After re-reading this, I have to admit, it sounds really BORING! Maybe having a problem with a car IS boring—it happens, you fix it. But, boring or not, this is the way it happened. And somehow, almost 300 miles from home, WE fixed it.
“Do you think of life as an adventure?” I asked my wife, about 6AM last Sunday morning. We lay in bed, waiting for the dawn so we could finish replacing the alternator that, just as we got into Dallas, had expired in the Chrysler T&C van. We had only expected to be in Dallas for a few minutes on Saturday, just long enough to pick up an Olds van I’d bought, sight unseen, on Craig’s List and return to San Antonio.
But it was now Easter morning. We were lying there, contemplating the day in the guest bedroom at Bill’s house. I’ve written previously about my friend Bill Sloan, the author of maybe 60-70 books, the last 6 of which were on the WWII and Korean conflict. It started out to be a trilogy, he said, but his publisher coerced him into the next 3. So it was now a sex-ogy. Google or Amazon him, you’ll see. . (Hey, I even wrote a review of his “I Watched a Wild Hog Eat My Baby!” for Amazon! Did I like it? Whatda YOU think?)
He and I had graduated from Mesquite HS in 1952 and my wife and I had been close friends with him and his wife, Lana, also a gifted writer. When I do shows in Dallas, cheapskate that I am, I usually stay with Bill but this time, we were truly unexpected guests.
I’ve also written previously about my attraction for the 90-96 Pontiac Trans Sport/Olds Silhouette plastic minivans. As they say in the movies...."This chaos started when..." I noticed a ’94 Olds van on CL for $1200 and e-mailed the guy, asking for his bottom price. We’d dickered around for a week or so but finally had arrived on $600. It had most of the options so, assuming it ran at all, $600 didn’t sound bad. This was in December and the guy even offered to meet me halfway for free but I tried to con him into bringing it all the way to San Antonio. Again we dickered back and forth but, since he lived in Ft. Worth, finally just asked him to take it to Bill’s house, maybe 40-50 miles, and I’d pick it up when I did a show there.
NO problem. But he kept promising and promising and Bill finally became as frustrated as I, waiting for the guy. Calling him did no good, only texting seemed to work. I finally wrote him an e-mail and said the van or the money back. Then texted (Is that a word?) him to notify him of the e-mail. And wonder of wonders, he called Bill and took the van the next day.
That was about a week ago. And I’d decided to get the van when I did a gun show in Dallas next weekend. I’d have the girl who worked with me drive the Chrysler back to SA and I’d drive the Olds. But when I told my wife, (I’d kept it a ‘secret’ up to then!) she suggested getting the Olds on Easter weekend because she was off work through Monday. It would be a nice little jaunt. HA!!!
Before we left SA, I’d noticed a little hum in the alternator I hadn’t notice previously. But wasn’t worried because it came and went. I’d look into it after we got back.
Noooo problem until we were on I-20, the lower loop on the way to Bill’s home, near Mesquite. Suddenly the CD player stopped and the transmission began to only go in 2nd or 3rd gear. I turned off the AC and made it on the battery to within about 3 miles of Bill’s abode. But at a stop light it almost didn’t move so we coasted into the grassy parking lot of a church and stopped under a tree. The battery was so dead NOTHING worked.
Bill was expecting us but had said he might be out and about, around 3. Guess what time it was. No answer either at his home or his cell. At that point, I thought we were probably less than a mile to go so we decided to hoof it. It was a cool day and we had nothing else on our agenda. AND, after 4-5 blocks, what did we spot but an Auto Zone!
“Hey, let’s just buy an alternator there and install it under that tree. I’ve done it before so I know how. Gotta take off lotsa stuff but once you do it’s really pretty simple.”
My wife gave me one of those, “Oh, YEAH??” looks but acquiesced. We bought it and, because I was gonna do the work, she actually insisted on carrying all the way back to the car.
On the way back, I finally go hold of Bill, who’d been out watering the lawn. He made a round trip to the church and back to Sloan Manner to get the Olds. At least we’d have something to drive if we needed any other items of restoration.
The Olds started immediately (and idled at 3000rpm!) but also immediately I discovered that this van had all the maladies of most vans of that ilk—one broken outer door handle and 2 inoperable window motors. And of course, the AC, while it was of the front and rear variety, didn’t cool at all, although the fan did blow. That meant I’d be driving home in a van with NO AC and virtually no ventilation, since neither front window went down. And once it was underway, I learned it barely had enough power to get out of its own way. How that guy got it to Dallas was beyond me—maybe someone pushed him. But more than that, how was I gonna get it 275 miles back to SA?
Once the Olds got moving, I finally did make it back to the Chrysler and began the fun job of R&R’ing the alternator. Fortunately, I always carry my (what seems like) 150 lb. tool box plus we were under that big shade tree so it was pretty cool. Of course, as the day wore on, the shade shifted until finally, near sunset, Mr. Sun was doing a great job of barbecuing the right side of my face. By that time we’d managed to wrangle the old alternator off but that new one just refused to go on. I finally used the Olds to jump the Chrysler, charging the battery slightly and, sans alternator or belt, I drove it the 3 miles to Bill’s house.
Of course, without a belt, both the cooling system and the power steering were non-existent, so after a few blocks, the temp needle began to rise and turning that 2-ton brick was like turning the Titanic—under water! I didn’t want to use the lights so I drove as fast as possible and made it to Bill’s house in probably 2 minutes. My wife drove the Olds and later remarked that the power was like a gnat trying to push an elephant.
But we were finished for the day. The van had no alternator but at least we were in more friendly surroundings than that church. The pastor had stopped by late in the day, was friendly but cautious. We told him of our predicament, although it was obvious. Said we’d be gone in another half hour. I wished him a “Happy Easter”. He smiled and said, “Happy Resurrection.” (Was he talking about the Chrysler?) And went on his way.
Bill ordered Chinese, which my wife and I scarfed down like a couple of hungry hyenas. I tried to pay for it but Bill just wouldn’t have it. It was just about the best food we’d had all day. Except for breakfast at Mickey D’s, it was the ONLY food we’d had all day.
After supper, we were still sitting at the table when Bill said, “This probably won’t make you feel any batter, after the fun you’ve had all day but how would you like a copy of my latest book, “UNDEFEATED”? It’s the story of the battle of Bataan and Corregidor. I think it’s just about the best book I’ve ever written, especially the best one in the war series. It’s not gonna be out until the 24th but I have some Author’s copies. I’ll autograph one for you.”
I can tell you, after the terrible day we’d had up to that point, that touch of kindness from Bill just about brought a tear to my eye. We showered and went to bed, both of us asleep, almost when he hit the sheets.
Of course, we had brought NO change of clothes nor toilet articles and worst of all no GREASE remover. Bill’s soap had about as much power against grease as a match against a blizzard. So we put the same grungy clothes back on our mostly grungy bodies, mine MUCH grungier than hers--and attacked the van again.
But, try as I might, I could just flat NOT get that new alternator back in the slot where the old one came out. It wasn’t gonna happen. And trying to wrangle that 25 lb hunk of dead weight, while bent over the engine was not my idea of “a good time was had by all” either. Had I forgotten to remove some necessary something? Then it hit me. I had R&R’ed that old alternator a couple of years before and had actually read the Haynes manual at the time. In order to do the job correctly (Easily?), you have to remove the complete windshield wiper assembly!! (I think this van was designed by the same maniacal guy who’d designed the clutch/brake master cylinder location in the X1/9! You could only remove THAT mess from under the dash, while lying on your back, feet in the air, brake fluid dripping in your eyes, while cursing Italy!)
Removed that 30 lbs of WW wonderfulness and the alternator practically fell in. Bolted it in and now all we had to do was replace the serpentine belt. I’d decided, as long as it was off, why not put in a new one? Auto Zone had 3 types. Three year warrantee, 1 year warrantee and ZERO warrantee. I was surprised they didn’t have one where THEY paid me just to take it, but they didn’t. I asked the guy if the Zero Warrantee broke as soon as it was on, but he didn’t get it.
Trying to install that stiff cotton-picker was akin to trying fly to the moon in a kiddie car. Oh, there is a diagram right there on the radiator housing. Should be simple, right? NOT!! Ya gotta pull on the tensioner while attempting to keep the belt from falling off one or more of the lovely little wheels it’s wrapped around. And that tensioner had a stiffer spring than was humanly possible to compress without prayer and a good stiff pry bar. But with my wife’s help and Bill’s cheering from the sidelines, it was finally on.
We buttoned up everything, stuffed the tools back in the van, started the Chrysler and….it missed like a son-of-a-gun! The engine rocked like it wanted to escape. But we left anyway, miss and all.
But wouldn’t you know it? A few miles down the road, as we filled up with gas, it began to sprinkle. As we left the gas station, the clouds opened up and finally, rain POURED down in torrents. (We learned later Dallas had a flash flood warning!) I turned on the WW in the Olds and…they went to the edge of the windshield and stopped. I could see virtually nothing, then I hit a bump in the road and they went back to the center. Hit another bump and they began to actually WORK. For a while. The lack of power in the engine and the rain combined to make the start of my trip home at least INTERESTING if not HAIR-RAISING!!
One good thing, because of the rain, the rest of the traffic on I-20 was going as slowly as I was, so no problem…as long as I could hit bumps in the road, I’d be able to ACTUALLY see who I was gonna hit. If it hadn’t been so scary, it would have been kinda funny. You usually try to MISS bumps in the road. I was looking for ‘em! I learned early on that I couldn’t use the OD position in the trans. It slowed the engine down so much it would buck. So I drove the rest of the way in 3rd gear. (And actually got over 20 mpg!) But we weren’t home yet.
Shortly, my wife called from Chrysler Central. “This van is getting hot. What do I do? Oh wait, the needle just went down to normal. Never mind.” Click.
Oh, that was all I needed. Neither van was running properly and it was raining harder than Noah’s flood. A few minutes later, she called again. “It’s hot.”
“There’s a roadside park up ahead”, I said, “let’s stop and I you can look at it. If we need any water, we can get some.” Fortunately, I had a couple of jugs of water in the Chrysler from a bout with a previously leaky radiator. So I knew we’d be OK. Plus, there was no hurry to get home. Even if the rain was such that we stayed the night at a motel, we were at least ON our way.
I got in the passenger side of the Chrysler. “It’s not hot now”, said my wife. I wonder why it does that. And it only seems to do it when I go up hill.”
“Probably because the engine is running so rough. Just not enough power to pull this 2-ton hunk of s***, so the engine has to work harder and it gets hotter. Let’s look for the next place there is a motel and stay the night, once the rain let’s up a little. Then tomorrow, we can figure out the problem.” When the rain let up, we headed south and ran into it again. The next little burg was Italy and a sign said “Italy Hotel”. Turned out this was a glorified gas station with a Grandy’s and McDonalds on the 1st floor and a hotel on the 2nd floor. Didn’t matter what it was, this was our stop.
We dined elegantly on Grandy’s cuisine--chicken-fried chicken--and retired to our sumptuous boudoir to watch the weather report on the teley. It appeared the rain went all the way to SA, so stopping was probably the best thing we could have done under the circumstances. But the prediction was for clear on Monday.
I rarely watch TV so, after the weather, I read about 100 pages in Bill’s new book and was amazed to learn 1) Roosevelt promised the defenders of the Philippines reinforcements that never arrived (Were never SENT, actually.) 2) Gen. McArthur was ordered to Australia, even though he SAID he had wanted to stay and die with “his men” and 3) the Japs won. My eyes hurt but the book was so gripping, I wanted to read more. I fell asleep reading it.
Our room was clean, with 2 double beds and except for some unseen animal gnawing on my ankles in several places, I slept pretty well. And although the AC sounded like it was gonna explode any minute, that kept the noise of the cars outside hidden from my ears, so I slept. I’d checked the water in the Chrysler once the radiator had cooled. It was only a little low which made the overheating even more mystifying. The only think I could think, in my juggling of the alternator, I must have somehow mutilated the spark plug wires.
The next morning, we grabbed breakfast and left about 9:30. And the Chrysler’s overheating continued. We finally stopped in Temple at the 1st garage we could find, “Xtreme Automotive, Your Racing Specialist.” I explained the problem and the mechanic agreed with my “bad wire” diagnosis. “Come back in a couple of hours”, he said, “we’ll have it done.”
I had been driving the Olds with expired Florida plate and expired Oklahoma inspection sticker. (Figure THAT one out!) So as long as it rained, I wasn’t really worried about any law enforcement. I thought if I was stopped, it’s just show ‘em the title and papers and bamboozle my way through. But now that the weather was clear, I decided we needed to have the necessary papers. We called our insurance company, got insurance, had the papers e-mailed to me and downloaded them from the computer at Xtreme. Then we went to the CountyTax office and got the paper tag. We were actually legal, even if we NEVER made it home again!
But, our Xtreme guy called and said, “It’s done.” We went back and, wonder of wonders, it ran like it was supposed to. NO MISS!!
And I can honestly say, we came all the way home from there with ZERO problems. Oh, the Olds ran like it had a squirrel cage instead of an engine but there is a new toll road that goes around Austin and you can actually get BILLED for the toll. Never have to stop for a toll booth unless you want. It costs a little more but it saved fighting the mess thru the State Capital.
We buzzed on home to find the indoor cats acting like they didn’t even know us. They walked AWAY from us when we entered and had to be coaxed to even eat, although I KNOW they were hungry—after 3 days, wouldn’t YOU be? The outdoor neighborhood cats? They were climbing the glass door in the back and spilled through when we opened it. THEY WERE FAMISHED! But all the cats (and WE!) are now fed and things are pretty much back to normal.
I still have to figure out why the Olds acts like it’s running on 2 cylinders (Maybe it IS!) and order window motors and door handles and charge the AC and grease up the windshield wiper linkage and replace the struts on the rear door so it won’t eat me when I lean into the car from the back—just normal stuff.
But such is life. Maybe, as I asked my wife on Easter morning, it IS an adventure.
Oh..but HER answer to the question?
She answered, “Heck no. It’s a DISASTER!” Of course, she was kidding.
PS. Just received this email from Bill:
Glad to hear you and Lydia finally made it back to San Antonio. For a while there, it looked like your overnight trip was going to last a month. Next time you come, bring a change of clothes and let's do something remotely fun. We might even go someplace where they don't allow grease.