Matter of Laugh or Death
By Bill Dunn
Interesting observations on this thing we call life
LACK OF MAINTENANCE KILLS CAR
Now that my oldest daughter is a licensed driver, it’s important that I teach her proper automotive maintenance procedures. Unfortunately, this means I have to dredge up a ghost from my past: I once killed a car by not changing the oil.
I still cringe when I think about it. That beautiful little 1980 Toyota Celica GT with the red and gold racing stripes, aluminum wheels, and symphony hall-quality sound system, dead at such a young age. It was a pitiful scene—the graveyard cough hacking from its tail pipe, the bloodshot headlights staring at me, pleading, “Why? Why did you do this to me?”
I had no answer. No one had ever told me cars were suppose to have their oil changed regularly. (Or if they did tell me, I wasn’t paying attention—a distinct possibility.) It’s not that I was unaware the oil should be changed every 3,000 miles; I didn’t even know it was supposed to be changed…ever.
So I stood there helpless and watched that poor car die, only 70,000 miles old, not even middle age for a Toyota. After going the last 30,000 miles with what was essentially gritty molasses in its crank case, the car’s peppy four-cylinder heart finally gave out.
When I first purchased the car the dealer mailed me notices every couple of months to bring it in for scheduled routine maintenance. Since I lived right down the street at the time, I faithfully brought it in, although I had no clue what “scheduled routine maintenance” meant. For all I knew, they were giving the car bite wing x-rays, a cleaning, and filling any cavities. For $89.95 each time, I hoped the mechanics were doing something more than vacuuming the floor mats and stealing the spare change I kept in the ashtray. But I was 23-years-old and ignorant (as opposed to now, 43-years-old and ignorant) and so I didn’t care. The only thing that mattered was the car was fast and sporty and the stereo was louder than front row seats at a KISS concert.
But then I moved to the other side of the state and stopped receiving scheduled routine maintenance notices, which I interpreted to mean that scheduled routine maintenance was no longer necessary.
Everything was fine for the next year or so, but then the car’s performance became very sluggish. It accelerated about as fast as Dick Cheney running uphill in Army boots. Two conditions were now necessary for the car to move fast enough to keep up with traffic: it had to be going down a steep hill and it had to have nothing heavy onboard, including people.
I finally asked a guy at the gas station (I think it was the fellow restocking the Pepsi machine) to look under the hood to see if anything was obviously wrong with my car, such as a cat stuck in the carburetor or a pulled hamstring muscle.
The first thing the guy tried to do was check the oil, but by that time the gritty molasses had firmly welded the dipstick to the engine. He yanked on it for a while, then said to me, “Hey, the dipstick is stuck. When’s the last time you checked the oil?”
Three thoughts immediately raced through my mind: (1) Dipstick? There’s really a such thing as a dipstick? I always thought it was a made-up word used to insult someone, as in, “You’re such a dipstick!” (2) What in the world does “check the oil” mean? and (3) I wonder if this guy can give me a free case of Pepsi?
Not wanting to appear ignorant, I answered his question by casually replying, “Oh, this morning.”
He gave me a skeptical look and muttered, “You’re such a dipstick.” He muttered something else I can’t repeat in polite company when I asked for some free Pepsi.
The head mechanic came over and confirmed that my car was indeed on its deathbed. At that point, I did the only honorable thing under the circumstances: I drove the car to the Bronx, parked it in a lousy neighborhood, took the train home, and reported the car stolen. (No, I’m just kidding! I didn’t really do that. The car never would have made it all the way to the Bronx.)
So now, trying to make sure my daughter does not repeat my terrible mistake, I firmly tell her, “You must change the oil on a regular basis. Let me tell you why: I used to know a guy years ago who never changed the oil—what a dipstick…”
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