My luck with cars seems to come in bad clumps from time to time. When I was a freshman in college, I managed to total two cars and seriously damage a third over the course of a frightening mechanical failure and two car accidents, but not before racking up a flat tire, a speeding ticket, and another car accident into the bargain. It is something of a miracle that I survived my first year away from home without inflicting severe bodily harm onto myself or others.
Believe or not, I can legitimately justify and explain all but two of these events as not being my fault. Aside from one of the minor car accidents and the flat tire, each of these events happened to me through sheer bad luck, good old physics, or someone else’s driving choices. Whether I was to blame or not, that year (and having the financial situation of a working college student) scared me out of driving a car on a regular basis for the next four years. I hitched, I bussed, I biked, I walked, but I only drove from time to time when a car was available for me to borrow. When I had to buy a car after graduation college in order to get to my “grown-up” job, I held my breath and crossed my fingers that my luck would have somehow turned around.
Until Monday morning, I thought that perhaps it had.
If you read my last post, you know John and I were part of a little adventure to get his parents’ tires fixed this weekend. The roads around here are awful, so blown tires have been in fashion of late. Still, I know the route I drive well enough to avoid the potholes carefully, and with the extra ju-ju of having been part of a flat tire adventure, I hoped I would be safe from blown tires this season.
Monday morning, however, I left the school after glad-handing the parents of next year’s kindergarten class and got in my car only to notice as I pulled out of the parking lot that my steering was pulling hard to the right. Baffled, I pulled into the parking lot of the shopping center near the school and got out to find what was causing my car to drive so poorly. I hadn’t heard the tell-tale “ka-thump, ka-thump” of a flat tire, so I was surprised to see that my right front tire was looking like a melted ice cream cone.
I have had a flat tire before, as I said, but my solution was to call my father for help. Granted, I had to get a ride from a friend and wait until he could make the hour’s drive to rescue me the next day, but he was ultimately the solution to the problem after my friends and I (mostly my friends) failed to wrench the lug nuts from their posts. John’s parents have AAA and a fancy GPS that could look up phone numbers. I have neither. All of my previous experience with flat tires led me to one conclusion: I didn’t know what to do.
Feeling slightly panicked, I called John at work, and we decided that he would try to figure out if I could use his AAA card, or if not, the number of a towing company that could help me. In the meantime, my task was to figure out (1) if my car came with a donut and if so, (2) where to find it and (3) instructions from my car’s manual about how to put it on. I accomplished these first two and even the third without trouble, but unfortunately, there was a step in the middle that stopped me up: how to remove the car jack from its bracket.
My manual had instructions and a picture. It showed the jack resting happily next to the tire and said quite clearly, “Turn jack socket counterclockwise to remove jack.” The problem is that I had no idea what a “jack socket” might be,the picture was not labeled with anything like a helpful explanation, and nothing I could see looked like it could reasonably described as a “socket.” As I waited for John to call back, I huddled over my trunk in bewilderment, manual in hand, searching fruitlessly for some clue that would put the pieces together for me so I could get the jack out of the car.
I must have been standing like that for a good five or six minutes when an elderly gentleman came up to me, clearly a member of the Church of Waffles, and asked me if I needed help. I was so flustered at my inability to figure out something so simple that I just blurted out, “I can’t get the jack out of the trunk!”
He shook his head and gave me a small smile, then deftly grabbed the screw that held my donut in and stuck it in the bit of the jack where you stick the handle to expand or shrink it. I guess that was the socket, because sure enough, he turned the screw counterclockwise and the jack shrunk enough that he was able to take it out easily. It must have been clear to my kind rescuer that I was completely incompetent and not to be left alone with the job of changing a tire because he took over almost wordlessly as I followed him around to the blown tire, trying to be useful in some way. The center cap and the machine-tightened lug nuts almost defeated us, but he was a hobbyist mechanic who had a screwdriver and a long stick with a hole in it in his van.
My donut was completely flat too, but luck was with me in that I was just across the street from a gas station and I just happened to have exactly four quarters in my wallet. I pulled up to the air machine and got not only the air, but also a valuable lesson about how much of an idiot I am. As the air rushed out of the machine, I watched and worried as my donut refuse to take air. After my time had half run out, I realized that you have to hold down the release valve handle if you want the air to end up in the tire.
Yes, I know, I’m a genius. Such a genius, in fact, that I got back into my car without replacing the tire valve cap and didn’t realize it until I got home from work that night and pulled it out of my pocket…after I had driven the car half an hour to the dealer and then back ten minutes to John’s work to swap cars so he could drive back to the dealer with it once the tire came in. Fortunately, as John explained, the valves are engineered pretty well so that you can drive on them without losing air. The caps are just to keep gunk out of the valve and to prevent tiny ninjas for grappling onto the tire rim with rare earth magnets and sabotaging your ride.
Between the kindness of a stranger and the fact that John and I had the foresight to buy the road hazard tire warranty when we bought my car, we lucked out and got out of this little adventure without having to pay so much as a dime. And I am really, really hoping that I can put this streak of bad luck to rest…after the dealership fixes the door they damaged while they were changing the tire.