Aug. 13--When the summer started, my boyfriend, Noah, and I had three cars at our disposal: a 2003 Volkswagen station wagon, a 1996 Honda Civic and a 1993 Ford F-150 with over 250,000 miles. If they'd been combined, they would have made one pretty good car: the power and smooth transmission of the Volkswagen, the reliability of the Honda and the sheer indestructibility of the Ford.
Unfortunately for us, though, a car is a bit like a family member: you don't get to pick out the best bits you like and discard the rest. You get the whole thing.
For a while, things were going smoothly. I drove the Volkswagen every day -- or the Vogelwagen, as I liked to call it -- averaging between 60 and 90 miles between my Richmond-Petersburg commute and whatever trips I had to make to Hopewell and Dinwiddie to cover my beat. Life was good. The Vogelwagen got good gas mileage, it accelerated on the highway like an athlete just let out of the gate and it shifted gears so smoothly that even driving in the stop-and-go of downtown Petersburg was a pleasure.
Then they started: the warning sensors. Whoever designed the Volkswagens of the early 2000s was deep in a love affair with bells and lights. Not enough windshield fluid? Loud beep whenever the car was started and an aggressive message. Low coolant? Louder beep, more aggressive message. Oil pressure low? STOP, YOU ARE ENDANGERING EVERYTHING DEAR TO YOU.
The last sensor became such a constant presence in my life that I started to feel like I was always carrying a passenger with me when I drove, one whose conversation was composed entirely of ominous warnings about my future. By the time a second mechanic told me the truth, I was resigned to my fate.
The problem, it turned out, stemmed from a chronic oil sludge problem that had afflicted a few years of Volkswagens to such an extent that their drivers won a class-action suit against the company. I, unfortunately, didn't have full documentation of having changed the oil every 5,000 miles on the dot, so no class action rewards for me. Auf Wiedersehen, Vogelwagen.
At this point, the Honda and the Ford were still holding on, although the Honda had lost a side mirror in a freak hit and run and subsequently failed inspection because of a small leak in the fuel tank. Passing inspection was an impossibility until both were fixed.
Luckily, Noah is the son of a father from New England and is thus genetically predisposed to believe that the best way to do anything is to do it oneself. Any unexpected developments -- the sudden crumbling of a part, say, or the sound of silence when something ought to start running -- are met with a long stare followed by, "Huh, that's interesting," or "Well, all right, then."
While the mirror problem got fixed, I took the Ford. I hadn't driven such a big vehicle since I was a doughnut delivery girl driving a van full of pastries, and it took some getting used to. There was a nice view from the high bench seat, and the engine did make a satisfyingly loud noise. Too, people were more deferential about letting me change lanes on I-95.
The rest, though, left something to be desired. Noah had bought the truck at an impound auction in Texas, and during an early attempt to get rid of a peculiar smell pervading the cab, he had removed all of the interior padding. More critically, there was no air conditioning -- and it was Virginia in July. I resigned myself to wearing the same series of sundresses on repeat.
Once the mirror was re-affixed, we switched cars again, and I got the Honda, which I now considered quite cushy because it was air conditioned and the radio console actually showed the numbers of the station you were listening to. Noah set to work installing AC in the Ford, and one Tuesday I left the office with plans of making him a really nice dinner as a way of showing my appreciation for all his part-time mechanic work. I was running through the list of ingredients in my mind as I got into the Honda at 6 p.m. and turned the ignition.
Nothing happened. Huh. That was interesting.
Instead of me going home, Noah came down to The Progress-Index. Two hours and one borrowed Leatherman from a kind pressroom employee revealed that the tiny part that connects the clutch pedal to the starter had fallen out. Connecting jumper cables from the starter to the engine finally produced the sweet hum of a working vehicle. We got takeout sandwiches on the way home.
Another weekend of mechanical labor by Noah got us within spitting distance of having two working cars again. The repaired fuel tank was re-installed in the Honda, waiting for some final steps to secure it in place before the car could be re-inspected. I was looking forward to the weekend and a bit of peace as I drove the Ford, now tepidly air-conditioned, into work.
As I approached Woods Edge Road, the engine started to make an unusual knocking noise. By the time I hit the first exit ramp, the din had gotten so loud it sounded like someone was under the hood with a hammer.
I made it as far as the Ruffin Mill overpass and called Noah. He drove down in the crippled Volkswagen, looked under the hood, listened to the terrible clanging and called a tow truck. Then we sat on the broad bench seat and watched the other cars passing us on the interstate. They went so fast, and their drivers looked so carefree.
After a few minutes Noah picked up the well-thumbed Ford manual and then Googled "how to unseize a Ford F-150 engine" on his phone. By the time the tow truck driver dropped him and the truck off at home, he already had a few ideas about how to get it running again.
As for me, I'm still mulling over a suggestion a friend sent me as I sat under the overpass. "Maybe you should get a horse," she wrote. It's not such a bad idea.
--Sarah Vogelsong is a reporter for The Progress-Index, covering the city of Hopewell and Dinwiddie County. She may be reached at [email protected] or 804-722-5154.
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