April 30, 2004

As We Say Up Here, Live Free and Drive

SHEILA O'MALLEY has posted a fabulous essay on the subject of owning one's automobile. The gold in this essay, as it were, would be her stories of car failure in wretched circumstances -- the blown tire in Death Valley (!), the breakdown in the San Fernando Valley (!!), etc. Hence, we must insist that all readers go and read Ms O'Malley's essay. If only because the last car she owned was a Volkswagen Westfalia van -- talk about True Motorist Grit. Wow.

We have been fortunate to only have two instances of Major Vehicle Failure while on the road. Well, actually, we have had three. But this last incident was not due to a mechanical defect, but rather a head-on collision with an empty car-carrier and a simultaneous incident with another eighteen-wheeler, on I-94 in Detroit. So we would like to apologize again to all residents of southeastern Michigan -- and commuters living in southwestern Ontario -- for closing the major eastbound artery in the Detroit area for over two hours afterwards back in April of 1998. We can assure you we still feel greatly ashamed at screwing up the drive for 100,000 people.

Fortunately, however, no one was hurt in that collision, even though we impacted with the grill of the car-carrier at about 50 miles an hour, after our car spun wildly out of control and ended up facing oncoming traffic in the freeway's No. 3 lane. That said, we must say we remain amazed at how calm we were when the end seemed -- as the movie put it -- extremely fucking nigh. (We did not scream and we did not panic; indeed, our sole thought was, "Lord, I'm checking out.")

We might add this incident made us a Ford Taurus driver for frickin' life -- or at least until they're done phasing out that car.

But anyway -- back to the first of these two former incidents. Now, this took place some years earlier, back in 1995; and there is a good story here.

For this story explains how we ended up spending a night in the honeymoon suite of the Exit 3 Motel in Wauseon, Ohio.

Now, the first incident happened on the Ohio Turnpike. We were heading from the Cleveland area back to Kalamazoo, Mich., our home town, on our very first road trip when we noticed that the engine in our 1987 Mercury Sable was running a bit hot. Nothing to worry about, we thought; it would simmer down eventually. But after a bit, we found the engine was NOT in fact simmering down. This leads to Mistake No. 1.

As it was a blisteringly hot day, you see, we made the rookie mistake of turning on the air conditioner -- instead of turning up the heat full blast. This led to steam pouring out of the vents into the cabin; the radiator was bubbling over. This prompted us to panic in a most unseemly fashion, and we pulled off to the side of the road with that classic response of OhGodohGodohGod running through our head. Clearly the car was broken, and broken irreparably; and we were shit-out-of-luck; and there would be hell to pay, etc.

Now we were lucky in that we had a mobile phone with us. Mrs Kepple had insisted we take one, and insisted we take a couple hundred dollars of cash (we had been going to embark with about $40 on us, if we recall correctly); and had insisted several other things before our trip that, in the end, proved to be amazingly beneficial. (Mrs Kepple's first car was an AMC Rambler, so she had experience with cars falling apart).

So, we called home, and got Mr and Mrs Kepple on the phone, and told them in a bit of panic just what our problem was. (Car! Overheated! Steam! Pouring! From! Vents!). Mrs Kepple advised us to call a towing service, which was not AAA, to which she had subscribed. This towing service -- through no fault of Mother's and which we shall not name -- was entirely useless and the help they provided was merely asking if we needed a tow-truck.

Well, how in Christ's name were we supposed to know if we needed a tow-truck? Gawd. We were out in the middle of Bloody Nowhere. We had no idea what was wrong with the car. We had no idea where we were on the Turnpike, only knowing that we were somewhere in the vicinity of Exit 3. We didn't need a tow -- we needed help. For with the weather -- it was like 90 degrees and humid -- we were clearly going to die out there.

After another phone call home, we got advice to wait for the car to cool down, and then limp it off the highway. This we did, and we made it all the way to the tollbooth before it overheated again.

TOLLBOOTH OPERATOR: Hi, that'll be $2.50 ... what the!
ME: The car's overheated!
(steam pours from engine)

Thus followed some unintelligible directions for a repair shop from the toll operator, who did not seem particularly pleased with us and as such was not as helpful as we had hoped. Hell, why should she have been? She had a TV commercial happening right in front of her.

Now, consider our situation: soaked in our own sweat, with a dying car out in the middle of nowhere. The first order of business, clearly, was to find lodging for the night.

Problem: A tractor-pulling event was being held in Bowling Green, 40 miles south. Despite this distance, it meant that every bloody motel was pretty much booked for miles around.

We couldn't believe it. Our car breaks down and we can't find a room because of a tractor-pulling event? To our young mind, we were clearly suffering woes not seen since God killed off Job's mode of transport, and we were convinced He was putting us through similar tests. So we limped the car from motel to motel in this tiny little town, having no luck whatsoever -- until we came across the Exit 3 Motel, the fifth motel we tried. If we recall correctly, they had one room left -- the honeymoon suite.

So we took it. Sadly, we were without a bride to share the honeymoon suite, but the place did have beer left over in the fridge! (The Exit 3 Motel was the type of place where one could pay by the week and get mail and such). Plus it had a double bed and high ceilings, even if the decor was straight out of 1978. Perhaps things were looking up after all, we thought.

Hey, we were 19. Beer was still noteworthy, all right?

Being rather thirsty, we cracked open a Budweiser and quaffed it most quickly, and again called home. We were not in good emotional shape, but in short order our folks had gotten on to a repair shop, which actually sent out a mechanic to look at our car. We do wish we remembered the shop's name, because the people there were a prime example of everything good about America. Anyway, the mechanic came out, looked at it, told us where the shop was, and to bring it by in the morning.

Then came dinner. Fortunately, there was a Country Restaurant right by the motel, so we went over there for some chow. How to explain this -- well, did y'ever walk into a place and everyone in the joint turns and stares at you? This literally happened. We don't know if we had a neon sign over our head that said "CITY BOY," but we do know that we very much wished we had a John Deere trucker's cap.

The next morning, we limped the car down to the repair shop and had a look at it. As the car was being fixed, we had the following dramatized conversation with one of the mechanics, a fellow about our age:

MECHANIC: You've got a blown coolant hose.
ME: Oh, God! What's the damage?
MECHANIC: All total? $43.50.
ME:. I'm sorry, what?
MECHANIC: Yeah, sorry about that. It's a lot, but we had to go get the part.
ME: $43.50.
MECHANIC: It'll be about an hour or so.
ME: Wow!
MECHANIC: Are you feeling all right?
ME: $43.50!

We still can't believe it. They send out a mechanic on his off-time and they did 90 minutes labor the next morning and it came to $43.50. If only we could remember the name of this shop! But in the off-chance that Tom, the mechanic who came out to have a look at the Sable on that hot night, reads this -- thank you. Thank you thank you thank you.

As for the next story -- well, a few months later, we were driving back from school and the Sable began overheating again. This time, though, we made it home safely. Oh, sure, the radiator had failed completely and we had no heat in the car and the rear defroster had failed and it was 10 degrees outside. But as we were on the freeways for all of our drive, the frigid air cooled off the engine so much that it stayed at "C" on the temperature gauge the whole trip, except when we had to stop and warm ourselves up. There are many humbling things on this Earth; and one of them, we would submit, is drying off one's socks over the heater in a gas-station bathroom.

But looking back, it was worth it.

RELATED: Mr James Anchower has written a startlingly coherent essay on Important Pre-Trip Planning for Road Jaunts. Hence, we would direct readers to Mr Anchower's "Here's My Road Map to Road Trips."

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at April 30, 2004 02:23 PM | TrackBack

Yes, as I recall, you never have been one to dress in a style that would allow you to blend in with the more rural elements.

Posted by: Geoff Brown at April 30, 2004 03:22 PM

I was wearing a Michigan T-shirt and slacks. It wasn't as if I was wearing a three-piece suit!

Posted by: Benjamin Kepple at April 30, 2004 03:34 PM

Great story.

Posted by: davie d at April 30, 2004 06:45 PM

Laughed out loud throughout this entire essay.

Especially your belated apology to the entire region of Southeast Michigan.

Very glad my own nervous breakdown and car-breakdown could provide some humor!

Posted by: red at May 1, 2004 02:08 PM

Kepple speaks the truth. An "I'm feeling lucky" google search for Kepple crash yields the following article:

The Michigan Review

Serpent's Tooth
22 April 1998

Unharmed, Kepple Walks From Major Accident

In a surprise develop­ment on Tuesday, April 7th, Review Editor Benjamin Kepple walked away unharmed from a major car accident involving his 1997 Ford Taurus GL and two very large semi-trucks. Many students and administrators at the University were jubilant upon hearing news of the crash, but their joy turned to amazement as it came out that Kepple suffered only a small cut on his knee. The crash, which essentially destroyed Kepple's car and did virtually no damage to both trucks, summoned over a dozen emergency vehicles and closed eastbound I-94 for close to an hour.

Kepple, who had been driving at approximately 60 miles per hour in the left lane of I-94 in Dearborn, was forced to swerve around a huge piece of truck tire re-tread, which caused him to lose control of his car. His car swerved into the center lane, back into the left, then back into the center lane, at which point the right rear part of Kepple's car struck a semi-truck. This tap caused Kepple's car to swerve into the right lane, facing traffic, at which point Kepple's car was struck head-on by a car carrier traveling between 55 and 60 miles per hour. No citation was issued by the Michigan State Police.

According to one in-state University student, this was the "coolest" accident to happen in the Metro Detroit area since 1995, when an oil tanker exploded in a collision on the I-75/I-94 junction, taking six other vehicles with it.

However, LSA fifth-year senior Oliver Merriam sharply disagreed.

"I mean, you'd think he'd have some kind of life­altering injury. I mean, he's Editor of the Review. He isn't very agreeable. He deserves to have his fibula and tibia at least bent."

Other students also concurred.

"Kepple is the ugly, fat, neo­conservative bastard child of all that is evil," said LSA Senior Saul Guerilla. "Unlike political scientists like myself, Kepple is presumptuous and arrogant for insinuating that normal people can have an opinion of their very own. After all, I spent three entire years on my political science B.A."

Assistant Associate Deputy for University Relations Mitchell van Rijn noted, "The University does admit to denying alleging that Mr. Kepple was a ... well, I can't say that on the air ... are we on the air? ... Right. Anyhow, the University also wishes to deny the completely false and untrue rumors that the Assistant Undersecretariat for Multicultural Affairs and P.C. Commissar, Dr. Leon P. Muntz, lit a cigar and laughed manaically in his office upon hearing the news. "

Some students used the opportunity opened by Kepple's accident to criticize the Review, which is seen by some as reactionary and insensitive.

"The Review is not conducive to a nice atmosphere here at Michigan," said MSA Representative and Environmental Issues Commission Chair Emily Strauss. "In 1997, over 9.3 billion animals were killed for food."

In a response, Managing Editors Lee Bockhorn and Chris Carnacchio announced they would eat steak every night for a week and continue the Review's practice of using rare condor blood for blue ink and banner coloring. Carnacchio reportedly suffered a head injury after Strauss beat him furiously over the head with a pine-tree sapling, shouting, "Use mass transit! Use mass transit!" incessantly.

Kepple gleefully declared, "I am invincible!" after climbing free from the wreckage of his vehicle. He was last seen in Belize organizing a coup d'etat in order to have the Central American nation remade into a British protectorate. MR

Posted by: Matthew S. Schwartz at May 2, 2004 01:34 AM

Gee, I really can't escape the events of my past, now can I?

Posted by: Benjamin Kepple at May 2, 2004 10:31 AM