Internal combustion a mystery

Posted Dec. 02, 2010, at 8:42 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 29, 2011, at 12:44 a.m.

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who understand machinery and those for whom the workings of the internal combustion engine are a mystery akin to crop circles or the Aztec Sun Calendar.

I am decidedly in the latter group.

This point was driven home (pun intended) not long ago when I turned the key in the ignition of the normally reliable 1995 Toyota Camry and it produced only ominous clicking sounds.

If a car could have a death rattle, I suspect it would sound a great deal like that.

Now, engines and all things gas- or diesel-powered were the domain of my late husband, and in the cases of uncooperative engines, what’s a widow to do?

Why, call her friendly mechanic, of course.

Describing the sound in great detail complete with hand gestures — which were admittedly futile as the conversation with the mechanic was by phone — I was told the issue was more than likely the starter.

Jeanel the mechanic also suspected if I kept turning the key multiple times, eventually the car would start and I could drive it to the garage.

So, out I went and began turning the key. After what seemed like 100 attempts, the clicking noises were but faint whispers, leaving me to assume the battery was drawing down.

Super.

Fortunately, my friend Kim happened by to lend a hand in charging the now ailing battery.

Placing her car next to mine, she instructed me to hold one end of the jumper cables while she attached the other to her battery.

This is a brave and true friend as I have a somewhat dubious reputation when it comes to charging car batteries.

Awhile back when the Camry went dead thanks to my leaving the lights on, my friend James came by to give me a lesson in jump-starting vehicles.

I can only assume that he assumed — erroneously — I knew enough not to let the ends of the cables touch during this process.

When they did, producing an impressive arc of sparks and snapping sounds, I yelped and tossed them in the general direction of poor James.

James, in turn, leapt back a good three or four feet. Perhaps this is why they are called “jumper” cables in the first place.

Once the cables were properly connected during the recent Camry crisis, Kim revved her car, but to no avail. All my car would do was make those clicking sounds that seemed to originate in an engine part that looked as I would imagine a starter to look like.

Luckily, Jeanel makes house calls and that night he showed up tools in hand and with a flatbed, just in case.

But as is often the case when you tell a mechanic that the car is doing one thing, it will do another.

Sure enough, he opened the hood, tapped the battery, got into the car and fired her right up.

But the car’s problems weren’t completely in my imagination. Jeanel determined that there was a broken battery terminal connector, which he was able to jury-rig enough to make the car drivable to the garage for a more permanent fix.

Indeed, there is a history of engine troubles in my past, but the epitome of breakdowns — mechanical and near mental — occurred the winter my friend Penny and I thought it would be a good idea to pack up eight sled dogs, two sleds and enough gear for an extended Arctic expedition and drive to Labrador.

We crammed so much into the covered rear end of her Ford F-250 pickup truck that there wasn’t enough room for all the dogs, so one of her leaders rode in the truck’s back seat.

A leader, I might add, who had a mild cold and a very runny nose and who was happiest riding with that runny nose resting on my shoulder.

About two hours northeast of Fort Kent, somewhere along the St. Lawrence Seaway in Quebec, a loud bang came from the general direction of the truck’s front end.

Penny and I looked at each other and, in mutual silent agreement, ignored it.

Right up until a second bang minutes later caused the entire rig to veer into the oncoming lane, which was blessedly free of oncoming traffic.

This, we knew, could not be ignored, so Penny carefully maneuvered the truck over to the breakdown lane.

Since we are both members in good standing with AAA, after our hearts returned to a normal rhythm, it was our first call.

I described the problem to the nice lady on the other end of the phone and her first question was, “Where are you?”

We had no idea and my answer, “Quebec,” was a bit too general and vague.

Luckily, Penny is a registered Maine Guide, so she whips out a pair of binoculars, focuses on a distant roadside sign and slowly reads out loud, “Beinvenue A Bic.”

Our location now pinpointed, the Triple A woman assured us help was on the way, but then added the ominous instructions, “Don’t get out of the truck when the tow truck arrives.”

This made little sense to Penny and me, unless, of course, the Canadians were in the habit of hiring known felons as tow truck drivers.

Since this seemed unlikely, we ignored that order and hopped out of the Ford when an hour or so later the tow truck arrived.

That’s the good news. Bad news was the driver spoke no English and neither Penny nor I spoke enough French or mechanic.

A second call was placed, this time to my husband, who spoke both those languages fluently.

After a several-minutes-long conversation between my husband and the tow truck driver, I took the phone back and was told the driver would load the Ford onto his flatbed and bring us as far as Edmundston, New Brunswick, about a half-hour from Fort Kent.

However, we did not have the AAA coverage that would cover the cost of a tow that long for a truck of that size.

By that time it did not matter. All we wanted to do was get ourselves, the dogs and that balky truck back home. At any price.

As we stood and watched, the driver expertly maneuvered his flatbed, attached a winch to the Ford and dragged it onto the bed.

Since his was a smallish flatbed and Penny’s an extended-bed truck, by the time he was done there was maybe 6 inches of decking left behind the Ford’s back tires.

All the way to Edmundston he’d have to stop at the top of each hill, get out and rewinch the truck as gravity was causing it to creep backward.

Stressful? You bet.

We made it safely, and after the driver had unloaded the truck I took a deep breath and asked how much we owed him.

His response — in French — sounded like $500.

In my elementary French I was able to ask for a receipt and he busily began writing down what appeared to be endless columns of numbers which he added and then re-added to get the final sum.

We were afraid to look at that final amount, but when we did it turned out to be $5.87.

Apparently he’d taken pity on us and somehow calculated the mileage in such a way that we were only billed for very few miles.

We handed him a 50-dollar bill and indicated he should keep the change.

To this day I suspect the poor man wonders what two women, eight dogs — one with the sniffles — and all that gear were doing alongside the road just west of Bic, Quebec.

Given our lack of mechanical abilities, Penny and I are still asking ourselves the same thing.

Julia Bayly of Fort Kent is an award-winning writer and photographer, who frequently submits articles to the Bangor Daily News. Her column appears here every other Friday. She may be reached by e-mail at jbayly@bangordailynews.com.

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