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