We need a mom.

“101.8. You must be feeling pretty awful right now.” In all honesty, I was feeling a little better than I had been just half an hour earlier, and pretty good in general, considering the circumstances.

Half an hour earlier my wife, Jean, and I got into the car as she drove me about 10 minutes to see my physician. Although it doesn’t seem to be, that last sentence is a little loaded. Jean had suggested that I drive down to my appointment while she went to pick up supplies for home. I said, “No. Could you drive me?” That is pretty unusual – I can only think of a few times when I was in my car not as the driver. All the times in recent memory involved driving practice with my daughters. However, I felt that even the short drive to the doctor’s was too risky – when I lay down I coughed incessantly, when I stood up, I felt dizzy. Too sick to drive.

We took Jean’s car, Stormcloud(1), since that is the one she is more comfortable driving. But not today. Today, she was very uncomfortable, primarily because the heater was not working – at all. As the drizzle turned to sleet, the windshield fogged up, and Jean’s hands started to freeze on the wheel. We closed the vents to keep the cold air out, but there was no warmth to be found anywhere. Except. Except under the hood of the car. About a half mile from our destination, Jean said, “The temperature gauge is higher than it’s ever been in Stormcloud’s life!” I thought maybe we could make to the doctor’s, but no – we pulled into a gas station about a tenth of a mile short of the office.

The overheating engine was a little surprising, but not totally. Two days earlier, the “check battery” light went on when Jean took a client to the gym. I had the day off, so we swapped cars, and I took Stormcloud to the garage. His water pump had seized, shredding a belt, which dangled from his undercarriage, and draining the cooling system. Two hours and five hundred dollars later, we were on our way again. Given that past repair, and the current behavior of the heater, I thought there may be a bubble in the coolant lines. That, ultimately, turned out to be that case. But we’re not there yet. Right now, I am walking the rest of the way to the doctor’s office, in the sleet, while Jean is entering the gas station convenience store to call the garage.

So, by the time the nurse said, “You must be feeling pretty awful right now,” I wasn’t. I was glad to be in a warm office, sitting down, and out of the sleet and wind. About ten minutes later, the doctor told me I had the flu (Type A), prescribed some meds, and sent me on my way. I thought I’d have to walk all the way back to the gas station, but when I got back to the waiting room, Jean was already there. She had called the garage, which was about to close (it was close to 5pm), and they said they could look at Stormcloud in the morning. Right now, we needed to have the car towed – we didn’t want to risk overheating the engine and damaging it. Fortunately, we belong to AAA. We called and requested service – they said would be no more than 45 minutes. I quickly googled the hours of the doctor’s office – open until 7pm. Awesome, at least we had a warm, dry spot to sit and wait for the truck.

Only, no. The same nice nurse that was so sympathetic to my plight came into the waiting room and said that the office was closing, and they needed to lock the doors. Crap. Back out into the damp and sleet and wind, and back to the gas station to stand around until the truck arrived.

As newlyweds, Jean and I made a vow to each other nearly a quarter century ago, and we were just about to break it for the first time. That vow stemmed from an incident back in early 1993 that we promised never to repeat. We’ve kept that promise through thick and thin, in sickness and in health, but now we were face to face with a calamity: in sickness and in sickness. Back in 1993, Jean was pregnant with Jennie, and we both came down with sinus infections simultaneously. I distinctly remember sitting on the couch, unable to breath except through my mouth, shivering, with quilts wrapped around me, looking over at Jean in the same perilous condition. We couldn’t even climb the stairs to our bedrooms, much less cook and feed ourselves. As we looked at each other, we both said, “We need a mom.” Since that day, we vowed never to be sick at the same time, and we kept that promise until this moment.

Jean woke up this morning coughing, just as I had 24 hours earlier. She didn’t have a fever yet, so she couldn’t be diagnosed with the flu. Still, our fate seemed inevitable: two sick partners in need of a mom, only none was available. My mom was 400 miles away, coming down with the flu herself, no doubt as a result of my visit the weekend before, and Jean’s mom had passed away at the end of last year.

We hung out in the gas station convenience store for about 40 minutes, festooned in our surgical masks, coughing, wheezing, and constantly checking the AAA website to see how long until the truck arrived (they have a real-time web site for that). Eventually it came (10 minutes early – yay!), and the mechanic checked for coolant in the radiator – there was none. I had checked earlier and come to the same conclusion. He also checked for things that could be fixed easily, like a loose or missing clamps, so he could repair it and get us on our way, but to no avail. He cleared off the passenger seat in the cab of his flatbed, and invited us to stay in there while he loaded the car. It was warm and we could finally sit down again, so we climbed in.

At this point, we had considered, but not solved, the problem of how we would get home from the garage. We asked if he could stop by our house so one of us could bring our other car (“Boxy”), but “we don’t usually do things like that”. OK, plan B. Take a cab? Is the number 666-6666 or 777-7777 or 888-8888? I can never remember. Maybe it’s 222-2222. As it turns out, 6, 7, and 2 all work, but how long until they get there? We had only a 15 minute drive before we were at the garage. It actually took us 16 minutes, having been delayed by a Wesleyan student wearing dark clothing crossing in front of us without the benefit of a crosswalk, looking before they crossed, or common sense. Years ago, Jean and I used to call Wes kids “The Immortals” for exactly this reason. I mentioned this to our driver, and discovered that the mechanic had a similar disdain for their judgement, “the common sense of a pickle”. I’ll just say that we had different ideas about the cause of that lack of common sense, and leave it at that.

Jean, fortunately, had the common sense to call our neighbor Collen, and ask her for a ride. In spite of the fact that she had already changed into her pajamas and settled into her warm house on an increasingly chilly night, Colleen came and picked us up and brought us home. Yay, Colleen! Once we got home, Jean turned right around and went to pick up my meds. I took the first dose and hit the sack.

When Jean woke up this morning, the grippe had her in its grip: 102.3. Mercifully, my meds worked their magic overnight, and I was able to take over as “mom”. Is there a lesson I can take from this? Possibly. Maybe sometimes it’s useful to overlook minor transgressions, after all we did technically break our promise to each other, all the time keeping in mind the long term, because twenty-five years ain’t nothing.

(1) We name all our vehicles, including rentals. My thinking is, if something may have to give up its life to save yours, shouldn’t you at least know its name?


License tags

Changing license tags in reality is never as easy as it is in theory. In theory, you go out, pop out a couple of bolts, switch the plates, and pop the bolts back in, and go home. Easy peasy.
Today was the day to say goodbye to 920-HLV, which I’ve held for almost 30 years, and say hello to SCALLOP, a reference to Jean’s misspent youth on, and love affair with, Nantucket.
I’ve delayed this job as long as possible. I’m a quick learner (sometimes), and I learned my lesson about DIY car repairs on March 20, 2003. I was pulled that evening over by a Madison police officer for having a headlight out. Fortunately, I was able to escape the ticket by showing him the replacement lamp I had with me, and promising to change it when I got where I was going. True to my word, as soon as we arrived at Jean’s mom’s house, I proceeded to remedy the situation. I remember that it was about 33 degrees, pitch dark, and raining. The driveway was icy and slippery, and Jean was holding a flashlight on my work and an umbrella over my head. I was grateful for this, but in my stooped position, the whole setup simply caused cold water to pour off the umbrella onto my back, run into my pants, and ultimately to dribble down my leg into my shoe. Further, it is a universally known fact that flashlights never shine on the place you want them to, because what you really want is for the light to come out of your eyes – nothing else will suffice. As I strained that night to remove the snuffed lantern, my hand slipped again and again, battering itself against some cold, unseeable, jaggy protrusion. Why are all headlights so cleverly designed so that you can discover how to remove them easily only after you’ve ribboned your skin and broken several irreplaceable parts? After many mumbled cuss words, I finished up and we went inside to warm up and witness the first flashes of shock and awe in Baghdad.
Today at least promised warmer temperatures, daylight, and only a 46% chance of rain. I grabbed the new plates and headed out. I took a look at the two metal bolts holding the front plate on – Phillips head. I opened the garage door, grabbed a screwdriver out of my toolbox, and in about 2 minutes had the front plate replaced. Awesome. Then I headed around back. I looked at the bolts holding that plate on: they were white(ish), plastic and flat headed. I should’ve stopped there, declared victory and gone home, but for some reason, the State of Connecticut frowns on having two different license plates on your car, so I pressed on.
I went back to my toolbox and grabbed a new screwdriver. Yesterday at school we played “Human Bingo” as a bonding activity (find people who match descriptions on your bingo card until you get enough to declare victory and go home). One of the boxes on my card was “Is a collector”. I briskly answered no when someone asked me that, but my reply was untrue – I collect tools, all kinds of tools: hardware, software, whatever. Tools I don’t have, I make. That’s why I like computer programming. I’ve made some really awesome tools. Consequently, I have a tool for just about everything, or can make one.
I set about unscrewing the first bolt; it was one of those nylon ones that won’t rust into place. A handy touch for a license plate holder. With no more than moderate effort, I was able to pop the head right off that bolt, leaving the rest of the bolt embedded in the hatch back. Side glance.
Ok, ok, a minor set back. I’ll just be more cautious with the other one. I carefully set the screwdriver in place, gently turned it, and POP, off flew half the head. Yes, half. Side glance. Luckily for me, I have tools to deal with these nuisances. In this case, I grabbed my locking pliers (vise grips). I have often thought that if I had only two tools in the world, they would be vise grips and a hammer. You could do a lot with just those two things.
I seated the pliers onto the remaining bolt head, and in a matter of seconds had cleanly removed that too, efficiently removing the plate and leaving behind two partial nylon bolts inaccessibly buried just below the surface of the car.
The car had no back license plate at this point, and I could sense the brow of Connecticut furrowing even deeper, so I couldn’t stop there. I knew, at a minimum, I needed new bolts at this point, so I headed to the local auto parts place where I was also able to pick up a screw extractor to help me get those dang pieces out.
As I drove up the final hill as I headed home, I noticed a splat on the windshield. Then a second, and a third. Dang. Rain. It wasn’t raining too hard when I got back to work, so I grabbed my electric drill and pre-drilled 5/32” holes in the lodged bolts, allowing the extractor to do its work. The drill easily passed through the nylon, so I was done in a jiffy. I held the extractor (it looks like a funky screw) in my vise grips and proceeded to extract the first bolt. I discovered that the extractor (which is made to extract metal bolts) works very efficiently as a drill when used on nylon, and soon found myself with two bolts perforated with larger holes, but still stuck in the car. Side glance. The rain was starting to pick up, as my neighbors helpfully pointed out, walking by and curious about what I was doing to my car in the rain.
What I needed now was a new tool, capable of removing the rest of the nylon bolts without damaging the metal bolt threads which were manufactured into the car. I am a tool maker. That’s what separates me from the apes. Though I do like a banana. (Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.) I cleverly took my vise grips and grabbed a larger drill bit and hand drilled larger holes in the bolts. A good plan, except for the fact that it didn’t work, so I grabbed the next bit size up and hand drilled again. This time I met with success – the last remnants of the nylon bolts wedged themselves onto the drill bit, and I was able to pull them out. Whew. See, I told you I had something the apes don’t have. As soon as I figure out what it is, I’ll let you know.
I was in the final phase now – all I needed to do was put the new nylon bolts in to secure the plates on the car. I grabbed my Phillips head and made short work of the first one. By short work, I mean I got it about half way in and turned it slightly, ever so slightly, harder to finish the job, and the head popped right off the bolt. Really?!?! Side glance. I was really careful with the second one, and got that one in OK. Now back to the first one. I tried to unscrew the remaining piece of bolt with my vise grips, but it broke off below the surface. Side glance. At this point I noticed that I always glance off to the right. Interesting.
By this time, I had become a pro at drilling out nylon bolts, so I had the third one out in no time. I also cleverly realized that I could open the hatchback to keep me dry in the rain. Score one for me. Patriotism may be the last refuge of the scoundrel, but setting aside tools is the last refuge of the uber-ape, and that’s where I headed. I hand screwed that last bolt in as far as I could, then barely tightened it with the screwdriver. I hope it holds. I’m declaring victory and going home.