Sunday, October 31, 2010

Sundays with Steve - Color of a Lemon

Since I’ve started writing “Sundays with Steve”, I’ve been thinking about vignettes of my life growing up in North Idaho. I realize the town where I grew up and the life I lived with my family is really a classic, all-American story. Perhaps you will recognize some of your childhood in these writings. And perhaps you will recognize the town you grew up in along with some of the characters you knew. Mrs. Steve has encouraged me to write these attempts of “creative writing” as opposed to the more factual journalistic style I was trained in and practiced in my early career many years ago. So my apologies if I stumble a bit here and there trying to blend the two styles together


Many of you read last week about Mrs Jenny’s technology challenges with automobiles. That reminded me of some of the technology- challenged cars we’ve had over the years, several of which were colored yellow, or more precisely, lemon. You’ve probably enjoyed some of those yourself. A nice car that just wouldn’t/couldn’t stay running right? That just couldn’t be repaired correctly? We have.

I loved cars, from my first in high school, a 1966 Volkswagen “fastback” I bought with the summer farm earnings, to the yellow 1948 Jeepster I drive today (well, plus the Infiniti that Mrs. Jenny told you about). There were a lot of cars in between, some good, some not so good, and one that was just a real piece of junk, right up to the night it burned to the ground.

In my list of automobiles there was a hippie Volkswagen bus that I took with me into the Army during Vietnam war time, there was my Dad’s distinctly uncool work car, a 1962 Chevy Biscayne, but I didn’t care, it had wheels that rolled and if I took the air cleaner off, it sounded cool; there was a hot-shot Caddy coupe in 1982 or so, whose transmission was so bad I traded it after a few months for a Corvette. The Corvette rode like a truck on the long drives I would take across the West in those years, and I got rid of it very soon. My record for cars in those years was not good, and every time I would trade the things it would cost a small fortune.

The next car was a BMW 633 coupe. I figured out how to buy an amazingly advanced car for its day, a car priced at about what I made a year, a car full of technology and power. I loved that car. One summer day on long drive out near the edge of the earth on the plains of northeastern Montana, I decided to see how fast that little car would go. It was one of those long straight roads where you could see forever, maybe 10 miles out. I was coming down a small hill where I had an elevated look out ahead, and I could see that there was nothing out there: No other cars, no trucks, no vehicles of any kind, there were no curves in the road; there was just nothing ahead but straight road. That little car scared me a bit, not the shaking or rattling, not the thoughts of potholes or low flying birds hitting my windshield, or of tires not rated fast enough and approaching blow out speed, or of my children at home waiting for me to return; no, it was that the front end of that little BMW that was trying to fly off the ground and the road when I hit about 175 mph. It was then that I decided that was probably fast enough. Having had gone through pilot training, I understood what lift was all about, and I understood the front end was trying to take to flight at that speed.

But that wasn’t the lemon. The lemon was a 1972 Audi LS 100. It was supposedly an advanced vehicle for its day, one of the first of that German auto maker’s imports into the U.S. I was in my first “real” job since graduating from college and serving my Army stint, and I was ready for a high end German engineering marvel.

Well, that’s what I got all right, an engineering marvel: frequent tune-ups, more frequent parts replacements, and a carburetor that would ice up any time the outside temperature was under about 35F. I hated that car, even though it was fast and comfortable for its day.

It was a long drive in 1976 from San Francisco to Boise, Idaho, some 12 hours or so over the lonely and not heavily traveled highways of the high Nevada deserts.

It was a cold night, 100 miles north of Winnemmca on the two-lane US 95 headed north toward Oregon and then Idaho. The stars were exceedingly bright, and there was very little traffic on the road as the midnight hour approached. I hadn’t seen another car or truck for maybe 10 or 15 minutes when I first smelled the smoke.

I suspected it was the whiff of an electrical short circuit, that acrid and sharp familiar order that you don’t forget. This is could be a bit worrisome, I thought. I smelled it again, the smell becoming stronger, and seemingly coming from the dashboard. The last town was maybe 80 miles back, the next town maybe 60 miles in front of me. There was nothing out there.

There were no indications of problems on the dashboard; all systems appeared to be ok. The car was running well.

The smoke grew a bit thicker. I opened the sliding top in the roof, a real advancement in auto design, to clear the air.

The smoke grew thicker still. I thought I could feel heat from under the dash, but then I told myself, no, it was just my imagination. Then the smoke started to sting my eyes. OK, I thought, I think this is the real deal, and that I have a problem on my hands.

I rolled down the driver’s side window – no, there were no electrical windows in that advanced German road machine. The 70 mph wind roared through the cabin, clearing out the air.

When I saw a flickering glow under the dash, I thought I should pull over and get the hell out of that car. I did just that, pulling over into a highway maintenance yard where piles of sand stood waiting to be applied to the winter roads.

I turned off the engine, and all electrical systems, and got out of that car, fast! The smoke had gotten thick and was turning from grey to black. Even with the electric system powered down, the smoke continued to pour from under the dash.

I opened the car trunk and found a flashlight there. I went back to the cabin, and peered under the dashboard trying to illuminate the burning area. I didn’t need the flashlight to see, there were flames enough to illuminate a mass of electrical wires that were burning, that were sparking, and that had spread the building flames to the under-dashboard materials around them.

Crap, I thought, this thing is going to burn unless I stop it.

My father had always insisted his children carry fire extinguishers in their car trunks. I found mine buried in the trunk, and I pulled it out, a small sized extinguisher that should do the job. I also pulled my luggage out of the trunk at the same time, and carried it a ways from the car, just in case, I thought, this situation gets really bad. I was feeling my panic starting to build, just like the fire was growing.

I asked myself in the rising tension of the moment, do I really want to put that fire out and save this car from destruction? The car was painted a grey color, but underneath that fine German precision engineered veneer, the color was really a bright lemon yellow.

Why would I want to do that, I asked myself, why would I want to save this piece of junk car that had been nothing but a problem since I bought it four years ago. If I let it burn, I can solve a whole bunch of problems, and just be done with it. But then, I thought, no that would be wrong, my insurance company will say that I have an obligation to mitigate the damages to this burning car. Mitigate damages? What? Who was I kidding? Am I really having this moral dilemma in the middle of Nevada at midnight while my car is burning up in front of me?

The flooring caught fire while I was deliberating. The carpet started to burn hotly. I saw that the passenger seat was smoldering and starting to smoke, it would go up next. Then flames burst from the passenger seat, and out the open sliding roof. Smoke rolled out the two open car windows.

About then a large truck pulled up into the turn-out behind me, a CF Freightliners semi pulling two trailers on its daily Winnemucca-to-Boise run. I could see the look on the driver’s face, one of surprise and concern. He was yelling something, but I couldn’t make it out.

The driver jumped from the truck, a large fire extinguisher in hand, and came running toward me and the burning car. The driver, named Bob Larson, was close to 50 years old, and was dressed in coveralls and a winter coat.

It was cold out that night, it was dark, and you could see about a billion stars overhead. There was no lighting along the highway, just the yellow glow of the burning Audi framed in the big truck’s headlights.

At that moment, I made up my mind.

“Wait,” I yelled at Larson the truck driver, “Stop! Can you give me a lift to Boise?”

The interior of the car was fully engulfed by then, the fire was roaring.

“Sure, he yelled back, “but what about your car? It’s burning to the ground.”

“No problem,” I said, “it’s just a campfire that will burn itself out pretty soon. Do you have any marshmallows?”

(c) 2010 Stephen J. Matlock
This publication is the exclusive property of Stephen J. Matlock and is protected
under the US Copyright Act of 1976 and all other applicable international, federal, state and local laws. The contents of this post/story may not be reproduced as a whole or in part, by any means whatsoever, without consent of the author, Stephen J. Matlock. All rights reserved.


Anonymous said...

Another interesting and fun adventure story, Steve. I take it you and Mr. Larson made it to Boise, but what happened with the car? I hope your insurance reimbursed you and your next car was one that gave you no problems.

Did Mr. Larson have any marshmallows? Funny! I laughed when I read that. I could just picture the two of you sitting in that big truck munching on marshmallows as you were putting miles between you and that burning car.

I am looking forward to reading about your next great adventure. Hugs

Terra said...

Really, you let it burn! Holy cow! I would have been torn too but I think I might have tried to put it out for my conscience sake...maybe...however that said, I have an X3 that was in the shop more this summer than there are summer is only 2 years old and I am SO glad it is a lease because I get to give this lemon back in 10 months! So maybe, just maybe I could have let it burn...

Kat said...

Burn, baby, burn. We had a Renault (did you know that the french word for lemon is renault - neither did we). If only that thing had caught fire! Of course, our friends told my husband that he should know better - a German should never, ever buy a French car LOL. We learned our lesson, we all drive VW's now. I'm Irish, so not much to choose from there :) Kat

Pondside said...

Ooooh I get this one! We had a lemon once - a 1968 Volvo wagon. That car left us stranded on more empty stretches of highway than I can count. The Great Dane saw it as a challenge. I hated it. In 1975 we were living near Paoli, PA and renting from a wealthy old lady whose family had owned Strawbridge and Clothier. She once took me to NYC on a shopping trip and when her car broke down she just got out, called me after her, and walked away. Didn't even look back. I loved it.

Unknown said...

I had a friend whose parents had that Audi and it was always in the shop.......

Lourie said...

Campfire. Marshmallows. hahaha. Wish I could have seen the look on his face when you said that!