Saturday, April 25, 2009

baby, you can drive my car

As you've probably read in our blogs, David and I have been having nothing but trouble with cars since last fall. We had fatal bad wrong mechanical things happen to each of our vehicles within a week of each other and have been trying to cobble together transportation on very little money ever since. He's presently babying a Toyota through the miles and miles he drives every day at his job and holding his breath at every new noise, while I managed to buy a Nissan that actually has a carburetor. A bad carburetor. A bad, bad carburetor. Which no one will work on.
I think I know more about the workings of cars than most people. Not because I've actually been a mechanic, although I have spent many a childhood afternoon handing my dad various wrenches and listening to him cuss.
It's because when it comes to cars, I'll go for the interesting and highly unreliable over the boring and dependable every day. I've thrown rods, cracked blocks, blown head gaskets, torn belts, broken clutch cables, you name it.
But I only set a car on fire once.
It was 1977. My mom and dad were fairly recently divorced and she was working as the wire editor at the local newspaper. My sister was still in high school and I was starting my first year of junior college. We were living in a drafty old house that we couldn't really afford to heat and it was COLD. I remember piles and piles of snow that winter; snow that seemed to be around forever. The three of us were sharing one car - a 1971 VW squareback. Most days the schedule worked. Mom had to be at work at 6am, Peggy at school at 8am, I organized my classes around them. I think we only forgot Peggy a couple of times. She was a good sport about it.
The college was about 5 miles out of town in the middle of cornfields, but the VW was good in snow. Usually stingy in the heat department, this car was different. A previous owner had thoughtfully rigged a 2nd gasoline-powered heater to help out the standard weenie VW heater and it was almost tolerable.
I had a 9:00 class that morning and had plenty of time to get there. Radio blasting, singing along at the top of my lungs and plowing through the snow, I realised that the car was a little warmer than usual but didn't give it a second thought. Shortly after class started there was a knock on the door. The security guard asked for me and motioned me into the hall. "Are you the owner of a blue VW?" he said. I said that I wasn't really the owner but that I was the driver. "It caught on fire," he said. "You'd better come with me."
In my wildest dreams I was not prepared for the devastation that I met in the parking lot. The poor VW had not only caught fire, but taken down the cars on either side of it. Sitting in a huge lake of melted snow, it was a shell. A shell. A smoking, gray, hulking shell sitting on melted tires. Everything was gone - the seats, the roof, the dash, my Elvis Costello "Armed Forces" cassette. My books in the back seat. My Bicentennial high school graduation tassel with a Liberty Bell on it. The Impala on the left had melted tires and smoldering sleeping bags in the trunk. The Datsun on the right was luckier - it got away with melted trim and interesting charred patterns on the door. Of course a crowd had gathered - there were fire trucks and flames, and not much happened out in the middle of the cornfields that involved sirens.
The worst part was that my mom heard it on the scanner at the newspaper - "Car fire at the junior college, license plate #, blah, blah, blah . . . "
Pre-cell phone days, she did what any good newspaper woman would. She sent a photographer.
The insurance company's theory was that the supplemental heater had leaked onto the engine. We had full coverage and got the Blue Book amount when it was declared totalled; the odometer had melted. I don't remember how long it was before we got another car. Mom caught rides with a co-worker, Peggy was back on the bus and I carpooled with a sports reporter who happened to be going to the same college part time.
Gee, I feel better. Maybe a carburetor isn't that bad after all.

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