Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Insult and Injury…Lucky Me

I hadn’t driven my Volkswagens in a while, and it is something that gives me mixed feelings. We’ve had a horrific hot spell this past summer; three months of triple-digit numbers, and the last thing I wanted to do was sit in an un-air-conditioned car for any amount of time. Plus, I rarely have anywhere to go. I don’t like to leave them for long, as it takes only seconds to steal an unlocked VW, so I’m not going to leave them in the City Hall parking lot while I’m doing my volunteer work and I couldn’t go… well, other than that, I don’t really go anywhere. And I can’t drive the Single Cab at night; you can barely ready by the six-volt headlights much less alert mind-numbed drones that I’m driving down the road.

I stand in the garage a lot and look at the three of them, peacefully sitting there, all three enjoying probably the best time of their lives: They’re well taken care of, protected like ostridge eggs, and I am as proud of them as if they graduated from Harvard. Their last mention on these pages was the one time where all of them ran flawlessly; moments afterwards, they each took their separate path down the equally slippery slopes of disrepair, all without me even turning the key.

Betty, the Super Beetle, has a fuel issue, a minor clog of some kind that robs it of a smooth idle and creates a nice flat-spot of power at the stoplight. I pulled off the carburetor and rebuilt it, blowing out all of the passages and cleaning out the jets, and since I didn’t have a new fuel filter or the time to go through the fuel lines all the way to the tank, that’s all I did. I adjusted the mixture and the idle and it seemed to run better, but there’s a sneaky underlying power issue that I can’t put my finger on. It’s like going to work with a cold; you know you don’t feel well but you’re putting on a stoic demeanor, albeit with a declined production output for the day.

It’s my fault really. There’s only 200 miles on the car since the restoration, finished two years ago, and at that level, the car has barely broken in, much less settled down into a machine hone into reliability.

Sally, the 67 Beetle, needs a valve job and an oil change. I’m worried about the new engine that was just recently installed. It’s a gorilla in a mini skirt: It looks great as long as the gorilla doesn’t move. I should mention that at any moment, I wholeheartedly expect the engine to either grenade into an expensive molten paperweight at the slightest hint of elevated rpms or just tear itself loose from the transmission mounts and launch into a low orbit above my house.

The battery is strong so it starts every time, but idles like a Sherman tank; I admit that I enjoy the growling saber-tooth tiger sound and the slight vibrations are soothing, but I haven’t had enough seat time to feel comfortable enough with the car on long trips. Oh yeah, I already told you that I’m hearing a clunking sound during shifts into and out of third and fourth gears, which only means one thing: clutch cable tube malfunction. The only fix is to pull up the carpet and cut two sizable holes in the tunnel, certainly not a do-it-yourself job for me to tackle, and I’m not looking forward to taking it in for repair. What’s the worst that could happen? The tube could completely break rendering my clutch useless; it’s happened before when the clutch pedal on the Super broke off—its drivable but tricky without a clutch.

The Single Cab was my star pupil until today. When I compared the three I always said: “The Super Beetle starts great but runs poorly, the 67 starts poorly but runs great, and the Single Cab starts great and runs great.”

Since I’ve owned it, it has been plagued with unforgivable electrical problems, and I thought the worst was behind us, as it has worked without question since Christmas, so much so that I thought it was ready for the cosmetic improvements I’ve been planning. Since January 2008 marks it’s 50th birthday, I wanted to have it restored by then, new paint and bodywork, new interior, etc. I figured the tribulations of the running gear were solved, at least abated for a while. It has been about two months since I’ve driven it for any length of time, and the last time I started it was just to pull it out of the garage to sweep the floors.

This brings us to today. Today, I thought it would be nice to run down to Subway, grab a couple of sandwiches for Kara and I and pick up some frozen yogurt as well while I’m there. On top of it, for a special treat for me, I figured I would take the Single Cab… for all of the reasons I mentioned above. I didn’t want to take the 67 because, for one thing, it isn’t registered or insured yet and I didn’t want to run the risk, and the last time I took it on this very trip—Subway and frozen yogurt—it decided it didn’t want to start for about 20 minutes, just wouldn’t turn over. Once bitten…as they say, so it stayed home while I jumped in old reliable for the short trip.

I couldn’t remember the last time I got gas and I would have sworn under penalty of perjury that it was nearly empty. In fact, the last time I took it out anywhere, I swung by In&Out for hamburgers one Friday afternoon and I sat in the drive thru sweaty with worry that the engine was going to shutter to a stop after sucking the gas tank dry. So, today, the first stop was the gas station, and I was going to take advantage of the falling prices by topping off the tank.

Gas pumps are funny if you don’t work them right, especially on an old car. If you don’t get the nozzle in as far as possible, that rubber sheath won’t accordion up and the pump won’t work. For example, when you’re filling a gas can, you need to pull it back before you can start to pump. I crammed the nozzle into the tank and it filled in one gallon and stopped. I reinserted and it leaked out a tenth of a gallon before clicking to a stop again. I assumed I was having this problem, so I pulled back the rubber sheath and continued to pump, and after a few tenths, it stopped. I had only pumped approximately a gallon and a half into an empty eight-gallon tank. The next time, I was going to really fix it for sure. I held the nozzle away from the tank so it wasn’t touching anything, pulled back on the accordion sheath and pulled the trigger. I heard a gurgling sound, and to me, that was a reassuring sound that everything was working, gas was flowing, and the tank was filling.

A second later, gas sprayed out of the tank, all down the side of the Single Cab and all over the ground. Oh yeah, and all over my hands, which was especially nice, and all of the money I was happily saving by filling up on the downswing of the gasoline industry ended up in a puddle under my truck.


Before I replaced the cap, I looked in the tank and saw that the fuel level was about three inches from the top of the neck. It’s not like I could siphon it back out right then and there (there was an In&Out straw in the cab of the truck, but I don’t think it would have worked so well), so I got back in and put the key in the ignition.

And there was a hint at my first problem. The thing didn’t start. I’m used to it firing up at the very notion of flicking the key, and now the starter rolled over itself in that groaning wail that moaned of an electrical problem. It did start, rather reluctantly, after three or four slow cranks, and if I was a smart man, I would have gone home and traded cars… but I’m not and I didn’t.

The trek from the gas station to Subway was uneventful. I hit all four signals, of course, but it was nice to drive, relaxing and unusual. I always have an unusual experience when I drive them; as it is outside of my normal events. It’s the only one of its kind on the road usually, and the car gets looks, some smiles and some puzzled. It makes me feel good that maybe some six-year-old will tell his folks at dinner tonight that he saw a weird car that he’s never seen before. That’s what I like.

I ordered the food, waited while Beavis and Butthead behind the counter debated whether it would be “more awesomer” if “that Japanese dude who ate all of those hot dogs in 10 minutes” would come and see if he could eat a six-foot sandwich in one sitting or if they’d rather see some regular person plow through three foot-longs in one of the booths. Since I ordered three sandwiches (I had a coupon), I weighed in with my opinion that I could probably do it. I could probably eat all three feet of the sandwiches I was ordering. They looked at me with skepticism and then begged me to sit down and try it. I told them that my wife would be disappointed if I ate her sandwich, and I told myself that if they bet me a replacement sandwich for Kara that I’d do it. They didn’t offer so I left, and that was probably the best thing I did for myself all day long.

In the frozen yogurt place next door, it was an exact opposite scenario. High school girls always run the place; I’ve never seen an adult behind the counter and I think the establishment is a castaway from “Bugsy Malone.” I’ve never seen a boy there either, for that matter, at least one that didn’t look like he sang soprano in the choir and enjoyed shoe shopping. It’s probably one of the reasons boys don’t go for frozen yogurt jobs too much, as I’m sure they’re seen as “chick” jobs. However, both of the girls tried their darndest to look like Paris Hilton, at least their interpretation, and I would be willing to gamble that if someone came in there without wearing pants, one of them would have said—in their best impersonation of the floozy—“That’s hot” just because she’s been dying for just the right opportunity to say it for months.

It goes without saying that I had to navigate my way around all of the listless boys that hang out there, boyfriends, suitors, wooers… who knows, but none of them are actually eating frozen yogurt and it is hard to order a half chocolate, half strawberry regular cup of yogurt when the girls is making googily eyes at some mop-headed lanky skater punk who uses the word “yep” like an urban illiterate Shakespeare.

Back in the Single Cab, I turned the key and nothing. It rolled, wheezed, chortled and stammered, each time more faint than the last. The battery was dying, squeezing out the very last juice in the bottom of the carton and it just isn’t enough to turn the heavy flywheel. Sigh.

I sat there for a moment, muttering swears of frustration while giving the battery a chance to gather together the last remnants of strength for another go at it. Nope. It just isn’t going to do it, and of course, my “woohoo, I found a parking space right in front of the store” mentality, made me park downhill, headed in, when I suspected that I might have this problem, and I passed up plenty of parking spaces at the top of the lot's incline. Dummy.

Now, granted the Single Cab only weighs 2200 pounds (2207 exactly) but pushing it out of a slumped in park space to higher ground, in sandals no less, isn’t entirely easy, but not impossible. A nice woman, whose husband bearing a kid on his shoulders and who held the door for me at the frozen yogurt place, offered some assistance. Well, I’m sure she was volunteering her husband’s help, and I don’t know why I politely refused, but I did. Maybe I don’t like to be a nuisance or I don’t want to involve other people in my problems, because once they start helping me, they’re obligated to see it through to the end, as it is nearly impossible to come up with a convincing excuse to leave the scene before my car starts again.

So, I shoved it out of the parking space hole that it was resting in and toward what I thought was an uphill part of the lot, about 25 yards away. My plan was to kick start it, something I’m no stranger at doing, as I had done so to the Super Beetle probably 100 times in our 18 years together. Sitting there at the top of the lot while I caught my breath, I felt like a pilot staring out the cockpit window at the runway before him and saying to himself, “Not enough space, not enough; we’re never going to make it. We're going to crash into the trees.”

There was very little I could do short of pushing it around the corner of the lot; the 25 yard of near-flat terrain would have to do.

I shoved, trotted along beside it while pushing at just over a walking pace, and when I was nearing the end of the lot—toward the sunken space I had come out of—I jumped in, threw it into second gear, dropped the clutch and gave it some gas. It sputtered. My heart raced (It wasn’t exciting, remember, I’m out of shape). I fluttered the pedal like a survivor on a deserted island with his last match stoking a swirling wisp of smoke in the desperate anticipation of staying alive another night.

It started and purred like nothing ever happened, so I headed for home, glistening from a light sweat. Then I noticed that my knee started to hurt a little, like I had dragged a sharp finger nail over it, nothing too serious to worry about, I was sure… so sure, that I didn’t bother to look down at it until I got home. I remembered banging my knee on the door as I jumped in but I honestly justified that there was nothing on my Single Cab that would hurt me, like a friend. Seriously. Maybe I was a little light headed from pushing.

After pulling the VW back into the garage and killing the engine, I examined my knee and there was a deep wide gash sliced down the top of my knee! Gads! How did I get that? I examined the door frame for anything jagged, and I finally found the source: There are a dozen exposed “cheese head” screws that hold down the door panel, and under one especially nasty looking one, I discovered a surprisingly large scrap of fleshy-colored skin, my skin, enough to cover the gaping hole newly etched on my knee.

Then it started to hurt, as if seeing it and seeing the source woke up my mind to the fact that I earned a pretty deep gash. What an ending to a disappointing little trip to provide dinner for my family.

An extra fun insult to add on top of my injury (which came after the original insult) was the taste of my foot-long sandwich. I don’t know how many of you have ever drenched your hands in gasoline while you’re filling your tank, but for those of you who have, you know that merely washing your hands several times won’t get rid of the smell. All through dinner, as I raised my sandwich to my mouth and my hands near my nose probably 50 times, my tongue tasted ham, but my nose smelled nothing but gasoline.

Let’s just agree that ham and cheese with a pungent aroma of gasoline wafting around your face doesn’t say good eats.

Maybe next time I’ll try the Super Beetle. It has yet to fail me on the road.

**Forgive the pictury goodness of my bloodfest, but I figured a graphic illustration to go along with the story would make for a nice touch. Frankly, I'm more disgusted by the amount of hair on my knee than I am the wound. It's like Sasquatch. What's up with that?

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