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The Talkin’ Fun-Loving Malibu Juice Blues

My little blue 1999 Chevy Malibu has been a good and faithful car for me.  For the most part.  It’s certainly treated me leagues better than my former vehicle, the blue 1985 Chevy Caprice Classic, referred to with heavy spite and ire as the Bent Turd.  Oh, sure, the Malibu has konked out on me on a few occasions and has had to have various bits of it replaced, such as water pumps, serpentine belts and the occasional alternator, but it’s been a good car all the same.

A while back, I began noticing a strange belt-squeaking noise beneath its hood, though and I decided it was time to get it checked out before I learned what was causing that noise the hard way.  I decided to bite the bullet and take it in to the local Chevy dealership for its 100,000 mile tune up.  I’d actually had mixed experiences with the dealership in the past and was once even yelled at by one of their employees who kept insisting that the keys he had handed me were my car keys despite the fact that they weren’t.  But again, they’re the Chevy dealership so ostensibly they would be the ideal place to take a Chevy.

We dropped my car off late on an early March Tuesday night. It was a carefully chosen night, because my wife Ashley’s medical rotation in March gave her Wednesdays off so she would be able to shuttle me to work the next day.

With snow falling on my head, I stood in the freezing wind and filled out the little after-hours drop off sheet.  I wrote there that in addition to the tune up, all belts should be inspected as one of them was making noise.  I also checked that I would need an oil change.

“Did you mention the grabby brakes?” Ash asked as I climbed back into her car.

“Uh, no,” I said. I’d forgotten about the grabby brakes. They’ve actually been grabby for quite some time, but the local brake place said everything looked good in them so we shouldn’t worry too much. Still, who likes grabby brakes?

The following morning, Ash called the Chevy place and told them about the grabby brakes. They said they’d check them. Meanwhile, they already claimed to have found a leaky engine intake that needed fixing to the tune of $700. Ash asked if this was something dire or if it was the kind of thing that might wait a few months. They said it could wait, though if it should spring an antifreeze leak we should bring it back in.

“Did you remind them about the oil change?” I asked.

“No.”

“Well, it’s on the form I filled out, so I’m sure they’ll get it,” I said.

Despite claiming they would phone us, the garage never called. So in the early afternoon, I phoned them and learned three things: 1) the Malibu needed new rear brake drums, which would stop the grabby brakes; 2) the mechanics weren’t going to do the tune up because it would involve replacing bits that would have to be replaced again once we decided to have the intake fixed and they didn’t want to do the work twice—fine with me, as I didn’t want to pay for it twice, either; 3) they couldn’t hear any belt squealing noises so they hadn’t done anything with the belts.  I told them okay on the brake drums and they said they would call when they were finished. Naturally, they did not and by 5 p.m. I was left with no other conclusion but that my car was not fixed.

The next morning, Ashley drove me to the Chevy dealership where I planned to wait for my car to be finished.  However, when I arrived they claimed my car had already been repaired the previous day.  I paid them for the drum replacement and noticed they’d also charged me for a lube job.  It was only after I was driving away that I noticed they had not replaced the little Oil Change in X number of Miles sticker on the inside of the window, leading me to believe they’d not actually changed the oil.

The car ran okay for several days, despite the continued belt squeal sound.  I could kind of understand them not being able to hear it because it only seemed to happen on warm days.

The following Sunday, the right rear tire began to make a horrible clunking sound whenever we braked at low speeds.  By Wednesday, we decided this wasn’t good so we took it back in to the dealership.  The man at the service counter seemed a bit angry about this. He also didn’t seem to want to accept the car at all as he was four mechanics short. We didn’t see how his lack of mechanics was our problem and told him we would much prefer it if they had a look anyway since we didn’t like driving with horrible clunking sounds coming from brakes they had allegedly repaired.  Dude wrote down a little of what we were saying, but wasn’t writing in near as much detail as I thought was required.

“Also, would you please have them investigate the belt-squealing sound that I’m still hearing in the engine,” I asked.  “Oh, and please change the oil, too.” This seemed to make the angry man even more angry, but he agreed he would try if they had time.

When I called them for a status report that afternoon, the Angry Man at the desk said they couldn’t hear any clunking noises coming from the engine nor any squealing noise from the tire. I corrected him that it was actually a clunking tire and a squealing engine.  He said they still couldn’t hear either and suggested I come in the following day to help them hear it.

So at work, Thursday morning, I gave the dealership a call to arrange the auditory aid session.  Angry man said they had driven the car again that morning and still couldn’t hear anything.  I asked if I could come by at noon and he said that would work.

At noon, a co-worker dropped me off at the dealership. Angry man was there but became still angrier when he saw me. He said all the mechanics go to lunch between noon and 1, so I’d have to come back later.

“Well, I sure wish you’d mentioned that on the phone before you told me it would be okay for me to come in at noon,” I said, very calmly.

Angry man flared.  “Well, I’m not going to stand here and argue with you who was right or who was wrong!” he said. “Let’s just go give her a drive now.”

“Sure thing,” I said, still remaining admirably calm.

He dug up my key and led me outside where he moved for the driver’s side door of my car.

“Would you mind if I drove?” I said. Angry Man did seem to mind, but didn’t really have any grounds to refuse me the wheel of my own vehicle. To make small talk while I started the car and maneuvered out of the parking lot, Angry Man started back in on the whole business about how the mechanics had already driven the car twice and couldn’t hear a thing.  As he was saying this, I applied the brakes until the car was at a very low speed.

“CLUNK CLUNK CLUNK CLUNK CLUNK CLUNK!” said the back tire.

“Hear that?”

Angry man’s mouth dropped open. “Yeah. Yeah, I hear that. Anybody could hear that.” He then became incredibly angry at the incompetence of his mechanics for putting him in such an embarrassing situation.  I continued to drive the car out of the parking lot and down the road, both to try and get the belt to squeal and also to make angry man that much more uncomfortable at having to sit there beside me and take it after once again having been shown up. The belt never did squeal for me, but like I told him it usually didn’t do it when the weather was cold.

“Uh, you said you needed an oil change too, right?” Angry Man said as we drove back to the dealership. “Well, we did that when you brought it in last week.”

“Oh, really?  I thought maybe you hadn’t since no one replaced the mileage sticker.”

”Well… um… they’re supposed to do that,” he said.

We resolved to have them fix the clunk and I would save the belt squeal for a day when it was actually squealing.

Naturally, the Chevy dealership never phoned me to alert me to what the problem was with the clunking.  I phoned them, however, to learn from a very sheepish sounding Angry Man that they had replaced my original faulty brake drum with yet another faulty brake drum.  Wisely he didn’t try to get me to pay for the re-replacement.

Jump ahead two weeks. The wife and I go out of town for a medical mission trip to Central America during which time my car sits in my driveway. Upon our return, the belt squeal has not gone away, but has in fact gotten worse.

It sounded particularly bad on the following Saturday, when it did its best impersonation of a choir of crickets throughout my drive to work.  I made it to work okay, but on my way home, after having made it nearly up the giant hill that leads to my street, I hit a dip in the pavement and heard something beneath the hood give way and noticed that the power steering was no longer working.  As I reached my driveway, the engine died and the battery light came on.  I parked, called the wife down for a gander and opened the hood. Sure enough, the serpentine belt was completely off its track. And the reason it was off its track is because the alternator had broken off.

No, really. Broken. Off.

I’m talking, broken off from the engine block at the bracket, broken off.

“Well, that sucks,” I said, staring at it.

“Yes. That does suck,” Ashley replied.

“Those complete and utter morons,” I added.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised by this. However, you’d think that when you go to allegedly qualified Chevrolet repair specialists at an automobile repair garage that deals specifically with Chevrolets and you tell them that your particular Chevrolet is making a sound that’s reminiscent of a belt being loose that they’d actually, oh, I don’t know, HAVE A LOOK IN THE GENERAL BELT AREA or something and maybe noticed that the bracket connecting the alternator had CRACKS IN IT!

MORONS!

I don’t say nearly often enough how much I adore my car insurance company USAA.  Genuinely love them.  In addition to being very good insurance, they also have customer service representatives that should be the envy of all other call centers the universe wide. When you phone them, you don’t get a huge hassle from any automated answering service that makes you jump through hoops to talk to a real person. No. You get to talk to a real person who’s friendly, empathetic and willing to help make sure things are as easy for you as possible. It’s one of the most amazing concepts I’ve ever heard of!

USAA not only arranged for a tow truck to come get my car and haul it to the nearest repair provider, which just happened to be within walking distance of my house, but they also commiserated with me over how much having one’s alternator fall off truly sucks. I think I’m in love! Even better, the towing is COVERED by my oh-so-marvelous USAA insurance! Glory Be!

The tow truck driver, arrived in 20 minutes and hauled my car down the hill.  I then gave it an hour before calling the conveniently located repair place.  I was expecting to have to explain why my car had been dumped on them and what I wanted them to fix and then have to wait upwards of a day for this busy garage to get around to doing anything about it. However, they already knew the whole drill about my car. In fact, they’d already been on the phone with parts yards looking for a new bracket for my alternator and expected to hear back from them any time. That wasn’t the truly shocking part, though.

“Did you know your alternator was missing a nut in the back?” my new repair guy asked.

“No. No, I didn’t,” I said.

Apparently, in the back of the alternator there is a bolt that helps hold the thing down and that bolt is supposed to be held in place by a nut. Without the nut, much vibration can occur which can and did cause the metal bracket of the alternator housing to weaken and eventually snap.

Now, I can’t say for sure that the Chevy dealership is directly at fault for that nut being missing, but they were the last folks that had anything to do with that part of my car since they’re the ones who put in a new serpentine belt several months ago.  A more conspiratorial soul might suggest they’d done it on purpose to get more business from me, but I don’t think so.  No, those folks seem to hate doing any work at all, let alone bringing more work down on their heads through sabotage.

A mere six hours later, my new repair guy PHONED ME to say the car was ready. Imagine that; a repair shop that actually PHONES YOU when your car is ready, rather than making you hire a Sherpa.  I walked on down the hill and picked it up with no problem. The bill was only $86, which didn’t strike me as too bad at all.  I think I’ve found my new repair shop.

Copyright © 2005 Eric Fritzius

The Talkin’ Hauling Birthdays, Lack of Carrot Cake & Tooters, Mo’ Better Blues (a Horribly True birthday incident)

My wife Ashley recently celebrated a birthday.  I won’t say how old she is, cause she’ll hit me, but she’s two years older than I am and I’m 32.  You do the math.  (Hey, she was probably gonna hit me anyway.)

Since we left higher paying gigs in the big city to move to West Virginia, for med-school and library servitude respectively, we’ve not done any major birthday presents for one another.  We always get one another a birthday card and maybe something small, but nothing too expensive.

Still, at the beginning of the month in which Ash’s birthday fell, I spent quite a bit of time trying to come up with what I was going to do for her.  I knew she wouldn’t want anything huge, but I felt I still needed to do something.  Fortunately, Ash’s a fairly simple gal who cares not for diamonds, pearls or expensive fru-fru.  She doesn’t wear a lot of jewelry—usually just her wedding set and a pair of earrings or maybe her favorite necklace that features a small gold nugget that was one of the only products of her father’s former Alaskan gold mine.  She does like shoes quite a bit, but not excessively so.

What to get her? What to get her?

Then I thought of it…

One of our last major purchases was a brand new clothes washer.  It’s a Big ol’ Kenmore, the kind with the porcelain on steel top—which somehow seemed an important option to take back when we bought it, but dadgum if I can figure out if that’s done us any good since.  We purchased the washer shortly after moving into the house we now rent, in April of 2003, and we love it as much as two people can love a major appliance. It’s nice and roomy and is so much more efficient at washing our clothes than the tiny apartment-style washer we had been using since we got married.

Once we had the new Mo’ Better washer firmly installed, we had the question of what to do with the old washer. We don’t own a truck, so we couldn’t just haul it off ourselves. Having dropped a lot of cash in the moving process itself, not to mention on the new washer, we also didn’t want to spend any more money in order to get rid of it; so renting a truck seemed out of the question. We called around to the local shelters and charity organizations, but while they would all have gladly accepted it, none of them had the capability to come and remove it from our home.  As a temporary measure, we rolled it into the kitchen and used it as an island for a while until we could come up with some ingenious way to get rid of it.

Months passed.

Eventually, Ashley got it in her head that she wanted to build a real kitchen island to replace the defunct washer. She marched right down to the hardware store, told them what she wanted to do

“I take it you’re the handyman in your house?” the hardware store man asked.

“Oh, yeah,” Ash said.

They then spent an hour or so drawing up plans and selecting and ordering the butcher-block top.  She bought most of the materials she would need from them, then got me to drive her to the nearest city with a Lowes for what the local store didn’t have.  She then spent all her spare time for a month sawing, sanding and assembling the island.  When she was finished, she had a beautiful and sturdy butcher-block island to call her very own.

Once we had the new Mo’ Better island firmly installed, we again had the question of what to do with our old apartment-style washer. We still didn’t own a truck, still couldn’t find any charitable organizations that did either and we were still too cheap to call U-Haul.  Ash was all for putting a sign out by the road or an ad in the classifieds to sell it.  Trouble was, while the washer does work it doesn’t work as well as you would hope a washer you paid good money for might.  It would do in a pinch, if you didn’t have one at all, but you would probably have to do the spin cycle a couple of times to get all the soap and water out of your clothes.  With no obvious solution, we finally just rolled the washer over into a corner of the kitchen, in front of our cookbook shelf, and began piling junk mail on top of it.

Months passed.  In fact, a year passed and suddenly it was early October and I’d started wondering what to do for her birthday. That’s when I hit upon the idea of getting rid of the washer once and for all.

“How would you do it?” you might ask.

Ah, I would rent a truck.

Hey, but I thought you were cheap, and stuff,” you might also say.

Sure am. However, I was going to spend $20 at the bare minimum for a birthday present anyway, so why not funnel that Yuppie $5 into renting a truck, getting rid of the devil-washer and securing myself a warm place in my wife’s affections for the effort?

I could just picture her coming home on Saturday, from her month-long emergency room rotation, in Princeton, WV, walking in the door and spying the 3’x2’x2′ patch of open space where the washer once sat. And on the floor, in the middle of the patch of glorious emptiness, would be the beautiful birthday card I had already purchased for her at a local downtown gallery. Sounded like a plan.

Trouble is, my surprises like this NEVER work out and I have a long and storied history of them not working out.

Why do they not work out?  Well, for one thing, I have a wife who insists on pestering me for hints about her birthday present until she gets enough to put it together. Doing this is one of her greatest joys in life. Preventing her from doing this is my eternal challenge—a very difficult one, cause she’s smarter than me. It also doesn’t help that I have a big mouth and let it be known that I had something planned for her.

So Wednesday night, the night before the actual move, she called from Princeton to interrogate me about her present.

“It’s green, right? You said it was green,” she said as a clever ruse to get me to admit to something.  I was steadfastly not admitting anything if I could keep from doing so. Should have just hung up right then.

“Is it animal, vegetable or mineral?” she continued.

“Um… none of the above,” I said.  At its core, her present was essentially empty space, which is—subtracting the minerals, pollen, bugs and cat-hair that might be floating through it—none of the above. She didn’t believe this part and continued plying me with questions. I, in turn, continued being evasive and assured her that while she would really really love her present, she was never ever going to guess what it was.

After a goodly number of other questions, during which I let it slip that I’d had to make a phone call to make arrangements for her present, she asked, “Is this something that’s going to help me cook?”

I could guess what she might be thinking, which I theorized was that she thought I’d ordered her a Kitchen-Aid—a device she has always wanted and which I will one day buy for her when we have money.  However, it was still a perfect chance for a veiled hint, because once the washing machine was out of the way we would finally be able to get to the shelf of cookbooks its been blocking for the past year and a half.

“It might help with cooking,” I said. “It might indeed.”

Oddly, this was not the clue that tipped her off.  What tipped her was what I said shortly after she said she wished she could come home on Thursday instead of Saturday, as scheduled.  I became fearful that she might actually mean it, or worse yet, do it.  It would be just like her to have secured an extra two days off somehow and come home early.  She’s done similar sneak-arrivals many a time before and she never tells me in advance, allowing me to be happily surprised when she pops in the door, or scared out of my wits when she pops in the door in the middle of the night.  The idea that she might pop by in the middle of the washer moving process was not one I fancied.

“Uhm, well if you do come home tomorrow, make it tomorrow afternoon,” I said.  Stupid.

“Why is that?” she said with justifiable suspicion.

“Uh… cause the… um… dancing midgets might not be gone by then,” I lamely said.  “They, uh… they gotta practice for your party, you know.”

There passed a long silence.

“I know what you’re going to do,” Ashley said with a sudden assurance.

“You… you do?”

“Yep. I know what it is, but I’m not going to tell you because it will just piss you off.”

I could tell by her voice this was not a bluff. Somewhere in that long silence, understanding had dawned on her and I had no doubt that she had figured it out. I don’t know if it was a stray phone-routed psychic signal from me or just that she’s smarter than the average she-bear.  Bottom line: she knew and now I had to know for certain that she knew.

“No, go ahead and guess,” I said.

“You’re sure?”

“Yeah.”

“Okay,” she said.  There was a dangerous pause.  “You’re getting rid of the washer, aren’t you?”

I cursed, loudly. As she predicted, I was instantly pissed. Once again my big surprise was ruined due to my own stupid mouth and her woman’s intuition. Why? Why can’t I just shut up about it all and keep things a surprise? Why do I have this Blofeld-like need to show off with crafty clues? Why do I let her draw me into these hint-sparring matches in the first place? Why, WHY, WHYYYYY?!

Ashley laughed and laughed as I ranted and cursed some more and pounded the couch cushions. When I was finished and had calmed down, she told me that it was a very thoughtful and sweet present that she did love. And not only was it a very nice present, but it had the added bonus of allowing her to guess what the present was through constant pestering, which she really really loves and is frankly more enjoyable for her than being surprised in the first place.

So the next day, I went and picked up the U-Haul, hand-trucked the washer up the ramp and hauled it down the hill to the charity second-hand store. (And, yes, I did warn them about the washer’s somewhat wonky working-status—I’m not so much of a cheap jerk that I would foist an unreliable appliance onto a charity organization with no warning.)  At the end of the job, with mileage and a few gallons of diesel factored in, my total price came to around $30, which I figure is a respectable amount to spend on a birthday present.

At the moment, there is only stray cat food in the space where the washer once stood, but I’ll soon have that cleaned up and her card in its place, ready for her arrival tomorrow. She may not be surprised, but she’ll be considerably less cluttered.

EPILOGUE

Back before Ashley guessed what her birthday present was, she asked if I was going to make her a birthday cake and buy tooters. I hadn’t actually considered either a cake or tooters, but decided that at least one of those was a good idea. She even suggested I make the fantastic carrot cake recipe she’d found on the internet.  And after Ashley ruined her own surprise by guessing her present, the only thing I had left going for me was possibly surprising her with cake.

I’d never actually made a carrot cake before, but figured it couldn’t be too hard so I dug out the recipe. It had lots of other yummy stuff in it, like raisins, crushed pineapple, dates, coconut, cinnamon, vanilla, pecans and a cream cheese icing. I had a lot of the ingredients on hand, but did have to go to the store to pick up dates and carrots all the same. I also decided to cheat on the homemade icing and just buy some Duncan Hines cream cheese icing. It’s good stuff and I probably couldn’t make better by myself.

Friday night I started preparing it. It’s kind of a three bowl affair with a dry ingredients bowl, a wet ingredients bowl and a fruit, veggies and nuts ingredient bowl. You mix the first two together then mix in the third, slap it in the oven and take it out in an hour. Well I gathered what I thought were all of my ingredients and put them in their respective bowls, mixed them in the proper order and poured the mixture into the first of two floured cake pans I’d prepared.  I was supposed to fill the pan to 3/4ths from the pan’s top and I did this, but I had no cake batter left over afterward to fill the second pan.  I had somehow expected there would be more batter than that.  How the heck am I supposed to make a double layer carrot cake if I’ve only got one layer?

Oh, well, I thought. It’ll work out. I slapped it on in the oven.

Can you guess which ingredient I left out?

That’s right: THE CARROTS—only the MOST important ingredient of a Carrot Cake.

I’d been trying so hard not to screw it all up and had been very careful to set out all of my ingredients ahead of time, except, apparently, the stinking carrots, which remained in the fridge. I only realized my mistake when removing the cake from the oven, whereupon I surveyed its beautiful brown surface and thought to myself, “Oh man, now that’s going to be one badass tasty carrot ca–aaahhhhhHHHHH!!”

In the end, though, it turned out just fine.  We learned that you can make a carrot cake without the carrots and it’s still absolutely delicious.  It had plenty of other nummy ingredients to make it interesting.  Sure, it was a little bit drier than we might have liked, but still just… Mwahh!

In fact, here’s the recipe.  Go try it yourself and see if I’m not right.

JUICE’S LACK OF CARROT CAKE

Preheat Oven to 375 degrees

In first bowl mix
2 cups flour
2 cups sugar
2 teaspoons baking soda
3 teaspoons cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder

In second bowl mix
4 eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 1/2 cup corn oil

In third bowl mix
3 cups shredded carrots *
1 16 oz can crushed pineapple
1 box dates (shredded)
1 cup flake coconut **
1 cup pecan halves
1 cup raisins

Thoroughly mix first and second bowls, then stir in ingredients from third bowl. Pour into floured cake pans until the pan is 3/4 full. Bake at 375 for 1 hour or until toothpick comes out clean.

* Optional
** If you leave out the carrots, you might put an extra cup of coconut in. I think I did by accident and my cake was scrumptious.

Cream Cheese Icing
4 cups powdered sugar
28 oz cream cheese at room temp
1/2/ cup unsalted butter at room temp
4 teaspoons vanilla

Copyright © 2004 Eric Fritzius

The Talkin’, Electric Coma, Ghost of the Bent Turd, Three Heaps of Itis Blues (Two Narrowly Averted Horribly True Tales in One)

Somewhere out there, my former and unlamented vehicle, the 1985 blue Chevy Caprice Classic, affectionately known as the Bent Turd, has died.  Not that the death of the Bent Turd would be surprising; it was on its last legs when I owned it, so how much better could it really be treating the poor bastard who had the misfortune of buying it at a bulk car auction?  I figure the first time it broke down, or made that horrible Velociraptor through a jet intake noise that caused me to get rid of it in the first place, its new owner probably sold it for scrap and it has since been compacted into a nice blue and rust-colored metal cube.  Until recently, however, I didn’t actually have any clinical evidence that the `Turd—a devil contraption that left me stranded, powerless and full of utter desperation on far more occasions than I care to count—was indeed no more.  That is, until its ghost up and possessed my new car.

Last month, on a Friday, my wife Ashley returned from her month-long pediatrics rotation with what seemed like at least two different illnesses.  They say no medical student gets out of a pediatrics rotation without contracting at least two handfuls of walking crud, and this would seem to be true.  The snot-nosed, Junior Typhoid Marys in Princeton are spreading contamination in every direction their uncooperative little heads can turn.  Ash firmly believes that if, as a child, she had ever thrown a spitting tantrum and refused treatment in a doctor’s office, like some of the kids she’s seen, she would not have survived the beating her mother would have given her in return.  Alas, parenting skills in Princeton would seem to be low priority. As a result, Ash had been given some pretty heavy symptoms that looked as if they would take more than a couple of days to shuck.

Almost as if mirroring Ashley’s ailments, my 1999 blue Chevy Malibu began giving off congested sort of sounds as I turned the key in it, Saturday morning.  A pang of guilt rose in me, as I’d been procrastinating about taking it in for a much-needed oil change for the last thousand miles or so.  But as my day progressed, this pang grew into a full-fledged guilt trip.  It seemed that every time I tried to start her up, the Malibu’s engine had more and more difficulty coming to life.  At one point, it failed to start on the first try and I had to do it again—a first time occurrence for this particular vehicle.  By Sunday night, it was obvious that I needed to take this car in and soon.

My theory—and I speak from years of experience as an automotive dumbass—was that the car’s engine had very little oil in it or, at the least, very old oil in it, and was having difficulty starting due to lack of proper lubrication.  It could have been ignition gnomes for all I really knew, but I imagined the whole thing would soon seize up and become a chunk of fused metal unless I took steps to prevent that.

Monday morning neither Ash nor the car were feeling much better.  The car started, albeit hesitantly, and drove me across town to my favorite service station, near my library workplace.  I left it with them and walked to the library, spending a couple of hours there before returning to collect it.

“We checked all your fluids and replaced the oil,” the little old man who runs the station said.  Then, almost as an aside, he asked, “Did you have any trouble starting it this morning?”

“Yeah.  I assumed it was caused by old oil.”

The man gave me a funny look I wasn’t sure I liked.  “Wasn’t the oil.  It was your battery,” he said.  “We had to jump it off just to get it in the garage.”

Ah ha!  The battery!  That at least made sense.  This car hadn’t had a new battery since I bought it, so it was probably about time for this four year old, high-fallutin’, Duracel to kick off.

It certainly didn’t sound up to snuff when I started the engine in the service station parking lot.  The more I thought about it, the more I knew my battery issues would come to a head soon very soon.  Sure, it could probably get me home, but there was no guarantee it would start the following morning and I might once again be stranded at the hands of a blue Chevrolet product.  It was time to change the battery.

Now what I should have done was leave the car with the service station and ask them check it out and replace it.  Instead, I drove the car to work and let it sit all day while I contemplated my next move.

The last time I changed a battery was in the Bent Turd after it went into an electric coma in a grocery store parking lot, back when I lived in Tupelo, Mississippi.  My buddy Joe had been visiting me at the time and it was only with his assistance and chauffeuring skills that I was able to get the dead battery changed and retain my sanity.

Back then, my automotive tool box consisted of a broken crescent wrench and a hammer, so Joe first had to take me to Wal-Mart for both the new battery and a ratchet set with which to install said battery.  Unfortunately, it turned out that none of the ratchet bits in my new kit actually fit the bolts of my battery cable clamps.  A semi-nearby autoparts store sold us a correct sized battery-clamp-changing bit.  However, while the new bit fit the standard bolt on the black cable clamp it did not fit the metric bolt some damn genius had seen fit to install in the red one.  Back we went for a metric bit.  Back we went again for a metric bit that was the correct size.  Then, to our horror, we figured out that all our trips to the autoparts store had been a waste of time since the metric bolt had actually fused with both the cable clamp and the battery post and no amount of ratcheting was going to pry it loose from the battery anyway.  The people at the auto-parts shop, whose facial expressions had clearly been downgrading our intelligence with each successive visit, were more than happy to sell us a pair of cable cutters, a new cable clamp to splice onto the end of the cable once we’d cut it, and the most expensive roll of electrical tape outside of the Air Force.  In the end it would probably have been easier to build a new car around the battery.

Such problems were to be expected with the Bent Turd, but not the Malibu.  I should have known something was amiss right away.

I called Ashley and told her of my plan to replace the battery while the replacing was good.  She said it was a good idea and that she’d been to the doctor herself that day.  She’d been diagnosed with the triple-threat of conjunctivitis, sinusitis and tonsillitis, most of which were manifesting in her left eye.  The conjunctivitis and sinusitis she had no doubt caught from a leaky toddler, but the tonsillitis lay firmly on the doorstep of her own childhood physician who, for unknown reasons, refused to take hers out.  Bastard.

Leaving the library parking lot wasn’t fun.  I turned the key in the Malibu’s ignition.  The dash lights flickered and the engine gave a couple of dry-heaves.  I turned it again.  More heaves, then more flickering.  But, on the third try, the engine heaved once then started up and stayed up.  Brilliant!  I put her in gear and immediately drove to Advance Autoparts, the only auto-parts place in town that I knew was both able to diagnose my turmoil and open.

At Advance Autoparts, a young guy named James wheeled a battery testing cart out to my car and began hooking it up to the battery.  The test computer made several painful little sounds.  James adjusted the clamps on the battery posts and pressed some buttons.  The sounds continued.

“I think it’s dead,” James declared.  “No, wait,” he said, watching his display as the test computer made a somewhat less-distressed whine.  “It’s not dead.  Says you have two volts left in it.  You’d need twelve to start the car.”

“Take me to your batteries,” I said.

We went back inside and looked up what kind of battery I would need.  The best one they had cost $109.  This seemed a little steep to me, since the battery I’d bought for the `Turd had been around $45.  I paid the $109 anyway.  Turned out to be the best money I’ve spent all year, because Advance Autoparts offers not only free testing of your vehicle’s battery but free installation of a new battery should it come to that.  In essence, they saved me from the following tribulation.

James wheeled his tool cart out to the Malibu and began the process of unscrewing the cable clamps.  While he was doing that, I regaled him with the above tale of the Bent Turd’s battery change.  James agreed that it was a horrible experience to have to go through and pointed out that fortunately both bolt heads on the Malibu’s old battery were of standard measurement.

I should have kept my mouth shut.  I’d been thinking of that earlier incident throughout the day, so the `Turd was already in my thoughts.  And if there’s anything I learned during my time with the Bent Turd it’s that you can never say its name because that only gives it power.  At that moment, the evil spirit of my former vehicle perked up its ears, heard its name taken in vain and bit down hard on any chances of an easy repair.

James had already taken off the black cable clamp and had started on the red one when he found it mysteriously wouldn’t budge.

“Bolt’s kinda tight,” he said.  He sprayed it with some WD-40, waited and tried again.  Nothing.  He repeated.  Still nothing.  James scratched his head.

Over the course of ten minutes, various sized bits were tried, none of them effective.  James then went for his pair of vice grips and attacked the bolt with them for a few more minutes.  All this accomplished was to further strip the bolt head.

I stood by the car, thankful that I wasn’t the one who had to deal with it and thankful that I had thought to dress warmly that morning.  My fleece vest, long sleeve shirt and overcoat were nice and toasty while James’ hooded sweat-shirt looked awfully thin.  There was fear in my heart, though.  What if James couldn’t change the battery out?  What if I was left stranded in the Advance Autoparts parking lot, waiting for the tow-truck to come and haul my poor possessed Malibu off to—dare I even type it—the dealership!  There was no way in hell I’d get my car out of there for less than $200, and that wasn’t including the battery for which I’d already spent $109!  Damn you, Bent Turd!  Damn you!

“This is the worst battery I’ve ever had to change,” James said, just to further erode my confidence.  “I better go get Cliff.”  James returned a few minutes later with Cliff, who was evidently the resident veteran battery changer.  I was rather hoping for Max von Sydow, from the Exorcist, but Cliff didn’t even have a crucifix.  Instead, he took a look at the battery, smiled and picked up James’ pair of vice grips, taking glee in his belief that he was about to show James up.  Cliff, however, had never met the ghost of the Bent Turd.

Over the course of the next forty minutes, the two men struggled bitterly with the battery cable.  James’ original set of vice grips were abandoned—nay, hurled back into the toolbox—in favor of a brand new pair from their selection of tools inside.  The new grips certainly gripped better.  They also ground the head of the bolt into a nearly smooth condition much better than the previous pair too.

Twenty minutes into their battle, through sheer brute force, Cliff managed to pull the bolt and its terminal out of the battery entirely.  However, the bolt was still fused into the terminal itself, which was now dangling at the end of the cable and which still couldn’t be attached to the new battery until the bolt was removed.

“We need another pair,” Cliff said.  And back inside James went for yet another brand new pair of vice grips.  When he returned, Cliff clamped his grips on one side of the bolt and James clamped the new ones to the other side.  They then spent another twenty minutes struggling.

During this time, I paid only marginal attention to what they were doing.  Sure, I was having to wait a long time, I was having to stand in the cold with threatening-looking rain-filled clouds hovering overhead, I hadn’t had any supper, but I was warmed and filled by my own personal internal sun of thankfulness that I was not the guy having to do any of this work.  And I was pretty sure neither of them would give up until they’d finished the job.  This was personal.

Eventually, even the immortal spirit of the `Turd must have grown weak, for with a great triumphant cry from James and Cliff the bolt finally turned and came free.  Cliff grinned, clapped James on the back and then, with his job well done, retrieved his jacket from within the store and went home to the Missus, leaving James to mop up the last of it.

“I’m real sorry you had to wait this long,” James said.  “It’s the damnedest thing—`scuse my language.”

“Please,” I said.  “You’re not putting me out at all.  In fact, you guys just saved me from the biggest headache I can imagine.  If you hadn’t been here to do this, it would have been me and my wife having to do it in my cold driveway back home.  And she’s got conjunctivitis, sinusitis and tonsillitis!”

“Ouch,” James offered in sympathy.

I suspect the spirit of the `Turd was not been fully exorcised by the Advance Autoparts staff.

Over the Thanksgiving holiday, I drove down to my in-laws’ house in North Carolina to meet up with Ash, who was visiting her parents and still trying to shake off her various diseases.  About mid-way through the trip, I tried pass an 18 wheeler and was startled by a sudden loud flapping sound from somewhere within the car.  I thought it was a tire at first, but there was no loss of steering control and no emergency lights came on.  In fact, other than the flapping, everything seemed fine and after a couple of minutes, even the flapping stopped.  I hoped that what I heard was merely a tie rope that might have come off the 18 wheeler, wrapped around my axle and flapped itself to bits against the road.  Hope being a powerful thing, I drove the rest of the way to NC and didn’t think much more about it.

Ash suggested I might have lost an engine belt of some sort. I figured it was probably the air-conditioning belt and not the drive belt, since I’d had no problems driving and hadn’t had the air-conditioning on at all.  Seemed logical.

Turns out, it was the drive belt AND the air-conditioning belt, since a `99 Malibu only has one belt for all of its various systems.  Only about half of my belt was still in the engine, but it had fortunately split down the middle, rather than snapped entirely, so there was still a bit of belt to keep everything running.

We determined pretty quickly that replacing the belt ourselves was out of the question, even with my industrial mechanic father-in-law helping.  It seems a special non-metric and non-standard tool is required—a tool which cannot be found even at Advance Autoparts—not to mention the ability to detach the motor itself from the frame of the car in order to thread the new belt into it.  In fact, according to the mechanic who was nice enough to replace our belt for a decent price, and on a Saturday no less, the whole belt issue is really a conspiracy between the dealerships and the manufacturers, who are trying like hell to produce cars that are impossible to repair at home.

While the ghost of the Bent Turd may have struck again, and may yet still be with me, I’ve come to a rather surprising conclusion about it: I think I like it.  Sure, its presence may have caused my car to break down, but in both of the above instances it didn’t strand me and actually went out of its way to see me to my destination.  Maybe it feels bad for all the crap it gave me while it was still alive and is trying to make up for it in the afterlife.  Maybe it’s holding my car together, Blues Brothers style, at least until I can get within paying range of a qualified mechanic.   Maybe God sent it back, like some great big blue and rust-colored Della Reese, to become my car’s guardian angel. Or maybe blue Chevy’s just suck.  Whatever the case, it’s almost… ALMOST… good to have it back.

Copyright © 2004 Eric Fritzius

 

The Talkin’ Med-School, I Can’t Get Into Things Without My Keys, Furlough from the Crazy Hospital Blues (Another Narrowly Averted Horribly True Tale)

My wife is in her third year of medical studies with the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine.  In third and fourth year, the students are no longer chained to a desk in a classroom, forced to endure hours of lectures that ostensibly are for the students’ benefit but which sometimes amount to a professor reading his lecture notes, which he’s already given to the students, verbatim.  Instead, the students are set free into the world to rotate between various hospitals in various states where they can study the various disciplines of medicine on a more personal and hands-on basis.  They’re also able to schedule vacations between rotation sessions.  And it was from just such a week long vacation, spent resting and relaxing on the beach without me, that my wife recently returned home.  She had two weeks of vacation scheduled, so she had spent one at the beach and then was spending one with me to make up for my not being able to spend the one with her at the beach.  Unfortunately, this final vacation week was scheduled to coincide with three days of pre-testing her school was planning to unleash upon the third year class to help them survive the upcoming OSCE national exams.  So all of her fellow third year classmates had returned to the area from their far flung rotations like birds to the roost.

On Thursday evening of that week, the wife phoned me from the school.

“Poo, can you come pick me up.  I’ve lost my keys.”

I hopped in the car and headed over to find my the wife traipsing up and down the drill-field of the school, looking for her keys in the freshly mown grass.  (This school used to be a military academy, which explains the presence of a massive and otherwise unnecessary drill field in the center of its campus.)  She was pretty sure they’d fallen out of the pocket of her sweater when she was walking between buildings, but the grass had been mown that afternoon and she was none too hopeful that she would find her keys in once piece.  We both searched for a while, but didn’t even find any bits of them.  We gave up and went home, content that if the keys hadn’t been shredded they would turn up at lost and found the next day.

It troubled the wife that she’d managed to lose her keys after so many months spent not losing them.  My wife, you see, used to be an Olympic champion-level loser of keys, perhaps even beating out Paula Mabry, my high school drama teacher, who lost her keys at school on a daily basis and for whom we had to pool money and buy one of those key chains that will beep when you whistle.  The wife’s key loss ability mostly stems from the fact that she hates carrying a purse, barely tolerates a pocketbook and doesn’t always wear clothing that equipped with proper pockets to store her keys in.  That and her habit of laying her keys down in a different place every time she comes home has lead to many a key vanishment and much teeth gnashing on my part.  I used to beg her, in the name of all that’s holy, to please just put her keys in the same place every time so that she would always know where they were.  I don’t know how she finally managed it, cause she still sets her keys down in a different place every day, but the wife eventually developed some sort of system that kept her from losing them cause it had been a couple of years since the last key-loss incident.  (Either that, or she just wised up and stopped telling me about them.)

Sure enough, on Friday evening we got a message that one of her fellow students had picked up a set of keys by mistake.  Unfortunately, the student discovered this only after she was back home in Ohio.  Still, no worries, the student said she would mail them to us.  In the meantime the wife would use the spare house and car keys we have so she would still be able to drive to her psychiatric rotation scheduled the following week up at the crazy hospital in Weston.

The following weekend, The wife braved the two and a half hour trek and soaring gas-prices to return home from Weston.  She didn’t much relish spending the whole weekend locked in the student apartment in the crazy hospital.  (“Let me tell you,” she said, “those people are crazy.”)  Another reason for coming home is that I was scheduled to sing in the spring concert of the Greenbrier Valley Chorale at Carnegie Hall, WV, on Saturday night.  It’s a grand affair, requiring me to get tarted up in a tuxedo and highly uncomfortable shoes.

Saturday afternoon, while putting on my tux for the gig, I decided that my giant wad of keys would thoroughly trash the lines of my pants.  To remedy this, I removed the sub-ring containing only my house key, car key and the key to the universe.  (Yes, I do have the key to the universe.  It’s an over-sized skeleton key that has, over the course of the 15 years it has been in my possession since I purchased it from Wal-Mart, tarnished and lost much of its original gold veneer.  At some point I’m hoping to find the lock to the universe, and when I do you will all rue the day, I assure you.)   This slimmed down key system fit nicely in my pants pocket without being lumpy.  For the same fashion reasons, I left my wallet, checkbook and watch in the car.

The concert went brilliantly.  The wife said it was her favorite of all the ones she’d seen so far and that she was terribly jealous that she didn’t get to sing in it because of her topsy-turvy schedule.  Afterwards, the chorale held a wine and dessert reception downstairs in the Old Stone room of Carnegie (which is another oddity, as the room appears neither old nor to be made of stone).  The wife and I were planning to be good and stick to our low-carb lifestyle at the reception.  However, there were no diet soft-drinks to be had.  My logic suggested that if we were going to have to be “bad” and drink something with sugar and lots of carbs, it may as well be wine, so I grabbed a couple of glasses and went back to find The wife.  Turns out she didn’t want any wine, so I was forced to drink both glasses on my own.  Having not had much to eat for the past few hours, the wine immediately went to work on my head and soon I was feeling rather pleasant.  Shortly thereafter, we stepped over to the dessert table on the premise that we would allow ourselves one small treat from it, but of course came away with brimming plates full of sugary goodness upon which we feasted until our hearts and bellies were content.   I then suggested to the wife that she drive us home, as I was too euphoric and tipsy to attempt it myself.  I gave her my keys and home we went.

The following morning, we decided to be heathens and skip church.  We rarely do this, but there was a lot to be done—laundry, plant-watering, plant-planting, plant-repotting, etc—before she could return to the crazy hospital.   I helped her with the chores and she was able to leave by mid-afternoon and shortly thereafter I settled back in for another week of a semi-bachelor lifestyle, (i.e. a steady diet of bad food and bad TV).

At noon on Monday, I decided it was probably time I left the house.  I needed to mail some packages and hit the grocery store for more hamburger patties and pepperoni.  Plus, the rest of my week was pretty booked solid.  In addition to my grueling three-day work schedule, I was starting rehearsals for an upcoming play Monday night, with further rehersals Wednesday and Thursday nights, plus I was also scheduled to be out of town for most of Tuesday for library software training in Union, WV and Tuesday night brought a second concert with the chorale in an opera house up in Marlinton, WV.  If I was to get any errand running done, it would likely have to be Monday afternoon.

Imagine my horror when I went to pick up my keys to leave and found only half of them there.  Missing was my ring of car, house and universe keys… a ring last seen in the possession of my wife the key-loss tri-athlete.

Not to panic.  She had probably just laid them down in a random place in the living room when she came in.  Only when I searched the living room, they were nowhere be seen.  They also weren’t to be seen in the kitchen, nor on the dining room table, nor atop her dresser, nor my dresser, nor the bathrooms, nor my office, nor her office, nor, once again, the living room.

Where the hell had she put them?

Maybe she gave them back to me and I just forgot and left them in my tux pants, I thought.  Nope.  My tux was hanging in the closet with pockets upside down and there were no keys in them nor in the jacket nor on the floor beneath.  Well, maybe they’re still in her clothes then, I thought.  I tracked down what I thought were the pants she had worn on Saturday, but they contained no keys.  Then again, she had tried on a similar looking pair before we left Saturday night, so these might be the doppleganger pants instead of the real ones.  However, the only other pair of similar looking pants seemed to be missing from both the closet and the laundry.  My as yet unspoken fear was that she had taken the pants and my keys with her to Weston.

No, don’t panic yet!  They had to be somewhere else.  The alternative was to horribly true to consider. 

The car then?  I didn’t know whether to pray that they were or weren’t.  My wife did have a habit of leaving her own keys in her car, on the logic that no one in their right mind would want to steal a beat up 1991 Ford Escort Station Wagon.  But would she have left the keys to my 1999 Chevy Malibu in it—a vehicle no longer pristine and semi-possessed by the evil spirit of my former vehicle, known as the Bent Turd?  Of course, if the keys were still in the car then chances were excellent that the car would also be locked.  Come to think of it, my wallet, checkbook and watch were still hidden in the car too.  I ran down and checked the car.  It was unlocked, but no keys were within.

This left only the horribly true alternative of the keys remaining in The wife’s pants, now with her at the crazy hospital.  I would be trapped in the house during my week without a single free-night to spare.  I would have to bum rides just to get to work.  Or to play practice.  Or to the concert in Marlinton.  And the true irony of it all was that if we hadn’t skipped church in the first place we would have figured this out on Sunday when the keys were still in town.

All search avenues exhausted, I picked up the phone to make the fateful call.  Even before I dialed the number, I was convinced it would bring nothing but sadness and frustration.  The wife probably did have my keys, which was a complicated prospect of which I didn’t even want to think about the full ramifications.  I saw many phone calls to my insurance company and possibly to Fed-Ex in my future.  And even if she didn’t have my keys, she wouldn’t know where they were here.  Heck, she’d probably be hard pressed to tell me where HER keys were, let alone mine.

“Hello?” The wife answered from her apartment in the crazy hospital.

“Um, Swee…” I said.  “Um… do you know where my, uh… my keys are?”

“Your keys?”

“Yeah.  The one’s you… uh… last had when you drove us home Saturday night?  I can’t find them anywhere.”

“Oh,” she said, and I could hear the full weight of understanding behind her voice.  In that one word, she had comprehended the entire situation down to its fibers and extending to its unpleasant consequences.  “No.  I don’t know where your keys are.”

“They’re not still in your pants are they?”

She thought for a minute.  “No, I don’t think so.  I’ve already unpacked everything.  I don’t know where they are.”

At this almost all hope fell away from me.  She didn’t know where they were.  They weren’t even with her there, which meant they were hopelessly lost here.

“Unless, maybe they’re in the chair?” she added.

“Huh?” I said.

“The chair…” she began again.  “Yeah.  My keys were on the back of the chair and when I picked them up I thought I heard another set fall.  They might be in the cushions.”  I raced down the hall with mobile phone in hand, running to get to the big, overstuffed green chair in the living room.  I reached it and started yanking overstuffed green cushions.  At first, I saw nothing.  Then, from deep within the ass-crack of the chair, I spied the tarnished, formerly golden edge of the key to the universe.  I was saved!  Hallelujah!  Once again, the sweety had come to my rescue and  saved the day!  And from the crazy hospital, no less.

Copyright © 2004 Eric Fritzius

The Talkin’ Baked Goob, Toxic Bread Blues (a wintery Horribly True Tale)

I’m such a goob.

I was off from work last Wednesday, so I spent much of my day cooking.  Actually, I spent a small portion of the day in food-preparation after which the crock-pot and the bread-machine spent much of the day cooking beef stew and whole-wheat bread respectively.

We’re not exactly sure what went wrong with the bread.  Might have been too much yeast added due to some confusion in my mind over the difference between tablespoons and teaspoons.  Might have been the naturally organic yogurt I had used in it, which might have gone bad due to the fact that, the night before, I’d accidentally left the refrigerator door cracked just enough for the no doubt 100 watt fridge light to remain on, partially cooking our perishables. (And once again, thank you very much, previous apartment tenants, for your gift of 100 watt bulbs in every socket in the place, including those with little signs on them specifically forbidding you to insert 100 watt bulbs into the sockets.)  Like I said, though, I’m a goob.  I didn’t even notice anything was wrong with the bread until my wife Ashley came home.

“What is that horrible smell?” she said upon opening the door. This was not at all what I wanted to hear after a long hard day of cooking.

“Well it should smell like stew and bread!” I said, rather defensively.  Nothing smelled bad to me, but then again I’d been soaking in the various aromas for most of the day and no longer really noticed them.

Ash sniffed again.  “Well, I can smell the stew, but there’s something funky in here too.”  She went right for the bread machine, which was still 20 minutes away from finishing its job, and lifted the lid.  A moment later, she coughed and backed cautiously away from the machine, as though it might go for her throat.

“WHAT did you put in this bread?”

“Bread stuff,” I said.

“It’s making my eyes water.”

And indeed, upon sticking my own head above the open bread machine, my sinuses were instantly attacked by an unseen toxic force.  This was worse than the plastic particle fumes from that time I incinerated the non-stick spatula on an unattended burner.  My eyes began pouring tears and I had to slam the lid shut and run away.

“Okay, that’s poison bread,” I said between gasps.

We agreed that the best thing to do would be to get my loaf of concentrated evil out of the house as fast as possible.  We took the bread canister out of the machine by its handle and set it outside on the back patio table.  This didn’t seem good enough to me, though, so a few minutes later I went out on the patio, shook the loaf out of its metal canister and then hurled it as far as I could over the back fence into the cow pasture beyond.  It struck ground and rolled down the hillside a bit.

I kept an eye on it over the next few days.  The cows of the pasture would have nothing to do with it, but the birds seemed to appreciate my gift and regularly fought over it.  Of course, birds can eat poisonous things that would kill a human, so this was no real surprise.

Last night it snowed.  Not the car-burying blizzard that was predicted, mind you, but there was a good dusting covering the ground this morning, accompanied by lots of bitterly cold wind.

Being Wednesday, again, I am once again on my day off and having to contemplate possibilities of dinner.  Before deciding what to cook, I remembered that our church was having a potluck dinner that evening and that I’d agreed to make a loaf of my legendarily good garlic parmesan bread for it.  I gathered up the ingredients, plugged in the bread machine and removed the bread canister from within.  Only then did I notice that the gray mixing paddle was not in its usual place on the spindle at the bottom of the canister.  To my horror, I realized that I’d neglected to remove the paddle from the bottom of the poison bread before hurling it into the pasture last week.  The birds have long since eaten all the bread, presumably leaving the paddle, but due to its light gray color and the dusting of snow I’ve had absolutely no luck in locating it.

May have to wait `til spring.

 

Copyright © 2002 Eric Fritzius

Horribly True Hate Mail

All right. Which one of you sent this in?  I mean, this has GOT to be a joke. If not, it’s a horribly true tale in the making.

I just received my first three pieces of hate mail concerning my page Horribly True Tales From The Drunken Trucker.  It appears that a mom and her kid were surfing the web at 3 a.m., a couple nights back, did a subject search on truckers and happened upon my page. Not usually a bad thing, except mom is apparently the wife of a trucker and evidently she made a few massive assumptions after reading only the TITLE of my page, became enraged and began firing off angry one-sentence missives to me concerning her perception that I’m somehow badmouthing truckers. Nothing could be further from the truth, but the end results of her mistaken perception are pretty funny. These are possibly even better than the angry letters I got from a nine year old WebTV user condemning my old cat games page.

Here they are verbatim, albeit with slightly altered email addresses….

—– Original Message —–

From:Horseyfied____@aol.com

To:efrtzius@gmail.com

Sent: Thursday, October 17, 2002 3:00 AM

Subject: y u talkin bout truckers

 

it ain’t true abot truckers cause they are true 2 the fact

Not exactly sure what Horseyfied feels ain’t true “abot” truckers. My guess is she thinks I’m calling them all a bunch of drunks since the page is titled Horribly True Tales From The Drunken Trucker.  An honest mistake, I suppose, assuming she read only the title and NOTHING ELSE ON THE WHOLE PAGE.  If she had read further, she should have noted that truckers are barely mentioned and never disparaged. They only turn up in The Secret Origin of the Drunken Trucker section and in The Talkin’ Utter Desperation, Bent Turd, Blue Tub Blues, and in no way are they ever called drunks or even accused of drinking at all. What I actually said is that many JOURNALISTS are cranky and have alcohol problems, and that some of them used to be drive trucks BEFORE becoming journalists. But I clearly make the distinction that they didn’t actually become drunks until they quit driving trucks and took up the journalism. (And this seemingly exaggerated claim is based on actual research revealed unto me during Bob Arnett’s HISTORY OF MASS MEDIA class, at MSU circa 1990, which stated that the profession with the highest number of alcohol-related problems in the United States was that of newspaper editor. Didn’t say nothing abot no truckers drinkin’, though. In fact the whole trucker angle came about after a fellow journalism major, one David Smith, drove a truck for while before landing his first journalism job. Last I heard, he’d given up the profession to become a youth pastor.)

One message from Horseyfied was not enough, however. Her second follows…

—– Original Message —–

From:Horseyfied____@aol.com

To:efritzius@gmail.com

Sent: Thursday, October 17, 2002 3:03 AM

Subject: truck driver

 

my husband is on the road plus he’s always a #1 dad always try that

Oh, great. Not only has she sussed out that I’ve called her husband a drunk, but now I’ve evidently called him a bad father to boot. I’m foreseeing an ass-kicking in my future. (Crap!  I didn’t put my home address anywhere on the page, did I?)

I swear, some folks just WANT to get upset regardless of whether anyone’s given them a valid reason.  I mean, even if she had read only the title, it still doesn’t even say anything bad about truckers in general.  The page is called Horribly True Tales From The Drunken Trucker, not Horribly True Tales From All Truckers Are Drunks and Bad Fathers

I, of course, would never jump to massively incorrect conclusions based on scant amounts of information and proceed to make an ass out of myself as a result.  (Have I mentioned October is National Sarcastics Awareness Month?  Oh, cause I thought I HAD!!!)

Next up, I get one from her son, Jaren…

—– Original Message —–

From:Horseyfied____@aol.com

To:efritzius@gmail.com

Sent: Thursday, October 17, 2002 3:04 AM

Subject: this is jaren

 

my dad mite be on the road but he’ ]s always on the phone & e-mailing us 2!!!!!!!!!!!

Oy!  Now I’ve upset the kid as well. Probably caused irreparable damage to his psyche requiring years of therapy. Check the time code, though…  I’d probably think my dad was pretty cool too if he let me stay up til 3 a.m., surfing the web on a school night.  When I was a kid, if my butt ever got caught up at 3 a.m., the house had better have been on fire.  Maybe Horseyfied woke him up to come defend dad’s good name. Who knows?

At any rate, they certainly told me off but good. I feel all guilty, and stuff.

So let me just state for the record, in case there are any more doubts, that I in NO WAY think truckers are a bunch of drunks who are not #1 dads not, nor do I think they neglect their children and don’t call or e-mail them. From all I’ve heard about truckers, they are indeed true 2 the fact.  (Newspaper editors, though, I’ve got your number.)

Now, normally I don’t respond to the few items of hate mail that I get. (For instance, I didn’t respond to the 9 year old WebTV cat-lover after her savage review of the Cat Games page, not only because she was 9 years old but also because picking on WebTV users is like making fun of the handicapped.) However, when an adult takes the time to wildly misconstrue something I DIDN’T say in the first place and send me three angry e-mails about it with more exclamation points than are absolutely necessary, I feel a polite response is required. Thus, I have replied with the following:

Dear, Horseyfied and Jaren,

 I’m a little taken aback that you seem to have been offended by my page, Horribly True Tales From The Drunken Trucker.  You seem to be under the impression that I have something against truck drivers. This is not true.

 I hope by now you have actually read a bit further down my page and have seen that it is actually a collection of humorous tales about my life and not a condemnation of truck drivers. Beyond the appearance of the word Trucker in the title of the page, truck drivers are hardly even mentioned and, when they are, are not accused of any wrongdoing. In fact, in one of my stories I actually point out that it was a truck driver who once gave me a lift to the nearest phone after I had been stranded on the side of I-55, after my car overheated and its improperly self-repaired radiator blown up during a 104 degree summer in Mississippi and without his assistance I might have suffered heat stroke and died. He might have saved my life, so I’m really not sure why it is you seem to think I’m making fun of truck-drivers.

 Now, if you had been angry at me for making fun of journalists, Maury Povich, rock `n’ roll groupies, telemarketers, or employees of Delta Airlines, the Tombigbee Electric Power Association, Federal Express, the North Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles, or the Skyline, Mississippi, Volunteer Fire Department, I might be able to understand as there’s plenty of that to be found on the page.  But by and large, I’ve nothing bad to say about truck drivers.  As far as I’m concerned, interstate commerce, as assisted by the truck driving community, is pretty much the backbone, or at least a vertebrae, of the United States economy.  Without truck-drivers, our system of life would break down, Wal-Mart would close and we’d all be plunged into a new era of misery and feudalism in which we could not get a decent Quarter Pounder With Cheese.

 In closing, I have nothing against truck drivers. 

 Yours truly,

 Eric

———————————————–
ERIC “Juice” FRITZIUS
efritzius@gmail.com

     “Whoever would overthrow the liberty of a nation must
      begin by subduing the freeness of speech.”

       — Benjamin Franklin

 

The Talkin’ Med-School, Infinitely Bad Seizing Kitty, George Jones’ Devil Nuggets Last Summer Break Ever, Filthy Cat Crate Blues (a Horribly True Cat Tale)

Medical school is the kind of rigorous experience that, should you survive it, most people you meet afterwards will be instilled with a sense of confidence that you know what you’re talking about.  They will begin calling you doctor and will start coming to you for advice on issues that Band-aids and Ibuprofen don’t seem to be helping.  They will also pay you money for that advice—or rather, their insurance companies or whatever HMO they happen to be shackled to will pay you.  (Maybe.)  But again, actually surviving medical school is the key issue.  This is why, after your first year of med-school, the administration goes round and makes sure all the first year students have removed their old pizza boxes and sleeping bags from the corners of the study rooms and then they boot the students out into the real world for what will likely be the last summer vacation of their professional lives.  The students are told to rest up and relax in preparation for being hurled into the raging river that is second year.

It was with the above in mind that Ashley, my first year medical school survivor wife, and I decided to leave our West Virginia mountaintop home and head down to the beach for a week.

Going to the beach is something of an annual tradition for us—in fact, it was during a trip to visit Ashley at the beach that our romantic relationship first began.  We usually go to Holden Beach, NC, where we stay at Ashley’s grandmother’s house along with Ash’s parents, sisters, their husbands, their kids and whoever else turns up for these mid-summer mini-family reunions.  Everybody dedicates themselves to the leisure activity of their choice.  And every day, we follow the throng of nieces, nephews, siblings, parents, cousins and various in-laws to sit on the beach until we are all horrifically sunburned.  Then we trek back to the house where we slather our baked skin with aloe vera and adhere ourselves to the couch.  It’s a vicious cycle that we seem powerless to resist.  However, there are some other annual traditions that accompany this process of beach-going, one of which involves our cat.

Winston Churchill: The Infinitely Bad Kitty—so named because, like most babies, she looked exactly like the former British Prime Minister as a newborn—is  mostly finitely bad these days.  She is still often bitchy and quite a bit catty, but I guess that’s to be expected.   As I’ve chronicled in past tales, Winston does not travel well at all, even when sedated.  I know this because I’ve had seven different apartments during Winston’s ten years of life and she always makes it her business to turn moving place to place a living hell for all involved.  Taking her on vacation with us is therefore not an option.  Boarding her locally would also be a traumatic experience for her, considering what an enormous wuss she is.  Instead, we find it best to leave her in the house with a well-stocked cat-feeder/waterer and hope the place doesn’t burn while we’re gone.  We’ve found that the real trick to leaving her behind, though, is to somehow pack all our stuff in the car and depart with the cat remaining in the house.  Simple on paper, not simple in reality.

As soon as Winston sees bags being packed, she begins plotting her escape and has on more than one occasion proven herself the rival of Harry Houdini.  Winston has escaped from bathrooms, leashes, harnesses and once managed to disappearate from a closed and securely fastened cat-crate, an event we have yet to explain.  Such extremes are usually unnecessary, as it’s much simpler to just slip out the door when we’re not paying proper attention.  Once outside, she goes right for the most inconvenient place to hide, say in a junk-filled, flooded basement or beneath a neighbor’s utility shed.  In these cases, we have no alternative but to try and coax her out, usually by opening a can of tuna upwind.  Winston’s been through that drill so many times, though, that she usually just sniffs at the tuna vapors from well out of arm’s reach and then trots off to hide again.  In the end, one of us has to make a leap, snatch her up by whatever bit of her we can grab, then fling her and the can of tuna into the house, slam the door and run for the car.

Shortly after we awoke, Winston sensed something amiss and began lurking.  I saw it and immediately gave Ashley my pre-packing warning speech about being extra careful going in and out of doors.  It’s another of our annual traditions which I continue because Ashley’s annual tradition is to let the cat slip out anyway.  She began packing while I went downstairs to the kitchen to see what food was likely to go bad within the week.  This is where Ashley found me, twenty minutes later, with the back door wide open as it had been for the ten minutes since I’d opened it to fling a rotten grapefruit into the cow pasture behind our apartment.

“Don’t you think you ought to close the door?” she said, an evilly sweet smile upon her lips.  I started to ask why just before it hit me.  Oh the anguish!  The cat had probably escaped yet again and this time it was actually going to be my fault!

Before going for the tuna reserves, I figured I’d better take a cat inventory.  She wasn’t under our bed, so I tried the guest bed.  It’s more difficult to tell who’s under the guest bed, as it has no frame but is merely a mattress and box spring resting atop two footlockers between which are stored a maze of long comic book boxes among which Winston likes to hide.  The cat refused all calls, but I suspected she was under there anyway.  Rather than waste valuable time coaxing, I just lifted the mattress and box spring up from one end and took a look.  Sure enough, Winston was there, shocked that her ingenious hiding place had not only been discovered but was much more accessible to the humans than she had thought.  I put the bed back down and mercifully she stayed underneath it, sulking until after we had departed.

Vacation went great.  We loafed around the deck, getting sun, reading books and leisurely snacking.   And for once no one got horrifically sunburned.  This we attribute to the fact that instead of having a house packed full of assorted children all yammering to go to the beach at high noon, this year there was only one child who we were able to bully into waiting until after 5 to hit the beach.  In fact, the only horrific burning that occurred was when I stuck my hand into a microwave oven and was surprised to find that I’d seared my knuckle on the heating element.  Why, you might ask, would a microwave oven have a heating element in it when most microwave ovens tend to heat food using microwaves and not glowing hot tubes of metal?  I asked that same question.  I don’t recall the specifics of the answer, probably because I was busy suppressing my usual string of curses to keep from unleashing them in front of Ash’s grandmother.  Much aloe vera followed and the knuckle is nearly back to normal.

On the way back home, we swung by our old digs of Charlotte, NC, to pick up my sister Alison, who was flying in for a week of loafing, movie-watching and snacking on our back patio.  My parents were supposed to be coming in as well, but at the last minute my dad developed something of a heart condition involving a dilated aorta and had to stay home.  Much aloe vera followed and he’s nearly back to normal.

Winston was happy to see us when we got back, though she was reluctant to admit it.  She usually tries to punish us for leaving by pretending not to recognize us for a while and meowing non-stop.  But this time we’d brought Alison, who is one of the few people Winston actually likes, so we were forgiven after only a few minutes.  One look at the furniture told us that Winston had shed a whole second cat’s worth of her orange fur during the week.  We had to rub her down good with our cat-grooming glove before we could wear dark clothing again.  Also, as usual, she had eaten nearly half of the contents of her cat-feeder, which takes her at least a month when we’re home, and I won’t even go into detail about the status of her litterbox.

On the subject of cat food: We feed Winston Kit N’ Kaboodle, the feline equivalent of Kibbles N’ Bits, but without the bits.  It’s just about the only brand of dry cat food she’ll tolerate.  During college, I used to experiment with whatever cat food was cheapest and made the error of buying a heaping 8 pound bag of George Jones’ Country Gold kitty feed down at the local Sunflower.  (Yes, the same George Jones responsible for such country songs as “White Lightning”, I Always Get Lucky With You” and “Beer Run”.)  It only cost me $5, so already I thought it was great stuff, but it wasn’t as popular with the cat.  She would eat it only as a last resort and got progressively thinner as the days went by.  I thought she was just being finicky, figuring how bad could it really be?  Finally, I bought a small bag of Kit N’ Kaboodle and did a taste test myself, much to the amusement of my roommates.  (I come by this behavior naturally, as this is exactly how my dad earned the nickname Mr. Alpo among the other kids in my neighborhood, growing up.)  So I ate a piece of Kit N’ Kaboodle and it wasn’t too shabby.  I’ll be proud to choke down a few bowls of it after I’m old and feeble and everyone’s Social Security has run out.  Then I tried a piece of George Jones.  You know that line in the movie Weird Science that goes, “How about a nice greasy pork sandwich served in a dirty ashtray?”  Well, I could have used one of those to wash down my nugget of George Jones and it would have been a refreshing palette-cleanser by comparison.  I spit out as much of it as I could, rinsed repeatedly with Listerine and have spent the intervening years trying to erase the memory of that foul and unholy substance.  (Which wasn’t easy to do, considering my first job out of school was at a radio station in Tupelo, MS, located next door to the Sunshine Mills Petfood Distillery where they make George Jones’ Country Devil Nuggets.  On rainy or otherwise humid days, the area was haunted by the distinct aroma of the ghost of cat food eaten past.)  Afterwards, I felt obligated to hurl the offending bag into the dumpster and profusely apologize to my cat, promising her only Kit N’ Kaboodle from there on out.  It’s far from the most expensive stuff on the market, and I’ve always scoffed at the kind of pet-owner who spend upwards of $20 a month for those tiny little bags of Science Diet from specialty pet food stores.  I buy in bulk and I buy Kit N’ Kaboodle.

Days passed at home and we settled into a new routine of lounging around, reading books, listening to tunes and being generally unstressed about anything.  The same could not quite be said for Winston, who after venturing outside one day, was startled by a neighbor’s dog and fled to one of her outdoor hiding places.  As usual, she turned up only after dark when it was safe to come out and mew at the back door.

The next morning, while Alison and I were sipping coffee and contemplating breakfast, Winston strolled in, crouched down and began trying to heave on the kitchen floor.  Nothing was coming out of her but her sides were billowing in and out and she was making definite gagging sounds.  At first we were content to just let her throw up, because it’s much easier to clean up in the kitchen.  Winston must have realized that too, for she immediately ran to the living room carpet to continue throwing up.  I was just getting up from the table to try and stop her when Alison spoke up.

“I think she’s having a seizure!”

We ran to the living room and found Winston convulsing on the floor with a glazed look in her eyes.  It certainly appeared to be a seizure to me, and I speak as the former owner of an epileptic German shepherd.  It was horrible enough to watch, but I had the added knowledge that one of the local cats in our apartment complex had recently gotten into some kind of chemical that nearly killed him.  He’s okay now, but the local vets had to ship him off to Charleston for kitty repairs.  My fear was that when Winston hid out the day before, she managed to get into the same poison and was now experiencing the early stages of its wrath.

After standing there, cursing and pulling at my hair in panic for a bit, I came to my senses and realized I needed to do something.  There are no cat EMS units around here, that I know of, so we would have to rush Winston to the vet ourselves.  While Alison watched the cat, I ran back through the kitchen, out the back door to the patio to retrieve Winston’s blue plastic cat crate.  It was absolutely filthy, caked with dirt and leaves and bugs, having been exposed to the weather for the past ten months.  I snatched it up and was on my way back in when Winston, who had by now come out of her seizure, caught sight of it, knew she was about to be transported and fled up the stairs.  We rushed after her, hoping to cut her off before she could hide, but she had already dove into the maze of boxes under the guest bed.  Once again, I lifted up the mattress and box spring to expose her hiding place at which point she bolted past us and back down the stairs.  I dropped the bed and we tore after her, but upon arriving in the living room we found it was empty.  At first I thought she had run out the back door, but even in my earlier panic I’d managed to close it.  That left one other place: The couch.

Even before the day I bought it, my couch had a gaping hole in its side.  I don’t normally make it a practice to buy furniture with gaping holes, but I was offered a great deal on this one and couldn’t pass it up.  Sure, some might argue that buying an Army-green canvas covered sleeper-sofa with lime green piping is never a good decision, even if the store throws in a matching overstuffed comfy chair and knocks off a couple hundred dollars on the pair because of an oh so tiny gaping hole.  Perhaps not, but at the time I had very little furniture at all, even less money and was living in a festering hellhole of an apartment in Tupelo, Mississippi.  It was therefore my policy that if sacrifices were to be made they would be made in the department of good taste rather than the department of Eric doesn’t get to eat this week, so the couch got bought.  It’s not pretty and it’s not even particularly comfortable but it’s mine.  One of its major drawbacks, though, beyond the whole Army-green thing, is that the cat adores the easy access to the interior through the gaping hole.  We used to cover the hole with boxes and have even stitch-witched it shut a time or two, but like an ugly old war wound the hole always reopens.  Recently, we purchased slipcovers for the couch and chair that make them quite a bit less Army-green and cover up the holes at the same time.  However Winston has learned how to lift up the edge of the slipcover and get in anyway.  What exactly she does in there we’re not sure—it’s  what we imagine her doing in there that worries us and she’s strictly forbidden from it, not that this stops her.  Winston knows we would have to expend an undesirable amount of effort to get her out and are far more likely to just leave her alone in there instead.

“Dammit!” I shouted.  Actually, I shouted my new favorite phrase involving water-fowl plus a word that rhymes with the particular type of bird in question and the combination of concepts therein.  I knew I was going to have to take apart the couch to get at the cat, but doing so is the kind of Herculean task you really need to work up the effort for gradually.  To procrastinate, I decided to phone Dr. John, the much-favored veterinarian of our friend and neighbor Beth, owner of two elderly, hyper-spastic, hypochondriac dachshunds, just in case he wanted to be standing by with kitty crash carts, or whatever.

“Yes, hello,” I told the guy who answered the phone.  “I don’t have an… an account with you, but I have a cat that’s having a seizure… or, had a seizure a few minutes ago… and I’m just calling to let you know I’m bringing her in.”

“Um.  We don’t have any veterinarians here today,” the guy said.

No veterinarians?  How could they not have any veterinarians in?  They were a veterinarian’s office.  Having veterinarians in was their whole raison dêtre.  This was like calling McDonald’s and being told they had no tasty, fatty fries.  This was like calling Super Wal-Mart and hearing they were no longer pimping the coupons of other grocery stores in an effort to derail their sales.  This was like Raiiaaaaain On Your Frickin’ Wedding Day!  Why did this guy even bother to answer the phone if there were no vets on hand?

“What?” I asked, managing to wedge the above paragraph into my tone of voice.

“Um, uh, Dr. John’s on an emergency call and the other veterinarians are off today.”

“Well, do you have any suggestions, then?”

“Um… I, uh… um…” said intern boy, nervously.  Then he put down the phone to confer with someone else in the office.  I could hear him describing the grand mal seizure my cat was having in far more detail than I had actually provided.  Then he came back to me with the suggestion of the Seneca Trail Animal Hospital.  I hung up, dialed them, asked if they had any vets about and, if so, would it be okay for me to pop in with my cat unappointed.

“When were you planning to bring the cat in?” the receptionist asked.

“Well, she’s stuck in our couch at the moment, but as soon as we can get her out we’ll hit the road,” I said.  The receptionist said that was fine.  One set of directions later and I hung up and turned back to the problem of the couch.

I yanked off the slipcover and began hurling couch cushions in all directions.  I then gingerly unfolded the sleeper bed, so as not to maim any ill-placed kitties within, further compounding an already problematic day.  We peered down into the couch’s innards for any sign of Winston.  An orange tail was soon spotted extending from beneath the arm-rest on the side of the couch with no hole, but the tail was retracted before either of us could get near enough to grab it.

“Dammit, cat!  You’d better come out now.  I’m not above tearing a new hole and coming in after you!”  And I meant it.  What did I care if the couch had a few more holes when we had a slipcover to hide them.  I was about to go get a kitchen knife to begin carving when Alison was somehow able to coax Winston out enough to gently scoop her up.  Besides being a bit scared the cat looked fine.

We manhandled her into the filthy cat crate and were headed for the door when I made two startling discoveries.  One, I was still barefooted because I definitely felt the squish when my foot came down in the cat puke where Winston had been seizing earlier.  There wasn’t much of it, but I did spy a single blade of grass on the carpet.  I snatched it up and put it in a glass container in case the doctor needed a sample of stomach contents, or the poison, or whatever sample the doctor was likely to need if I didn’t have it handy.   I grabbed flip-flops, then the crate and then made my second startling discovery.  Like most cat crates, mine is made to come apart for easy storage by removing a series of plastic bolts holding the top and bottom halves together.   Except my crate seemed to be missing its front right plastic bolt and the weight of the cat had pulled apart a vaguely cat-sized opening between the halves.  So that’s how the little monster had escaped from it last time!  I fumbled for the corner before the cat could squeeze through it and had to carry the whole thing to the car with both hands.

We had not even left the parking lot before the wailing began.  This was actually comforting to me, though, for if the cat was busy wailing she could hardly spare any time for seizing.  She squalled all the way to the Osteopathic school where Ashley was busy at her work-study job analyzing monkey videos for one of the anatomy professors.  (Monkey raises his hand, mark it down.  Monkey picks another monkey’s nose, mark it down.  Monkey takes a dump, mark it down.  Rewind.)  I had to run up three flights of stairs to get to her lab, which in the shape I’m in took the wind out of me.

“Cat… seizing… Dr. John… useless… Taking her to… other vet… Coming?”

A few minutes later, we arrived at the Seneca Trail Animal Hospital.  I was somehow expecting to be greeted at the door by waiting vets ready to take Winston right in for immediate treatment, bypassing any waiting room triage.  Nope.  Just the mildly concerned receptionist, who didn’t even stand up to pass me the clip-board of paperwork I’d have to fill out before they would even take a look at the cat.  Since Winston seemed mostly okay, I didn’t make a stink about it.  I was already feeling a bit embarrassed that my cat crate had shed leaves and dead bugs on the counter.  Meanwhile, the paranoid portion of my brain (a fairly large section that I’m beginning to suspect may be planning a coup on the rest of my brain) began imagining that somewhere, behind mirrored one way glass, the vet was watching me and checking off “Filthy Cat Carrier” on a list titled Sure Signs of Animal Abuse, before calling the police.

After more waiting, we were finally ushered in to see Dr. Sylvia, a very nice motherly type of lady who gently pulled Winston out of the crate, poked her in the stomach a bit and pronounced that my cat was suffering from a hairball.  It was a relief and a let down all at the same time.

“But what about the seizure?” I asked, trying somehow to negotiate myself into a position in which I wasn’t the moron who just broke his ass getting there for a damn hairball.

“Well, these little beasts can put on a quite the scary show when they’re trying to cough one up.  Their sides will pump in and out and they’ll roll around trying to twist it free.  Once or twice a week, we get somebody rushing in here thinking their cat is dying, but it’s only a hairball.”

Nope.  I’m the moron.

In my defense, I’d never seen Winston do anything like that before, but I figured Dr. Sylvia knew what she was talking about.  She had, after all, survived medical school.

Dr. Sylvia asked what we fed Winston and suggested that Kit `N’ Kaboodle was probably not the best.  She recommended we invest in an expensive, unleaded cat food made for treating hairballs, explaining that it didn’t contain the kind of filler material—I’m imagining cardboard—and pretty coloring cats can’t see anyway.  She also gave us a tube of meat-flavored paste that was supposed to help with the hairballs.  Meat-flavor or no, Dr. Sylvia said Winston probably wouldn’t willingly eat the paste so we should just cram the nozzle in her mouth and give it a good squeeze.

Ten minutes later and fifty bucks lighter we departed Seneca Trail Animal Hospital, one noisy cat in hand.  Our first stop on the way home was the Expensive Specialty Pet Store where we picked up a stout wire-bristle cat brush and our first tiny bag of Science Diet with added pumpkin fiber for hairballs.  They say you mock what you fear and you become what you mock, so I guess I’m living proof.

It’s not so bad, though.  I figure if Winston has been able to survive 10 years of living with me she deserves the best food I can give her.  Plus, she only eats like a pig when we’re gone, so we’ll save money as long as we never leave the house again…

….for the rest of our last summer break ever.

Copyright © 2002 Eric Fritzius

The Talkin’ Mystery Anniversary Flight, Waiting for Dubya, Late for Zulu Blues (an extry long Horribly True Tale)

Shortly after Christmas this year, my wife Ashley began dropping hints that something was afoot concerning our impending wedding anniversary.  In the three years we’ve been married, I’ve become accustomed to such hints.  They’re an annual reminder that our February 5 anniversary is a little over a month away and it’s about time I start thinking about what I’m going to do about it.  Kind of handy, really.

“I think I know what I’m going to get you for an anniversary present,” Ashley said.

“Do you, now?” I said.  This is what I always say when I don’t have a similar declaration to make.

“Yup,” she said.  “You’re going to like it a lot.  But it’s going to be expensive.”

I take all statements of this nature very seriously.  As one half of a couple that is going mind and wallet-numbingly into debt to pay for medical school, I take all financial matters seriously.  I do admit, however, to having something of a blind spot when it comes to money being spent on me.

“What is it?”

“A secret,” she said.  I knew it was futile to ask, but I had to try because she pesters me to no end for hints whenever I have secret gifts for her.  Unlike her, though, I actually supply more of a hint than just stating I’m planning a secret present.  In fact, I’m very proud of my ability to come up with perfectly structured, even layered hints that tell both everything and nothing about the gift.  Nostradamus would have been proud to pen some of the hints I’ve given.  To date, Ashley has yet to crack one, even though I usually give her two or three beautifully crafted hints for each gift.  When it comes gifts for me, the hints get scarce.  I can only assume my evil powers of perception are too great a threat, preventing her from giving me anything but the barest of hints.

“C’mon!  Gimme a hint!”

“You’ll like it,” she said.

Great.

The trouble with a gift that’s expensive and likable, though, is that I feel obligated to come up with something similar for her.

Then, as if reading my mind, Ashley said, “Don’t get anything for me.  I’m going to share yours.”

Hey, I liked this present already!  Still, I wasn’t giving up until I got a decent hint out of her.

For most of January, I tried multiple crafty assaults upon her secret gift knowledge, all destined to failure.

“What time is class tomorrow?” I would ask in low, measured, semi-hypnotic tones.

“Nine.”

“What time will you get home?”

“Around four-thirty.”

“What do you want for supper?”

“Food.”

“What’s my anniversary present?”

“A secret.”

“D’oh!”

In mid-January, Ashley let it slip that the anniversary present was going to be a bit late in arriving.  I took this to mean it was on back-order and would be shipped later.  I began dreaming up notions of DVD players, DVD Box Sets, or—dare I say it—a Panasonic Replay Hard Disk Video Recorder so I’d never miss recording another episode of 24 or the Sopranos due to having a crappy VCR that refuses to be programmed again.  While these items certainly fit the expensive part of my provided hints, they didn’t seem likely.  Especially after Ashley said that under no circumstances was I to schedule anything for February 9-10, a Sunday and Monday, nor was I to look at our on-line bank statements for any large purchases, nor ask any questions concerning why.  Curiouser and curiouser.

Days later, while we were watching TV, Ash asked, “Have you ever ridden on a snow-mobile?”

“No,” I said.  Granted we had just seen a snow-mobile on TV, so the question wasn’t exactly out of the blue.

“Well, you might get your chance some day,” she replied with a knowing smile.

I took the bait.  Took it and ran with it.  Between myself and the ladies at the library where I work, we managed to spin this bit of information into a ski-trip.  Ash had often threatened to take me skiing, just so she could have the pleasure of laughing as I plummeted down a mountain, so it was feasible.  We even had our hypothetical ski-trip’s prospective destinations narrowed down to the Snowshoe Ski Resort, the closest and nicest of the four ski-resorts within driving distance.  Seemed like a mystery solved to me.  That is, until Ash dropped more information on me in late January.

“Look, I don’t want to spoil this, but I need to ask you about a variable in our anniversary present,” she said.  “We have a choice between something that will be very nice, but more expensive or something that will be nice but not quite as nice as the first, and less expensive.”

Ah ha!, I thought.  It’s a choice between staying at the ski-lodge or a private cabin. 

“It’s a choice between staying at a Howard Johnson’s or the Radison,” she said.

“Oh,” I said, suddenly realizing my speculations had just been dashed.  I just couldn’t imagine Snowshoe having either a Howard Johnson’s or a Radison. 

“It’s a $60 price difference,” she continued, “but that’s on top of what the actual present costs.”

Intriguing.

“So the hotel is not the present?”

“No.  I wouldn’t have even told you that, but it’s a five hour trip to get there and if you wanted to stay someplace special we can do that.”

More intriguing.

“A five hour trip, huh?  In what direction?”

She seemed to consider denying me even this tidbit, but finally said, “North.”

“Straight north or north east?” I asked, already trying to mentally calculate the distance between Lewisburg and Washington D.C., where I seemed to recall Cirque Du Soleil possibly having a permanent station.  Maybe not.

“North, but slightly north-east,” she said.  Well, that put D.C. out of the way.  If there was a Radison in this mystery city, though, it would have to be a fairly large place.  Knowing how my mind works, Ashley immediately forbid me to go on the internet to cross reference Radison and Howard Johnson’s locations nor to dig out an atlas to see what cities lie to the north, but slightly north-east.  This didn’t prevent me from thinking about it, though.

On the afternoon of Thursday, February 6, one day after our official anniversary, a great heap of snow fell upon Greenbrier County.  It was accompanied by a visit from Vice President Dick Cheney.  You’d think it would be something of an honor to have visits by such world dignitaries as the vice-president of the United States, and maybe it should.  Frankly, I think we’re all sick of it, because his visits cause nothing but problems.

You see, Cheney is a semi-regular visitor to the nearby Greenbrier Resort—occasionally with the president in tow.  For those of you unfamiliar with the Greenbrier, it’s a swanky, sprawling, complex of ornate buildings located in scenic White Sulphur Springs, WV.  The place has been something of a magnet for assorted world leaders and the rich and famous for the last century.  I’m not exactly sure why, as I’ve been in the joint twice now and while it is quite beautiful from the outside, its interior decoration looks as though it was designed by the unholy love-child of Rip Taylor and the Joker.  The attraction probably has something to do with the Greenbrier’s inherent hoity toitiness, five-star restaurants, obscenely expensive shops, a $500 greens fee-laden golf course, private bungalows, access to the refreshing natural springs of the area, and probably because there’s a massive,112,544-square-foot,  Cold War era bunker located within and beneath its West Virginia Wing.  This is the formerly secret bunker that members of Congress were to be stored away in in the event of nuclear war.  It was outfitted with the best radiation shielding, communications technology and heaping stockpiles of frozen food supplies 1962 had to offer.  To hear the locals tell it, they knew something weird was going on at the Greenbrier for decades.  Kind of hard not to when the Greenbrier’s excuse for digging up 112,544 square feet of earth amounted to, “We’re putting in an indoor pool.”  The bunker’s existence has only been widely known, though, since a 1993 expose in the Washington Post prompted the government to declassify and decommission it.  But the bunker is still very much there.

The trouble is, whenever either Cheney or Bush pop by for a visit, traffic in Greenbrier County becomes, to use a favorite military acronym, F.U.B.A.R.  They fly in to the Greenbrier Valley Airport which is 13 miles away from White Sulphur Springs and the Greenbrier Resort.  The quickest way to get from point A to point B is by Interstate-64, so in order to accommodate national security, that busy interstate must be completely shut down while our leaders play connect the dots.  Subsequently, any road that intersects I-64, or is just inconveniently close to it is also shut down.

Word at the library, a.k.a. information central, was that we were in for a double whammy weekend, for not only was Cheney flying in on Thursday, he was to be followed by President George W. Bush sometime on Saturday and they would all be departing on Sunday.  (Which leads one to ask just how secure our leaders are if a bunch of librarians have access to their itineraries?)

At last, Sunday, February 9 arrived.  Ash told me to pack only what I wanted to wear on the trip back since we would be leaving directly from church and would just wear our Sunday best to our anniversary present.  By this time I had pretty much concluded we were going to a concert, but was trying to imagine what kind of concert we would wear church clothes to?  I could think of very few acts from my CD collection whose concert I would feel comfortable wearing a churchy sweater and dress shoes to, unless maybe it was something from the classical section.

“By the way, are you afraid to fly?” Ashley casually asked as we were preparing to leave.

“Fly?” I asked.  “That depends on what I’m flying in.  If it’s a plane, fine.  If it’s a jetpack, not so good.”  This smelled like a red herring—something designed to throw me off an already badly marked trail.  In fact, her snowmobile line was fishy too.  Then again, you never can tell because my wife is a Tricksy Hobbitses.

Before leaving, I phoned our neighbor Beth and asked if she would come over and press record on my VCR that night, so I could tape the Simpsons episode of Inside the Actor’s Studio while we were gone.  This is the kind of thing people with crappy VCR’s and bad tech karma have to do.  As I stepped onto the back patio to walk around and give her a key, my foot slipped on a patch of the lingering ice from our recent snow deposit and I took a header into the yard.  Stupid dress-shoes!

“You know that ice is really slippery,” Ash said, after determining I wasn’t injured.

We left church early, around 11:40 a.m., because Ashley was starting to suspect our schedule might be a little tight otherwise. On the way out, we hit the ATM for cash and Subway for  grub, then headed toward the interstate only to run smack into the Presidential Traffic Jam.

A gaggle of state troopers had blocked off the junction of Hwy 219 and I-64.  Other than the troopers, there were only a handful of cars stopped ahead of us, so the jam had probably just begun.  If we’d been even two minutes earlier, we might have slipped by.  Instead, we were stuck, waiting for Dubya’s motorcade to pass on its way to the airport.

With the Greenbrier Resort only 13 miles away and no traffic in between, you’d think a motorcade would be able to book it right along at a nice clip.  Not so, evidently.  After all, when you’re the president, everyone has to wait for you.  For instance, in 1993 two runways at LAX had to be shut down for an hour, costing the airlines an estimated $76,000, all so Bill Clinton could get a $200 haircut aboard Air-Force One.  In essence, the schedules of several major airlines, not to mention the people flying on them, were thrown into chaos because Bill’s `do was a bit bushy that day.  Now I’d heard no such horror stories about George W. but really wasn’t in the mood to experience any when we were on a tight schedule ourselves.

During our forty minute wait I had plenty of time to consider the mind-boggling amount of money it must take for the president to go ANYWHERE.  Think about it.  He flies in to Greenbrier County aboard Air Force One, a jet with a fuel budget no doubt rivaling the GNP of most nations.  From the specs I’ve been able to dig up since, Air Force One has a fuel capacity of 53,611 gallons, which at current jet fuel prices of around $2 per gallon, would cost $107,222 for every fill-up.  Once on the ground, the president has to board a presidential limo, part of a presidential motorcade of at least three identical limos.  Those limos have to be either driven there (no huge trip from D.C. to WV, mind you), or flown in on a cargo jet.  (I happen to know these particular limos were flown in, days in advance, and stored at the White Sulphur Springs Fire Department.  Again, proof that small town libraries are Information Central.)  That’s the major cost right there, but factor in the salaries of all the people necessary to make such an event happen, plus the president’s staff, sundry entourage, air-force one crew of 26, plus the press corps and you’ve got another heap of cash to add to the pile.  Add to that what it costs to send in a dozen or so Secret Service agents and sniper-nest-spotters, days in advance, to make logistical plans, do background checks on local citizens of questionable loyalty and sort out any number of other security concerns, plus the cost of flying in official secret service helicopters to scout out the area for potential security threats and to shadow the motorcade when they’re on the move.  Now factor in that they had to do all that TWICE, both for Cheney and for Bush and we’re talking more money than most of us will ever see in our lives.  Then consider how much more it has to cost for either of them to travel internationally and you begin to see how easy it is for our country to be $6,414,708,153,391.81 in the hole.

Around 12:30, with no Bush in sight, I was beginning to wonder if he’d stopped off for a hamburger somewhere.  Then at last at 12:35 a Secret Service helicopter, official seal on the sides and everything, soared low over the area, circled around and then followed a line of big black cars headed north on 219 toward the airport.  I figured we’d be in for another twenty minute wait until Bush left the ground, but traffic began to flow almost immediately and we were able to escape Lewisburg.

You might think on a trip like this the last person who should be driving is the guy who has no idea where he’s going, but drive I did.  We headed west on I-64, passing into Virginia, then turning north onto I-81.  We continued north through the snow-covered countryside until we passed back into West Virginia, then into Maryland and finally across the Mason Dixon line and into Pennsylvania.

We rolled into Harrisburg, capital of Pennsylvania and our mystery destination, at around 4:45.  Ashley’s printed internet directions lead us right to our Howard Johnson’s.  (I chose to stay at Howard Johnson’s instead of the Radison because I’ve stayed in semi-swanky hotels before and beyond being a lot more expensive and having more associated fees, like $20 a day for parking, they’re not much different from a Holiday Inn.  Howard Johnson’s was more our speed and price-range and proved to be one of the more comfy hotel stays we’ve ever had.)

We settled in at the HoJo around 5 p.m. to wash up because, according to Ash, we had a long way to go yet, but didn’t have to be anywhere until 7:30.  Now her comment about flying didn’t seem as fishy to me.  If we were flying somewhere, though, where the hell were we flying to?  And at 7:30 at night?  The only thing that came to mind was some kind of air-tour of Pennsylvania Dutch country, but it seemed like this would be pretty crappy after dark—the Pennsylvania Dutch not being known for their spectacular ground to air light shows.   Maybe the hint about flying wasn’t to be taken literally.  The mystery event we were to attend might involve actors flying around on wires or something.  Perhaps she’d hooked us up with tickets to a Peter Pan revival.  I might even wear church clothes to that.

Over a tasty dinner at Doc Holliday’s, Ash offered to outright tell me what the present was.  I declined to know.  I’d waited over a month already, so I may as well not ruin the surprise now.  I did agree to her offer of a short series of yes or no questions, though.

“Are we going to a concert?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“Is the concert for a band, as opposed to a solo act?”

“Yes.”

“A band, then?”

“Yes.”

“Do I have a CD by this band?”

She thought for a bit.  “No.”

That threw me good.  Now I had to come up with a band that both she and I would be interested in seeing but which I did not own a CD by.

“Do you own a CD by them?” I asked, sensing a technicality.

“No.”

Damn.

“Is this band involved in some kind of musical production.”

“You mean, like a Broadway musical?” she asked.

“Yeah.”

“No.”

There went Peter Pan, or my Plan-B choice of a revival of the Abba-member-spawned musical Chess.

We left for the mystery concert at 7:05, this time with Ashley at the wheel.  She said I wasn’t to look at the marquee or at any posters in the window once we had arrived at our venue.  She wanted me to be completely in the dark on the band’s identity until they hit the stage.

“Are you nervous?” she asked.

“No.  Not nervous.  Just sort of anxious, in a pit of the stomach, Christmasy kind of way.”  And it was true.  I hadn’t felt this level of anticipation about a present since I was a child.

We arrived in downtown Harrisburg around 7:15 and headed to the Market Street  Theater.  Even among the grid of one-way streets it was easy enough to find.  Empty parking spaces, however, were thin on the ground.  Ironically, there were plenty of vast empty parking garages, all of which were closed and shuttered.  We would have to park on the street, but doing that involved a lot of driving around the same three block area in the hope someone had vacated one.

At 7:22, eight minutes from the start of the concert, Ashley began to go into stress out.

“We have got to find a parking space!  The tickets say there will be no late seating!” she said.

Now I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t behave very well under pressure, particularly in cars.  So many of my life’s bad experiences have revolved around cars making me naturally inclined to lose my grip, get snippy and curse a lot.  It’s almost just as bad when I’m not driving, because my inner control-freak is convinced that things would be so much better if I was driving.  It’s not necessarily true, but it sounds nice.  This time, though, I realized I was slipping into stress mode too, a dangerous place to be when Ashley was already there ahead of me.  I didn’t want to start swearing about our situation and sour the evening before it got started.  But I could feel myself getting more frustrated that we seemed to be going around the same block over and over, trying to find an alternate entrance to the same closed and locked parking garage.  I also had to keep my eyes peeled for stray parking spaces while at the same time avoid looking at the Market Street Theater itself whenever we passed by it on another trip around the block.  Finally, three blocks away from the theater itself, across the street from the Pennsylvania State Capital Building, we spied an empty metered space.  We had no change to feed the meter, but all the other meters lining the the block read -9.57, just like ours, so we wagered we were in an after hours safe zone.

My car’s clock read 7:28, which I knew was at least 2 minutes fast, but that still didn’t give us much time to make it to the theater by curtain time.  We quickly walked past a series of expensive little shops, bars and coffee houses, all closed, before crossing the street to start down the next block.  There we caught a break because the corner third of that block was taken up with an open parking lot with plenty of empty spaces.  We were able to cut across it, saving valuable time.  In retrospect, I bet we could have parked there as the giant signs reading “Restricted Parking By Permit Only” probably only applied during the week.

By the time we had crossed the lot and retook the sidewalk I was outpacing Ashley by several feet.

“Slow down!  I can’t keep up with you!”

            Slow down? I thought, continuing to power-walk.  The idea is to get there as fast as possible.  You speed up!  But before I could unwisely put this into words, I was interrupted by a voice to my right.

            “Excuse me, sir.  Could I interest you in taking a look at something?”  The voice came from a man on the sidewalk beside us.  He was dressed warmly and was standing in front of what looked like bundles of incense, lined up in rows, leaning against the face of the building beside the parking lot.

“No.  We’re late,” I said, not slowing my pace.

“On the way back then?” he asked in a hopeful tone.

“Maybe,” I called back over my shoulder.

We hit the corner of the third block, across from which was the Market Street Theater itself.  The theater is a very modern structure that from the front looks like two multi-story, brownish, partially-glass-fronted boxes, with slanted roofs, sandwiching a third, grayish box, rotated on its axis at a 45 degree angle to the first two.  While gazing up at the theater, though, I forgot to avert my eyes and accidentally caught sight of a poster in the window before I could shift my gaze back to the sidewalk.  Oh, and the image was stuck in my head now!  Fortunately, the poster was for a Lewis & Clark IMAX movie, which didn’t sound at all like our concert.  I was probably still safe.

There at the corner, I waited for Ashley to catch up.  No use running ahead into the theater when she had the tickets.  As we crossed the intersection, I reached out to take her hand in order to gauge her mood.  She snatched her hand out of reach, which I took to mean she was angry at me for walking too fast.  Later I found out she just didn’t want me to drag her around the street at my top speed, risking a fall.  At the time, though, I was irritated.  This was supposed to be a happy, joyous evening but was starting to smell otherwise.  We already had enough problems with circumstances conspiring against us without getting mad at one another here in the home stretch.  It was enough to make a guy angry!

Through the glass doors of the Market Street Theater we could see a long line of people.  The line snaked through the lobby—or what I dared to see of the lobby, lest I accidentally spy another poster—and part way up a staircase where people seemed to be joining it.  I didn’t know if this was the line for reserved tickets or just to get in the door to the theater itself, but at least there were still people waiting to get in, so we wouldn’t be shut out after all.  I followed Ashley into the lobby and up the steps to join the line.  Then she stopped short and turned around to look at me.

“Oh…” she said in a whimper.  There was a mixture of shock and despair in her expression and her eyes had begun to brim with tears.  All of my previous irritation vanished.

“What?” I said.  Then it dawned on me what she was about to say before she even said it.

“The tickets…  They’re in my pocketbook… in the car.”

Now it had occurred to me, five minutes and three blocks ago when we were locking up the car, to ask about tickets.  However, since everything but the presidential interference and the quest for parking had gone to plan, I figured she already had them and I kept my gob shut.  As the power-walker of the family, I knew it now fell to me to go back to the car and get the tickets.  Even more disturbing: I knew I would never be back in time if I merely power-walked.  This was going to require something that I hate doing.  This was going to require running.

Let me just state, I’m not built for speed.  Never have been.  Other than holding the uncontested world record for repeatedly beating my cousin Cameron in a foot-race from his front door to my grandma’s doorstep across the street, I make no claims of being a runner.  Maybe in college, when I was at the height of my walking regimen and could take all three flights of Carpenter Hall’s stairwell (Now-With-Extra-Gravity-For-Your-Convenience!) without even breathing hard, maybe then I could have run to the car and back without stopping.  These days, though, I’m wildly out of shape.  The best I could hope for was to make it to the car and back without my heart exploding or any organs being coughed up.  As painful as I knew it would be, it had to be done.  My bride of 3 years had gone to a lot of effort on my behalf and I was going to be damned if we would have to listen to the mystery band’s concert from the lobby.

So began my actual anniversary flight.

Out the theater doors I went and down the side-walk I ran, at top speed.  Real runners would probably have advised me to pace myself for a while by merely jogging to the car and saving top speed for the return trip.  And had any of them been nearby to offer this advice, I might have taken it.  Instead, my logic suggested that the longer I could go at top speed, the closer I would be to the car.

“Now I’m late with no tickets!” I shouted to the incense peddler as I passed him.  My legs were already beginning to tire causing my pace to slow.  I was practically pooping out at the starting gate!

I came to the big parking lot, intending to cut across again.  Only as I reached the entrance to the lot, a car pulled into it and I had to stop to avoid being run over.  The driver slowed to give me a perplexed look before driving on past me at this new slower speed and proceeded slowly along the exact route I was going to take.  I was forced to detour between the rows of parked cars where I had to dodge piles of snow and near-invisible puddles of ice.

The lot’s exit put me at the half-way mark for the next block, shaving yet a fraction more off my journey.  I staggered across the street, blood pounding in my ears, my knees and ankles beginning to sob.  When I reached the sidewalk, my foot hit a patch of ice and slipped, but I was able to catch myself before falling.  Memories of my earlier header into the back yard returned and the sudden fear of falling, breaking my ass and having to drag myself to the car by my finger-nails gave me pause enough to stop blindly running.  I tried to downshift my legs into a power-walk, but that gear was slipping, causing me to lurch along awkwardly.

I turned the corner onto the block where our car was parked—at, of course, the opposite corner—and started down the last leg toward the mid-point of my journey.  I tried to start running again, but could only go for short bursts before sinking back into a wobbly stagger.

Finally, I reached the car and retrieved Ashley’s pocketbook from the back seat, but decided against fishing in it for the tickets because A) I didn’t have any time; and B) I’d probably see who the band was in the process.  I slammed the car door and began shambling back toward the theater.

As much of a party as it had been getting there, the return trip to the theater was even more miserable.  My knees and ankles were by then really feeling the stress of having to drag the rest of me along and they were protesting by becoming wobblier by the minute.  My lungs also decided to join in the protest by burning fiercely with each intake of frozen air.  By the time I had made it back to the half-vacant parking lot, I had given up all pretense of running and had broken into a less than solid hobble.

Mid-way through the parking lot, it occurred to me that I should have just driven my car over and parked in this lot, thus halving my journey and getting me back sooner.  It was far too late to go back and try this now, though, so I hobbled onward through the lot and then back onto the sidewalk.

I didn’t have the lung capacity to spare on any kind of quip for the incense peddler as I passed him.  I was more concerned with my schedule.  I knew that 7:30 had come and gone by now, so our chances for seating were entirely dependent on there still being people in line inside the theater’s lobby.  The line had been huge when I left, so surely it would take a while for the people in it to be seated.

No!  That was a rationalization allowing me to walk when I should really be pouring on the speed, I thought.  So I tried running again, but it seemed like far more effort than I was capable of expending.  I had to explain to myself that I was going to be in pain and misery at the end of my journey regardless so I may as well run now to end that journey as soon as possible.  This reasoning worked and I started moving a little faster—not in a run so much as a barely controlled, falling, stumble that carried me across the final street and toward the theater itself.  I kept my eyes on the ground, avoiding the giant marquee above me and any windows, so it wasn’t until I was directly in front of the glass doors that I could see that the lobby was now empty, save for Ashley.  She saw me stagger up and opened the door for me.

“We’re okay, we’re okay!  We’re not late,” she said.  “The tickets say 7:30 but the sign here says 8.”

I nearly collapsed then and there.  All that running.  All that effort.  And we weren’t even late.

“Ehh… huhhh…. huff… herrgh… eheeh… here…” I managed to say, thrusting the pocketbook into her hands, followed by my coat, which had suddenly become quite hot.

Ashley guided me further into the empty lobby, where everything was a dazzling white with occasional flashes of a pinkish hue as my eyes responded to the blood surging through my skull.  Ashley advised me not to mouth-breathe in front of people; we were, after all, in the North now.  She pointed me toward the bathroom where I could splash water on my face, then took our coats to the check counter.  Later, she told me that the check counter girl gave me the strangest of looks as I passed on my way to the can.

“He had to run back to the car for our tickets.  He’s not very happy about it,” Ashley told her.  Then, in unison, she and the check girl both said, “He’ll live.”

As we followed an usher to our seats within the concert hall itself, I could actually hear my heart beating.  This had nothing to do with finally getting to solve the mystery of who we were there to see, though.  My cardiovascular system was still in run-mode, I was still having difficulty getting enough oxygen and had returned to mouth-breathing as a remedy.  Then my brain noticed a strikingly unfamiliar middle-aged white guy on the stage.  Of course, there are thousands of strikingly unfamiliar, middle-aged white guys in rock & roll.  This particular one didn’t have any instruments, and was wearing a suit, but for all I knew he could have been one of the Moody Blues or even Peter Frampton.   I found it difficult to pay attention to what he was saying, what with having to crawl over nine people to get to our middle of the aisle but still comfortably close to the stage seats.  Once seated, lungs still a-heaving, I noticed that behind the fellow on stage was a giant sheet of cloth, hung from the theater’s fly system, on which had been painted a mural.  The central figure on the mural was a gigantic African warrior and surrounding him were depiction’s of the African countryside as well as such painted phrases as, “Land for all”, “Wozani Kwa-Zulu Natal”, “Free Mandella”, “End Racism”.  There was also a very telling phrase that read, “Ladysmith, 200 km”.

My mouth dropped open even further than it had been.  There was only one group in the world that was likely to have that painted on a mural at their concert.

I leaned close to Ashley and whispered, “Ladysmith Black Mambazo?”

She smiled and nodded.

“Coolness!” I whispered between gasps of breath.

For those who may be unfamiliar with the group I was beaming about, Ladysmith Black       Mambazo is a South African acapella group who sing and dance in style traditional to the Zulu tribes of the region.  They have incredible, vibrant harmonies that remain pitch perfect despite their high-kicking, tip-toed dance style, present on nearly every song they sang.  (And no lip-synching.  Take that, Brittany!)  It was a style suppressed by the South African government’s Aparteid policies of the 1980s.  They’ve been wildly popular in their homeland for decades, but only came to recognition in this country after their collaboration with singer Paul Simon on his 1986 album Graceland and in the subsequent tour.  (Ash’s hint that I didn’t own a CD by them was true.  Being my generation’s hugest Paul Simon fan, I do own Graceland, in L.P, cassette and enhanced CD forms, but it’s not technically a Ladysmith album.  And while I do own one of their albums, it’s on cassette so her hint was excused.)

By the time the opening act had finished, I was back to breathing through nostrils only and my pulse had slowed to a reasonable rate.  My lungs continued to burn well into the concert, but it was hardly even a distraction to my enjoyment of Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s performance.  It was an amazing, funny, and touching show, particularly considering that Ladysmith’s leader, Joseph Shabalala, recently lost his wife, Nellie, in a shooting in South Africa.

After the show, as we walked very slowly back to our car, passing by the capital building and enjoying the winter beauty that downtown Harrisburg has to offer, Ashley leaned close and whispered, “Was it all worth it?”

“Yes.  Yes it was,” I replied.  “It was a wonderful present.”

“Happy anniversary, Poo.”

“Happy anniversary, Swee.”

We then climbed into our car and proceeded to get horrifically lost trying to find our way back to the HoJo.

Copyright © 2002 Eric Fritzius

The Talkin’ Bad Tech Karma, Idling Chip Fan, Beaver Dispatcher, Further revenge of the Power Ass., Fun with Fed Ex Blues (a Horribly True Tale, Special Delivery)

Karma is a strange thing, especially technological karma.  Most of my friends have bad-tech karma to one degree or another.  My friend Marcus Vowell has bad tech karma which causes every new piece of technology he buys to arrive pre-broken, a syndrome he calls Marcus Got The Broke One.  Spends an awful lot of time on the phone with warranty clerks.  My friend Joe Evans has bad car tech karma and can’t seem to keep a car for more than three years without it self-destructing in wildly creative ways.   My friend Matthew Jamison has bad personal tech karma which, combined with some rather freakish body chemistry on his part, causes his body to drain all the power out of wrist-watch batteries within hours of putting one on.  As for me, I think my tech karma is merely flawed, resulting in what I call Eric Can Never Have Nice Things Syndrome.  I have nice things, sure, and while they’re not exactly broken, there’s always a but.  My car is nice, but the windshield washer fluid chamber leaks like an SOB.  My stereo is nice, but it skips every 20 seconds when playing CDs.  My VCR is nice, but it refuses to let me program it anymore.  My Dish Network system is nice, but it keeps deleting some of my network channels and it can’t make the VCR do my bidding any better than I can.  And don’t even get me started on my former vehicle—the blue, 1985, Chevrolet Caprice Classic, affectionately known as the Bent Turd—nor its many radiator problems.

I used to think that this flawed tech-karma was a result of my being a cheap bastard and my refusal to buy quality technological components in favor of cheaper, crappier ones that fell off of trucks.  After some research, though, I found that it doesn’t matter how much I pay for something, or how few trucks it may have fallen of, there’s gonna be a flaw in it regardless.  This is especially evident in my computer.

In 1999, before I left Tupelo, MS, I purchased a new computer, though I didn’t do it all at once.  My cohorts in crime, Gordon Carskadon and the aforementioned Matthew Jamison–fellow charter members of the Manly Bladder Club and the two people who had served as almost full-time consultants for all my old computers–planned out a new and better system for me that they would assemble from new parts.  They listed off all the parts I’d need and told me where to get them.  A short time and several successful Fed Ex and UPS deliveries later, I had a new and wonderful computer system that left my old one in the dust.  Gordon had even gone so far as to overclock the Celeron chip so that it worked even faster than it was designed to.  Sure, it did need a special cooling fan, fitted snugly to the chip itself, in order to keep it from overheating, but that’s standard procedure among us computer geek-types these days.  Didn’t matter.  I just knew that for the first time in recorded history I owned a computer that surpassed even Matthew’s in speed and coolness.  I had finally broken my flawed karma curse.

Nine months later, in my then new home of Charlotte, North Carolina, the hard-drive started crapping out on me.  I ran diagnostic programs from the manufacturer’s website and the bad news was that the drive had less than a month to live.  Fortunately, it was still under warranty so the manufacturer sent me a new one for free.  Unfortunately, I must have caught a case of Marcus Got The Broke One, because the new drive came pre-broken for my convenience; a fact I didn’t learn until after I spent several days and nearly $300 in phone calls to Matthew attempting to format the new drive and install Windows 98 on it.  The manufacturer had to replace it again, and I had to start over.

About two months ago, in my new, new home in West Virginia, my computer began making a kind of odd, repetitive noise that sounded like a 1987 Ford Festiva engine idling.  It sped up and slowed down and sped back up again but never quite went away.  Matthew and Gordon suggested I check the cooling fans, cause if they were bad I needed to replace them before anything overheated.  Sure enough, it was the Celeron chip cooling fan, clogged with two years worth of dust and debris.  I bought a can of compressed air and cleaned it out good, but it still sounded a little off.  After another month, it began to sound less like a 1987 Ford Festiva idling and more like a Ford F-350 Lariat, that’s thrown a couple of rods, idling.  It was time to buy a new chip fan.

Last Monday, I ordered one and I wasn’t playing around this time.  I picked out a Celeron Slot 1 Heatsink with Dual Cooling Fans—which my wife contends will just be twice the parts to break, but bigger is better in my book.  In order to have the fan in my computer as soon as possible, I paid $9.90 for Fed Ex 2 Day Shipping.  (This is the part where Shirley the pianist plays a scary chord.)  Within an hour, the parts company had e-mailed me an invoice with my correct shipping address, phone number, e-mail, etc., and said the order had been processed and would be shipped shortly.  I figured the fan would probably be in on Wednesday… Tuesday at the earliest.

Here is a reconstructed diary of the week’s events:

DAY 1, TUESDAY

Not much going on.  Fan still idling noisily.  Have taken the cover off the CPU case to allow the cold, January, West Virginia mountain air that is constantly seeping in through the cracks around our windows to flow freely through the computer’s guts.  Had to go to my library workplace at 1, but wasn’t expecting Fed Ex today anyway.

DAY 2, WEDNESDAY

Off from work today.  Sat around waiting for Fed Ex but they didn’t show.  My heart skips at the sound of every truck on the road, but it’s never them.  Perhaps the parts company didn’t get it shipped until Tuesday morning.  They were only in Ohio, though, so the new fan should be here tomorrow.  Hands cold now.   So very cold.

DAY 3, THURSDAY

Still no Fed Ex.  Had to go to the library for work at 3, but sent e-mail to the parts company asking for the tracking number.  Not sure if it got through, because I replied to their auto-responder message from Monday.  Tried again before bed, sending message directly to the company’s official e-mail address.  Need to find electric blanket.  Damn base-board heating!

DAY 4, FRIDAY

Parts company still hasn’t written back.  Busied myself making a broccoli chicken casserole for the potluck dinner we’re attending tonight at the home of one of my wife’s med-school anatomy professors.  After the party, we’re supposed to go to the alumni center for dancing and booze (read, watching medical students get outrageously faced and stumble around the dance floor for four hours.  And since the wife is a designated driver, we’ll have to stay till the bitter end.  On the upside, at least I can take snapshots for use in future blackmail schemes.)

At 4:30, I got sick of waiting for the parts company to write back, so I phoned them.  A very nice lady named Marlene answered.  She said they were having e-mail server troubles, explaining their lack of e-response.  She confirmed my fan had been shipped on Monday and should have been in my hands long before now.  “We could have sent it ground mail and it would have been there sooner!” she said.  Marlene gave me the tracking number.  Fed Ex’s tracking website said my package has been in Beaver, WV, for two days.  It said something about there being an incorrect address issue.  Damn straight, since I live in Ronceverte and Beaver is 40 miles away.

At 5 p.m. I phoned Fed Ex to ask why my fan was in Beaver.   The operator lady explained that Beaver is their local hub, so it would make sense for it to be there.  She further explained that there had been some sort of mix up and that they had tried to deliver the package to the wrong address.  I told her I was a bit put out that I paid $9 for two day delivery and still didn’t have my package and was wondering what sort of compensation Fed Ex was going to offer.

“Well, I don’t think they’ll pay for this,” she said.  “In these cases, our drivers have until 7 p.m. to make the delivery before we consider it late.  So the driver will probably be by to drop it off to you before seven.”

“That’s all well and good, but my 2 day delivery package was shipped on Monday.  Today is Friday.”

After a moment of doing the math she said, “Oh.” She then apparently looked at her screen again.  “Well, this says that they tried to deliver it on Wednesday the 9th, but no one was home.  Did they leave a door tag?”

Was she just making this up now?  She had just told me that they had the wrong address in the first place.

“No,” I said, after fuming for a moment.  “They did not leave me a door tag.”

“Well, since there was no door tag, you can probably fight this and get compensation.”

“I would hope so.”

Ms. FedEx explained she would contact the Beaver Dispatcher and that he would phone me for directions to my house so the delivery could be made by seven tonight.

“Well, that’s going to be a problem,” I explained, remembering the dinner party.  “I’m leaving shortly and won’t be home until late.”

“Would it be okay for the driver to leave your package there?” she asked.

“If he can find the address, sure.”

“Oh, that’s right. He’ll need directions.”

“Yeeees,” I said, nodding my head.

Ms. Fed Ex seemed at a loss for what to do, so I suggested that I leave the directions as the outgoing message on my answering machine so the Beaver Dispatcher could phone and get them.  She agreed that this would probably work, but that if my package wasn’t to me before seven then it would definitely be here some time on Saturday and that the Beaver Dispatcher would be calling me for directions then.

“And who do I call about the compensation?” I asked.

“Well, first the package will need to be delivered, then we’ll reimburse the shipper who can reimburse you.”

I’m happy to report that when I called Marlene back to let her know this, she had already spoken with her boss and they were going to refund my shipping charges regardless of whether Fed Ex reimbursed them.  They certainly didn’t have to do this, but it sounded like good business to me.

The dinner party was very nice and great food and booze were had by all.  However, the evening was clouded for me by the fact that Fed Ex was being such a skid-mark in the underwear of my life.  I decided to skip the post party drunken dancing session and head home to see if my fan had indeed arrived.  It had not.  Nor had either of my two working caller-ID boxes registered ANY phone calls while we’d been away.  The Beaver Dispatcher hadn’t even attempted to call.

DAY 5, SATURDAY

Bad omens from the get-go.  While helping clear out our extensive collection of paper piles, I stumbled upon an uncashed refund check for the amount of $6.25 from the Tombigbee Electric Power Ass.  It was dated October 21, 1997 and paid to the order of my wife.  Already the monolithic corporations were insinuating themselves into my day, even rising up from the far buried past in which I briefly didn’t exist.  This did not bode well.

After spending the entire morning off the internet so as to allow free flow of incoming calls, I phoned Fed Ex to find out what was going on.  Ms. Fed Ex #2 told me, in what I detected to be a haughty tone, that the Beaver Dispatcher had noted in my account that he had phoned me Friday night and that I had not been home.

“Uh, no.  He didn’t,” I said.

“Yes.  It says right here that…”

“No.  He did not call because if he had it would have registered on my caller ID and there were no calls on it between 5:15 and 8 p.m. last night.”

“Oh,” she said.  She looked at her screen again.  She confirmed my phone number to make sure they had it right.  They did.  She tried again…  “Well, maybe he just didn’t listen to the answering machine message for the directions.”

“That might have been the case, had he called at all.  But, as I’ve mentioned twice now, he did not call.”

Ms. Fed Ex #2 said she would send a message through to the Beaver Dispatcher telling him to call me immediately.  If he hadn’t phoned within an hour, she said I was to call Fed Ex central back.

I gave him an hour and a half before calling back.

Ms. Fed Ex #3 sounded like a force to be reckoned with.  This was no namby pamby Fed Ex operator.  She had the voice and demeanor of a large black woman who, very politely, wasn’t taking any guff from angry customers.  Every time she sensed that I was getting pissed off, which was pretty much the whole call, she’d slam on the breaks, with varying degrees of success.  Having worked in a call center myself, I could respect that.  Still, I launched into my tale about the bastard Beaver Dispatcher and stopped only when she interrupted to make a point.

“Fed Ex doesn’t deliver to your area on Saturday.”

“Do what?”

“We don’t deliver to your area on Saturday unless you specifically requested it.”

“I did!” I shouted.

“I don’t show that here, sir.”

“But I called yesterday and was told…”

“There’s no need to shout, sir.  I show that you called yesterday and when your local dispatcher called you back, you didn’t answer your telephone.”

“NO!!  He never called!  I’ve got two caller ID’s and there were NO CALLS!!”

“Sir, I’m not going to get into an argument with…”

“I don’t care what he wrote there!  He didn’t call!”

“Sir, I will not argue with you on this…”

“This thing was supposed to have been here Wednesday!”

“And I’m trying to explain to you that don’t deliver to your area on Saturday, unless by request.  Now did you request Saturday delivery?”

“At this point, I’m requesting that it be delivered at all.”

I briefly ranted more about being promised Saturday delivery by the last two operators, but Ms. Fed Ex #3 explained that Ms. Fed Exes #1 and #2 had evidently been talking out of their asses and had not checked the local hub status or they would have seen that not only did the Beaver Hub not make deliveries on Saturday, but that it was not even open on Saturday.  Bastards!

DAY 6, SUNDAY

Went to church.  Prayed for patience with those more incompetent than myself, prompt delivery of my fan on Monday, and that the new year will bring a lot less Terry Bradshaw during TV commercial breaks.  In other words, a miracle.

DAY 7, MONDAY

Week two of Fed Ex’s 2 Day Delivery Service, begins.

At 10 a.m. I hopped on the Fed Ex tracking site and saw that my package was still sitting on a shelf in Beaver.  I wanted to call Fed Ex and yell at them.  I wanted to hold the receiver into the open guts of my computer and scream, “Do you hear that hideous noise?  That’s the sound of my computer slowly dying because it’s Celeron chip is over-heating!  Sure, I’m the moron who keeps using it anyway, but that’s beside the point.  Is it too much to ask that when you pay for a guaranteed delivery time of two days that you get it?  Is it too much to ask that I not be repeatedly lied to by some guy in Beaver?  It’s not like I had my package shipped by the U.S. Post Office, which openly admits their 2 Day Delivery service is merely an unrealistic goal to be ignored.  You’re Federal EFFing Express!  You’re supposed to be the Mack Daddy when it comes to getting people’s crap to them on time!  Now somebody up there needs to get a boat, go get Tom Hanks’ and his volley ball off the damn island and bring him back stateside so he can whip your doughy asses back into shape!  If this goes on any longer, I’m gonna order a new fan and have it send two day UPS and we’ll see which one gets here first, 7 day head start be damned!”

This I did not do.

Instead, I opted for the nice approach.  When Ms. Fed Ex #4 answered, I asked for the status of my package.  She took my number and scanned the now lengthy adventures of my non-delivery.  According to her screen, the lying Beaver Dispatcher had not only added a second attempted call to Friday evening’s activity, he’d also touched up the record to include a failed delivery attempt at 5:41 p.m. on Friday.  According to him, the delivery didn’t go through because “customer not available or business closed.”  Someone was trying to cover his ass.

I informed Ms. Fed Ex#4 of his treachery.  I was even diplomatic about it, suggesting that he may have had the wrong address and phone number.  Nope.  She rattled off the correct contact information to me.  Again I was vindicated.  By the end of the call, Ms. Fed Ex #4 said that her screen showed my package had been loaded on a truck and was headed out for delivery.  She would, again, have the Beaver Dispatcher call me with an ETA.  She also took down the directions to our apartment and said she’d forward them as well.  While that was great, it still meant I was stuck in the house all day, with no access to the internet, least dispatcher bastardo actually phone and find the line tied up.  I couldn’t even leave the house for lunch at my favorite Chinese buffet, but then I remembered that they had been closed down recently because someone found a tooth in the food.  A human tooth.  With pulp.  A mixed blessing, really.

By 4 p.m. I had a headache from plotting my revenge against Fed Ex.   Just as well, since I had to leave to pick up the wife at school.  I left a note for the Fed Ex guy, giving him permission to leave my package there, as it would be just like them to turn up or call during the ten minutes I would be gone.

When I got back there was still no caller ID appearance and no package.  The wife needed me to follow her as she drove her car to a nearby repair shop to get a new clutch installed–further proof that bad tech-karma is contagious–but I didn’t want to go.  Fed Ex had probably let me leave once to lull me into a false sense of security so they could drop by as soon as I went out again, then refuse to deliver my package.  They’d probably leave a door tag telling me to drive 40 miles to Beaver to pick it up.  Why not?  They weren’t making any money off this anymore, so what did they care?  The wife saw the dementia in my eyes and decided to ask a neighbor to help her.  It was a good thing too, because they weren’t even out of the parking lot when the phone rang.  It was Mr. Fed Ex Driver.  Finally!

The driver said he was on my road, albeit still not in the correct town.  I laughed maniacally at him and then gave him proper directions to the house.  When he arrived, I was almost surprised that he wasn’t the embodiment of evil I’d been expecting.  He certainly did seem put-out that he had to trek down our narrow, winding, WV back road to deliver a package to a mere residence, though.  No doubt I was a sight to behold, stalking to the door in my robe and slippers, unkempt and unwashed hair jutting in every direction, greedily snatching the package away from him.  And while I was tempted to pelt him with some old UPS boxes I had lying around, I let him go back into the wild, unscathed.  No use further tarnishing my karma.

There are now two codas to this story.

By the following Friday, I had pretty much settled back into my usual schedule of not obsessing about my hatred for Fed Ex when tragedy struck.  I went in to the library at 1 p.m. and had not been at work for 20 minutes when a familiar face walked through the door.  Yes, it was Mr. Fed Ex Driver himself, coming in to do some internet surfing on his lunch break.  I logged him onto the computer and quietly pondered the many ways I could make his day a little crappier, were I the kind of guy who went around doing things to make peoples’ days crappy.  His big ol’ Fed Ex truck was sitting right outside, with easy access valve stems on its tires.  But that’s just not me, man.  Ruining his day would in turn ruin the days of the dozens of people across the county who had stayed home from work to wait on their 2 day deliveries, and Fed Ex is perfectly capable of fudging that up without my help.  I gritted my teeth and behaved myself.  I didn’t even snoop to find out what sort of porn this guy might be surfing for.

Temptation to commit unethical acts was not through with me, though.  Mr. Fed Ex Driver left the library a half hour later, but managed to leave his wallet behind in the process.  (Them online porn sites is `spensive!)  For one brief moment, I held in my hands the power to put a severe kink in dude’s life.  Again, though, that’s just not me.  It’s not like he was the Beaver Dispatcher himself, or anything.  This was just some schmoe workin’ for The Man like the rest of us.  I put his wallet in the safe-box and put thoughts of revenge out of my head.

An hour or so later, the wife came in to visit and I told her of the destruction I could have wrought, were I the kind of guy who wrights destruction. We and the library staff all stood around, laughing and loudly discussing Fed Ex’s incompetence for several minutes until Mr. Fed Ex Driver startled us by suddenly coming back.  The room became suspiciously silent as the subject of our little bitch session stood before us, looking a little nervous about having obviously walked in on something not for his ears.

“You, uh… You wouldn’t happen to…”

“…have your wallet?” our librarian finished.  “Sure.  Right here.”

Mr. Fed Ex Driver looked incredibly relieved when we handed it back to him. After he’d had a moment to search through it he said, “Wow!  And all my money’s still there!  I didn’t expect that.”

Perhaps he was just doubtful of society’s good intentions.  Perhaps he thought we were laughing about having lunch on him.  Or perhaps I’m not the first to have contemplated exacting revenge on this lowly minion of the Beaver Dispatcher.

The second coda to the story is that during the time it took to compile this tale, the radiator of my near perfect Malibu developed a leaky gasket or two and the scent of antifreeze is once more a familiar one around Chez Fritzius.  We’re taking it in on Monday.  Fortunately, this car’s still under warranty.  And I can always use the Power Ass. check to help pay the deductible.

Copyright © 2002 Eric Fritzius

The Talkin’ Der Stuka, Joe Factor, Slow Food, Drunken Midget Blues (a Previously Unrevealed Horribly True Tale)

It’s Monday, July 23, 2001. My wife and I have exactly one week to get all of our material possessions stuffed into cardboard boxes in preparation for yet another life-upheaving move to another state and I’ve only just begun to pack. We’re hitting the road once again because after years of struggle, pain and rejection, my wife has finally been accepted into medical school at the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine, in Lewisburg, West Virginia. This means for the second time this year, we have to move. And not just across town, like last time, but up a frickin’ mountain. Across several frickin’ mountains, really. And with a squalling cat, no doubt. It’s a great opportunity, though, and one we’ve been working toward for a long time. However, it does mean I have to go back to being unemployed until I can find work in my new town; a new town that is located in a particularly economically depressed area of one of the nation’s most economically depressed states. Also not boding well is the fact that whenever I say “We’re moving to West Virginia” to anyone, the universal reaction I get is one of sorrow and pity. Not exactly sure why, as Lewisburg seems to be a really nice little town, but that whole economically depressed thing might have something to do with it. Our adventures there will no doubt provide fuel for Horribly True Tales for years to come. So while waiting for bad stuff to happen, I thought I’d take a look back at some bad stuff that already happened in a previously unrevealed horribly true tale. It’s the story of the time my former beloved vehicle, the Bent Turd, broke down due to an elemental force of malfunction known as Joe Evans. This particular tale begins in the spring of 1998, mere weeks after the radiator shattering events of “The Talkin’ Utter Desperation Bent Turd Blue Tub Blues.” It may be helpful to peruse the Rules of Joe before reading this story, just to familiarize yourself with how dangerous messing around with the power of Joe actually is. You can find it at:

Joe Evans is many things to many people.  But you know that already.  To me, though, he’s a fellow member of the Manly Bladder Club; my former co-host for Juice & Joe’s Four Colour Theatre, our celebrated, award-deserving radio show about comic books; my fellow co-star in such classic dramatic productions as Damn Yankees, The Boys Next Door and The Disposal; and he was a former roommate in our collegiate collective residence, back in Starkville, MS, which he christened “Da Crib.”  (Many many horribly true tales could and will one day be written about Da Crib.  Not just yet, though.)  Yup, Joe’s been one of my best friends for the past ten years or so.

Back in the late 90’s, when I lived in Tupelo, Mississippi, it was a rare occasion that I got to hang out with Joe.  Even though Tupelo is only an hour north of Starkville, the highway between them is such a boring desolate stretch that making the drive regularly can be taxing on the soul.  It can also be taxing on the auto-repair bill, especially when one’s mode of transportation is an ailing `85 Chevy Caprice Classic that drives, as I seem to recall mentioning before, about as well as a bent turd.  As it so happens, mine was.

One Summertime Friday, I was blessed to learn that Joe was planning to brave the soul-sapping trek from Starkpatch for a much needed weekend of card-playin’, Babylon 5 watchin’, indiscriminant cursin’ and Outback Steakhouse eatin’ revelry.  This plan was marred only by the fact that, as part of my job as morning show DJ at Sunny 93.3, I was scheduled to do a radio remote broadcast in Houston, MS, that evening.  The remote broadcast was at Splash Pool & Spa, of Houston.  It was a fairly important event as the Splash people were holding a drawing for a $1000 spa and the qualifiers in the contest had to be present to win.  This promised to be a mad circus, but possibly an enjoyable one.  Because Joe had been in radio for about as long as I had, albeit in non-commercial radio, I figured I’d drag him along and let him see what a real commercial radio DJ had to put up with during a remote.

Joe arrived in town without incident and we whiled away the afternoon goofing off.  I had calculated that the hour of 4:05 p.m. would be a good time to start pestering Joe to hurry up so we could leave, but my actual target departure time was 4:25 p.m., as I knew from years of experience that it would take at least 20 minutes to get him to actually move.  That would leave us plenty of time to hit the ATM, hit a fast food restaurant, get over to the radio station to pick up the Sunny 93 van at 5 and get to Houston by 5:45 with plenty of time to set up for our 6 p.m. remote, the first on-air break of which wasn’t until 6:17.

I learned several valuable life lessons that day.

Lesson #1:  Never calculate anything based on the predicted behavior of Joe.

At 4:35 p.m. we were only just stepping into the driveway in front of my festering hellhole of an apartment.

“What do you want to take?  The Turd or Der Stuka?” Joe asked.  Der Stuka was the name of Joe’s Volkswagon Golf, christened so because its many engine and suspension problems combined to make a horrifying noise that was not unlike the German fighter plane of the same name.  Being a Volkswagon Golf also meant that while the German automotive craftsmanship of its air-conditioning system was a thing of efficiency, power and beauty, door handles that actually opened from both the outside and inside of the car weren’t as big a priority for its designers.

“Let’s take the Turd,” I said, proud that my vehicle was still driving impressively well after its recent radiator replacement and catalytic-converterectomy.  By my count, we still had plenty of time to hit all our planned stops even with our delayed departure.

One of the unfortunate side effects of a visit from Joe, however, was my car’s tendency to self-destruct in his presence.  Perhaps it’s due to the Joe Factor; that mysterious field of energy that surrounds Joe in which normally stable objects are likely to spill, explode, combust, spoil, fall apart, spill, receive nerve damage, spill, break, spill or begin speaking in tongues.  The last time Joe had come to town, the Turd’s battery went into a coma in a grocery store parking lot and we were forced to spend a blistering four hours replacing it.  My confidence that we would not have any automotive problems on this visit was ill-founded.

While getting moolah at the ATM, I caught a familiar whiff of anti-freeze.  Couldn’t be coming from the Turd, I concluded.  I’d had that radiator fixed already.  It must have been coming from one of the other cars at the drive-through teller tubes, I reasoned.

Lesson #2: It’s always the Turd.

A quarter mile down the road, just as I was pulling onto the entrance ramp of Hwy 45, I noticed a loud clicking sound that seemed to be coming from the engine of the Turd.  I tried to come up with some rationalization for the sound, other than it being the same hideous clicking noise that it made the last time it overheated due to having no coolant in its radiator.  The engine temperature light conspired to dash my hopes.  By this time, we were already more than half way to the radio station so I figured maybe, just maybe, I could make it all the way.  Nothing doing.  The car was starting to over-heat and was driving slower and slower and slower as we went.

“Should we pull over and check it?” Joe asked.

“Hell no!” I shouted.  From my overheating experience a few weeks back I knew if I stopped to check anything the car would never start again and we’d be stranded for sure.  If I was meant to be stranded, it would have to be a lot closer to the radio station than we were, engine-wear be damned!  Amazingly and against all expectation, we made it up the exit ramp for Green Street, which lead right to to the radio station’s home street of Gloster.  We had nearly made it to Gloster when the Bent Turd gave up the ghost and shut itself off.  I coasted the Turd along the side of the road until we reached the gravel drive of Patrick Home Center, in which we rolled to a steaming halt.  Sure enough, the engine was just hissing with heat and stink of burning oil.  Up to this point, I’d been cursing like an Admiral on the U.S.S. Tourettes, but as I looked down at the pinging engine I found I didn’t really have the energy to say more than a few half-hearted blistering curses.  I slammed the hood and began stomping down Gloster toward the radio station in silence.  Joe followed.

Sunny 93’s production director and afternoon DJ, “Clark Kent,” was waiting outside as we came wheezing up the hill, ten minutes later. (And yes, everyone, including Clark, is fully aware of how completely lame that choice of on-air names is.  Marginally moreso than my choice of Erik Winston.)

“Hey, where ya been, Erik?” Clark asked.  “You know you’ve got a remote, right?  I tried calling your house to remind you, but you didn’t answer.”

“Car… broken… Stalled on… side of…  road…. Walked here…” I managed, stomping past Clark, who was still asking questions.

I hadn’t pre-loaded the van earlier in the day, and there’s a heap of stuff we have to take to remotes.  I’d been making a laundry list of it in my head during my run/hobble: I needed advertising copy, the station’s ancient bag cell-phone, the ancient bag cell phone’s power supply box, bumper stickers, T-shirts—both for giveaways and one to replace the one I’d sweated through during said run/hobble—the ice-chest, and a couple cases of two-liter bottles of woefully flat soft-drinks.  I would still need to buy ice for the ice chest, though, not to mention which was yet another delay in an already dissolving master plan.  We threw everything in the van and hit the road.

“I’m hungry,” Joe said.

“Me too,” I said.

There was a Hardee’s on the way to Houston in the little town of Verona.  We decided to pop in there real quick.

Lesson #3:  Hardee’s is never quick; Hardee’s in Verona even less so.

We pulled in behind a truck at the drive-through line at Hardee’s.  After a couple of minutes we decided that it was pretty strange that the driver of the truck wasn’t actually giving his order to the speaker, but instead seemed to be waiting to be asked what he would like to order.  Another minute passed before some noise was emitted from the speaker and the man began to order.  The ordering process was taking an unnecessary amount of time considering that he’d had at least 3 minutes to make up his mind already.  Finally he pulled around to the next window and we pulled into his place.

For a long time nothing happened.  No garbled voices issued from the speaker nor was there any indication that Hardee’s even knew we were there.

“Hellooooooo?!” I shouted.  After a while there was a very very low sound from the speaker.  I could barely make out the words but was pretty sure they were “Hold on.”  The low voice eventually returned to the speaker and said something that might have been “May I take your order” but might also have been “May a diseased rat crawl out of our freezer and die in your ass” for all I could tell.  I didn’t care. I just wanted food.  We gave our order to the speaker and waited.

“You get that?” I shouted.  A low noise sounded from the speaker but no words could be heard.  I took that as confirmation and drove around to the pickup window where our friend in the truck was still waiting for his food.  A bitter, curse-bejeweled eight minutes later and he still didn’t have his food.  As far as I know, he’s still there waiting for it, cause I wasn’t sticking around there any longer.  It was already 5:15 p.m. and Houston was at least 40 minutes away.  I pulled around the truck and, with teeth bared, waved like a madman at the Hardee’s employee in the window as I sped out of their parking lot.  I hoped they would be terrified of the bad publicity I could potentially bring them as a powerful media personage, but rather doubted they had ever had any good publicity to compare it by.

Now there are several ways to get to Houston, but since I’d only been to there once and had taken the Natchez Trace to get there, that was the way I decided to go.  To get to the Trace, I made a right turn in the middle of Verona.  We drove for a couple of miles until we came to a giant “Bridge Out” sign that was physically blocking the road.  It might have been helpful to have included a similar sign, two miles, back in Verona, preventing people from going out of their way to learn this information.  Evidently, signs is `spensive so no one had done so.  There were no obvious detours, so we turned around and headed back to Verona.  Before we could get there, the big giant bag cell phone rang.  It was Gwen, the general manager of Sunny 93, calling to inform us that we needed to get to Houston as quickly as possible because Doug, the ad-sales guy in charge of the Splash Pool & Spa account, was going to be late because he had to go pay a visit to one of the station’s many delinquent clients.

“What a coincidence, we’re gonna be late too,” I said.

“What?  You’d better not be!”

I explained the situation with the bent turd, our run/hobble to the station and our mad dash to leave town, our inability to get to the Natchez Trace and the fact that after a solid 20 minutes we were still in EFFing Verona.  (Of course, I omitted the part about spending 15 minutes waiting for food we never got at Hardee’s in Verona.)

Lesson #4:  Always omit the part about spending 15 minutes waiting for food you never got at Hardee’s in Verona.  You can save time by simply saying you went to Hardee’s in Verona and everyone will naturally assume that you never received food.

Gwen said she’d call Doug and tell him to skip the delinquent client and book it to Houston pronto.  Someone had to be there to assure the Splash guy that all the dough he was dropping on this remote and drawing was not going to waste.

Meanwhile, I had 30 minutes to drive at least 40 miles, I didn’t know exactly how to get there and I still had to buy ice!   Earlier in the day, Clark had suggested I go to Houston by way of Okolona (“Where the Wind comes Sweepin’ Down the Pain!”), some 20 miles to the south of Tupelo.  I wasn’t exactly sure which road to take to Houston once I got to Okolona, but I was gonna worry about that later.  Just getting there was more of a chore than I had hoped.  Being around 5:30 on a Friday meant that there were plenty of people on the road.  None of them seemed to be in any kind of hurry.  Despite this, we made it to Okolona in record time.  There were, of course, no signs in Okolona telling how to get to Houston, so I stopped at a convenience store where I hoped to find ice and directions.  Joe found the ice while I found a clerk who gave me the impression that she was just passing time as a clerk until her appearance on Rikki Lake came through.  Her directions for how to get to Houston consisted mainly of pointing a finger in the general direction of the four way intersection outside and saying “Go that way.”  She asked why my radio station was going to Houston, as opposed, presumably, to staying in scenic Okolona.  I told her.

“Splash Pool an’ Spa?” she said with disdain, stopping short of actually ringing up my ice.  The clerk turned toward a large woman sitting behind the chicken heat-lamp case.  “Hey, Patricia.  Ain’t that where you got yore pool?”

“Whuuuut?”

“I said, ain’t that where you got yore pool?  At Splash Pool and Spa?”

Patricia was silent for a moment. “Yayuh.  I think that was them.”

“I wouldn’t give a dog’s butt for them folks,” the clerk assured me.  “Patricia’s been having all kinds’a trouble with her pool and they won’t send no one out to do nothing about it.  Wouldn’t give a dog’s butt for them.”

“Really?” I said.

“Yeah.  Beats all I ever seen.”

“Crooks!” Patricia said.

I hoped she was wrong, because if there’s one thing I hate doing it’s shilling for crappy businesses.  The chances that she was mistaken were actually pretty strong, since there are like four pool places in Houston, though.

The clerk finally rang up my ice, but only after I loudly dropped it on the counter to provide an audio reminder that there was business to be transacted.  After further dire warnings of the crooked, dog’s butt deficient nature of Splash Pool & Spa from both the clerk and Patricia, Joe and I bolted for the door and hit the road that presumably lead to Houston. Fifteen miles later, we found ourselves stuck behind a drunken midget.

Okay, he might not have been a midget, but he was at the very least a short drunken man and at the worst a drunken child.  Whichever the case, the drunken midget wannabe was swerving his beat up Lincoln all over the road at the breathtaking speed of 40 miles per hour.  There was a second car between the drunken midget and our van and this guy was having an impossible time passing the drunken midget due to all the swerving.  We didn’t fare any better because we couldn’t even pass the guy who was trying to pass the drunken midget.  It was an infuriating situation for a variety of reasons, but—and perhaps I should be ashamed to say it—the only reason I gave a damn about at that point was that he was making me even later than I’d already made myself.  Eventually the drunken midget swerved off the road and, coincidentally I’m sure, onto another road, freeing us to violate the speed limit.

As we were approaching the Houston city limits, at 6:04, the giant bag cell phone rang again. This time it was Clark wondering if we were set up yet for our first break, scheduled at 6:17.

“No,” I said.  “We’re not even in Houston yet.”

“You’re not in Houston?”

“No.”

“Well where are you?” Clark asked, ever the voice of calm.

“We’re… close to Houston.”

“What road are you on?”

I clenched my jaw.  “I have no idea!  We’re close to Houston, all right?!”

“This is the reason we tell you to leave early for remotes.   You’re supposed to be there at least a half hour before they start.”

Now I knew good and well that I was at least partially responsible for our lateness due to my foolhardy attempt to wring food out of Hardee’s.  But that was where it ended.

“That’s right, Clark.  My car overheated and I ran a half a mile to the station, hit a fallen bridge and then had to drive behind a drunken midget the whole way for my health!”

“Say what?”

“Nevermind!  I’ll call you when I get there!”

Lesson #5:  Never deal with Clark when you’re pissed.  He can always find a way to make you even angrier.

After reaching down-town Houston, I began to regret not having paid attention during Doug the Ad Guy’s seminar on how to find Splash Pool & Spa.  I remembered a landmark or two, but neither of them really looked like they did in my head, so I drove past them.  If it hadn’t been for the mass of people standing around a spa, practically in the middle of a side street, I might have missed the place.  Doug the Ad Guy was already there, running interference with the client and the herd of qualifying listeners.  I breathed a sigh of relief, backed into the parking lot and tried not to run over anybody.

It should be understood that Sunny 93’s out of town remotes are accomplished through no great technical means.  Essentially the DJ phones the radio station on a cell-phone, which is then piped through the sound board and sent out over the airwaves.  We don’t actually need the big speakers and antennas and road rack sound system at all.  That stuff’s pretty much just a glorified stereo system that lets us play our signal at the remote for ambiance and to let the DJ know when the commercial breaks start so he can get ready to call the studio.  To do that, though, he needs a working cell phone.  Sunny 93’s big clunky bag phone came with a plug-in power supply the size and weight of a fat brick.  The power supply plugged into a standard power strip attached to an extension cord which had to be plugged into a local power outlet in order for any of this to work.  The tricky part is that there are TWO such power supply bricks at the radio station, only one of which actually works more than intermittently.  They’re identical in appearance, are unlabelled and are almost always in proximity to one another on the storage shelf.  You can guess which one I grabbed on my way out the door that afternoon.

Joe and I dumped the contents of the van on the ground and I began hooking up the phone while Joe searched for an outlet.  I hoped  to have everything working by the time my first break hit.  By my internal clock, I had two minutes.

Lesson #6:  It’s always less than two minutes.

It was sticky and hot outside the van.  The contest qualifiers, who were presumably valued listeners as well, were watching the whole process, fanning themselves with whatever paper they could scrounge.  I tried to look pleasant and smile and not appear at my sweaty wits end as much as possible.  One of the qualifiers came over to say hi.  I recognized his voice before he could finish introducing himself.  He was Lloyd the Über Listener.  Lloyd loved Sunny 93 and listened to us all day, every day.  He won nearly every contest we had, as often as we would allow him to.  And while such listening habits are the stuff of a programming director’s dream, actually meeting someone who does nothing but listen to the radio all day is not without a high degree of creepiness.  After all, it takes people of a certain stripe to be so devoted to soft hits format radio.  Lloyd was their king.

I had just hooked the cell phone into it’s power supply brick and then plugged the brick into the van’s power strip, for which Joe had found an outlet, when Lloyd shambled up to shake hands.  Unfortunately, despite having plugged everything up correctly, the little light on the power-supply brick had not turned on and no sound was coming from the van’s speakers.  Something was very wrong.  I couldn’t tell when my break was about to start without our signal through the speakers, and I couldn’t have the speakers nor the cell phone without power.

Lloyd was still trying to press his hand into mine and I realized that being a polite, smiling, friendly DJ and getting my equipment running before the first break were probably mutually exclusive concepts at my stage of sanity.

Lesson #7:  Always be polite, smiling and friendly to your listeners.  Unless they really piss you off.

I quickly shook Lloyd’s hand and asked him to excuse me while I went back to plugging cords.  So far I was remaining calm, but I so wanted to launch into my usual fit of cursing.  How could I, though, what with God, Lloyd and everyone else watching.

Lloyd, was not only an Über Listener but an amateur radio engineer as well.  He was attempting to be helpful by asking if I’d hooked up our microwave antenna yet.  As he understood it, that’s how things were done now-a-days.  We didn’t have any such creature.  But even if we had, we didn’t have any damn power to run it with.

Fortunately, Joe was there.

I know, that’s a rare combination of words to be associated with Joe, but his presence, despite the Joe Factor, was actually helpful.  He noticed that a cord had come loose from the back of the road rack and that fixed our sound problem.  The speakers came to life and we were in the middle of a commercial.  Hearing commercials was my cue to call the radio station and be ready for my break, which occurred after all the commercials had played.  Sunny 93 was mostly run by satellite feed and timing the breaks properly was essential and not easy to alter at the last moment.  If I didn’t call in, we could easily wind up with a minute of dead air and a pissed off Spa guy who was paying out the nose for that time.  And because I’d grabbed the broken power supply brick, the phone was dead and I couldn’t call in.

Most DJ’s faced with this situation would have simply unplugged the bag phone from the power supply, walked around to the driver’s seat, plugged the phone into the cigarette lighter jack and then turned the van on and called.  Not me.  My first thought was, “Doug’s got a cell phone!”

I dove past Lloyd and into the herd of listeners who were glutting the parking lot and the store’s doorway.  I had to practically fight my way through them, no longer caring if they found me polite, friendly or smiling.  I was expecting at any moment to hear the remote tones play over the speakers signaling my first failed remote break of the day.  Inside, Doug was behind the store’s counter, using his cell phone.

“DouggetoffthephoneI’vegotabreakintwentysecondsandIcan’tcallthestationfromthevan!” I shouted.

“What?”

“I need your phone!  Now!  My break is in under 10 seconds!”  I didn’t actually have any idea how many seconds I really had, but it might have been less than 10 for all I knew.  Doug got the gist if not the actual message and hung up on whoever he was talking to and passed the slim little phone over.

I made a break for the van, where I’d left my page of remote copy, frantically dialing as I ran.  I fully expected that with my luck the phone line would be busy.

It was.

Dammit, Clark was probably trying to call the van phone and was tying up the line.  I hit redial and this time it began to ring.  At the same moment, I heard remote tones play over the van’s speakers followed by silence.  The break had started without me!  Then, from the phone’s receiver I heard a click.  I hoped that click meant Clark had flipped the switch that opened the call to the airwaves.

“Sunny 93.3, this is Erik Winston broadcasting live from Splash Pool & Spa in Houston…” I cheerfully said into the phone.  My voice came out of the van’s speakers at the same time.  Whoo hoo!  Clark had opened the connection just in time!  Granted, it was a bit of a gamble on his part, since it could have been any old yahoo calling in and not me.  For all he knew, it could have been Lloyd.  Still, it had worked and I was so overwhelmed with gratitude for Clark’s gamble that I nearly lost my ability to speak coherent sentences.

The rest of the remote went pretty well once I’d had a chance to cool down.  Lloyd, it turned out, was not nearly as creepy as he could have been.  And while he didn’t win the spa, he was happy enough to drive away with a Sunny 93 T-shirt, which he would no doubt put in a drawer next to the half dozen or so other Sunny 93 T-shirts he had won over the years.  The store’s owner was also very happy with the remote and struck me as the kind of businessman I might give a dog’s butt for after all.

After the remote was finished and we had packed up the equipment, Joe and I retired to the Hardee’s of Houston, where we received our meals right on schedule and grill fresh.

As for the Turd, rather than attempting to fix it ourselves, we had it towed to my usual mechanic the following morning.  The mechanic said a radiator hose had come loose but that the engine was no more worse for wear than usual.  He fixed it up and gave me a knowing wink that said he knew I’d be back to see him before long.

Lesson #8:  Owners of cars that drive like bent turds always come back.        

Copyright © 2001 Eric Fritzius

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