A Weekly Column
By Joseph Walker


 There are three things you don’t want to hear when you’re driving.  The first is, “Are we there yet?”  Second is “I think I’m gonna be sick.”  And third is “Fire!”

 For the past 25 years, I’ve heard the first two things plenty of times from my five children.  But I hadn’t heard the third one until driving home from work last Monday.

OK, I didn’t actually hear it.  But I saw it on the lips of the gentleman driving the car next to mine.  Now, I’m not the freshest spark plug in the motor pool, but the fact that he was saying it while animatedly pointing underneath my car seemed to suggest that I had a problem.

Of course, I had just heard – and felt – something pop in the . . um . . you know, the part of the car where the engine is.  And I was experiencing a sudden loss of power.  This also alerted me to the possibility of automotive trouble on I-15.

 Which isn’t an altogether new experience for me.  My Toyota is just a couple of years short of being officially designated as a “classic.”  It’s been a good little car – excellent mileage, pretty dependable and fairly zippy – for nearly a quarter of a million miles.  But lately it’s been showing signs of age, and we’ve been having . . . you know . . . issues.  The noise, shudder and sudden loss of power reminded me a lot of when the alternator when out.  Or was it the idler arms?  Or the U-joint?  Or the serpentine belt?  Or the autosequencers?

 No, wait – that was on the Starship Enterprise.

I’m easily confused, especially when it comes to mechanical technology.

 Which is why I was uncertain about how to respond to a fire raging amidst the oil pans and gas tanks three feet in front of me.  Do I keep driving as fast as I can and hope the rushing air will blow the fire out?  Do I head for the nearest fire station?  Or do I just ignore it and hope it goes away (my technique of choice for when the “Service Engine Soon” light comes on)?

 Thankfully the gentleman driving the car next to mine had a firmer grasp of the situation than I did.  He started pointing emphatically to the right side of the freeway, and then pulled in front of me, slowed down and started pulling over himself.

 I followed him to a relatively safe stopping place, then scrambled out of my car and opened the hood so I could . . . well, I wasn’t exactly sure what to do.  So I did what I do every time I open the hood of my car – I stared at it and hoped the testosterone would kick in and fill me with insight and wisdom as to the inner-workings of my vehicle.  Everything looked the same as it always did: completely incomprehensible.  Only this time there were flames and stuff.

 Thankfully Tim – the gentleman in the car now parked in front of me – knew what to do.  He grabbed a jug of water from the back of his car and threw it on the flames, and suddenly everything was under control.  I thanked him for saving my life.

“Oh, you would’ve been fine,” he said.  “You would’ve just thrown some snow on it.”

 “Yeah,” I said.  “That’s exactly what I was going to do.”

What?  There was snow?

 Tim refused to leave until the Highway Patrol arrived.  He got a blanket out of his car and tried to wrap it around me even though I was wearing a jacket and he just had on a shirt.  He offered to give me a ride home even though I live a good 20 miles from him.

 As we stood there chatting we discovered that we had known each other in high school even though we went to different schools.  We had actually competed against each other a time or two, and had feared and respected each other.  And now, here we were standing by the side of a busy interstate, a Freeway Samaritan and the owner of a Prodigal Toyota.

 Which is a mixed parable, I know, but at least it’s better than hearing “Fire” again.

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--- © Joseph Walker 


Look for Joe's book, "How Can You Mend a Broken Spleen? Home Remedies for an Ailing World." It is available on-line through