Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Up in Smoke

The last 10 days or so have been a wild ride. Eddie and Peter went back to school. Creegan started preschool. After a decade-long hiatus, Melanie is once again living her dream of being a Kindergarten teacher. Life is busy. Aside from the minor ways in which I assist with everything listed above—and my contributions to most of these things are very, very minor, I readily admit—I have spent much of the last week researching cars. If you read this blog, you are probably Melanie, my mom, or me, so you already know this, but Melanie and I no longer own a functioning automobile. After nearly eight years of faithful service to my family and a brief but awe-inspiring battle with fire, our Toyota Corolla passed away on Sunday, August 16th. It was 16 years old.

To tell this story properly, I need to go back to Saturday, August 15th. On the evening of said date, I was going to head out and run some errands. Up until this point, our car had been working just fine. But when I started the car that evening, it was shuddering and convulsing the way cars often do when they’re about to stall. I backed out of the driveway to see if using the gas would help the car come to its senses, but it did not. I quickly pulled back into the driveway, shut off the car, waited a moment, and restarted the car. Nothing had changed. I again shut off the car and decided to check the oil. It made no sense to me that oil would be the problem, but the only problem I’ve known our car to have (and I’m not sure it’s a “problem” so much as a nuisance) is that it burns a lot of oil. The oil was just at the minimum level line, so I topped it off, not really seeing how this could possibly affect anything. But being that it was the only thing I knew how to do, I did it. It didn’t help. When I restarted the car, it was still having its spasms. I decided to take it for a spin around the block, just to see if anything would change. I backed out of the driveway and the car immediately died. When I turned the key, it started back up without a problem, which gave me the tiniest bit of comfort. I then drove around the block.

The car made it around the block, but it was shaky the entire time. Also, pushing on the accelerator seemed to make little to no difference in how fast the car would go. It topped out just above the speed any automatic car would go if you put it in drive and merely took your foot off the brake. I returned home and let the car sit. Not much later, Melanie’s dad came home. He knows much, much, much more about cars than I do and has been roped into fixing all of his kids’ cars on numerous occasions. We asked him to look over the Corolla. He did so, reporting back to us that he expected it was the spark plugs. As I understand it, he replaced the spark plugs, but it didn’t help. I’m not entirely sure what all he looked at or tried, but he eventually came to us and said the car was now working fine, noting that the spark plug wires had been the true culprit. We rejoiced in once again having an operating vehicle and went to sleep peacefully that night.

On Sunday morning, we got ready for church and loaded ourselves into the car. It started up beautifully. Everything seemed fine. Well, sort of. The check engine light was on—but it had come on the night before, and I know those lights don’t always go out immediately after you fix something. More worrisome to me was the strong smell of gasoline. It was very strong. I know sometimes after a car is worked on, it stinks or smells strongly of this or that chemical or what have you. I assumed that’s all it was, and we started our 20-ish minute drive to church. The smell dissipated as we drove, which seemed like a good sign. And yet whenever we stopped at a stoplight, it became quite intense again. Ridiculously and unbearably strong. I expressed concern about it. Melanie thought we should continue and just ask her dad about it later. Clearly, neither of us thought it was of such importance that we shouldn’t be driving the vehicle. And so we continued.

Aside from the smell of gasoline, everything went fine and dandy until just after Melanie and I exited the freeway. We stopped in the left turn lane at a red light just a few blocks from our church. While stopped, I suddenly noticed the oil light and battery light on the dash become illuminated. The car may have stalled, which would explain those lights coming on. I think it probably did, but I didn’t really have time to think about it before smoke started to billow out from under the driver’s side of the hood. I think I had just enough time for “oh crap” or some such sentiment to pass through my mind before a flame shot out from underneath the hood. I say “shot out” because it flared up enough to be seen, but I don’t want to be overly dramatic. It wasn’t something I’d want to describe as “explosive,” although people keep using the word “exploded” when they talk about the event with me. Regardless, I didn’t feel a sense of panic, but I did recognize the urgency of the situation and immediately told my family to get out. Melanie assisted Edison and Peter, who exited the car on the passenger side. I helped Creegan, who had been sitting behind the driver’s seat. We hurried over to the gas station on the southeast corner of the street and watched as the smoke being belched out from underneath the hood increased and darkened. Peter and Creegan were crying. Melanie was too. Eddie seemed fascinated by it all, although I think his relatively positive demeanor was probably his way of dealing with such an intense situation. (I have seen a similar response in myself when big things have happened.) Melanie called her dad and 911. I called our associate pastor and let him know we wouldn’t be at church, something that seemed important only because Melanie was slated to teach the Sunday school class for young children. A very kind man, without any request from us, ran over to our car and grabbed some stuff out of it (including the Crockpot full of food we were bringing for the potluck after church). A very kind woman offered to let our kids sit in her car and listen to music to try to put them at ease. This man and woman were the first heroes on the scene. Others would soon arrive.

When the fire department arrived, they went to town on our car. They sprayed it down, then proceeded to saw into our hood and peel it open can-opener style. For whatever reason, they also smashed the driver’s side window. Melanie’s dad had arrived on the scene to take us back home. We waited for the hubbub to die down, at which point we were allowed to collect more belongings from our car. It was a good thing. Melanie had her work ID in the car, we had car seats in the back, and various other little things were gathered. Our beloved Corolla was then towed away. We went home, some of us more traumatized than others. (For whatever reason, I never felt too distraught by it all. “That’s a bummer” probably summarizes quite well how I felt about it.) Melanie contacted the insurance company and learned that we could pick up a rental car the next morning. We tried to spend the rest of our Sunday in as relaxed a manner as was possible.

Since approximately 8 AM on Monday, August 17th, Melanie and I have been driving a rental car—a little black Fiat that all too frequently has to downshift in order to pick up speed—as we wait on a settlement from our insurance company (which has indeed declared our Corolla a “total loss”). I have spent copious hours online researching used cars. The bulk of my time in the last week or so has been spent on this. It’s probably overkill, but I always get stressed over major purchases and want to be smart about it. Used cars in particular cause me stress, because it feels like such a crapshoot. What’s more, I’m trying to determine the best plan for getting us into two cars as soon as possible. Melanie and I had been talking about getting another car and letting the Corolla become our secondary car. We had talked about this the day before such plans quite literally went up in smoke. That’s the biggest disappointment about losing the Corolla—not that we have to buy another car now, but that doing so gets us no further ahead in being a two-car family. With Melanie’s new income, I am hopeful that we can yet pull it off to have two cars. But figuring out more than one decent used car, at least one of which must be relatively cheap, only adds to the stress.

I will conclude with the four images I snapped on my cell phone. My cell phone camera is quite shoddy, so you get what you get. Enjoy!

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