"What we got here is a failure to communicate."
-Cool Hand Luke
The following is a true story, down to the word. It doesn't really matter if it's true or not, of course; however, to me, this one is special because it matches memories, not dreams. -The Custodian
Now, had I been thinking more clearly at the time, I would have realized that wearing a camouflage balaclava would be a very bad idea when driving in an open car late at night through trooper-infested country.
Obviously, thinking clearly wasn't part of my routine that day.
I'd been on the road intermittently for perhaps a week and a half. Returning from a summer of hard work and beaches, I was driving my small classic sportscar back across the grand ole US of A and had made it as far as...well, more than halfway, when my car decided to go 'cloonk.'
It was a very particular noise, that 'cloonk.' One thing they tell you and you laugh about until it happens to you is that there are these car nuts who actually know every noise their car makes, just so that if it makes a different one they can instantly know something's up. I'd never aspired to this. Growing up in the middle of one of our largest metropolitan areas, I'd never needed a car (okay, right, so I didn't grow up in LA). Watching 'car nuts' on television or in print or even in person when I happened to run across them I performed the instinctive city-dweller 'speedup' and hurried by as they waxed enthusiastically about carburetors, injectors, Holly pipes, hemi head pistons, and other such arcane topics.
Then I got this car. It was all over. Within a week, I was hunting the internet for information; within three, I had started a web page; within six months I was answering questions on the mailing list and owned more tools than I'd owned in all my previous years combined.
So this 'cloonk,' then, was something entirely new, and I didn't like it.
Something must be further explained. I'd reached a watchmaker's level of noise-related observation. Several states earlier, in a drier and hotter clime, I'd been tooling across the desert at a steady 85 MPH with the top down. One arm over the side, one on the wheel, sunglasses on, Walkman playing. I had found that the Walkman was yards less damaging to my hearing than the windstream, and since there wasn't this awful white noise in my ear I could hear better with the headphones on and playing music.
I noticed subconsciously that something was wrong.
Has this ever happened to you? You know, know in your bones that something has gone awry, but you have not a whit of concrete evidence. Still, with old cars, hunches count. Besides, always better to spend the five minutes looking and not find anything than have the differential fall off ten miles later because the buzzing of that nut finally stopped when the nut fell off.
So I began to twiddle. You know; speed up, slow down, listening intently. Swerve slightly and feel the steering. Race the engine in neutral to see if there was a noise that changed with engine speed and not car/drivetrain speed. Nope.
Sped up. A bit rough? Well, not so you'd notice; the car responded eagerly enough, a nice slightly raspy throat as she accelerated. Still - back off the throttle, try again. Something not right.
This goes on for a few miles. Speeding up, the car runs a tad rough for a bit, then settles down once at a steady speed.
Desert gives one wonderful opportunities to think. I had developed a need to have at least a diagnosis, however tentative, before opening the hood. Spark? Nope, I don't think so...why would changing speed do it? Wouldn't. Coil? No, runs strong, starts fine, at least she did. Also runs strong at low and high speed. Hmm. Fuel line? Nope, again, just that slight 'off' feeling in the vibration and sound.
Carbs, then. Surely. Carbs. What could do this? What would mess with the carbs adjusting to a new float level? Aha. The dashpots aren't damping correctly, at least, one of them isn't. What would do that? A ripped diaphragm? Maybe, but it doesn't seem nearly that serious. The dashpot cover must be loose, allowing the float level to change and buffet in air presure instead of a hydraulic seal.
Pulled the car over and popped the hood...'scuse me, the bonnet. I opened the hood with my eyes closed; aimed my gaze at where the carbs would be, opened them.
There in front of me, the rear dashpot cover sat at an angle in its socket, clearly having worked loose.
So the 'cloonk' was bad.
Unfortunately, I didn't have a chance to run my finely honed diagnostic nose; an experimental press on the brake pedal produced a slight pressure at the toe and nothing more. Press harder; nothing.
It's pouring, naturally. I coasted to the side, hazards on (the hazards work? They never did before! Oh, maybe the rain? Heehee). Getting out of the car, I realized that in fact this was not at all safe, as a semi blasted by perhaps five feet from me at 65 mph or so, drenching me with spray. I closed the door (which, luckily, I'd been in front of and blocked from the spray. Apres moi, le deluge.
Behind the left rear of the car was a trail of barely-visible redness, leading back onto the highway- brake fluid. Please, not a cylinder. Please.
I can't call that praying, since I have no idea who I was talking to. Well, okay, yes, I do- the car, but she didn't answer clearly.
Couldn't tell what was broken while on the highway. All I could tell was that when lying on my back in a pool of oil-slicked rainwater and shoving my hand up into the wheel well, everything had the viscous greasy feel of DOT4. Argh. I got up and restarted the car, looking for an exit.
How does this relate to camouflage headgear, I can hear you asking. Patience, patience; it's a-comin. Pulling off the highway, I found myself in the teeming metropolis of Portage, Indiana. Carefully maneuvering with my somewhat worn emergency brake, I found a shop that would let me use their lift. Fingers crossed, I raised the car, praying, please, not a cylinder. Please.
Nope. It was a hose. The relief almost made me cry for some absurd reason.
However, no-one in Portage, Indiana had a brake hose for a 1970 little British car. The nearest I could come was to have one overnighted from The Roadster Factory in Armagh, Pennsylvania. They were quite solicitous, telling me how lucky I was that it was my left rear, since they didn't have any right side hoses in stock - but overnighting it would only cost $21.95. And that included the cost of the part.
So. What to do in Portage for 19 hours?
Asked at the hotel desk if there was a bookstore nearby.
Blank stare. "Well, they got books at the super-K."
I'm from Manhattan. "The what?"
Suspicious stare. "Super K. You know, K-mart?"
Aahhh. "Oh." Make my escape, and head down the 1.2 mile stretch of side highway to the Super K, which, naturally, was right across the street from the garage I'd driven 1.2 miles back from with no brakes.
A quick dinner later, I was wandering the wilderness of the K-mart experience. All I can say is that I felt obscurely glad they didn't sell handguns there; all they had were .22 rifles, shotguns - and a load of paintball equipment, which seemed much healthier. I browsed quickly, but I already owned a nice pump paintgun. The next aisle over, however - camouflage. Loads of it. And cheap. I was in heaven.
No, I'm not a militia member, and no, I don't hunt. But I do play paintball. And it never hurts to be as inconspicuous as possible in the woods, and camo in the big city costs a mint at a surplus store.
I picked out a nice pair of camo gloves, and after some debating, a camo balaclava (known here as a ski mask). It was lined with Polartec, had eye-holes and a nose guard, and was reversible to safety-orange.
Continuing on my odyssey through the SuperK, I found myself in the electronics section watching baseball. Along with fifty or so other folks. At the moment Mark McGuire hit the magic home run, we laughed and cheered and jumped up and down and hugged each other, Americans all. Only about a third of those folks were wearing camo, and they were jumping up and down with the rest.
I felt extremely patriotic.
The next morning, I drove to the garage, and found that they'd received the part. Putting the car up on the rack and installing it took perhaps fifteen minutes, and then I was free to go. At this point, I had decided that that was it, I was going to make it home without stopping again. I'd made it to Chicago without stopping the first leg; I had less distance to make the other way. It seemed perfectly reasonable.
So. Cut to that night, perhaps one in the morning. I'm in Pennsylvania, somewhere. It's bloody cold. I have the top down (because I don't really want to stop to put it back up) and the heater going, with a goosedown sleeping bag over my lap; as a result, I'm nice and toasty save for my ears and nose.
Ha-ha! Easily fixed. Careful not to swerve the car or disturb my Walkman headphones, I reached into the back and retrieved my newfound treasure. The camo and orange Polartec was sheer bliss as it slid down over my head, warmth cutting away the frigid wind. So fortified, I roared on through the night, maintaining an even 82 MPH.
I got maybe ten miles.
The cyclone lights caught my attention first, since I was listening to fairly loud rock music and had my balaclava on over that. I managed to turn off the Walkman surreptitiously as I stopped, but didn't dare rip off the mask for fear the cop would see the headphones'and that's probably all he'd need to give me a ticket. I kept my hands on the wheel in plain sight, made plainer by the small size and open nature of the car. All hundred thousand candlepower of the patrol car's headlights poured into my rear-view mirrors, blinding me so severely that I didn't even know the trooper was there until he crunched to a stop by my door and said, "Son, what is that on your head?"
I was glad he hadn't said 'Boy.'
"Um, a ski mask, officer."
He gave me a dirty look, meaning, I know that, you smart-ass. "Why is it on your head?"
At this point I realized with a sudden shock that I desperately hoped he hadn't heard any armed robbery calls on the radio in the past few hours. "Um, officer, it's cold. You have a top on your car."
I could see him working up the shouting jag. He was drawing in oxygen like he was about to attack the Himalayas on rollerblades. Just as I was flinching back in expectation of the outburst, he stopped and looked at me. "Where you coming from?"
"Los Angeles, sir."
"Where you headed?'
"Home, sir, in Massachusetts. I was in L.A. for the summer."
He walked around to the back of the car - I suppose to look at my Massachusetts plate. He walked back and looked at me.
There was perhaps twenty full seconds of eye contact, me from behind my mask and him from beneath his Mountie hat.
"All right, son, get out of here."
"You heard me. Just don't be caught speeding 'fore you get into New York, hear?"
"Sir, yes sir!" I'd never been in the service, but I'd seen enough movies. I was about to pull off the mask, expecting him to change his mind at the sight of the Walkman, when he waved me on and stomped back to his (warm) car. I heard the door chunk closed, and the lethal glare of the headlights swung out and past me as he barrelled past me down the Interstate.
I waited two minutes. Then I started the car.
I drove very carefully.
I stopped once, in Hartford, Connecticut, for an enormous amount of coffee. The last two hours were almost unbearable.
I didn't even unload the car when I reached home; I just threw myself into my room, nuzzled the ferrets (who were a tad confused to see me since they'd spent the summer with a subletter) and fell into a coma-like sleep.
When I woke up, I felt strange; then, laughing, I peeled the balaclava off my head and threw it into the closet.
The sun was shining.