Car Trouble

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At 5:30 a.m. one recent morning, I was driving the Parkway East to Monroeville, and actually ON TIME. I began to hear a loud “ka-​thunk” from the front left of my mini-​van. Suddenly, my front left wheel popped clean off. Had it been later, I would have been horrified at the idea of my wheel (now a deadly projectile) hitting another car, but given that the highway was basically deserted, I was surprisingly calm. I slowed my van down and watched the tire speedily careen down the highway, jump over the median and disappear in the distance, muttering, “That’s something you don’t see every day.”

After pulling over, I called to AAA and waited for the tow truck. Aside from the van violently shaking on the rare occasion when another car sped past at 70 mph, it was a nice, relaxing 40-​minute wait. As the tow truck driver hooked up my van, he said he receives at least 5 of these calls a month; turns out that tires flying off vehicles is not that unusual, but very dangerous. He said I was very lucky no other cars were near.

When tires are changed, he said, a pneumatic impact wrench tightens the lug nuts. If this isn’t performed correctly, the tires may loosen and, ultimately, pop off. I told him that a certain “nationally-​known-​muffler-​and-​brake-​chain” would be paying for all damages to the rim and for a new tire and assembly. “Don’t count on it,” he said. “You most likely signed a form saying you will bring the van back to the shop within 50 miles to get the tires re-​torqued. You didn’t bring the van back, did you? That way you can’t sue them when this happens.”

Fortunately, the muffler-​and-​brake-​chain paid for all repairs. If only my hubby were so agreeable. I explained clearly that the tire was GONE, but Eric thought otherwise. Tires and assemblies are expensive, so we began an exhaustive and ultimately fruitless search. He remains convinced someone picked it up, threw it in the back of their unmarked van, and drove away, planning a quickie sale on Craigslist.

Considering my history with cars, losing a tire is rather dull. My dad, a brilliant electrical engineer, was notorious with the family vehicles. Our cars were driven until they all but dissolved. We once had an Oldsmobile Cutlass Sierra that stalled if I accelerated too quickly, so I learned to “butterfly” the carburetor with a Bic pen lid. One time its transmission link broke, forcing my brother Paul to drive it in reverse his entire two-​mile commute back home. After relentlessly complaining to my father that the dashboard “Check Engine” light was constantly on, he calmly informed me one evening that he “fixed” it. His solution? Affix a tiny piece of black electrical tape over the sign. Problem solved.

Dad rarely went to a mechanic; instead he let the students at Forbes Vo-​Tech take a shot at the repairs. The fact that they were high schoolers didn’t bother him. I think the students probably liked having an actual “customer” and practiced adding unnecessary repairs and extra charges to his bill…not that my father would ever pay for anything extra; he was far too savvy.

Both my parents were big fans of Forbes Vo-​Tech. Mom would take me to their Beauty School (which I thought it was a super-​sized salon staffed by many nervous young hairstylists) for my $2.00 haircuts. Years later, I finally realized I was somebody’s final on “bangs.” Using my infallible 6th grade logic, I concluded that if putting a few drops of Johnson’s Baby Oil in your bath water made your skin soft and silky, a whole bottle slathered into your hair would do wonders. Mom dragged me up to Forbes and those poor students tried everything to remove the oil out of my hair: Comet, Lava Soap, Vinegar, Palmolive and Dawn dish detergent, and several aggressive shampooing sessions. Nothing worked.

We also owned a 1979 Chevy Impala which we held onto until 1991. Near the end of its 120,000-mile life, my brothers and I were not permitted to sit on the hood because the frame was so rusted it might break. Incidental bumps sent a blizzard of rust chips into the air. If I glanced down while driving, I could see the road speeding past through a small hole in the rusted floorboards near the pedals. I’d park it and leave it unlocked, keys in the ignition, just wishing for it to get stolen.

Dad’s pride and joy was the driver’s side door handle, so badly rusted that I accidentally completely ripped it off. Most people would buy a new handle, or possibly a whole new door, but not my dad. He cut and removed part of the door panel, and somehow rigged up the door mechanism with a thick cable attached to a wooden tool handle. He then replaced the rectangular hole with a cookie sheet, pop-​riveted it to the door, smeared on some kind of rubbery adhesive he simply called “gookum,” and covered the whole monstrosity with some extra paint that never quite matched the car door.

As unsightly as it was, it worked perfectly. However, to normal people, it appeared that it was attacked by a crazed handyman, who had stabbed the side with a large awl and then left the scene of the crime, leaving the murder weapon behind. I quickly tired of other drivers passing and glancing my way, then pointing at my car door and either giving me a confused/​frightened look or laughing their heads off.

If my dad could see me now, he would be proud. I am following closely in his footsteps as both our vehicles, bought “AS-​IS”, are holding up nicely. What’s a wheel in the scheme of things?

Elizabeth Wiethorn

Elizabeth is a freelance writer and lifetime Pittsburgher who resides in the North Hills. She has worked in adult literacy, at a financial investment firm, as a kindergarten teacher’s aide, as a debt collector, and even as an entrepreneur. Her BA in English from the University of Dayton and her MBA from Duquesne University provide her with the unusual combination of being able to “cook the books” but also write a concise, grammatically-​correct statement denying all wrongdoing. She finds humor in the everyday and loves to laugh, especially at other people. All emails praising her undeniable talent can be sent to .

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