Dinked

He’s right on my ass. I can’t even see his front plate. I think, “I need to get out of his way.” So I turn right and there is an appalling scraping sound from the passenger side of the car. The Wife cringes visibly.

I pull over and step out to survey the damage. Yep. It’s a dink alright. First dink on this car. Now I’m pissed. Why is it always parking lots that I can’t find my way around in? The Wife says “you need to learn to stop letting other people pressure you into doing things” and promptly motions for me to move back out into traffic. The Wife can be an iron sometimes.

This takes me all the way back. Back to the driver’s education instructor who forced me to drive at highway speeds by putting his foot on the accelerator and pressing it until we were weaving all over the road at 60 miles an hour. All he had to say was “keep it between the lines.” That was my first moment of sheer driving terror.

Then there was my first auto accident. I had my learner’s permit. I drove Mom up to Village foods and parked badly next to a nice tan Oldsmobile. Mom said “I’ll leave you here but don’t move the car without me. I’ll be right back.”

No sooner had Mom gone into the store than the woman who owned the Olds came out and surveyed my parking job. “You have to move so I can leave” she tells me.

I repeat what Mom said “I can’t move till my Mom comes back.” When she insists I have to move or she can’t leave I further explain “I only have a learner’s permit. I can’t drive without an adult in the car.” She becomes outraged at that point. Red in the face, hollerin’ and screamin’ like I had insulted her cat or something.

“You will move that car right now young man!”

So I put the car in gear, turned the wheel and promptly gouged a crease in her Olds that probably looked a lot like the one that sank the Titanic. Then she started crying and ran into the store to call the police. Mom came out at about that point and gaped at me.

“I told you not to move! I said I would be right back, and here I am! Why did you move?” and she started crying. Then I started crying. I never could stand to watch her cry.

That was the first and last time I drove on my parent’s insurance. From that point forward I paid the usurious insurance fees that the Texas State legislature allows auto insurers to charged young men under the age of 25, and I paid that rate until I turned 25.

As I’m sitting here thinking about what insurance has cost me over the subsequent forty years, I start thinking about the dollar figure attached to my driving record in the form of the number of incidents that I’ve had over the same number of years. Doing some comparative arithmetic, I’m not sure if it is the insurance companies or the accidents that are winning.

I mean, there was that first one with the Oldsmobile. The next one was in the 1970 Challenger that Dad bought for me in 1979. Me and a guy played footsie at a green light, me going straight and him turning left, neither of us sure who was going to go until we smacked into each other. My brother did a somersault in the backseat. The Challenger never had seat belts. If it did have seat belts when it came off the assembly line, the previous owner took them out when he put in the purple and white shag carpeting on the floor.

She was a beauty that Challenger. Slant six. Metallic purple paint with a white fake leather roof. White leather interior. That scoop-shaped front end that looks like it has severed heads written all over its future. She didn’t look too good after I rolled her a few months later, though. I should have got those brakes fixed before taking her on those Kansas dirt roads. Turn here, oops, into the ditch and onto her roof. I think she ended life as parts for other cars. I just know Dad was as pissed as I had ever seen him, and I had to buy the next car myself. From him.

She was also a beauty. Burnt orange 1972 Chevelle. Black leather interior. She was hot. I mean, really hot in those 110° Texas summer. You rolled the windows down before you got in the car. Someone sideswiped her and ran off a few days after I bought her. A few scratches was all that incident left. Never even told the insurance company about that one.

Then there was that time a girl smoked her tires off in reverse and smashed the back of her Mom’s station wagon into the front of that Chevelle. The front bumper on the Chevelle was pointed, and it rode up into the back of her car like the prow of a ship slicing through water. I was never able to put a front plate on that car again because of that accident. The plate holder was the only thing damaged on my car. The station wagon’s back gate was trashed. Nothing a few thousand dollar wouldn’t fix.

The girl cried and cried when we pulled over. I told her not to worry. “Just go home and explain it to your Mom. It’ll be okay.” I was probably lying. She thanked me for not calling the cops. It was the first time someone begged me not to call the cops, but it wasn’t the last.

The Chevelle ended her time on the road on Halloween night, 1981. I should have snuck into the theater with my cruising buddies that night but I hate horror films and so refused to go with them. Instead I went out and skirted past an orange light about two blocks away from the theater. On the other side of the light was a guy tooling around with six people in his pickup truck, and he had just gotten plastered with water balloons, a time-honored Halloween tradition. He decided right then, as I was coming at him through the light, that he would pull a U-turn and chase the offenders back across town. He never made it.

I tried to swerve, but I was going to fast. He never saw me. Luckily there was only one injury, not counting the knees that I punched through my dashboard and never reported. Should have reported. Some girl in the passenger seat of the truck hit her head on the glovebox handle and got a concussion. They blamed the wreck on me and not the guy making an illegal U-turn because he claimed he was only going to pull into the parking loot across the street. The parking lot didn’t happen to have an opening where he was turning though. The judge ignored that fact when he made his decision.

The Chevelle was totaled and sat on the driveway of our rental house until the day we moved out. I bought a junker off of someone in the neighborhood, I think it was one of the regulars at Mom’s bar. I really can’t remember. 1970 Pontiac Executive. A four-door behemoth we called the Tank. It just needed to be painted green instead of gold and have stars painted on the side and it would have looked just like a tank.

It came to us pre-dinked, and it’s the only car up to that point that I owned that I didn’t wreck. Instead I beat the dents it already had back out with a hammer and I salvaged parts out of the junk yard next door to make the headlights point the right direction. I drove it for years before I handed it off to my sisters.

I bought a 1974 Vega next, the last car I bought from my father. It was not hot, but it was fun to drive. Fun to drive until the engine crapped out. I was on a roll. Two cars, no wrecks! Then I bought the Pinto. 1974 lime green Pinto. I got stoned one night and spray-painted it camouflage. When I mentioned this fact to strangers they’d always remember seeing that car. I guess the camouflage didn’t work. I stripped out all the interior except for the seats and then drove it that way for years. I was rear-ended twice in that Pinto. It never exploded, thank the lucky stars. It died because the U-joint in the drive train was compressed by the last rear-ender, and that caused the joint to fail.

I had met the Wife by that point. We sold that Pinto for fifty bucks to a salvage yard, and we promptly went out and ate fifty dollars worth of Chinese food. The best Pinto we ever ate.

It was at about that time that I bought my first new car. 1987 Cavalier. Gold, just like the Executive. I didn’t hold that against it. I financed that car for 5k and considered it a steal at that, even though it didn’t have air conditioning. That car ate a tree stump on the driver’s side front fender. I backed into a bollard in a convenience store parking lot once or twice. Who’s counting? I hauled the sailboat around with that poor little four-cylindered car for years. Luckily it was a pretty dinky sailboat. Fast in the water, though.

We were rear-ended by a truck when we first moved to Austin. That guy also begged us not to go to the police, and then he crawfished on paying us. We ran across his truck in a parking lot a few months later and we took pictures of the paint from our car that was all over his bumper. When we confronted him with the photos, he paid us the money right on the spot. That’s about the only time justice has been done in my presence, automotive-wise.

We got our first Saturn wagon not too long after that. Another gold car. We needed air conditioning in Austin. The first time we were caught in traffic with a baby in the backseat squalling in 100° temperatures, we knew we needed air conditioning. My father-in-law paid cash for the car. I’d never seen that before. That car didn’t live very long, either.

There was a couple from Denver who were touring the sites off of route 29 in the Hill Country. They were stopped at a stop sign. The husband, who had his hands on the wheel, wanted to turn left. So he started to turn left. His wife, side-seat driving, insisted he go right. So they stopped in front of oncoming traffic to argue about which direction they should go. They never got to finish that argument.

It is a handy rule of thumb to remember that the car goes where the person with the wheel in their hand steers it. It doesn’t go where the passenger wants it to go, and it doesn’t go where those in the peanut gallery behind the driver want it to go. It goes where the driver tells it to go. Maybe agree on a route before you start driving? There’s a thought.

When he stopped in front of me, I couldn’t believe it. There was an eighteen wheeler beside me on the inside lane and cars behind me. There was no way any of us were going to miss that guy’s car. I remember his eyes as he saw us coming. Whites all around. I couldn’t miss him, but I could try not to kill him, so I swerved towards the back of his car and impacted on the rear axle and not center-punch his door at sixty-five miles an hour. Small mercies.

He spun around from the force of the impact on the rear of his car, and the other vehicles managed to avoid him. We hit the center median of the side road he left, and then flew over the lanes he should have been in if he wanted to argue safely, impacting and bouncing over the three foot embankment on the far side of the crossroad. That’s where we left the front bumper of our car. Planted on that dirt embankment. At some point between the first impact and the last, the Wife asks in a plaintive voice “can we please stop hitting things?” I was too busy to answer.

When we were finally able to move, after the powdery fog from the expanded air bags had finally started to settle, we both managed to get out of the car to survey the wreckage. Much more than a dink, this accident. The two plastic front fenders were sticking out a ridiculous distance past what was now the front of the car. Our poor new Saturn wouldn’t be going anywhere aside from the wrecking yard after that.

The Wife got out her laptop that she had carefully packaged against just such an eventuality as the one we had just gone through, and started taking down insurance information from the people whose lives we had just spared. She turned to me after a few minutes and asked me “should I be able to feel my fingers right now?” We put her in the ambulance a few minutes later.

The one time you will ever be happy to see a cop will be the time he shows up to pick up the pieces of a wreck like this one. I could have hugged the guy when I saw him. He drove me to the regional hospital where they had taken the Wife, and we hitched a ride back to town with friends from our fan group who lived out that way.

That was the worst wreck I’d been in up to that point, and it was pretty much the last one, too. I gave up driving as the bad idea I had always thought it was, and I let the Mario Andretti wannabe that I married drive instead. She’s better at it anyway. She’s only wrecked one car, and that one was entirely not her fault. It’s also another story. She can tell it if she likes some other time.

I gave up driving until this summer. Nearly twenty years accident-free, and now I’m back to driving. I’m back to driving because the doctor’s won’t let you drive if you’ve recently had open-heart surgery. The Andretti-ette has been dragged from the car against her will because her chest might collapse in the event of an accident. I think she’d be safer if she was driving. Now I’ve got to go find some rubbing compound and some touch-up paint and see if I can make the new dink in our car appear to go away.

I hate driving. It’s taken me years to realize this fact. I’ve always hated driving. I love cars but I hate driving. The cars have always been worth ten times what I would be comfortable risking on any given day, and risk is what every single outing in a car is all about. Every single long-distance trip in a car was a test of nerve, a right of passage, a moment of transition. Before each trip, I would lovingly bath the car inside and out and anoint it with oils so that the gods of the roadway would bless the venture out into unknown danger. Nearly every long distance trip has gone by without a hitch. Every one except that one with our first Saturn.

It’s the little stuff that gets you. Parking lots. Entering and exiting your own driveway. You know them too well, you aren’t on your guard; and whack, another dink to polish out. It’s the way the car crumples, I guess.

When Squirrels Attack

It was two days before Christmas. December 23, 2020. The Wife went out to run errands like she does pretty much every day. I can’t convince her to stay home, not even with contagion everywhere around us. Nope, she has to go out and do things or her day is wasted. I’m awake, which is unusual for me this early in the day. We had been out early the day before, which meant I slept early the night before, and it was going to be awhile before I could slouch my way back into sleeping well into the afternoon and pretending to be annoyed about it.

She called me from the road. “There is something wrong with the car. There are lights on all over the dash and the transmission isn’t shifting properly. I think I better bring it back home.”

I told her to be careful and then I poured myself a cup of hot tea and stood inside the front door waiting for the car to reappear over the hill in front of the house.

When it finally did reappear it was definitely limping and she barely managed to get the car up the driveway. I motioned for her to pop the hood and it only took a few minutes of inspection to reveal what the problem was. The wiring harness was visibly chewed right at the point where it plugged into the engine manifold.

We had experienced a version of this problem before. A few years previously the Daughter had left the Leaf out on the back driveway and something had gotten into the engine compartment and made a nest right behind the driver’s side headlight. She just thought the headlight was out and bought a replacement bulb, but when we opened the hood and looked at where the wires went into the back of the headlight, there were no wires. There was only a nest made of some kind of chewed fabric that we couldn’t identify but hoped wasn’t also from inside the vehicle, and the stubs of wires sticking up out of the the place where they merged with the rest of the wiring harness.

I had never heard of creatures nesting in cars before, but when we took the Leaf to be estimated and fixed, the mechanic said “Oh, yeah. We see that pretty regularly.” Little did we know that we were leaving the new Nissan Versa to be vandalized by the same rodent that had struck the Leaf the day before. We parked the other car in the same spot on the driveway, and while we were gone the saboteur came back, and, apparently mistaking one vehicle for another vehicle parked in the same place, proceeded to make an identical nest in the same place in the Versa.

We must have interrupted her, because the nest wasn’t finished when we checked why that car’s headlight was also out. The Versa was still under warranty at the time, so we played stupid and just took the car in complaining about the headlight, and we let them fix the wiring that the rodent had chewed in that car, without ever asking about who was paying for it. As it turned out, they paid for it. We made a point of never parking cars on that driveway again. We instead parked on the front driveway, since this lot has the rare attribute of two curb cuts and driveways onto the property. We parked on the front driveway because it was more open and less prone to rodent traffic.

Or so we thought.

As we stood there looking at the damaged wiring harness, I knew that we were facing the same enemy. The varmint had struck again, crippling our mobility and probably costing us thousands of dollars.

I called the insurance company. Two days before Christmas, in the time of COVID, meant that I didn’t get a live person for quite awhile. When I did they were less than helpful about the problem. I had already logged onto our insurer’s website to try and start the claims process, but neither avenue was giving me the options that I wanted. Finally I just called Nissan and had them come tow the vehicle to the dealer’s shop so that Nissan could get started estimating the damage while I took the necessary time to argue with my insurer.

The Wife hitched a ride to a car rental place and secured replacement transportation. We were going to be without a vehicle for quite some time. I don’t think we understood how long, but we knew we wouldn’t be getting the Versa back until well after New Years. We’d be lucky to even get the car inspected and an estimate on repairs before New Years Day.

As it turns out, I never saw that Nissan Versa again. When Nissan finally got us an estimate for the repair, the price stated was more than what the car was worth. My insurance company insisted they could get the repair done for less money, and then fumbled about for weeks trying to find a place that would give them a lower figure, only managing to find a shop in their network that was hamstrung by deals with Nissan that required them to duplicate estimates that Nissan shops offer.

The price to replace both damaged harnesses was about $14,000.00. This was only slightly less than the car cost when it rolled off the dealership lot, straight off the delivery truck with 24 miles on the odometer. Mind you, they would have had to pull the drive assembly to replace one of the harnesses, which required a full shop and several days work to complete, but that just tells me the car was worth a lot more than they charged me to drive it off the lot in the first place. If the two harnesses installed was $14,000.oo, how much were the seats worth? 50¢? The body must have only been worth $100. What an unmitigated crock of shit! Is what I thought.

It is entirely possible that every car on the market in the United States is rolling rodent buffet in waiting. The manufacturers have to roll out these new harnesses for years after the cars are delivered:

Some believe the culprit could be modern car wiring or, more specifically, the soy-based insulation used to wrap it. This insulation can be an irresistible treat for rats, mice, squirrels, and even rabbits. The issue has become so widespread that several class-action lawsuits have been levied at automakers, with some of the highest-profile cases involving Honda and Toyota.

caranddriver.com
I miss this car.

So here we are. Versa totaled. Totaled because of squirrels. Driving a rental car. Looking for another car to replace the car that we both thought would be the last gasoline vehicle we would purchase, just two years after we purchased it. This is not how we normally change vehicles. Normally, we buy a car and it stays with us like a member of the family. We grow old together, gain scars together, etcetera. Our cars stay with us for at least a decade, generally. The green Saturn wagon we special ordered has been the only other car we’ve owned that we didn’t hang onto until the bitter end, and we traded that one in for a bigger Saturn sedan that we hung onto until there wasn’t an automotive brand called Saturn anymore.

This hurt. It hurt financially, because the car had depreciated by over half its value since we had bought it, and that came out of our almost empty pockets. It hurt physically, a gaping hole in our lives in the form of a car we had just come to accept as a replacement for the Rav4 that had eaten it’s own transmission two years previously (another car that we drove for nearly a decade. It’s even in a movie) now taken from us by a squirrel. A SQUIRREL for fucks sake! Not a deer or a cow or some unavoidably tragic accident involving an 18 wheeler and a greased roadway. A fucking rodent the size of a football killed our car.

How do I know how big it was? Because The Wife found the bitch. Under the hood of the rental car. In a McDonald’s parking lot. The Wife was just driving along, getting her morning cup of iced tea, and the dash lights started flashing again just like in the Versa before it died. So she jumped out, popped the hood, and the squirrel and The Wife stared at each other in surprise.

The squirrel decided it was time to beat a hasty retreat. The Wife said “Oh no you don’t” and grabbed it by the scruff of the neck and flung it as far as she could make it fly. Which was about the distance between the McDonald’s and the neighboring auto repair shop. Which is where the squirrel landed. In the towing yard of an auto repair shop.

She had taken the wire-eating monster away from it’s morning snack, and flung it square into the middle of a smorgasbord of automotive harnesses. Which is probably where it still is to this day. Eating wiring harnesses to its heart’s content. Unless the mechanics found it. I personally hope they did. The pelt would make a nice hat, I bet.

The Wife nonchalantly whistled her way onto the rental company’s nearest yard and pretended to not know why the dash lights were all flashing red on her rental car’s dashboard. “Can I have another car, please?” and proceeded on her quest to find and buy a replacement vehicle. One that would now probably be safe from wire-eating varmints, unless there were two of them near the house. The other one was not coming back over the distance she had taken it.

We ended up at First Texas Honda where we bought a used Honda Fit in February, almost two months after having the Versa chewed to death on our own driveway. The insurer paid for the rental, at least. It’s too bad we didn’t have insurance that replaced the car. We fixed that this time. Having a car destroyed like that, costing us about $10k in the process, with no visible sign of harm, seems almost unreal. But that is what happens when squirrels attack.

Postscript

I scare the Honda Fit. It doesn’t like the way I drive. No one likes the way I drive. It talks back to me. Flashing me messages. Sounding alarms. pulling on the wheel or activating the brakes. Slow down! Not so close! Brake. Brake! BRAKE! It’s worse than a side seat driver. It keeps yelling at me when I straighten curves out too. Lane departure is now a thing I read pretty regularly on the dashboard. I’m beginning to realize how bad a driver I am.

Ever since The Wife went in for her open heart surgery, I have been forced back into my role as a driver. I don’t really mind driving her to and from her appointments (really honey, I don’t) It is just that driving drains all my attention and mental energy, leaving me with almost nothing to utilize for other things during the day. This is part of the reason why I haven’t written anything for several weeks. This article took months to complete. It wasn’t the wife’s fault. No really. I needed the separation time from the events described here. I’m finally not as pissed about loosing $10k. I think.

Testing Tires

It’s hot. It’s summer in Southwestern Texas. I’m sitting on the hood of a 1974 Thunderbird that we’ve nicknamed the Thunderchicken. This piece of crap of a vehicle that I’m stuck with has been driven millions of miles since it rolled off the assembly line in Detroit more than a decade ago, and it’s not even the oldest vehicle in the tire test fleet. That honor went to Bronco Billy, an off-white Gran Torino sedan that wished it could have been the sexier coupe, but instead was the four-door sedan that nobody wanted. That car was waiting at the shop, probably destined to take the Thunderchicken’s place, even though the floorboard on the drivers side had been patched with plywood so that the driver wouldn’t mistakenly put their feet down while traveling and lose a leg in the process. This is the life of a test car driver, if the tests you are doing are tire tests.

The Thunderchicken, in typical Murphy fashion, has picked the farthest point from home to break down. We’d just made the turn-around outside of Comstock and were heading back towards San Angelo, the shop, and home. That description cuts the story short a bit. We’d drive the North loop up towards Robert Lee first and then go through the stop and goes and then finally back to the shop and rest, but all that stuff was a few miles from home. A hop, skip and a jump away from home compared to being able to see the US-Mexico border from your car window.

The car just stopped in the middle of the road. I don’t mean the motor stopped running, I mean one of the front wheels stopped turning as if it had never turned before in it’s life and wasn’t about to turn again no matter how much gas you ran through the engine. So I gunned the thing to the side of the road leaving a skid mark and a crease in the asphalt the whole way, and then radioed ahead to the rest of the convoy who promptly turned around to see if the breakdown was something we could fix.

Tire tests were run in convoys of four vehicles, back in the 1980’s when I was working as a test driver. The lead driver was generally in charge of the crew and would make decisions for the convoy as a whole. I was not the lead driver. I drove tail when I was lucky. I was driving tail that day, which is how you can have a catastrophic vehicle failure and yet have no one from your crew notice it.

A brief inspection ensued when my buddy Harold, who was driving lead that day, came back to check on me. I’d met him at trade school a few years previously. When my job in Abilene fell through, I called on him to see if he had someplace I could sleep. I wanted to see if a change of scenery might make for better job prospects and I’d heard good things about San Angelo while living in Abilene. I knew there was no future for me back in Sweetwater with my family, just more dead-end work to kill time until time killed me. So I wasn’t going back home to Mom.


“Dispatch, this is Lickity Split.”
“I hear you.”
“We had to leave Palomino down on the river. Her car was trashed by some Javelina hogs that are running wild on the road. She was safe on the roof of the car the last time we saw her. Could you get a wrecker and some game wardens out there to her? I’m kind of worried about her. We didn’t dare go close with all them hogs milling around her car. We didn’t want to loose another one.”
“Will do Lickity Split. Be careful out there.”


Harold said “sure, come on down” and so I moved to San Angelo and started looking for work that might suit my interests. That was when we stumbled across the job that had left me stranded in Southwest Texas in the noonday sun, a business that was peculiar to San Angelo, Texas in that time and place.

Every tire sold in America is certified by a tire test that travels a route from San Angelo through Eldorado, Sonora & Juno, making a U-turn at the Camp Hudson historical marker. I think we even stopped to read it once. Don’t remember what it said. You then drive all the way back to San Angelo and proceed onto the North and East loops I described previously. Every manufacturer in the world was required to have this test performed on these roads by a testing company certified to do the job. We worked for one of these companies and the tires I was testing had fallen prey to a mechanical malfunction. Their time as test tires was over.

As it turned out, the fault wasn’t something we could fix. The lower a-frame on the driver’s side front wheel had come loose from the ball joint and jammed itself into the rim of the wheel. Had the a-frame missed the rim, I wouldn’t have been able to move the vehicle at all since the frame would have dug into the asphalt, tearing itself loose in the process and rendering steering useless. At least this way I wasn’t in the middle of the road, but I was still stuck; and after the relay call came back the rest of convoy was ordered on to finish the test. I was told to wait with the vehicle for the wrecker.

Harold wished me luck and headed back out on the road with the two other drivers in tow. As I watched them vanish over the farthest hill, I gripped the tire iron that was my only weapon that much more desperately and prayed that the wrecker would show up before dark.

It did, but just barely.


“Hold up Lickity Split”
“What’s the problem Palomino?”
“A deer ran into my car”
“You hit a deer?”
“No, it ran into my car. Ran headlong into the driver’s side door. Scared the shit out of me.”
“Wait a minute. It looks like it is getting up.”
“Nope, it broke something. Poor thing is suffering. Dammit, I don’t have a knife here! Wait, here’s a screwdriver. I’ll be right back.”
“Okay Lead. I’m ready, let’s get going.”
“You put that deer out of it’s misery with a screwdriver, Palomino?’
“Yeah. I’ve got to get a knife. I can’t be using a screwdriver to do the job every time.”
“Are you planning on hitting more deer, Palomino?”
“It ain’t got nothing to do with planning, Lickity Split”


Harold had been working for McDonald’s and he was sick of it. He had injured himself throwing milk for Gandy’s dairy and decided that the fast food job offered more interesting work than loading milk trucks, but had soon discovered the grind that I already knew fast food work to be. Winter was just around the corner, and we needed work if we were going to keep a roof over our heads while the snow was falling. If it fell.

This was West Texas after all, so snow might not fall at all. It wouldn’t be the first warm Winter on record for San Angelo. It’s hard to say what the weather will be like in Texas, from season to season, sometimes from minute to minute. “If you don’t like the weather, wait ten minutes” as the old timers will tell you.

It was all fine and good to smoke our way through the summer in San Angelo, spending time down on the lakeshore getting stoned with the college students who flocked there over the summer. Summer was over now, the students were all back in school, learning to do jobs that paid better than the shit work we could find with our technical degrees from TSTI.

He had gotten a lead on a different kind of job than what we had both done before. It just required a drivers license, which we both had, and a clean driving record. Our driving records were clean, even if we weren’t. We decided that we would go see if we could get a job at the same place and thereby share the commute to and from work.


“Dispatch this is Red Squirrel”
“Go ahead Red Squirrel”
“I’ve just hit a cow.”
“Do you need an ambulance?”
“No, no. I’m fine. I think the car’s fine too.”
“I thought you said you hit a cow.”
“I did.”
“Well then, how can the car be fine? You don’t just hit a cow and drive away.”
“Well, I saw it just in time to brake. I had them brakes locked down so hard that the nose of the car went under that cow’s ass. She was so shocked at the intrusion that she shit all over the hood of the car and then ran off. So I’m fine, the cars fine, but the shop boys are going to have one hell of a mess to clean up when I get back in tonight.”
“Did you get that dispatch? Dispatch?”


We started out at Texas Test Fleet. They hired us pretty much on the spot, but we went ahead and went across the street to Smithers and put in an application there as well. Word was that Smithers paid better and their cars were of better quality. We didn’t really care, we just needed jobs that paid real money to pay the real rent that was going to be due soon.

We came back to work our shifts that night. Just two idiots who had no idea what we were doing other than that we would have to drive for eight hours at a stretch. I had driven that far on my many trips to see family in Kansas over the years. I could handle eight hours of driving that would see me back home at the end of the day. At least, that is what I told myself.

Five miles from the shop, the passenger side rear tire came off of Harold’s car. “I looked up and the tire was passing me in the ditch. I was wondering whose tire that was when the horrible grinding noise started, and that is when I realized it was my tire.” So the lead driver called in the tow truck for the now permanently disabled vehicle, and the three remaining drivers, myself included, continued on down the road to Sonora and the Devil’s River, leaving my best friend and my ride back home in the ditch waiting for a tow truck. The rest of that night’s work was largely uneventful, which was good. I don’t think I would have wanted to go back to work testing tires if we had lost another driver that first night.


“You aren’t going to believe this Lickity Split”
“You hit another deer Palomino?”
“No. I just drove over one.”
“What?”
“It jumped off that ridge you just passed on the right. When it hit the road it’s poor legs went out from under it and I was too close to do anything but keep driving.”
“Do we need to stop, Palomino?”
“Hell, no. Damn thing is blood and guts all over the road. There isn’t enough left to pick up without us risking getting run over trying to collecting the pieces.”
“Roger, Palomino. We’ll report it’s location when we get back in.”


We were offered jobs at Smithers the next day, which we gladly took. Their cars certainly did look nicer, the shop was cleaner and they did pay better than TTF did. Within a week the lead driver we had been following flaked out and left, and Harold was promoted to lead in his place. This meant that he and I were entrusted with the lives of two other people and the value of four automobiles each and every day that we drove test cars. I don’t think they understood who we really were, but we were happy for the work.

We usually drove day shift five days a week. There were weekend crews that worked part time, and there were frequent vacancies for anyone who wanted to work a sixth day during the busy driving week. We were subbing for some missing drivers one night not to long after we had started our new jobs. This was the second time I had been down on the river at night. It gets a little freaky down there at night. It is a hundred miles in any direction to civilization on that stretch of the river. The only light that is visible comes from your headlights. The sky is pitch black, with piercing white holes of light for every visible star. It reminded me of my bygone boyhood camping days, but there were no adults on this trip to protect us from our own stupidity.

It’s called the Devils river. The name gave it the ominous tone that we drivers assigned to it. In addition to being remote it was also out of radio range for the CB radios we had. We called it the hole. We were functionally alone through that stretch of road and as I said, it was dark that night, no moon in sight. In the light coming from our headlights we saw a jeep on the opposite side of the road, off in the ditch.

This thing looked like it had been on the losing end of a three-way bear fight. Blood, bullet holes, no windows, dented, etcetera. We didn’t dare stop. Not without functional radios to radio in help with. We called it in as soon as we got back up out of the hole. That wreck was gone before we drove that way again a few days later. I never did find out what the story behind the jeep was.

On another night we came across yet another wreck, this one in the clearing stages. A car had run head-on into a tanker truck. Everyone in both vehicles was dead, as far as I could tell. I found out later that a baby had survived in the back seat of the car, because the backward facing child seat had saved it from being crushed. As I’m sitting next to the wreck waiting to be allowed to go on down my hellish road that night, a highway patrolman wanders over and casually kicks a shoe, a shoe with the foot still in it, back over towards the wreck. I had to look twice to make sure I saw what I thought I saw. At least they had a tarp over the car by the time we got to the wreck. I did not want to see what was inside of it. I’ve never had a stomach for blood. To this day I curse at the looky-loos who stop to gawk at roadside accidents. Stop looking and drive unless you want to be a statistic too.


“Hold up Lickity Split”
“Another deer Palomino?”
“Yeah, I finally hit one. The knife came in handy, just like I knew it would.”
“Do I need to turn around for you, Palomino?”
“No, no. We got it. Third here grabbed some rocks and we wedged the headlight back into place with them. I should be good till we get back to the shop. I think I’m going to call this car Rocky from now on, though.”
“10-4 Palomino. We’ll look for your lights before we continue then.”


The tow truck driver laughed when he saw the damage the car had left on the asphalt, all the way to the edge of the road. “Damn! It’s a good thing you got it to the side. Otherwise you’d have been stuck out here waving people around the car all day.” I explained to him that he was the one and only person who had been down that lonely road since I had my accident with the steering, and that I was really, really glad to see him. I could finally stop gripping that tire iron in fear because I at least had someone to talk to, even if all I had to do was ride shotgun all the way back to the shop, a full three hours away.

I started thinking then, though. I need a weapon the next time I’m caught out here like this. Something better than this dumb tire iron. Something I can carry in my pocket. Maybe a knife? I’ll have to get someone to show me how to use one, though.

Featured image: Michelin 10 wheel Poids Lourd Rapide

Vestibular Physical Therapy

I had been seeing a Physical Therapist for years before the time of COVID. I have a recurring issue with the lower back, a common complaint among older people, come to find out. I’ve also messed up my neck and shoulders in car accidents over the years, so I have plenty of things to work out with my physical therapist. Or did have before the time of COVID. I haven’t been back to Symmetry Physical Therapy since before March of 2020, because as painful as my joint and muscle problems are, they pale in comparison to the kinds of problems catching COVID would mean to someone like me.

Back in 2019, when the lack of plague allowed me to leave my house for things other than the essentials, I just happened to be at my Physical Therapy appointment when I mentioned that I was having recurring problems with minor vertigo and dizziness that lasted for weeks or months at a time. He got a quizzical look at that point asked me if I had ever tried any vestibular training exercises.

I had never even heard of vestibular training before, much less tried any of the exercises. He then demonstrated a few of them for me and had me work through them. I don’t know that they had any positive effect, but the knowledge that there was PT for my vestibular problems started me on a mission to find out more about the subject.

After mentioning the subject to my Ear, Nose and Throat doctor (ENT) on my next visit (she was mortified that we had never discussed the subject before) She gave me a referral for and I went to see the specialists over at 360 Balance, which just happened to be the people that my PT had been to a seminar with and had put the bug in his ear about retraining the vestibular system after injuries like the ones that Meniere’s inflicts on sufferers.

Over the course of the next six months or so we set up a set of exercises that addressed the issues that arise from the inner ear damage that Meniere’s causes. The exercises did, in fact, stop the nagging dizziness problems that I had been experiencing all that summer of 2019, and I have not had a recurrence of those symptoms since then. Did not have them again until a few days ago.

I’ve been slacking off my exercise regimen lately. The allergens outside the house have kept me sequestered indoors more often, and even the little bit of pollen and dust that get into the house are enough to make me feel like I’ve got a permanent head and chest infection. A feeling that can persist for weeks on end. Starting sometime last week I started to feel like I was heading into another bout of vertigo, so I started taking my meds in response. I’ve managed to avoid worshipping at the porcelain altar so far (knock on wood) but I have had that nagging bit of dizziness and nausea that comes along with it that has persisted for almost the whole week since I first noticed the warning of oncoming vertigo.

So today I decided it was time to break out the PT routines and see if I was going to finally worship the god of the toilet bowl or if I was going to stop feeling this stupid constant dizziness. The results are mixed. I do feel slightly less dizzy just sitting here typing. Any kind of movement does make the dizziness worse though. There is something different about the way my inner ears are working at the moment. I can determine that much. I don’t think I’m quite through the woods with this re-arrangement that my vestibular system is going through.

At least I can sit here and type words without feeling like the room is going to take off spinning like a top. That is a good thing. I think I will go walk the dog once I’m finished writing (I did) but in the meantime I’ll outline the exercises the therapist has me doing to help ease the dizziness.

  • Dynamic Standing Balance – I have a pillow that is so damn firm that it doesn’t give under the head when you lay on it. The Wife and I both hate the thing, but now I have a use for it. I place it on the treadmill near the grips in case I fall over and stand on it. Then I close my eyes trying to maintain balance for 30 seconds.
  • Kick the pillow out of the way and stand with your ankles touching. Close your eyes and try to maintain balance. If you can do that for 30 seconds, move your head from side to side at a moderate pace and try to maintain balance for 10 back and forth movements.
  • Vestibular Ocular Reflex (VOR) Exercise/ Gaze Stabilisation Exercise – I do both back and forth and up and down with these exercises. I set a metronome to 150 beats a minute and try to keep the mark on the wall steady for at least 15 seconds of head movement. I had to slow the metronome down today for the first set. I could not keep the mark still at that pace.
  • I can’t find a name for this one. I hold my thumbs out at eye level and maintain my gaze on them. This should be done against some kind of busy background. Bookshelves or blinds are both good choices. Rotate your torso to the left and to the right, back and forth, repeatedly, maintaining eye focus on your thumbs while the background moves behind them. I find this to be one of the best exercises for quieting the periodic dizziness that I get between vertigo spells. Making the world spin on purpose while focusing on a still object counters the feeling of spinning when it hasn’t yet turned into active vertigo.
  • Walking with head movement is the last exercise that they had me doing. Not just side to side, as the video demonstrates, but also up and down and diagonally (high left, low right/high right, low left) if you can pull that off without tripping all over yourself, try giving yourself mental tasks to do like naming groups of things or counting backwards from different starting points.

The hard part is making yourself do these things every other day or so. You feel fine and you think I have better things to do, so you don’t do the exercises that day. Before you know it a month has passed and you wake up dizzy for no apparent reason. Then you have to get back on the bandwagon and deal with the dizziness and the nausea until the exercises have the intended effect and you start to feel better. Now I’ve done my exercises and walked the dog. Time to reward myself with some more video gaming!

Battery Problems

Both my wife and daughter have given up on this process, so now it falls to me to get this rectified. For clarity’s sake, I will start from the beginning. We own a 2011 Nissan Leaf that we bought used from CarMax in 2016, as I mention in this post on my blog. CarMax lead us to believe that we could get the batteries for the Leaf replaced through them if we paid them for an extended warranty, which we subsequently purchased. We knew that the process would be an uphill battle if it turned out that we needed to replace the batteries, but we never realized how impossible it would be to get the batteries replaced at all. From anyone, not just Carmax.

When the battery health meter dropped by four bars, the critical level described to us by the salesman who sold us the car, we promptly took the car to the Carmax shop and started the long argument that you are just hearing the tail end of now. Carmax at first made the argument that they didn’t replace batteries, as was waived explicitly by the extended warranty. When we countered with the valid argument that this was a critical part of the car and not something that should be replaced by an end-user in regular maintenance, Carmax then said that we had to go to a Nissan dealer to get the batteries replaced since that wasn’t something that they did in their own shop.

Most of the warranty work that Carmax is responsible for is apparently sent out to third-party repair shops, so we didn’t argue too hard and took the Leaf to Round Rock Nissan, having had bad experiences with Maxwell auto group in the past. Maxwell owns a good percentage of the car dealerships in and around Austin including both Nissan dealerships. They even own Round Rock Nissan, although we didn’t know this at the time.

Round Rock Nissan told us that the batteries were not showing enough wear to qualify for being replaced under the vehicle warranty. We pointed out that we had an extended warranty from Carmax, but they insisted that even then the batteries were just fine, but to bring the Leaf back to them if the range dipped too low, or if the battery health took a nosedive. Six bars down is what they told us. So we drove the Leaf for the next few years, keeping an eye on the range and the health meter, occasionally taking the car back in only to have Round Rock Nissan insist that the batteries were still not bad enough.

In December of 2018,  we decided we’d had enough. We took the car to Happy Hybrids here in Austin (Excellent shop. Highly recommended) and asked them to replace the batteries that Round Rock Nissan and Carmax refused to replace. We knew the replacement cost would be expensive, but we wanted to get the driving range back up to distances that allowed us to make round trips within the city of Austin comfortably. 

Happy Hybrid told us that the batteries were still under the ten year manufacturers warranty, and that we should call Nissan to try to get the warranty on the batteries honored. It was at that point that my wife called Nissan corporate to explain the problem, as well as determine where in this process we had gotten off track and how we could get back on track, so that the car could be repaired. She was livid when Nissan corporate told her that the batteries should have been replaced before the car had even been sold to us, much less when we took it in for service. They also told her that Round Rock Nissan had been less than truthful about the warranty. When we looked over the paperwork from the maintenance visits we discovered that the service records showed the recorded battery health as being higher than the level they were at the time. So Maxwell had been forging the maintenance documents to show that they didn’t need to do the work that they should have already done.

We tried over the course of the next few months to get Round Rock Nissan’s attention. We made several calls and even a visit to the shop in person, all to no avail. They were not interested in replacing the batteries, or even discussing replacing the batteries. They have yet to ever return one of our phone calls.

This is the point where I stepped in, because I could see we were just going in circles, and the batteries still needed to be replaced. The battery health bars are now less than four, and the range is generally about twenty miles when fully charged. So I called Happy Hybrid back and asked them if they could replace the batteries even if they were under warranty. We just wanted the car repaired. After a bit of embarrassment on their part, since they had initially told us that they could replace the batteries, they explained that the refurbished batteries that they had been relying on were not performing as expected. So they couldn’t install them into our Leaf.

They further explained that they couldn’t get the new batteries we had authorized them to purchase if they needed to, because the battery manufacturers who had made replacement batteries for the Leaf had been blocked from selling them by Nissan, who has exclusive rights to manufacture and install batteries for their cars. This meant that my preferred shop couldn’t even get the batteries from Nissan to install for us themselves. I would have to take the Leaf into a local dealership and submit to whatever prices that Maxwell wanted to charge us to replace batteries in an electric car that should have had the batteries replaced for free several years previously.

2011 Nissan Leafs Start Losing Capacity Bars: Should You Worry? and What four bars down looks like. (ours are eight bars down)

That brings this narrative to today. I still want the batteries in the car replaced. I’m not interested in doing business with Round Rock Nissan again, or any other Maxwell owned dealership. I’ve been burned too many times working with them. I’d like to get Happy Hybrid to do the install, but they can’t get batteries. This puts the problem into the current warranty holders hands. Both Carmax and Nissan have issued warranties for this vehicle, warranties that include the battery packs that drive the electric motor in the car. I don’t really care who pays for the replacement so long as acknowledgement is made for the faulty manufacture of the original batteries, along with some amortized reduction in the cost of replacement.

I would like you to arrange for the repair with some shop that isn’t Maxwell owned. I will happily drive the car there if it will make it on its own power, although I don’t think it will make the drive to another town or city now. It is regrettable that my initial joy at buying my first electric car has turned sour, and that this quest to get clearly required work done on the vehicle looks to turn me away from doing further business with both Carmax and Nissan at this point. It is up to you to make this into an experience that we won’t end up regretting.

Sincerely,

(Letter sent to CarMax and Nissan)

Postscript

When we confronted CarMax with the warranty problem, they said “All good” and handed us back the money we paid for the warranty. I will be doing business with CarMax again if I need another used car. Any business that hands you back several thousand dollars and says “we’re sorry” while doing it is a business that is at least honest in their dealings. I like that in a business.

Nissan didn’t do that. Nissan said “the batteries are now out of warranty, you have to pay to have new batteries put in the car.” Since the Maxwell dealership had destroyed all evidence that we had reported the failure while the batteries were in warranty, we were forced to agree with this assessment and we paid out of pocket to replace the batteries for the Leaf. It now has the kind of battery life it should have had when we bought it. Better battery life, even, because they are the new Leaf batteries and not the old versions of them which were clearly riddled with manufacturing flaws. The Leaf is probably the last Nissan we will own because of the way the entire process was handled.

I will never consciously do business with the Maxwell auto group again. Their behavior has finally convinced me that the dealership model in Texas is dominated by fraudsters and criminals (I’m coming to believe that pretty much everything in Texas is a fraud) and I applaud Tesla’s decision to build a manufacturing plant here rather than have to do business with the gangsters who run dealerships in Texas. I’m thinking it is time to revisit the reasoning behind creating dealerships in the first place.

My First Electric Car

We recently bought a used Nissan Leaf. I am still waiting to see what charging it will cost, but I have a hard time believing it will be more expensive to run than the overly complex machinery built into the average internal combustion engine. Hopefully this story is correct.

Morning Edition – It May Not Cost You More To Drive Home In A Climate-Friendly Car – September 27, 2016


I had no idea that I would need a postscript to this post, but I really didn’t know that the Koch’s were this stupid.  They’ve decided to go to war with Elon Musk over the future of the electric car.

The oil and gas industry may have thought it had killed the electric car, but sales — boosted by generous government subsidies — rose dramatically between 2010 and 2014, and energy giants are worried the thing may have come back to life.

Time to kill it again.

A new group that’s being cobbled together with fossil fuel backing hopes to spend about $10 million dollars per year to boost petroleum-based transportation fuels and attack government subsidies for electric vehicles, according to refining industry sources familiar with the plan. A Koch Industries board member and a veteran Washington energy lobbyist are working quietly to fund and launch the new advocacy outfit.

Huffington Post

Elon Musk, of course, wasted no time and no snark when it came to responding to this threat.  As the linked article rightly notes, electric vehicles are not the only vehicles that receive subsidies.  Oil fueled vehicles, plastics (everything) is enabled by heavy subsidies to the oil and gas industry.

Planet Money – Oil #4: How Oil Got Into Everything – August 19, 2016

As the Tweeting Elon Musk linked article at The Guardian explains:

Fossil fuel companies are benefiting from global subsidies of $5.3tn (£3.4tn) a year, equivalent to $10m a minute every day, according to a startling new estimate by the International Monetary Fund.
The IMF calls the revelation “shocking” and says the figure is an “extremely robust” estimate of the true cost of fossil fuels. The $5.3tn subsidy estimated for 2015 is greater than the total health spending of all the world’s governments.

The Guardian

The Koch’s may object to subsidies for all industries, but I don’t see them rejecting them personally. They are more than happy to cash those government checks themselves in spite of their ideological opposition to them.  Nothing cures the hurt of grave violations of your personal beliefs quite as well as millions of dollars of infused cash.


The October electric bill has arrived and, given the difference between last October and this October temperature-wise, the increase in electric consumption for last month was > 300 KWH which amounts to just over $80 in additional electricity.

Given the fact that in regular drive mode I can beat any sports car off the line, and that maintenance costs are near zero for the vehicle aside from replacing batteries and maintaining the moving parts in the front-end, I consider this car to be an excellent enhancement in city mobility.  I think I’d like to have two of them, one for each child.

Postscript

In 2019 we bit the bullet and replaced the batteries in the Leaf with new batteries from Nissan. This should have been done as warranty work but the Nissan dealership we had been going to didn’t want to have to pay for that work or do the work for free, or however that works out between Nissan and the local dealership; but in the end it added up to us having to foot the bill and replace batteries that Nissan acknowledged had been faulty during the warranty period.

We basically have a new Nissan Leaf now, but at a price quite a bit lower than what a new Leaf would sell for. If only the maps and guidance had been upgraded at the same time as the batteries, then I’d have no complaints with the thing. As for Nissan and it’s Maxwell dealerships here in Austin, I will not be doing business with them any longer. Hopefully the next car will be from someone other than Nissan.