration; but so that people could hear us coming. Naturally, a tennis ball would’ve been impaled atop the antennae connected to an A/M manual-dial tape-deck radio that probably didn’t work the day it rolled off the assembly line. And yes, the A/C would be the inimitable 3/70 original (i.e. 3 windows down, going 70 miles per hour (and yes, I know that the only way a fucking horse drawn wagon with square wheels being drawn by asses could go 70 miles per hour is if the team drove it over a cliff, so thanks.)).
Naturally, like any family, we did not choose to drive such wrecks. It just sort of ended up that way. You see, as it turns out, my Dad was not exactly a mechanical genius when it came to vehicle repair work and principles of general maintenance. But that was not necessarily the problem.
The problem was he thought he was.
So, one year my parents went and bought a Ford Mark VII Econoline van. It could seat 70 comfortably. If we’d grown up in San Francisco they would’ve had to mount rocket-propelled boosters on that bitch to get it up and down the hills. On long road trips we had to park with the 18-wheelers at the truck stop.
One year that big m-effer broke down. And I don’t mean like it got a flat, or the transmission went out, or the radio only crackled when you turned it on. That motherfucker b-r-o-k-e. It threw a rod.
Now, for any out there as mechanically inclined as I was, don’t feel bad if you thought to yourself, “Well, if it threw the rod, why didn’t you simply go and fetch it, and put it back wherever it was thrown from”. I say don’t feel bad, because that was my initial response exactly.
That suggestion, however, was not received well by my father.
In the automotive world, throwing a rod is analogous to being thrown down on the concrete, kicked repeatedly in the teeth, stripped naked in a public square, and ritualistically beaten by thugs with wicker sticks. Just like that, yet altogether entirely different.
Anyway, we begged our parents to buy a new ride, or fix the van, or as a last ditch effort, hire Sherpas and pack mules to get our broke asses around. Because without “The Bus”, as it was so lovingly called, we had no reliable way to get, well, anywhere. But first, Mom wanted answers.
Before long we all knew the truth of what happened to The Bus. As it turns out the in-house mechanic had neglected to do the last oil change.
Nice work, Pops.
I looked to my dad and said, “If the van threw a rod after missing only one oil change, I feel relatively certain we can claim damages under the Texas Lemon Laws.” (Okay, yes I understand a twelve year old doesn’t know a thing about Lemon Laws, but I’m trying to move the story here—and I was gifted and talented—or so they told me—so bear with me)
“Well,” he said. “It missed more than one.”
“Two?” I asked hopefully.
And you always know some bad shit is about to happen when someone is equivocating with their palms out, elbows close to the body, and eyes looking anywhere but at you.
“All of them.” He said.
“We’ve had the van for three years and you’ve never given it an oil change?”
He shook his head.
There are so many things I don’t know about cars. So many that were you to lie all of those elusive things side-by-side you could tie them together and rope the moon. However, even I knew that a car or van or motorcycle or fucking scooter needs an oil change from time to time.
Well, I thought, at least it’s got a full complement of fucking windshield washer fluid.
In what was maybe an attempt to rectify the situation, my father set out to fix the van that weekend. He made some calls and got a new engine for a good price from a guy he knew. And then he had the same guy bring a winch over to install the new engine. They got the old one hoisted out and the new one put back in. After the guy left, my Dad spent the next day and a half putting all the parts back on that he’d removed in order to get to the faulty engine block.
Now, before I go throwing rocks from my glass house, I’ll admit: I know less than nothing about fixing cars or engines or even houses constructed out of Lincoln Logs. But, I’m relatively intelligent, I think, and can at least draw some reliable inferences from available facts.
Dad came inside about 7pm that evening looking like a black, fat Elvis. We went outside to examine his handiwork there on the apron of the driveway. It was then that I noticed something.
Car parts were strewn about the floor of our garage.
There were nuts and bolts and washers, and then a number of other pieces of machinery I could not, and will never recognize. I had no clue what they were, nor where in the van they should fit. Still, I felt relatively certain of at least one thing:
They should be in the fucking van.
I nodded at the parts and asked about them. With a non-committal shrug, Dad explained that those parts weren’t necessary. They wouldn’t impact whether the van would start, he said.
I mean, whatever, right? As a boy I’d put together model cars and model airplanes; and when I finished there were always unused parts left-over. I was young and impatient and sometimes decided they were either too intricate or time consuming to bother with. So, I
didn’t. It made perfect sense. Until you considered the obvious, of course.
The engines I installed in those things didn’t fucking work either.
Dad walked to the driver’s side door and opened it, intending to try the ignition and see if the thing would turn over.
I ran in to our backyard seeking protection from falling debris in fear it would explode and kill his ass.
I heard a loud empty click, and then nothing.
I waited for the acoustic deafening of an explosion but it did not come. I heard that click again, and then nothing.
Then I heard my father cursing.
A stream of expletives so colorful even a sailor would have blushed…and called his Mother to tell her that he loved her.
Back in the driveway I went, and stood with him while juggling three parts that had once been a part of the inner workings of the van.
I shrugged and said, “Who could possibly know? I mean, you did everything you could, right? Took it apart and put it back together in the exact same way. Must just be defective.” All while juggling those “bonus parts” as he put it.
Eventually, he decided maybe the guys at the dealership should have a look-see. He sent us all inside. I don’t know what all went down out there before the tow truck arrived. I can only imagine the look on the poor man’s face as he did whatever he did. But, all I know is that when I looked back out there the left over parts were all gone with my Dad and “The Bus.” It was Ford’s turn.
I bet the mechanics that work there still joke about it.
Now, in this generation of commercial fanaticism and urban sprawl, not having car is not good.
So Dad made a call, and our grandfather saved the day.
When my Dad got home with the new whip my grandfather gave us, I walked outside to see our new chariot. The new ride that would usher us around town in comfort and ease. The beautiful piece of machinery my grandfather and his rich pensioner girlfriend had bestowed upon us.
I stepped outside. Immediately, my head went in to my hands.
It was a 1986 Oldsmobile Station Wagon.
I told everyone I knew that if I were able to wreck that car and put it out of service, but killed myself in the process, that I would die smiling.
A hero’s death.
It had whitewall tires. Fake wood paneling circumnavigated the entirety of that monstrosity. There was no radio. Well, there was, but the piece of shit chose not to work. And I say “chose,” because were I installed in such an ugly abortion of technology, I wouldn’t work either.
The seats were made of naugahyde; or maybe it was painted plastic wrap. Either way, when you sat down you immediately began to sweat profusely. Through slacks. Through jeans. Through a protective coating of armor. It didn’t matter.
The air conditioning didn’t help with the seat-sweats. Mostly, because there was no air conditioning.
The car was painted sky blue, and because Grandpa thought it was cute or cruel or some other “c” word, he put matching sky blue carpet inside covering the length of the dashboard.
The rear axle was broke, so the back end swayed gently side to side giving you motion sickness in addition to the simple sickness that comes along with public humiliation. It was two-wheel drive, but the tires had never been aligned. So, instead of two wheels working together for a common cause and purpose, they fought each other like sibling child stars.
You had to pull the wheel all the way to the left for it to go straight, and if you got over 30 miles per hour the wheel started to tremble slightly in your hands. Over 45 m.p.h. the shaking would increase to a tremor. And by 50 it was a full on fucking earthquake.
So, not only did we have to endure the shame of riding in such a dumpster fire. We had to slow-roll that bitch everywhere like Tupac bumping California Love.
Not shockingly, my dating life was not rampant for that period of time. Also not shocking, I did not do a lot of partying during that time.
Sadly, I was not able to crash it and kill myself.
Trust me though… It was not for a lack of trying.
Written by Richard Kaye.