Saturday, July 26, 2008

I Was Right All Along

I just knew that our old truck, Suzie Isuzu and I would get crosswise sooner than later.

O.K. Yeah, I’m spoiled. I’ve driven new cars for decades. After I’ve driven them awhile, they start to break, and I go get a new one. So, shoot me.

Regardless, there didn’t seem to be any sense in getting a new or near-new car for Costa Rica, driving it for a couple of weeks, then parking it in the garage for months, until our next trip to CR. Logically, we bought a 1994 ol’ beater. Dependable enough, but not breaking the bank. And NO PAYMENTS.

But then I started driving her and my love affair with Suzie started to sour:

• She burns oil.
• The rear doors are sticky and won’t always unlatch, without a jiggling and banging session. (And if somebody KEEPS slamming her seatbelt buckle in the door, they’re really hard to open.)
• The outside spare tire rack rattles and squeaks.
• The driver’s window sometimes won’t go all the way up, leaving a tiny crack that whistles air and dribbles rain.
• Radio? There’s a radio?
• The front windshield washer doesn’t work.
• She stalls a lot when she’s cold.
• She burns a lot of that $6.00 per gallon gas.
• The hatch window lift gas struts are worn out. They won’t lift all the way by themselves and they leak down, slowly letting the window close on your noggin while you’re loading groceries.
• She smells like an old truck that has been used to haul everything except (maybe) dead bodies.


Then I remembered, “No whiners allowed in CR.” So I sucked it up and we started to get along.

Things were going pretty well one Monday, considering that I’d received 2nd degree burns across the top of my left leg that morning.

That afternoon, we had driven to Alajuela to see Maritza and Venicio and to introduce them to our daughter, Jenny, who had arrived from the States for a visit.

Time kind of slipped away during our visit and before you know it we were saying our goodbyes in the dusk. A short stop at a roadside restaurant put us out on the road home even later -- well into the darkness.

THUNK! Clang-ity-clang-cling-dinkle-dinkle-dinkle.

“What was that? Did you see anything in the road? We hit something,” I said to co-pilot, Pat.

“Didn’t see a thing, but yeah, I think we must have hit something,” she responded.

We drove for about 10 more minutes, putting us well up into the mountains, on the winding stretch with no shoulder and no pull-offs.

PHWUMP PHWUMP PHWUMP. I knew the sound and feel of a flat tire.

Absolutely no place to pull off. No way to stop on these blind curves … in the dark … with the pavement wet from the evening rains. Cripes.

Then a couple of those Pura Vida drivers started flashing their lights and honking their horns because: a)., I had a flat and was driving on it (duh); and, b)., I’d slowed down to below the speed of sound on these curves because, I brilliantly reasoned, a flat tire probably doesn’t get as much traction on wet pavement curves as does a fully functioning tire.

Tensions went up inside the cockpit as the girls tersely informed me that I shouldn’t be driving on a flat tire and that I needed to … well … uh … do something! Okey dokey.

It was probably at least a half mile before there was even the hint of a semi-flat spot along the shoulder of the road. I started in towards one and then saw that it was probably soft mud. Bailing back out onto the road irritated yet another Tico and earned me his ire, manifest by a little ol’ blast on his horn.

Thankfully somebody lives somewhere back in them thar hills as a driveway entrance suddenly loomed in the headlights. Driveway = flat (ish) and driveway probably = gravel. I pulled right in.

We’re parked at the top of a hill, at the end of a blind curve, about a foot off the road’s pavement. I hit the 4-way flashers. Yee-hah, they work. Score 1 for the home team!

O.K., we might as well get on with it. I knew the location of the jack due to an accidental discovery of its little hiding cubby while poking around inside one afternoon. That much we had going for us. And, oh yeah, we knew where the spare tire was … right there on the back hatch, always in the way. Two things going for us!

In very short order, the jack was out of its storage, and yippee, the lug wrench was in there too. Three things to the plus column!

You just know there are going to be some inhabitants of the minus column, don’t you. Bingo. You’re right.

First, pop that spare tire/wheel off the carrier on the back hatch. Slip the lug wrench onto the first bolt … skreeeek … it squeals loose and backs out; do the second one … ooof! … tighter but out it came … the third one should be easy because it’s on the bottom and I can put all 300 pounds down onto it. Nope.

By the time I was finished jumping up and down (painfully) on the lug wrench, the head of the bolt was starting to round off and there hadn’t been so much as a little “click” of promise out of the stubborn fastener. A couple of times I just let my arms drop to my sides, figuring that the game was over. That 3rd bolt was not coming out.

We momentarily discussed locking up the mess, calling a taxi and getting a wrecker to take care of the problem in the morning. That didn’t sound fun. One last go at it. The hell with how my leg was feeling, lean into the bolt head with everything I’ve got and then kind of fall down against the lug wrench. It squeaked a little! Re-purchase the bite on the bolt head … and pound down on it once again and it turned. That pig was completely cross-threaded – who knows how many years ago – and was probably hammered home with an impact wrench. It ground out of its hole by hand, but not willingly.

Pat started to cram the jack under the side of the car. But I knew that there must be some exact spot for this jack to go and that just anywhere wouldn’t work. What I didn’t know was that the inscrutable engineers at Isuzu had thought long and hard about how to set up their jack/vehicle “exact spot” in a location most likely to cause pain, anguish and suffering for any stupid old gringo loony enough to get a flat tire in the dark and then park over sloshy-wet mud/gravel. Oh, yeah. Let me.

I found the old owner’s manual in the glove box (amazing!) and dug into the “Changing A Tire” page. Oh, lord. The jack must be positioned directly under the rear axle, immediately next to the inside of the leaf spring bracket. In other words, WAAAAY the hell up under the stinking car.

Great. I’m dressed in cut-off jeans – cut off so that my bandaged leg didn’t have the pain of anything pressing against the burns – a brand new shirt and Crocs. Pura Vida. No whining.

Under the truck you go, boy. Not that hard. Just skud the jack through the mud and feel around in the dark (I had brilliantly taken our flashlight out of the truck the day before and forgotten to put it back.) The jack nested right up under the axle tube. The jack actuator wheel turned easily as the jack rose up and made contact. The actuator wheel stopped turning. That thing was going no further without a serious handle.

“Anybody see a jack handle?” No answer.

Dragged my bod up off the mud pan and started through every nook and cranny of that *&%$ truck. Nothing. Yikes.

Oooo. Oooo. The owner’s manual.

Remember those inscrutable Isuzu engineers that designed the lift point for the jack in an impossible place? Well, the same guys were on the team to find a place to put the jack handle. Without the owner’s manual, nobody would ever find it. Ever.

Here’s the trick. The rear seat and seat back fold down to give extra load space. While folding the seat forward, the very underside of the seat becomes visible. It is completely covered with the same carpet/fabric as are the floors. That (I guess) is supposed to be a clue. “Why would anybody upholster the underside of the seat?” you’re supposed to ask yourself. As you may have guessed, with a clever array of Velcro closures, the underside upholstery peels away. And, there, amid the springs and foam rubber, are little clips holding the two long jack handle pieces.

Oh, uh, but they are just straight bars. No handle off to one side so that you can crank the durn things.

Owner’s manual is no help on this one.

Search, search, search. The girls looked everywhere while I lay on my back underneath Suzie trying as best I could to turn the jack’s wheel with no crank.

“Are you SURE that there isn’t a handle under the seat somewhere?”

Jenny is standing near my feet, holding the lug wrench. “What does this little slot do?” She asked, examining the lug wrench handle.

Sure enough, punched through the middle of the lug wrench handle was a little slot that I guess we were supposed to simply know was the exact size of the flats machined on the end of the jack handle. What a leap of logic.

O.K., now I bet you’re thinking that all I had to do was to just slide that handle in place and spin the jack up.

Nah. Isuzu has engineers.

Some feces-face little geek in god-knows-where, Japan, designed this jack’s gearing so that the jack handle, which is already too long to rotate a reasonable arc beneath the truck, can’t possibly exert enough force to lift the truck smoothly, given the normal strength of a regular person. You get to lay on your back, way under the truck, let out a karate shout, while simultaneously pushing with all your might on the jack handle. It moves a quarter turn and then clangs into the truck’s undercarriage. (If you pull on the handle, you just lift yourself up out of the mud.) Re-set the handle for another push and repeat.

So with way more effort than I EVER expected to put forth while on vacation, I grunted and groaned the damn truck up a good two inches.

I was resetting the wrench/handle when I perceived the truck moving. I shouted something to the girls and did a twisting roll out from under the truck as it slid in the mud and fell off the jack.

Hey, this is getting fun. Now the gauze on my legs is fully saturated with mud – it feels really good – and we get to start all over again.

The girls went on a rock hunt and somehow came back with several stones big enough to wedge under the tires, ensuring that Suzie wouldn’t take any more unplanned strolls.

I went back at it and finally got the beast up high enough to remove the flat.

But not high enough get the new tire onto the lug studs.

Crank; clang. Crank; clang. Crank; clang. And then the engineers struck one final time. Ya see … they didn’t want to waste all of that money designing and building those fine jacks with ¼” of extra, useless lift capability … so they didn’t. The ol’ jack ran out of travel and quit with, oh, maybe 1/16 of an inch of clearance under the spare as it finally slid onto the studs.

But it went on and the girls took over the final installation and tightening of the lug nuts. And the jack cranked right down, with ease, so long as the weight of a whole damn truck was pressing it down.

Within 15 minutes we were home, covered in mud and grit (all 3 of us). Those on-demand water heaters proved to be up to the task because we all wanted and took some really long showers.

I love this car.