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Saturday, January 11, 2003

Dude, Where's My Car?

(I hesitated to post this, but I figure it's my blog and I'll bore if I want to, bore if I want to.)

Damian Penny asked a bunch of us what we drove, and I mentioned my last car, good old Sparky. (Here's a picture of an '85 Laser of the same color.) Sparky was a 1986 Chrysler Laser, which I bought in the fall of '85; it was one of the first of the model year.

Now, I loved this car. In those days money was not such a problem for me, so I piled on all sorts of fancy packages. It had cool digital display (just like we'd have in THE FUTURE!), and it talked. Yes, children, in the '80s there was a fad for cars that reported faults and things with voice messages. This turned out to be a very handy feature.

It was a pretty peppy car, too; had a lot of pick-up. Just before I got mine, I heard on the radio that someone driving a Laser had led the Missouri Highway Patrol on a 100 mile chase at 150mph. They had to give up when he hit St. Louis rush hour traffic. Not, of course, that I condone such a thing. Or that I ever drove mine that fast (this was the era of the double nickel limit, after all). But it was nice to have that kind of muscle handy.

So I loved the car, and what with one thing and another, kept it for 14 years. By that time, of course, it had started to develop some problems.

I hadn't had it for two weeks when some throttle control sensor thingy went haywire. If you let it fall below so many RPM, it would stall. This was fun on the highway. But of course it was still under warranty then.

After four years the air conditioning went out. This never got fixed.

After about six years the radiator busted, and I had to get a new one. That one sprung a leak too, eventually, but it just had to be welded.

After eight years the driver's seat broke, so that it would recline even when you didn't want it to. I never had the money to fix this (it was an extremely expensive repair), and drove it like this for the next six years. I stuffed a bunch of junk behind the seat to prop it up. It was very uncomfortable, no doubt dangerous, and probably illegal. I tried not to drive very far.

After ten years everything started to go to hell. The engine block cracked (I had a rebuilt one put in). The steering wheel fell off---well, OK, not off, but it came discombobulated in such a way as to disconnect the ignition interlock gizmo and to make a long story short the car plumb died right there in the street. You had to hold the steering wheel in a certain way to keep the car running. I took it in for repair that afternoon---you don't want to fool around with that.

The car developed a tendency to overheat. Every month or so I had to drive up a mountain, and I had to keep my eye glued to the temperature gauge. When it got too hot I'd have to pull over to the side and sit until it cooled, then continue on my way. I usually had to do that twice before I reached the summit.

There's an Austin Lounge Lizards song called "Waitin' on a Call from Don". Part of it goes:

Now I've got my own car and a mechanic named Don.
I go to see him when all hope is gone.
He's honest and careful, so I hand him the keys,
Then I sacrifice a chicken and get down on my knees.

And pray, Don, have pity on me!
When you call and say what the damage will be.
And I'm a-waitin' (waitin') hyperventilatin'
Waitin' on a call from Don


St. Peter don't you call me, 'cause I can't be gone
'Cause I'm waitin' on a call from Don

Except that my mechanic was named Vince, this was my life. Vince was an honest mechanic. Sparky and I went to visit him nearly every month, and sometimes he would do small things for free (gave me a set of sparky plugs once). When the car was overheating, Vince and I were looking at it with Vince's trusty assistant, Paul. Vince was saying, gosh, there could be so many things wrong with it, he wasn't sure where to start. He reached up to pluck a stray leaf out of the vacuum lines, and as he did, the car---which had been running very ragged---suddenly sprang into life. Paul and I looked at each other. "He's such a professional," Paul said. Praise Don---er, Vince! (Turned out that the vacuum lines weren't, um, vacuuming very well.)

By the end of our time together Sparky had developed periodic tendencies to leak coolant or gas. I was always frantically sniffing for one of these two substances. To this day the smell of ethylene glycol brings a knot to my stomach.

By this time most of you will be saying, "Well, ya moron, why didn't you just get a new car?" Good question. The answer is that I was in constant danger of losing my job. When you start in physics research, you generally start with a postdoctoral position, which lasts from a year on up, generally only to two or three years. Then you have to get a new job. I had a fellowship which was for a year initially, but which was usually extended to two years, and very rarely to three. I figured (such was my self-esteem) that I'd only get a year, and would have to move on. It's not easy to get jobs in my field, and it would be foolish to buy a car knowing there was a good chance I'd be unemployed right away. After a year, I knew I'd be there only one more year for certain, and the same arguments applied. Same thing when my fellowship was extended for a third year. And, sort of so on. I seldom know for sure how long I'd be employed. Also, I didn't earn a lot of money.

I could have bought a used one, but I figured better the problems you do know than the problems you don't.

Just when I was thinking that it might finally be time to get a new car, I got the job in Australia. I thought about selling Sparky, but he was in such bad shape that he wouldn't bring very much, and selling would be a hassle. And we would need him for various things until the very end, and a seller might not like that. So I gave him to the American Cancer Society. It was very hard.

Sniff. I still miss him.