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.