A Trip Down Hoopty Lane
When we bought our 1996 Ford Windstar a couple years ago, we were happy to get a family-sized vehicle that seemed to be in pretty good shape. All things considered, it was the nicest vehicle I ever owned. It was clean and it didn’t have too many miles on the odometer; we couldn’t believe we got the van for the price we paid. At this point, I assume you are getting a strong dose of expectation… but before you switch into fourth gear and jump to the end… I will have to wave the checkered flag and jump to the real story here.
Yes, we bought another lemon. Yes, I hate cars (and vans). Yes, this story is reminiscent of others I have told. But this story is not so much about the van and sleazy car salesmen. This story is about a single night spent with a friend of a friend trying to fix the van. This story was meant to be the plot of Seinfeld or the Fresh Prince of Bellaire.
It started like this. The van worked perfectly fine. Every single time I got in it and turned the key, it ignited as expected. But such was not the case when Jenny tried to start it up. While I may hate cars, the macho side of me nodded in agreement like all other manly men when friends explained this as a case of Womanitis.
Jenny would come running into the house in desperation, "It won’t start again!”
I would take a deep breath and make my way to the van. I sat down and turned the key and it started right up. To keep the peace I refrained from sharing too much of my assessment of the issue, but I could tell that Jenny knew what I was thinking and she resented it. Poor Jenny must have felt like gremlins had started to sabotage her life, since this went on for weeks. The van really did have problems… but only when she was in the driver’s seat. And that scenario did a lot for my blossoming male chauvinism.
That is, of course, until the van finally decided to stop working altogether. It waited until she was shopping at a nearby grocery store called Kroger (which probably shares linguistic roots with the last name of Freddy Kreuger). I found a way up there to save her. Expecting the van to start right up for me, I probably had a smug and slightly annoyed expression as I turned the key.
To make a long exposition short, the van would no longer start for me. And Jenny finally got to redeem her dignity by reminding me that she had told me so.
I had two problems facing me. The short term problem was getting the van out of the parking lot before it was towed. That would cost me unwanted fees. And my long-term problem was getting the van to work—which would also cost me unwanted fees, bills and favors.
So I did what any self-respecting car hater would do… I called my friend Mike, who is a big-time lover of cars. Throughout my life I have counted on Mike to remedy my car problems. But I had a slight problem. Mike was unavailable (he and his wife had moved to Arkansas in search of more debt than Ohio had to offer). While Mike could not zoom over and help out, he did have a friend that just might work as a Mike-Like-Proxy. Mike’s friend is named Dan. And with the entrance of Dan into this story, we can officially begin the nightmare that did not happen on Elm Street, but started in a Kroger parking lot and finally ended the next morning in Dan’s back yard.
Dan arrived on the scene around 5pm. It was approximately 5:01pm that I started to feel apprehensive about the rest of the evening—but that isn’t why I ran into Kroger to grab some beer. After we got the vehicle onto the bed of his trailer (was that wench purchased at Big Lots?) we headed out on our journey from the West side to the South East side of Columbus. I called Jenny and said I would be home by midnight. As soon as I hung up, Dan cussed.
I panicked because it looked like my fear that the wench was from Big Lots was right… but no, Dan was mad because his trailer blew a tire. So we left the Kroger parking lot, crossed Broad Street and stopped in the Speedway parking lot.
Dan shared several heart-felt colloquialisms and mixed in a few things I actually understood as the truck came to a stop. That sucks, I thought. "Well it looks like we will have to change the tire,” I said.
Dan took a deep breath. I guess this would be a good time to describe good old Dan. Over six feet tall, Dan looks like he would fit into any traditional WWF crowd before WWF stood for the World Wildlife Fund. He has long hair that is pulled back into a pony tail, but the sides of his head are shaved up to above his temples. I am sure he was wearing a sleeveless shirt. It was obvious from the moment I met Dan that he loved cars much more than I ever could.
Now back to our story. When I made the rhetorical comment about having to fix the tire, Dan gave me one of those looks that said, Man, you are not as smart as you look. Of course we have to change the tire you dim wit! But all that came out of his mouth was, "Yep.”
So we jumped out of the cab and inspected the blown tire. Anxious to get the ball on the roll, I made what I thought was another rhetorical comment. "So you have a spare, right.” Knowing how car lovers are, I figured that I knew the answer.
Dan said, "No.”
I laughed, knowing it must be a joke. I was about to offer my services in getting the spare tire when my mind started to scan the bed of the truck. There was a wooden bed with a small wench bolted to the front (which looks really flimsy) and a cable connecting the wench to my van. No sign of a spare. I squatted down to look for it under the bed. Greasy shafts, rusty bolts and a spider web is all I saw.
Dan had not been joking.
Great, now I won’t be home until after 1am.
Dan said, "Do you know anyone with a jack?”
I snapped back into the moment. "Huh?”
"We need a jack to take the tire off.”
An odd sensation crept into my stomach, somewhat reminiscent of the feeling you get when you have just graciously eaten a serving of some repulsive dish and the host happily piles on a second pile.
"You mean you don’t have a jack?”
"Oh I have a jack,” said Dan. "It’s just not here.”
In the span of one second I was about to hop onto the bed and procure the jack stowed in my van; but in that second I imagined how I would look trying to raise the hulk with the factory jack that comes gratuitously with all vehicles. Instead, I called Bob.
"What you doing?”
"The usual,” which meant he was playing online games. "You gunna be on anytime tonight?”
"Not tonight. I am getting the van fixed…” Before long Bob showed up with his jack.
So Bob watched with forced interest as Dan jacked up the truck; Dan jacked with actual interest as he told me to go into the gas station and get a lighter and starter fluid; I walked with great confusion into the gas station for a lighter and starter fluid.
Inside the gas station the cashier looked at me oddly. I handed her the charcoal lighter fluid and lighter and she looked longwise out to the truck. Attempting to seem like I knew what I was doing and that it was a legitimate course of action in a fuel station parking lot, I smiled.
I walked self-importantly back to the truck, where Dan and Bob were conversing. Dan had already removed the tire. I handed Dan the items he had ordered and immediately Dan gave me another one of those looks that implied I was stupid. And this time his mouth echoed that remark.
"But you said to get starter fluid.”
"Starter fluid as in engine starter fluid you dummy.”
"So what is this all for?”
"We need to reseal the tire.”
I was confused. But as Dan soon explained, the tire had come off the hub and he intended to spray starter fluid into the tire and ignite it so that it would re-seal.
Dan sent me back into the gas station. At least I had been somewhat oblivious to the intent of my companion the last time I walked into the gas station. This time I walked in knowing that I was about to partake in igniting a flame in the gas station parking lot; the cashier kept her arm under the counter when I walked up to pay for a completely different kind of starter fluid. Sweat beaded off my forehead as I exchanged money.
So now I got back to the scene of an impending catastrophe and insisted that we not ignite the tire in the parking lot of the gas station. Dan listened with pity and finally agreed to take the tire across the street and ignite the tire in an alley. From a distance I watched him spray starter fluid on the tire then ignite it; the tire made the sound of sucking air then popped with a small explosion of flame that jetted out of the rim. That fire found a new home in dried grass on the pavement… which soon spread to more surrounding grass.
You can imagine the expletives racing through my mind as Dan stomped on the fire spreading quickly from grass to grass.
Did any building catch on fire or monumental explosions ensue? No. Dan finally subdued the sparking flames and put the tire back on. We thanked Bob, who soon left without me. And again I was alone with Dan on a journey to get the van fixed.
We left the parking lot to head East down Broad Street but as soon as we pulled onto the road, Dan cussed again. It was very similar to the cuss that sent us to the Speedway gas station.
The tire came off the rim.
So we pulled back into a parking lot just a hundred yards down the road and stopped. This time we were parked between a cash-advance shop and an adult book store. We were here for quite some time as Dan called around to find out where he could go to fix the tire. But since his cell phone was dead (and the charger for it was with his jack at home) he had to use the cash advance phone. And after taking the tire off again and repeating the previous scenario, we eventually hit the road again. Now it was around 10pm and we had traveled a total distance of about a fifth of a mile since 5pm.
We did not head east towards Dan’s home. Instead, we headed west. Our destination? A barn somewhere out in Prairie Township where another mechanic friend of Dan’s would help properly repair the tire. This friend’s name escapes my memory. But his barn does not.
When we stopped outside the old unwashed white barn, I knew that Dan was in his element. And I was not. There was another van in the entrance with two human legs protruding from underneath. Those legs did not produce any other sign of humanity other than a voice for several minutes.
Off to one side was an old vehicle that was more kinked up than the girls in our secret movie collection. It looked like it had fallen off the side of a cliff in Yosemite Park and then used as a driving instruction vehicle for the blind. There was no glass in the windows. To see an inch of smooth metal, you would have to use a magnifying glass after scraping away some dirt (or maybe dried blood). I soon learned that this was a prized vehicle here.
By the time we had left, I had learned all I never wanted to know about demolition derby racing. But the tire was fixed and we finally headed to Dan’s place. It looked like smooth sailing from here.
But as fate would have it, the adventures of the night had only just begun. We traveled across Columbus via Broad Street. For the most part Broad is a decent road. If you wanted to, you could take it across the whole country as this portion of it is also Route 40. But all we wanted to do was traverse the portion that cuts across downtown Columbus.
We proceeded past my neighborhood which is called the Hilltop. Like other communities in Ohio such as Knockemstiff, there is often a meaning behind a community’s name. Hilltop is named after the fact that it is the top of the hill, more physically than socio-economically. Going to downtown Columbus from the Hilltop will take you to where the Hilltop ends. Throughout all my life, I have rarely thought of that descent as a truly treacherous place in the world… but on this particular night it presented me a moment that will last as a memory I hope never to repeat except in words.
Dan had just waived his fist at some gangsters and I had just ducked low in my seat when we reached the end of the Hilltop. Luckily that crew was more interested in sharing loud bass with a side-street neighborhood than taking on Dan. The only other car on the road was a police cruiser in our lane a few hundred yards ahead.
The nighttime air was cool and I was actually about ready to relax as we descended down the hill. We were halfway down when I noticed a sensation that I hadn’t felt since I rode the Beast at King’s Island. I looked over at Dan who, for the first time this evening, had wide eyes and clenched teeth—though he still managed to cuss adeptly.
The whole vehicle started to swerve violently. We crossed a couple lanes as Dan lost control and I gripped onto the cab tightly. I too cussed and knew without a doubt that we would soon careen off the side and roll into Rhodes Park. I briefly calculated the benefits of survival since I knew Jenny would kill me the moment she heard that the van was destroyed.
Too our relief, the truck did not roll off the side of the road and my van stayed connected to the little wench. Neither did the nearby police cruiser stop to see why our truck had just done a little break dance across a few lanes. (As is turned out, it was a Non-Break dance—the trailer had no breaks.)
We both laughed hysterically when we survived the trip down the hill. I am not sure why Dan was laughing, but I was laughing triumphantly for having a dry set of trousers.
We finally pulled up into his back yard around 1am. I was tired. The beer I brought was running a fever. And my resolve to fix the van tonight was about as strong as a politician’s will to use his or her brain. But Dan was still gung ho about the whole thing, so I helped out by holding a light and cracking open a brew every time Dan needed a refill. (Now you may rightly point out that I wasn’t much help, but years of experience have taught me that refraining from helping fix cars is the most helpful thing I can do—I have an annoying habit of making a problem get worse when I tinker with engines, grease and automotive science—which is why I now leave it all to experts like Dan.)
Dan proceeded to take apart my entire van that night. Well, for someone like me, it seemed like he took the whole thing apart. But in reality, he just removed all the seats and interior so he could get to wires.
Eventually Dan figured out the problem. A ground wire had broken. In fact, we soon discovered why the van had worked for so long when I drove but not when Jenny drove. The broken wire was directly under the driver’s seat. Every time she had gotten into the van, she moved the seat forward and disconnected the wire; when I got in, I put the seat back and brought the wire back together. Finally the broken wire moved so much it stopped connecting altogether.
By 5am the beer was long gone and the sun was about to breach the horizon. Dan and I put back the last of the carpeting and seats. I hit the road happy for Dan’s help. And more than any other time in my life, I was really tired of cars.