Monday, March 21, 2011


It was a few years ago.  Kids were still pretty young.  Our family car was that fleet standby of young parents everywhere, a minivan.

Ours was a 1991 Dodge Caravan in dark blue(sorta - more on that another time).  This vehicle had enjoyed a couple of small modifications.  On a previous trip to Minnesota (the long way, via Canada around Lake Superior's north shore) it had been the foundation of a homebrew tent system, a sort of collapsible RV.  It worked pretty well for that trip.  Now here we were a couple of years later and ready for our next trip.

This one wouldn't require the tent.  The trip was to visit my sister (not an actual sister, a dear friend since third grade - I care for her too much for her to not be family) in Massachusetts with her new husband.  The journey would take us right past my parents' home, and there would be plenty of lodging to be found along the east coast as we went further north.  Part of the point of the journey was to experience a lot of the country.

So: the van enjoyed a big service from me.  I changed the oil and filter, changed the air filter, dug around under it looking for grease fittings and lubing the chassis where I could.  I spent a couple of hours clambering around the inside of the van, removing every interior panel, placing small leather pads under each panel where it contacted the body or another panel.  I was on a mission to eliminate squeaks.

It worked.  The van hadn't been this silent on the day we bought it.  It wasn't perfect, but it was a lot better.

I installed a cruise control.  Unlike the fiasco with the aftermarket cruise control in our previous car, the Hyundai, I resolved to install this one myself.  It was a snap.  We tried it out over several highway trips and it worked perfectly, tapping up, tapping down, disengaging with brake applications.  And since I did the installation myself, I was already certain that there could be no cable snags to send us careening across the countryside.

Finally the day came.  Sweetie had already compiled a comprehensive packing list, which we then followed.  Sweetie's organizational skills are far beyond my own, so I simply packed what she said.  The van's luggage space filled right up, dumbbells under the seat, wedged in by small bags, larger bags in the wayback.  Occasional bags stayed in seats close to boys, so they could have easy access to their books and games while driving.  A small cooler full of ingredients could be called into play at any moment to make food on the road, to save a few bucks.

The time for the off came.  We were off before sunrise, drove for an hour to make the turn northward onto I-81, doing well.  This part of the trip is utterly unremarkable.

Our initial plan was to bend our route at Roanoke, to proceed across the width of the state and bend north again in Richmond.  Having only taken this route once before - and most of that at night - we thought it might be interesting to see some new sights.

We eventually arrived in Roanoke, VA.  Once upon a long, long time ago I lived in Roanoke while my father was a student at the college there.  I don't remember it, that's how young I was.  But as it was the western terminus of any major roads spanning Virginia from side to side, it was a good place to stop for a late breakfast.  Besides, we had never stopped in Roanoke before.

We had breakfast at a place called Famous Anthony's.  Well, it couldn't be too famous.  I'd never heard of it. But the service was astoundingly fast.  My order came to me in less than two minutes.  The food was simple, inexpensive, and tasty.  We enjoyed ourselves.

Over breakfast, we debated a little and even took a vote: who wanted to go east and see a new part of Virginia, and who wanted to go north and get to the grandparents' quicker?  It was unanimous: let's get to the grandparents faster.  I voted last, so I wouldn't influence the kids.  I need not have worried.

We fired up and headed on, pausing briefly to take in an especially charming older part of Roanoke, and enjoy its library's dramatic design.  Sweetie was a librarian at the time, so we were always interested in libraries.  When we got back to the car to keep going, it stumbled.

"What's up?"

"Dunno."  It stumbled a lot.  Power went way down, way way down.  Finessing and feathering kept the car moving at a snail's pace.  I limped it into a convenience store lot and shut it down.  We called AAA.

About fifteen minutes later, AAA's on-call mechanic showed up.  He poked around under the hood.  "Well, whatever it is, it's none of the usual suspects.  Your battery's fine, ignition seems to be okay, tranny's okay.  Judging by how it's acting, I think your computer's dead."

"How bad is that?"

"Sorry to say it, but pretty bad.  You say you were able drive it here after it started going out?"

"Barely, but yeah.  I really had to work at it."

"Well, I'm impressed.  Usually when the computer goes, that's it.  Never heard anybody keep it moving before."

We got a tow to a nearby service shop, one that was fortunately only a couple of blocks away from a motel.  As disastrous as this breakdown was, here's where things actually started going right.  First, the tow was less than the free ten mile limit, so that was that.

The guys at the service station were very sympathetic.  "Well, we can crack it open and see what's what.  Maybe you got lucky and we can have you running and on your way."  This was Merchant's Tire and Auto Centers, I think.  I thought that with a name like Merchant's Tire my problem would be outside their range, but they told me not to worry.  "We do it all.  I drive two vans just like yours, myself."

Next, the motel had a stranded motorist rate, maybe only half of their usual rates.  They were extremely helpful, offering to provide the usual amenities a traveler would have: toothbrushes, shampoo, that sort of thing.  We had it at hand, having already toted it up from the auto service place.  But hearing someone offering to help was taking a lot of the edge off.

We started to relax.  Being as flexible and adaptable as only young kids can be, the boys pulled their swim trunks on and jumped into the pool.  Sweetie went with them, but they didn't stay long: the pool was very cold.  I got my feet wet and decided that was plenty cold enough, thanks.  We got dry and warm and ordered pizzas delivered, and watched movies on cable.  We had already planned to overnight somewhere, so my parents weren't expecting us yet.

The next morning, I called Merchant's.  First surprise, they were open on a Sunday.  "Well, I hate to say it but it isn't looking good.  It looks like your computer's completely cooked.  You're going to need a new one."

My heart sank.  "Is that very expensive?"

"Well, it is and it isn't.  Chrysler cranked out about a zillion of these vans, so there's lots of parts available.  But the engine computer is usually a lifetime thing, so they don't make as many of those available as they do, say, windshields.  A new computer is going to be around a thousand bucks, give or take."


"Yeah.  But it's cheaper than a new car."

"Yeah.  Okay, I'm going to get a rental for while we wait."

I called around.  Paradoxically, only one rental company would really talk to me: National Car Rental.  You'd think all the rental places would be just dying to rent a car on the weekend.  National sent a guy to pick me up, and fifteen minutes later we had a Chevy Malibu back at the motel.  Now we weren't stuck at the motel, which was a good thing.  We puttered over Roanoke, looking around, enjoying the sights.  But still when we got back to the motel, we were living in a motel.  It had only been a day, but it was already starting to wear.

The next morning, I called Merchant's again.  "I found you a computer, it's on its way."

"Definitely the computer, then?"

"Oh, yeah.  You said you were able to keep it running?"

"Not very well, but yeah."

"Wow.  Anyway, your computer ought to be here Wednesday.  Give us a day to plug it in and test it out and it's good to go by Thursday morning."

"Okay, thanks."  I hung up.  I told everyone the news.  "It looks like the rest of our vacation is cancelled.  We can't make the trip and have a decent visit before we have to turn right around and come back."

Son #2 spoke up.  "Why couldn't we just keep the rental and keep going?"

Let me point out that Son #2 was about seven years old at the time.  At any rate, why indeed.  I called National and asked if we could simply retain the car.  "Sure.  Have a great trip."

We went to Merchant's and removed the rest of our luggage, and here's where I discovered something amazing: the trunk of the second-gen Malibu, ca 2002 is like a Las Vegas magic act.  Sweetie was pulling from the van and handing to me, as I took from her and arranged into the trunk of the Malibu.  All of a sudden, I had my hands out and nothing was put in them.  I almost fell over when I didn't get my expected load.

"What's up?"

"Van's empty.  That's everything."

"That can't be right, I can still see the floor of the trunk."

"Well, it's empty back here."  And it was.  What I had had to distribute carefully throughout the van fit so easily into the trunk of the Malibu, it looked like there was room back there for luggage for at least two more people.  I was amazed.  We closed up the van and I left instructions with the Merchant's manager.

"If there's a fire, get everyone to safety and just roll it in."


So we set off.  Let me add now, I'm not a big fan of General Motors in general.  I hear too much Chevy love from my southeastern neighbors and have to go all contrary.  But with that said, this Malibu was a jewel.  It was fast, silent, smooth and impressively comfortable.  Having lost their individual bench seats in the van, the boys were still perfectly satisfied with the excellent seats in the Chevy.  And it got fantastic fuel mileage compared to the van.

We got to my folks' house and spent a night or three with them.  At one point, Dad being who he is, we had to take the Malibu for a spin so he could feel a Chevy after fifteen years away from them.  "This is pretty nice," he said.

"Yeah.  I'm not sure I'm giving it up when the time comes."

After leaving the folks, we did start taking the scenic route.  There are glorious old towns to be seen in Delaware, awash in history and old charm.

The Lewes-Cape May ferry, even in such sheltered waters as these, made Sweetie horribly seasick.  The bartender took one look at her and said, "Bar's closed!"  And he jogged aft to get a small package of Dramamine.  Sweetie took one of those and sipped carefully at a tumbler of ginger ale over the rest of the trip.  To this day, she doesn't like to talk about it.  The boys and I ran all over the ship, enjoying the view and the wondrous, ponderous roll and pitch as we went along.  I'll bet Sweetie reads that line and closes her eyes, regretting having seen it.  Sorry, luv.

Sweetie napped on and off the rest of that day.  Dramamine will do that to you.

We saw Atlantic City.  All the billboards face you on your way in.  There are no billboards offering anything on your way out.  Atlantic City welcomes you!  But when you have no money left, they're done with you.  Good-bye.  Come back after you've saved up some more spending cash.  I was glad to leave Atlantic City, it was awful.

We went up the Garden State Parkway.  It was beautiful, for about one hundred yards on either side of the road.  After that, disaster.  A lot of New Jersey isn't very attractive.

We slept in a motel in New Jersey, not far from Sandy Hook, I think.  I had kind of intended to see the nude beach in Sandy Hook, but we got there late.  The police were called on people in rooms above us twice during the night, so we didn't get a lot of sleep and didn't really care to hang around in Jersey.

We skipped through New York, just brushing the north end of the city.  Connecticut didn't make much impression on the way through.  I blinked and missed Rhode Island, it took about forty-five minutes to drive through.
To Be Continued

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