You would think a mechanic, asked to check the road-worthiness of a vehicle in advance of a trip, would consider all major systems of a vehicle. At least I would have that expectation. Among the “systems” I would expect the mechanic to inspect and address, without being specifically asked, would be steering/front end, transmission, engine, and tire condition, among others. This issue is on my mind because, yesterday, I experienced what could have been the fatal results of the mechanic’s incompetence. To be clear, I cannot be certain the mechanic is to blame; perhaps circumstance and coincidence conspired. Perhaps the placement of blame on the mechanic is misplaced. But I don’t think so. I assign full blame to the mechanic who, I believe, was simply too lazy to explore all aspects of the vehicle that should have been examined or too greedy to do so within an agreed “road-worthiness” evaluation.
Back to the events. I had flown to Dallas last Friday with the express purpose of purchasing back from a friend the truck I sold to him a few years ago. He was ready to get rid of it; I was ready to have it back and put it to use. It has some sentimental value, too; I ‘inherited’ it from my sister on her death several years ago. It’s an old clunker of a truck. It was misused and abused before I inherited it; dents, torn or missing pin stripes, scrapes, scratches, and nicks attested not to a lack of care, but a lack of kid glove treatment. At any rate, I found a crazy discount airfare to Dallas from Hot Springs, so I grabbed it. My friend picked me up at DFW in Dallas, at the corporate aviation building. We made a quick detour for breakfast tacos (among the best I’ve ever eaten, even my own). And then we went home to begin the process:
1) sign paperwork for truck re-homing; 2) decide what we would need for the brisket smoking fest the following day; 3) visit Costco to procure needed ingredients; 4) explore the flavor and decency of specific beers; 5) enjoy dinner together with another long-time friend over superior dishes; 6) drink more; 7) attend the birthday party of an acquaintance; 8) relax in friends’ pool; 9) smoke a brisket; 10) sample yet more beers; 11) etc.
On Sunday morning, I awoke before 6:00, crept out of the house, started up the old truck, and headed for home. A few minutes before 9:00 a.m., I stopped in Texarkana to fill up the gas tank and to take a look around the vehicle; its ride had been rough and the steering a bit wonky. The tread on the front tires looked more worn than I recalled from looking the day before, but I decided it was just my imagination. Once filled with gas, I got back on I-30 heading east. Soon after getting on the road, the ride got considerably worse. At that point, only one lane of I-30 is open; a concrete wall barricades the right hand lane and a narrow gravel shoulder, not meant to be used for traffic, is on the left. I decided, quickly, that I needed to get off the highway as soon as possible. I slowed a bit, but the semi behind me was on my tail, so I increased the speed to around sixty to keep it at bay. Suddenly, I felt the front left side of the car dip. The steering wheel pulled sharply to the left. I simultaneously heard a loud grating, scraping, groaning sound. I worked hard to maintain control of the car as it veered onto the left shoulder, aimed for the deep ditch that was the median. The truck stopped just short of running into the ditch; if it had gone a few feet further, it would have flipped upside down in the median. As it was, its left side was a good three feet lower than the right. But I was fine. My only serious concern at that point was that a vehicle on the road might drift left onto the shoulder and crash into me. I didn’t like where I was, but there was no place else to go and no way to get there.
I climbed out of the truck into tall weeds, and made my way to the front tire. It was a mass of torn rubber, with the steel from the steel belts inside twisted and torn into a chaotic web.
I called AAA. The woman with whom I spoke was very nice, very reassuring, but clearly unable to understand what I told her. I told her I was a few miles east of Texarkana, heading east toward Little Rock. She asked if I could see a mile marker. No, I said, the only sign I could see was on the west-bound side of the freeway, advertising a business at an exit number fifteen miles west of me. I learned later that she told the tow truck driver I was at that exit number, in Texas, heading westbound.
Long before the tow truck arrived, a Road Patrol truck stopped to ask whether I needed assistance. I told the driver I had called AAA, which should have dispatched someone. He said he’d circle back around after a while to see if the tow truck arrived. As he left, I made my way around the right side of the truck to look at the front right tire. It was nearly bald. None of the tread I had seen earlier was visible.
A tow truck driver called my cell phone. He said, “where do you want me to take you?”
“Anyplace that can check out the car and fix it and get me some new tires. The woman with AAA told me there were several Pep Boys nearby that are open on Sunday.”
“Pep Boys! There ain’t no Pep Boys around here. I don’t know of no place open on Sunday.”
“Well, the AAA lady said I was good for a one hundred mile tow; I’m less than a hundred miles from home, so I guess I could just get towed there.”
Shortly thereafter, an Arkansas State Trooper pulled in behind me. He stayed until the tow truck finally arrived. In the interim, he offered to let me sit in the air-conditioned comfort of the back seat of his patrol car. Then he asked to see my license and asked if I was James, the owner of the vehicle shown on his computer screen. I explained that I had just bought the truck back from a friend. While we waited, the tow truck driver called me; he could not find me. I told him I was west of Texarkana, several miles. I told him an Arkansas State Trooper was behind my truck. He asked to speak to the trooper, who said we were near mile marker twelve. The tow truck driver was more than fifteen miles away, heading in the other direction.
Finally, the tow truck arrived and, after much gnashing of teeth and twisting of cables, pulled the truck onto the bed of the truck. I got in the passenger seat and the driver said he had found a place in Texarkana that could take a look at my car. “I forgot they were open. I’ve towed people to them on Sundays before.”
After arriving at EN Auto, the guys got my car up on a wrack. “At the very least, you’re gonna need two new tires,” the owner said. “If you want, you can got buy them at Walmart and bring them back here. You can use my car. Normally, we’d do it, but it will save time if you want to do it.”
I agreed to go to Walmart. They did not have the size tires I needed. I drove back to the shop. “Did you ask them to check with the other Walmart?” I told him I did not know there was another Walmart. He called the other one. They, too, said they did not have them. I suggested I leave the vehicle with them so they could get tires; I would rent a car and drive home, returning Monday to get the vehicle. While we were talking tires, the mechanic was checking out the vehicle. The front end was a mess. It needs new inner and outer tie rods ends, new front shocks, and a new steering gear. In addition, the brake pads and rotor on one side was metal-to-metal and in need of replacement. I told the guys I’d definitely go for the two tires but would have to think about the rest of the stuff overnight. They were fine with that.
I called a cab to give me a ride to the Avis counter at the airport. They advised me it would be 45 minutes to an hour before I could get picked up. I reluctantly said, “fine,” and prepared to wait. The owner of the store went out to the shop and came back in to say his mechanic would give me a ride. As we were heading to the airport, the mechanic told me the front end was in poor condition and really needed work.
“Does it seem to drift all over the road when you’re driving? The condition the front end and especially the steering gear is in make me think the steering would feel real loose. It’s dangerous to drive when the steering is like that.”
I told him he described perfectly the way the vehicle feels when I drive it. “If we fix it for you, it will be tight. You won’t have any more of that. I suspect the blow-out and the other front tire’s damage were caused by the steering problems. That, and the tires have dry rot. They get that if the car sits in the same spot for a long time. The tires get out of round and they’re susceptible to wearing bad real fast.”
That last bit is good to know; I’ll need to drive it more frequently that I had planned to keep the tires in working order. Who knew? I should have.
He also said the shocks, while not completely shot, were up for grabs. He hadn’t recommended them, he said, because he knew I was getting hit hard with all the expenses associated with the front end problems.
He let me off at the airport and I rented a car, a Kia Soul. After an uneventful ride home, I decided I’d bit the bullet and spend what I need to spend to get the front end and steering problems fixed, including the shocks. The final bill will be just north of $1500. If I had a way to force the Dallas area mechanic who inspected the truck for road-worthiness to pay the bill, I would. He’s the same mechanic who said the loose steering and drifting behavior of the truck was “just normal—it’s an old truck.” That’s what he told my friend and that’s what he told me when I inquired about it when I first took it to him. So the problem that (I hope) will be fixed has been around a long time.
Today, I’m going to sit back and do my normal Monday routine, including the Garland Library critique group. I’ll go back tomorrow to return the rental and get the truck. Here’s hoping the drive over and back and uneventful.