From: Toby Short

Dear Car Guys:

Last week's show about coming clean has moved me to send you a long overdue apology.

This confession concerns my indirect introduction to you two and your garage. In the 25 years since that fateful day I have occasionally considered calling in to 'fess up. But something, besides uncertainty over the expiration of relevant statutes of limitations, has always stayed my hand. I took last week's show as a clear signal from God that it is time.

First let me remind you of two pieces of advice I have heard you dispense more than once:

  1. By all means have a friend work on your car because he isn't nearly as afraid of really messing things up as you are; and

     

  2. If, after repeated visits to the shop, your problem isn't solved, return your car, put your foot down, and firmly say, "This won't do. I'm not spending another dime. Fix this car!"

If you ponder these two pearls of wisdom as connected dots perhaps you get an inkling of where this is going. But I assure you it is even worse than that.

Long ago, let's say 1983, I went to visit a friend in Cambridge. Let's just call him, "Hal Lenke." It was a beautiful spring day and I had never been to the Boston area before so I was anxious to see the area. "I'd love to show you around," said Hal, "but my car isn't working right."

At that time I was already a ten-year veteran of nursing an old Volkswagen bug along on a marginal income. So I felt I knew a few things about bending vehicles of uncertain reliability to my transportation will.

"What's wrong with it?" I asked, angling for an invitation to look under the hood.

"I don't know, it keeps stalling."

"Have you taken it to a shop?"

"Oh, yes, to Tom and Ray!" he replied with Pollyanna glee.

"Who?"

"You've never heard of them? They're great. Whenever the car quits I just have it towed directly to them and they take care of it."

The contradiction implicit in this recommendation seemed to escape Hal. For me it painted a pretty clear picture of a pair of burnt-out MIT grad students who had discovered where an advanced degree in Medieval religion takes one.

"Let's go," I said confidently.

Sure enough, we only got as far as Harvard Square. We were half way around some quaint suburban roundabout nearby when the car choked to a stop. Traffic was light, the sun was shining and the trees were green and cool. So I said, "Gimme a screwdriver," and confidently hopped out to show up a pair of "good-news" hippies.

Hal popped the hood for me. I set the prop, stared down, and froze. Even in those primitive days of a late-model Japanese sedan, nothing under the hood looked anything like what's ensconced in the tail end of a VW bug.

Had my self-esteem been commensurate with my mechanical skills, or if I were of a different gender, I would have dropped the hood right then and said, "Tow it to Tom and Ray." But I had neither of these advantages. So I located the most likely candidate for the carburetor and plunged in.

If Hal's Honda had been a proper people's car, descended from the vision of that uber-mechanic Adolf Hitler, a couple of turns on the air intake screw, and possibly a little twist of the distributor would have gotten things going.

As it was the distributor looked unassailable. But there were TWO big screws on the top of what appeared to be a carburetor that begged fiddling. With me leaning under the hood in the middle of a pretty little Cambridge roundabout on a fine spring day, I set about happily turning first this screw, then that screw, first this way, then that way. Hal obediently cranked the motor and pumped the gas on command. In no time I had absolutely NO idea how far from the starting configuration I had turned either screw.

After 10 or 15 minutes I was prepared to accept the shame of surrender. Unfortunately, just then the engine gave a bit of a roar - then quit. Perhaps the fault lay in a lack of vigor on the gas pedal. As "one-last-try" I shut the hood and had Hal step outside while I took over.

I gave the engine a good crank and pumped the gas hard.

Round about the third try I heard a distinctive "fooomp" from under the hood.

Now, anybody who's worked on cars long enough, or is fond of the "tossed match" method of lighting a barbeque, knows that sound. And I have to admit it was not the first time I had encountered that sound in the context of my mechanics.

It didn't take long for little yellow tongues of flame and the sweet smell of burning rubber to dance out from under the hood.

"GET OUT OF THE CAR!" Hal was yelling.

Being a veteran of this situation I had arough idea of how much time I had to escape alive. I also knew it would be a great advantage if I could accomplish an important task first.

I had the driver's door open and one foot in the street. But I was frantically searching under the dash for the hood release. Why do car designers feel obliged to hide those damn things anyway?

"GET OUT OF THE CAR!" Hal kept shouting, hopping on one foot then the other.

FINALLY, I located the stupid latch and gave it a yank before bolting down the street.

"FIND AN EXTINGUISHER!" I hollered to Hal over my shoulder. We split up and set about frantically banging on doors.

At this point I suppose God finally decided he'd better ease up before he split a gut. The third door I hammered produced an angel in the form of the sweetest little white-haired lady.

"Do you have a fire extinguisher!" I gasped.

"Why yes I do!" She seemed genuinely pleased that someone should inquire. "My son-in-law just bought me one. He said I should have one in my kitchen in case..."

"Can you get it for me PLEASE?" I rudely interrupted. "My car's on fire," I added apologetically in response to her crestfallen look.

She left me at the open door. She came back with a nice little home extinguisher which she handed to Hal who had just run up to join me.

"How do you work this?" cried Hal in distress. I just snatched it from his hands, pulling the pin as we ran.

When I reached the car happily crackling away in the bright Cambridge sun I made a quick assessment. The fire was blistering the paint of the hood and flaming drips of grease had set the driver's side front tire on fire. But otherwise the situation seemed confined to the front end.

The hood was cool enough for me to throw open. The flames gave a greedy jump for the fresh air. I dumped the contents of the extinguisher on the engine, draining the last of it on the front tire.

It is some kind of tribute to the jaded cool of the residents of your fair city that all this drew no more than a couple of onlookers who confined themselves to their stoop. Hal and I stood in front of the smoking remains of his beloved Honda sobbing in adrenaline-soaked exhaustion.

"Tow it to Tom and Ray," I finally said quietly.

Hal was great. He praised my emergency response skills, overlooking entirely the chain of events that necessitated them. We went back to the sweet lady's house, thanked her profusely for saving Hal's car and used her phone. Hal first called the tow truck. Then he called the garage.

He sternly explained that his car had stalled YET AGAIN, and this time CAUGHT FIRE when he tried to get it started. I take some small comfort that at no point did he lie about my role in the adventure. He just left it out."This won't do!" he said firmly, "Fix this car. I'm not spending another dime."

You did and he didn't.

Thank you. You conscientiously shouldered the blame, and cost, of my stupidity. I feel better at least for the confession.

Toby Short
State College, Pennsylvania