Sunday, February 13, 2022

Not Even Not Zen 242: Biomythography - Note 19, My POS Cars

Biomythography - Note 19
My POS Cars

Some of Them

I snuck a glance at the blue sky. A flat, white cloud was moving right to left across the sun. The weather was warm, although only for early spring. I was driving with my window down between Amherst and Northampton. My car was a silver Honda with an acceleration problem. Sitting next to me was my girlfriend. She was waving her right hand and describing our destination, which was a trendy used clothing shop. She was trying not to look at the road because she didn't like traffic. Or roads. Or pedestrians. Or bicycles. Riding in cars made her nervous.

The Honda was one of the better vehicles I'd owned. If it experienced its intermittent acceleration, I knew what to do. I had dealt with more troublesome hunks of metal than this one. The Ranch Wagon, the Chevy Vega, the Ford Grenada, and the Mustang II all had been worse.

Seven years earlier, aged sixteen, I drove my parents' green station wagon, the Ranch Wagon. The treads were already worn off its tires when I got it. Its engine powered through 11 miles to the gallon and I begrudged every penny I spent partially, but never fully, filling it up.

A few months after I got my license, the Ranch Wagon developed a leak in the undercarriage. I ignored it. Toilets leak and they're fine. A car could leak and be fine. Anyway, why spend money to fix a car that belonged to my parents?

My parents didn’t pay it any attention either. Brake fluid slowly ran out of the car onto our driveway. Since I didn't understand the fluid was important, I kept driving it as usual for a couple weeks. My stopping power got worse but I stomped on the brake pedal harder to make up for it. I learned to slam down on the emergency brake line, too. That was a separate system. See, I didn’t really need the main brakes.

That's how I wore out the emergency brake along with the drum brakes.

One day I promised to deliver my friends to and from an afternoon party. It was just games, no beer, but lots of teenagers and laughter and anyway I promised everybody. I took them from school in my Ranch Wagon. That afternoon, I had a hard time maneuvering the car to a stop. It was the first and only time that I hit a mailbox. I shrugged it off and we went in and played party games. I'm not sure how the young woman at the house explained the mailbox to her parents except, possibly, by telling them I was a criminal idiot.

A different level of fun and games started when I loaded up the car with my friends to leave. As it turned out, the girl's driveway sloped uphill, which gave me the illusion that I was able to stop. But I hadn't really managed it. I had merely slowed enough on the incline to swing the car's automatic transmission into park.

What I didn't know was that the brake lines had a master cylinder. The master cylinder fed fluid to the brakes, and the fluid pressure told the drums to open or close. The cylinder case had busted open and lost the remainder of its contents on the gravel driveway in front of my parents' house. There was a foot-wide puddle at the Ranch Wagon's parking spot. That was the last of the fluid. And without the brake fluid pressure, there was nothing to make the brake drums close on the inside of the wheels. In that situation, you can stomp on the brake pedal as hard as you want but it doesn't connect to anything. No fluid means no brakes.

Finally, without understanding my car in the slightest, I realized that I had driven it out with no way to stop. I pushed the brake pedal to the floor several times to test it. Nothing. When I slammed the emergency brake all the way in, it slowed the car a little, possibly only in my imagination, but for sure it did not stop the car. The drive gear of the automatic transmission idled at five miles an hour. That was too much for the emergency brake now that I had worn it down.

"Why aren't you stopping?" said the first girl I had promised to drop off at her home.

I cruised around her block a second time. We had talked about this. But she hadn't believed it.

"The car won't do it," I sighed.

"We're moving really slow," said the guy in the death seat, Jake. He spoke over his shoulder to the girl. "You could get out when we roll by your driveway."

"I don't know."

"Try it," he insisted.

She grabbed her backpack and slid out of the car at a jogging pace. Amazingly, she didn't trip. She gawked at the Ranch Wagon as I circled her block again. In the empty seat she had left behind, another girl moved over and closed her car door. We were ready to continue the trip.

"See you later!" We all waved out the open windows as, at five miles an hour, we drifted past the girl we had just dropped off. She sighed and waved.

At the next house, we let a guy get out from the seat behind me. He stumbled onto the pavement and rolled. But he got up laughing. We circled back to him.

"Are you all right?" I called.

"Nice move!" yelled Jake.

"Yeah, I know. I know!" He jogged next to us for thirty feet or so as we laughed at how stupid we were. Or maybe we were laughing at how stupid I was in particular. Our friend slapped the car on the rear bumper as I coasted along. He stopped running. We watched him wave to us in our rear view mirror. Everyone stuck out their arms and waved back.

The next girl didn't want to get out. She said she was too scared. It's not like I blamed her but it was hard to slow the Ranch Wagon below its way-too-powerful idling speed.

"Can you let me out on the grass? I'm afraid I'll trip."

"Maybe?" Most places had curbs and sidewalks. I didn't see a stretch near her house where I could drive onto the grass. Fortunately, she gave me directions to a mini-park close by. It seemed to take a long time to get there but that was mostly due to our lack of speed. When I hit the grass, the car speedometer dropped lower. The girl hopped out at a fast walk. She jogged faster for a second and closed the door for us.

"Now I have to walk a block and a half!" she wailed.

After we heard that, we had to circle back. In slow motion, of course.

"Want a lift?" Jake and I yelled. She folded her book bag under her arms and scowled.

"Jeez, man, can you get me home like this?" As I pulled onto Montgomery Village avenue, Jake expressed concern for the first time.

"Yeah," I replied. "Of course."

But my cup of confidence was only half full. The friends we had dropped off so far all lived in Montgomery Village. To get Jake home - and me, for that matter - we would have to cross the largest intersection in the northern half of the county. That was the one between route 355 and route 124. There wasn't another way. If I was going to do it, I needed to time the lights perfectly. The good thing was I would be able to see the intersection for almost half a mile.

If there was any highway stoplight that could be timed, this was it.

With four lights to go before the crossroads, I encountered my first, smaller intersection. Its light turned red. I couldn't stop, so I sped up and cruised through. There had been no side traffic.

"Hah!" Jake laughed.

We were joking about how I should put my foot out like Fred Flintstone to stop the car at the next intersection, which was in front of the fire station. Just then an ambulance swung out in front of us. It turned on its red lights.

"That was close," said Jake.

Next, a police car sped by. The cop ignored my car as we drifted through the red light and instead, followed the ambulance. I held my breath. Another cop car passed.

"Well, crap." Jake shrugged.

I rolled west along the straightaway leading up to the big intersection. There were eight lanes to the road now, four to a side. There were five lanes going my way after the pavement expanded to offer a left turn lane. And in every lane, the cars were stopped.

I changed lanes, aiming for the shortest line. At that point, I was hoping the lights would change before I got there. After a few seconds, I started to think that five miles per hour wasn't slow enough. We were going to crash. In the seat next to me, Jake started to squirm. He offered suggestions like, "do a U turn now," and "jump the curb." The idea of a U turn was pretty good, actually, but I noticed cars behind me. If I swung around, I'd hit them.

I started looking for the biggest car ahead. My thought was that a small car wasn't going to stop the Ranch Wagon. It had too much mass. Anything that was too light would get pushed into traffic when we hit.

As I tried to pick what car I needed to ruin, the left turn light switched to a green arrow.

"There!" Jake pointed.

"I don't want to turn left!"

"Do it!"

The only car in that lane turned left. I pulled three lanes over into the now-empty lane.

"Fuck!" I said a few bad words but only because there wasn't time for more. Route 355 was a busy road. I really, really didn't want to turn left onto it. In my peripheral vision, I could see cars on 355 already stopping for a light in the southbound lane.

Ahead of me, cars were turning left from eastbound to northbound. There was a gap in the traffic. As I crossed the white line into the intersection, the last car pulled by. I swerved out of the left-turn-only lane to go straight ahead on my westbound journey.

Jake pounded the dashboard. I couldn't tell if he was angry or frightened. Then he started to laugh.

"Sonofabitch!" he cackled.

We looked around to see if there were more police or someone's mom yelling about how she was going to report us. Nothing. We kept rolling and our luck started to improve. We managed to hit green lights most of the way to Jake's house. The two times when we didn't, there was an open lane at a turn I needed to take.

"Try neutral," Jake said as I cruised through his block.

"It won't," I replied as I shifted. Earlier, the automatic gears had resisted my changes. Something in the gearbox was too smart and could sense the wrong speeds for switching. This time, though, with a heavy ka-thunk, it moved. Our speed relaxed to four miles per hour, then three, then one.

"Nice." As he got out, Jake strolled next to the open door for a moment. He laughed at me and closed it.

On the way home, I avoided stoplights. I had to pass through two stop signs but I honked and kept going while other drivers gave me the finger. My final challenge was figuring out how to park. I hoped that the slope into my driveway would stop the Ranch Wagon but no, even with the sharp turn into it from Black Rock, the incline wasn't steep enough. Switching to neutral didn't do it either. This time, with no one watching, I opened the driver's-side door and dragged my tennis shoe. Gravel pinged off my jeans. It wasn't enough. I brought my foot in and slammed the regular brakes and emergency brakes together. That slowed me enough to switch into neutral. After I shifted, I opened the door a second time to drag my foot.

Finally, the Ranch Wagon came to rest gently against a wooden half-barrel full of dirt about two feet from the south wall of the house. I flipped the car into park and walked away.

Half an hour later, my father marched out to take the Ranch Wagon on a shopping trip. He backed up to turn around and promptly hit the dirt wall next to our driveway.

"Eric!" he yelled.

I knew what it had to be about. I poked my head through the front door.

“What?” So innocent.

"What did you do?" he yelled.

"I told you the brakes were bad." I strolled out with my hands in my pockets.

"You didn't say there were none. None!"

We argued for a while and he rightly determined it was mostly my fault.

In the heat of the argument, he forgot to ask how I got home. It didn't occur to him until the next day, when he was trying to figure out if he needed to have the car towed to the garage.

Soon enough, he wanted me to buy my own car. He connected me to a teacher friend of his who sold me a Chevy Vega for fifty dollars, a POS if there ever was one. It had no power in reverse, so I had to park facing forward on slopes wherever I went. After that died, I bought the Mustang II, a quality vehicle in which the steering wheel came loose for about a second at a time, randomly every ten minutes or so. I don't mean it came off the steering column. It just lost connection to the wheels on the ground.

The feel of steering loss during a turn isn't great. But after the first few times, I stopped panicking about it. The only important thing about the Mustang was whether girls liked the color. They did.

Of course, in between experiments in my own bad cars, I drove the terrible vehicles that belonged to my friends and co-workers. Those included a Gremlin that could not be locked and started without a key ("I'm kinda hoping someone will steal it"), a stick shift VW van ("my mom says no one is allowed to drive it"), a lot of steel boxes on inner tubes, and a Pinto that ran for about a minute after I turned it off ("don't worry, it'll stop").

Finally, I traded the Mustang for this Honda with the acceleration problem.

As I headed northwest with my young woman by my side, I tried out the idea of telling her about the sudden accelerations and other quirks of the car. It had already reached 200,000 miles. I had worn down the tires to bald. The retraction springs in one of the seat belts had given up, so you had to manually tighten it.

But it was a beautiful day. The air smelled sweet. And my girlfriend was nervous about riding. Whenever I mentioned a mechanical problem, it ruined the date. So I turned left onto Route 9 and listened to her talk about clothes and art. She had definite opinions about both.

As we coasted toward the intersection of Route 9 and Route 116, the car leaped forward. The Honda gas pedal disappeared beneath my feet.

"Shit!" The car surged hard at the rear bumpers of the cars ahead. For an instant, I thought this was it. My girlfriend screamed at the top of her lungs. I barely heard her. My ears halfway turned off as my body focused me into a conditioned reflex.

I popped the car out of gear. I hit the brakes full force and pulled on the emergency brake.

We stopped with maybe a foot to spare. The car shook back and forth on its suspension. Everyone stared at me - the nearby pedestrians, drivers, really everyone, including my girlfriend. Her eyes went wide as tea saucers.

"Did your car just accelerate on its own?" she demanded. Over her voice, we heard the engine screaming at us as it revved to full speed.

I turned the car off. After a second or two, I restarted it. That always solved the problem.

"Oh yeah," I admitted. The engine purred at us. "It does that."

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