Auto fixation

The two most chilling words in the English language: Car Trouble.

Oh, sure, more terrible things can happen to you. A sharp stick in the eye comes to mind. But for all-around frustration and gut-wrenching panic, not much comes close to "car trouble."

In America's automobile-oriented culture, we're all dependent on our cars. We're always in a hurry to get someplace, and we need reliable transportation. When faced with a grindingly uncooperative starter or the forbidding silence of a dead battery, we know our lives have -- at least temporarily -- taken a turn for the worse.

Car trouble means we're not getting where we want to go or, at best, we'll be late. Naturally, we don't discover the problem until we need to depart -- right now. The car just sits there, a big hunk of inert steel, as mobile and helpful as a rock.

Beyond the immediate delays, though, is the aftermath. Getting the car towed or taking it to a garage. Making alternate transportation arrangements while some guy named "Butch" takes his sweet time fixing the problem. And the expense: Butch won't even look under the hood for less than $600.

It's a short ride from "repair" to "despair."

I don't know about you, but I always envision the worst: The car's ruined forever. It'll spend the rest of its metallic life "in the shop." All my money will be poured into the worst investment of my life -- a "lemon" -- when I should've known better. I'm stranded, forlorn, doomed.

These flights of imagination result from guilt. If only I hadn't neglected the car, maybe it would never have succumbed to this ailment . . .

Most of us treat our cars the way we do our physical health. We take them for granted, doing only minimal maintenance. We pay no attention until something goes wrong. Even when the car's making a funny noise (or that hacking cough won't go away), we try to ignore it until, whoops, we've got a major problem. And life grinds to a standstill.

Many of us tend to drive cars way beyond their expected lifespans. We keep replacing parts until, eventually, everything under the hood is as good as new, and Butch's kids have earned their doctorate degrees on our dime.

Perhaps that's why we have so many auto accidents -- totaling your car is the only way to justify the purchase of a new vehicle.

But this extended lifespan means lots of "car trouble." Parts wear out. Hoses burst. Gaskets dry out. Telltale oil spots appear on the driveway. Then, one day, you've got a car that's going nowhere fast.

Car trouble is rough on anybody, but it poses special problems for guys. Many guys feel they should have some innate understanding of how to fix cars. It's one of those native skills that real men can intuitively master -- like plumbing or reading road maps or burping the alphabet.

The sad truth is that most men think "internal combustion" is something you get from eating jalapenos. We're not qualified to empty the ashtray, must less replace an alternator.

But we feel compelled to try. We open the hood -- if we can remember how -- and study that serpent's nest of belts and hoses and wires and we don't have the first idea what's wrong.

Of course, we won't admit it, not at first. We'll go find our scattered tools and we'll poke around under the hood, hoping against hope that some part of the engine will scream out: "Me! Me! I'm the problem." We'll check the oil and the water and the windshield-washing fluid. We'll jiggle battery cables. We'll tap things.

Finally, after hours (or even days) of tinkering, we'll sigh and shrug and phone Butch. And he'll tell us to come on down to the garage, and he'll remind us to bring our checkbook.

Because while we may not be going anywhere for a while, Butch is planning his vacation. In Tahiti.

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