KENT WARD

Adding the common shoe to the mix

Posted May 13, 2011, at 9:14 p.m.

My first mistake was parking my pickup truck on a downhill slant, parallel to the Main Street sidewalk, the steering wheel cranked sharply to the left to nudge a front wheel into the granite curb in case the old girl, in my absence, might decide to take off on her own.

My second mistake was shutting off the engine while I visited the post office to pick up my mail. When I returned and put the key in the ignition, the steering wheel remained locked dead-solid tight and leftward. No amount of jiggling the wheel or fiddling with the key or sweet-talking the ignition apparatus out of its petulant mood would allow me to turn the key to start the engine.

It was a fine mess I had gotten myself into. But as I sat pondering my next move, memories of a similar long-ago incident came rushing in to save the day. In that instance, a sporty little car I had recently acquired pulled the same stunt on me when I parked on Bangor’s State Street to run an errand.

After making no progress in wrestling with the problem, I rang up the dealership where I had purchased the vehicle. The man advised me to call the roadside assistance hot line number listed on a decal in the vehicle’s rear window.

Skeptical that some customer service guy in Michigan could unlock my frozen steering wheel in Maine — the latest advances of technology notwithstanding — I nonetheless did as told. I was patched in to the office of a cheerful man who seemed far more optimistic than I as to chances of getting me unstuck via long-distance telephone instructions.

After I had told him my sorry tale of being marooned up the Penobscot River without a clue, and so forth, he said he was pretty sure he could help, although not until I had paid the price by answering a few obligatory questions for the record: Name. Phone number. Make of car. Mileage. Vehicle identification number. Color of vehicle.

Color of vehicle?  What in God’s name could the color of the vehicle possibly have to do with fixing a frozen-in-place steering wheel? When I replied “light jade metallic” I half-expected Mr. Cheerful to exclaim, “Well, there’s your problem, right there.”

Instead, he offered something more profound. “Now, I know this is going to sound stupid,” he said. “But I want you to place the key in the ignition, take off a shoe and use it to give the end of the key a few good whacks.” He said that should realign things in the ignition mechanism, and I would soon be on my way.

Should the shoe tactic not work, however, I was to call him back and he’d come up with some other equally high-tech resolution to my problem. He rang off and I returned to my car, where a gaggle of sidewalk superintendents awaited.

When I took off my boot to have a go at the quick-fix solution, an elderly onlooker unabashedly critiqued my form. “You’re babying it,” he scoffed. “Whale the hell out of ’er.” Since whaling the hell out of ’er seemed like overkill, I opted instead for a well-executed tunk. Suddenly, everything clicked. The key turned, the wheel unfroze, and I was soon headed for the open road, as my Michigan rescuer had promised.

So when my latest lockout occurred a few days ago, it occurred to me that if the shoe trick worked15 years ago on a new car it might work, as well, on an aging truck 11 years into the new century.

Off came the hiking boot, and right there on Main Street USA I hammered away at the key in the ignition, giving it a good thrashing, as of yore. Bingo. Within seconds, things popped into proper alignment and I was soon back on my appointed rounds.

True Mainers have long appreciated the value of baling wire, binder twine, chewing gum, official State of Maine duct tape, and the all-purpose ball-peen hammer as essentials in righting the occasional minor mechanical malfunction.

Because each of those items has saved my bacon on occasion, I carry them in my highway survival kit. This week, having finally smartened up after being twice burned, I added an old shoe to the mix.

BDN columnist Kent Ward lives in Limestone. His email address is maineolddawg@gmail.com.

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