Caprice On Ice

Now that a hard winter is past us, it’s probably safe to write a story about said season without hearing an uproar.

Winters are usually a take-your-pick kind of season.  It seems we have either snowy ones or cold ones in the Midwest.

But one year, (to set the drama) my destiny lay not in the flakes nor the frigid air.  No.  It lay in the ice.

We lived in the country during the 90’s, and with more open spaces than in the city, winter’s effects were usually magnified.

One morning we awoke to a beautiful winter scene of glistening ice covering the countryside.  But, being that my wife, my son and I all needed to get to work, we knew that the affected landscape also included roads.  Icy gravel roads that we had to traverse.

Against my wife’s and my advice to wait a bit until the temperature moderated and the ice melted, my son left for work in his pickup truck at his usual time.  In fifteen minutes, he was back.  The pickup had not gotten stuck:  It had simply slid into the ditch.

And so, I waited another couple of hours, until I thought conditions had improved somewhat.

Now, a 1984 Chevy Caprice is really not your rugged type car.  In fact, in the vernacular of the car world, it and all of  its cousins – the Ford Crown Victoria and the Lincoln Continental – are referred to as “floaters.” Their ride is velvety on the highway, and they handle reasonably well in the city, but they’re not “country” vehicles.  Rear wheel drive and low to the ground make them lousy in snow.  But, in all fairness, nothing does well on ice, and this is what we faced that morning.

I’d bought the Caprice when we still lived in the city, and, as with all of my cars, I planned to keep  it until it started becoming unreliable.  Just me:  Seems I can’t get rid of a vehicle until it’s on its last legs.  Country-fied or not, it would have to do.

I waited until about ten o’clock that morning, and then decided I’d give it a try.  Our driveway opened to a quarter mile upgrade to the stop sign, and there the road leveled off.  Make it to the intersection, and you were home free.

I took a run down the driveway and onto the gravel road.  Traction seemed okay as I passed my son’s pickup sitting in the ditch.  I was about midway to the stop sign.  I think I’m going to make it.

The rear wheels start to spin, and the Caprice comes to a complete stop, the tires whining uselessly.  I step on the brake and an odd sensation overtakes me.  The car doesn’t stop, but instead begins sliding backwards, down the incline, heading straight toward my son’s white pickup, its driver’s side door looming closer and closer.  I think that a family story is forming, one that I will never live down.

But the Caprice mercifully stops six feet short of the truck, still on the road.

I put it in park, gently exit the car, and survey my predicament.  If I try to go forward, the Caprice might just continue slipping backwards, into the pickup.  And there is not enough space to try backing the car away from the truck.

So, out of desperation, I bend over, grasp the corner of the rear bumper, and push.  Miraculously, the rear of the car slides sideways toward the center of the road, away from the truck.  I push again, and it slides a little more.  Forget any monumental feat of strength:  It was a case of the road being just that icy.

I push again, and my smile of satisfaction suddenly changes to one of shock, as the rear end not only slides sideways, but then the entire car resumes its backwards slide down the road, with me attached.  The rear wheels are not moving, because the transmission is still in park.  Nevertheless, they slide along the ice like sled runners.

The Caprice spins 180 degrees, the front end now heading down the road with me still grimly gripping the rear bumper.  Its starts to head toward the ditch on the other side of the road, as I try to “steer” the 4000 pound machine with the bumper.  You can guess how effective that is.  Luckily, there is no one around to see this car-turned-sled with the guy skating along in back.

The car continued on, and were it not for a ridge of gravel along the edge of the road, it would have plowed into the ditch, claiming two family vehicles that day.  As it was, the ridge slowed the Caprice and it eventually stopped short of the ditch.

Another DiMari made the walk home.  I’d had it.  There was no way I was going to try and move that car.

Later in the day, the ice melted enough where we pulled the pickup out of the ditch with a tractor, and the Caprice was able to move on its own.

The only one of us three who made it to work that day was my wife, who waited until she was sure the ice had melted.  To her credit, she never gloated…much.



A Lemon And A Paperclip

Have you ever owned a bad car?  I mean a real beast that you grow to despise?  One that you wish you could drive to the top of a high cliff and joyfully push over the edge, cheering its demise as parts fly off and boulders crush fenders and the whole metal mess somersaults to the bottom, a pancake of its former self?

If you said no, I’m glad you’ve been spared the ordeal.  If yes, I’m sure you’ll commiserate.

I needed a small pickup truck in the early 1980’s, because we’d bought a wood burning stove and I wanted something economical to haul firewood, along with basic transportation.  Researching magazines and library articles (unfortunately, no internet access at this time), I decided on a Datsun – now Nissan – pickup.  So I checked the newspaper ads daily, until seeing a likely candidate.

It was a nice-looking little yellow pickup, decent body, and only 49,000 miles, and after a test-drive, I decided to buy it from the private owner, who said the reason he was selling was that he was leaving town (now I know why).

Problems started soon after.  Hard starting, it used oil, and about six months later, the transmission went out.  I began wondering if the odometer had turned over once…or maybe even twice, because in those days, odometers largely went only to 99,999 miles, before returning to zeroes.

But the biggest misadventure came one winter night, after attending an adult education class at the local community college.

On my way home, the thing simply died while driving on a main street.  Luckily, I had enough momentum to turn off onto a side street and pull over.

Cell phones were only a wish to the future at this time.  And I didn’t relish knocking on doors at night asking to use the telephone; people can understandably feel uneasy.  That would be a last resort.  For now, I was on my own.

The engine turned over, but refused to start, and I knew I had plenty of gas.  I thought of rolling it down the hill and trying to jump start, but decided against it.  I checked under the hood and everything seemed okay for as much as I could see – I had no flashlight.  I pulled on the throttle linkage, though, and no gas pumped into the carburetor, so I figured it had to be some sort of fuel problem.

I had worked on this truck enough to know that it had an electric fuel pump, and I knew where the wiring was located.  So, with numbed fingers, I felt along the rear of the frame, until I located the wires.

Sure enough, one of the fuel pump wires had broken off the connection.  The problem was, I needed a piece of wire to splice everything together, and I had none.

Think, DiMari.

Searched the glove compartment and my traveling tool box; nothing.  Searched under the seat; same.

Looked under the floor mat; nothing but a paperclip.

A paperclip.  Okay, let’s try to make do.  So, I straightened it, and, by feel, spliced the wire ends onto the clip, then put electrical tape over the whole thing.

Got into the truck and turned the key.  I knew if the wire had been the problem, that it would take a moment or two for the gasoline to be pumped to the carburetor.

The engine turned over, and turned over.  And started!

And  before it could change its mind, I hurriedly made the ten-block trip home.

Soon after, I sold the beast.  I sold it cheap, as a parts vehicle, and made sure the buyer knew what I knew about it, beforehand.

But it does make for a good story:  The night I made it home on a paperclip.

An even better story would have been:  “Flattened pickup truck  found at bottom of cliff – owner ecstatic.”