Wild Palms

Outside my window, at the Needles, California, Best Western, the palm trees are getting hysterical from a westerly wind. I am going to drive into that wind in a little while, I hope. Stephen is driving from Prescott, bringing my pickup on a car hauler. He's going to pick up the Saab. It has turned out to be one of those used cars that is visited on us from disgruntled ancestors.

The Saab came off Stephen's lot, and as he suggested, I took it to a mechanic in Prescott who advertises he specializes in European car repair. I wouldn't have noticed the pale blue 92 9000cd except that it is the car my daughter always points out as her dream car. The love of a father for his daughter is the root of a lot of foolishness. The Saab is just one example, but it's the one I'm dealing with now.

Yesterday it was covered with snow and the battery was dead. It's been sitting in the driveway unused, because there always seems to be something else it needs. To begin with, the mechanic who checked it out for me said he couldn't find anything wrong with it. But it had a little problem. The engine temperature gauge showed that it was sometimes running hot, but then would normalize. "No problem," I thought. "It has to be the thermostat." So I took it to the only mechanic in Prescott who specializes in Saab repair and asked him to replace the thermostat, and check it out again to make sure it doesn't need anything else.

When I went back he told me it needed some hoses and a water pump.

"It doesn't need a radiator, does it?" I asked. I had decided that was where I would draw the line and not put any more money in it. He said it didn't. But I thought the prices he was giving me were pretty high, though I didn't have experience with European cars. I drive Japanese cars. My truck is a supercharged Nissan Frontier four wheel drive pickup. I love it, but it doesn't get very good gas mileage.

As I was driving out of Chino Valley and got the Saab up to speed, I was pleased to notice that it wasn't shimmying anymore. Getting the tires balanced fixed that problem, though the man at Big O told me one of the wheels is bent. Maybe it is, but it wasn't causing the problem. The Saab was steady as a rock when I turned onto Interstate 40 and accelerated up to 85 to check it out.

As it turned out, it had needed a radiator. And as it turned out, when I went on the internet and started pricing the hoses and water pump, I realized that the mechanic was buying low and selling high. I don't mind somebody making a reasonable markup on parts, but they aren't in the parts business, they are in the repair business, and they charge a pretty high hourly rate. I know that the estimated time for a repair isn't the time spent. Often the time spent is well under the hours charged.

But we all put up with this because we don't fix our own cars. The last time I worked on my own car I could look under the hood and understand the pathway of the spark and fuel. That was years ago. When I opened the hood of the Saab I couldn't even find the dipstick. As it turned out it is attached to the oil filler cap. I checked the transmission fluid and it was black dirty. I remembered that when Linda picked up the car from the mechanic she decided to not get the fluids changed there. "He wants too much money for that," she said. "We can get those changed somewhere else."

I knew how she felt. He had called back and told us it did need a radiator after all. Of course that was after he'd already pulled it apart. We were faced with the choice of giving the car to Big Al to sell for us or give to one of his relatives, or whatever he does with the booty, or go ahead and put about fifteen hundred into it. I was feeling pretty unfriendly toward the mechanic who told me there the car wouldn't need any investment. I had already taken it to get the air conditioning fixed, which turned out to be over two hundred dollars in repair. And the guy who fixed it did something which disabled the air bag, and couldn't fix it when I took it back in.

So I was driving without a working air bag, because I didn't know how to reset it and neither did anybody else I talked to. Still, I had a seat belt which I assumed was working.

So this is the car I jump started yesterday to drive to the coast, where I was going to leave it as a city car my daughter can use. I left it running and went in the house to get my bags. When I came out the driver's side window was down. "How did that happen?" I must have accidentally hit the button. I reached down to put it back up and saw that the tray in the console, beside the power window and sunroof controls, was full of water. It must have leaked from the sunroof. I made a mental note that it had to be resealed.

I would get that done when I put in a new windshield. The first time I drove the Saab over to Camp Verde to check it out it rained, and rain poured in through the bottom of the windshield where the molding had worn away. I told myself that this is normal for an old car, and I would replace the windshield and it would solve that problem. As I was driving into the sun out of Needles, I realized the windshield is so old and pitted you can't see through it when driving into the sun. I was wishing I had the air bag working, just in case.

But when I stopped for gas I realized it used half the gas my truck would use, and it was driving really nicely. True, I had almost gotten a ticket when a cop on the other side of the freeway slowed and pointed at me to get me to check my speed. The cruise control, as it turns out, won't work, so it's hard to keep it on an even speed. But all in all I was feeling like the Saab was going to be a pretty good car ...

... with just a little more investment ...

I was thirty miles out of Needles when I noticed the "check engine" light.

This was disappointing because the mechanic who buys low and sells high told me that after his repairs the car was completely trustworthy. I was lucky enough to be just coming up on the only service station in that area, which is a long, desolate stretch of the Mohave desert. I pulled in and checked the oil. It was okay. I checked the transmission fluid. There was none. So I went inside and bought enough to refill it so I could get it back to Needles. "Do you have some kind of funnel?"

After checking the owner's manual I realized it wasn't me, there really wasn't anyplace to refill it except the dipstick tube, which seemed very small. The guy in the service station had no mechanic, and no funnel of any kind. I searched around the store trying to find something to make into a funnel, and settled on a paper plate, which I rolled and tried to put the end in the dipstick tube. The last light of day was fading away. I finally got what I thought would work, but the fluid wouldn't go in. It began to spill out and run down onto the driveway.

I went back in and looked some more, but there was nothing better to make a funnel out of that would go into a hole smaller than a penny. So I called Linda and we agreed I should get it towed back to Needles, get a motel, and Stephen would bring me my truck on a car hauler and take the Saab back to Prescott.

"There's an old guy in there who wrecked his rig, trying to find a ride back into Needles," I said. "I told him I'd at least ask you, but I know it's probably an insurance problem." The AAA driver said he couldn't do it. I went back inside and told Dave I was sorry about that. After all, we'd become pals, sitting in that place where a 7up costs two dollars and change, and transmission fluid is worth approximately its weight in gold, though there's no funnel with which to get it into a transmission.

Dave is a fat man; there's no way around it. He came in wincing in pain, his ribs bruised from the accident, eh said. He sat down and was reading something. I looked over. "You reading Watchtowers?"

"It's something to read," he said. "I'm reading about Moses, man or myth?"

"By now he's myth," I said. "I was reading that they did a survey in England, and quite a few people, young ones I guess, think Churchill is a myth, but that Sherlock Holmes is real."

This started a wide ranging conversation. I was sorry to see Dave stuck there for another hour before he could get his ride into Needles, which was going to cost him forty bucks, he said. "You okay with the money?" I asked. He said he was.

So we rolled back down the highway to Needles, to the Best Western across the street from the AAA yard, where the Saab was unloaded. The driver and I stood around talking awhile. "How old do you think I am?" he asked. I'd told him I was sixty.

This was a tricky question. He was a big guy with a full beard so it was hard to tell how hold he might be. He's told me he has seven children, so I calculated that if he started at twenty or so and gave the woman time to rest between them they must add up to about twenty years worth of impregnation and delivery. "I don't know," I said, "maybe forty four?"

"Twenty-seven," he said. "I've lived a hard life." He began listing his injuries, and I couldn't help think of the Shell Silverstein song Bobby Bare did on "Lullabies Legends and Lies," called, "The Winner."

We talked awhile and then I went to the office to rent the room. He'd told me it would be between forty and fifty. It was seventy. But it's a nice room. The clock is ticking. Checkout time is in 15 minutes. I'll put my stuff in the Saab and hang out around here, waiting for my pickup. The Saab will return to Prescott, from where it may never more roam under my direction. I'm afraid my sentimentality about it's being the car I got for my daughter has faded, now. I don't want any more project cars, even if they are designed by aeronautical engineers in Sweden.

So I have to post now, and drive off into the wind with a tank of gasoline at Neeldes prices.

You don't even want to know.

Posted: Tue - February 5, 2008 at 11:48 AM