By Tim Hayes
Loyal readers of this column will recall descriptions of my first car, a bright orange Volkswagen Super Beetle, that shuttled me and my assorted crap through college, to my wedding (barely), and even into the first few months of wedded life.
There comes a time to put away childish things, however, and before long my wife and I purchased a “real” car, a car for grown-ups – a brand-new, fire-engine red Datsun Sentra. No, that’s not a typo. This was so long ago, that the car company hadn’t become “Nissan” yet, it was still Datsun.
We put that Sentra through its paces over the next four years. I drove it over the Cresson Mountain twice a day while commuting to a new job 70 miles and two counties away. We took it to another job in eastern Pennsylvania, and pounded it the width of the Commonwealth on numerous trips home to Pittsburgh and back. Yeah, that Sentra took quite a beating.
It should not surprise you to learn, then, that on one fateful voyage, our candy-apple four-door up and declared mutiny on us.
Returning from a weekend visit home, we sped up and down the curved concrete canyons of the PA Turnpike one late Sunday afternoon, heading back to the Lehigh Valley and our life there. Around Bedford, some curious dashboard activity began. Strange lights heretofore unseen started flashing. Noises unbecoming an internal combustion engine suddenly rent the air.
“Keep going,” said the Little Man in my head. “It’s nothing. Keep going. In fact, turn up the radio. If we can’t hear anything wrong, then there must not be anything wrong, right? Yeah, just keep going. That’s the ticket.”
Two hours away from our parents back in Pittsburgh, and another three hours ahead of us, that’s what we did. We just kept going. My Little Man is an idiot, by the way.
Why? Because the Sentra had other plans. She sputtered, hissed, and flashed her scariest dashboard lights, until we simply had to pull off the Turnpike right in front of a giant highway sign reading, “Breezewood – 2 miles.”
There we sat. Dead in the water. With dusk approaching on a Sunday evening. Two miles from the infamous “Town of Motels” – where travelers heading to DC or Baltimore have been unwillingly diverted for decades through a barely moving string of traffic lights, gas stations, fast food joints, truck stops, and yes, motels, before getting back on the semblance of a modern highway.
With few options left, we began pulling our bags out of the trunk for the two-mile walk to Breezewood, when a car with U.S. Government plates came off the road and parked in front of our incapacitated Datsun. Had we violated some federal law here?
A gentleman stepped out of the car, showed us his I.D., asked if we were all right, then offered us a ride into Breezewood. We looked at each other, sizing this guy up. If he were legit, it was quite the Good Samaritan moment. But he could have been some whack-job, too. In the end, we accepted the ride, and lo and behold, it was someone from the government — and he WAS there to help!
AAA towed the car to a garage about a mile and a half from the motel where we would need to spend the night. The next morning, the mechanic told me by phone that, “Somehow, we got your car running this morning, but I can’t stress to you enough – DO NOT turn this car off until you get to wherever you’re going. I wouldn’t even slow down if you don’t absolutely need to. The car is running right now, and we’re going leave it running until you get here.”
After walking to the garage, I got into the rumbling Sentra and, by the grace of God, made every green light back to the motel. My wife, standing by the motel’s front door, threw our bags into the back seat as I cruised by. Carefully, slowly, on the second pass, she leaped into the passenger seat. I never hit the brake once.
It took some pretty fine hand-eye coordination and superior motor skills (no pun intended) to grab the ticket getting onto the Turnpike, and even more so when we exited, chucking the ticket and an overpayment to the dumbfounded toll-booth attendant, who only saw a scarlet blur of constant forward movement.
Two months later, we traded in that Sentra for another car – but only after a couple more close calls. The day we took it to the dealer for the trade-in, that red menace nearly conked out three times. We got it to the top of a hill, put it in neutral, and used gravity to coast down the hill to the dealer. Clearly, we’d all had quite enough of each other’s company by that point.
But the best part? The dealer had his mechanic inspect it as we haggled over the deal for the new car. Based on the garage guy’s expert opinion, we got the full Blue Book trade-in value for that demon Datsun.
Do you believe in miracles? Yes! That is, of course, until the engine block of that new car nearly melted one summer while returning from vacation, and with a pregnant wife aboard, no less. But, Gentle Reader, that’s a story for another day…
Copyright 2015 Transverse Park Productions LLC and Tim Hayes Consulting