The Day the Van Stood Still

August 7, 2011 at 12:07 PM | Posted in Journal | 3 Comments
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Detroit bought this 1998 Ford Windstar Minivan (3.8L) from my buddy Kearbey, at the same time we bought the Saturn. The Saturn is a different story.
The van has been pretty reliable. It does this odd thing on occasion where it acts like the door is still open, so the interior light will stay on (until you hit 17 mph) and the door chime will go off (EVERYTIME you’re going under 17 mph, like at a stop light, or stop and go traffic) but it doesn’t do this all the time. M–mostly when it’s cold or wet or both.
The alternator went out on it over a year ago, and it was then I had a supreme appreciation for the vehicle: it was phenomenally easy to get to and replace. Front brakes? Been there, done that. Twice. I’m not sure who is harder on the brakes…

Right at the end of June–right when I started my new part time job at the liquor store–I was driving the van to my bank job. When I tried to leave, it wouldna start. Fuck.
I came back later to try a few things. No luck. I called my son Mike, who is a mechanic. He told me something to try that made sense, even though it involved a big-ass hammer. Based on the symptoms I described, he said “Fuel pump.” I cringed, but agreed.
He said the motor in the fuel pump has a weak spot, and it just happened to stop on it. If I hit the bottom of the gas tank with a hammer while someone tries to start it, it could jar it enough to get past that and start working. I might be able to get by and not have to change the fuel pump for a while–it may never stop at that point again.
We tried it, with Detroit at the key and me at the hammer. No luck. Fuck.
Detroit has towing on her insurance, so we had it towed home. However, we waited a week until we got paid, because the way it works is, you pay for the tow and then they reimburse you.
As it turned out, the tow was completely free because the first 20 miles are covered, and it was only 17. So we wasted a week. Fuck.
In the meantime I drove the truck and got rides to work and finagled various things to get rides. We were down to one vehicle.
So I priced fuel pumps. I thought it would be 200 bucks or more, but I found it for 125. Cool. I wish I was certain it was the fuel pump. I was about 95% sure. I tried to get someone to come out and at least hold my hand through it. I gave up, bought the fuel pump, and started the process
Of course, it wasn’t easy. I’m not only not a mechanic, but as it turns out, I don’t play one on TV, either. Plus, if you’ve read the news, the entire Midwest is in the grip of massive heat wave. Between working two jobs and trying to find a cool time to do the work, I was have a hard time. On a Sunday when I had to be at work at 11am, I got up at 530 and worked on it for several hours. I didn’t get it done, but I made progress.
You have to disconnect the fuel tank and drop it down because the fuel pump is inside the tank. Again, fuck.
As I said, I’m no mechanic. But I’m willing to tackle anything. Tenacity isn’t always a virtue. Hell, the simple connectors for the fuel lines had me scratching my head for a while, until I figured it out.
Finally, I get the connectors. That was the hard part. The tank comes down and comes out easily. It’s made of plastic, and there isn’t much gas in it. I get it up on the tailgate of the truck, change the pump, and I’m good to go. I get it back in relatively easily, because although I’m stupid, experience helps and I’ve been here before. I get it all back together, check the hookups, reconnect the battery, give it a crank, and–
It doesn’t start. Fuck.
I try several times, for a few minutes. I’m getting nothing here. It’s cranking, but not getting any gas.
Maybe it wasn’t the fuel pump after all. Fuck. At that point, I was ready to give up. All the wind, she came out of my sails. Combine that with the heat, and I didn’t touch it again for a week.
I called a mechanic guy I know, Pat, who is an old friend of my dad’s. And by old I mean he’s about 75. He told me a few things to try. Okay. I was ready for another attempt. I was going to analyze it carefully, and narrow down the possibilities.
First, let’s see if the fuel pump is working or not. The simplest test is to open the gas cap and listen for it to whir right before the engine cranks. As I recall, that was the one thing that led me to believe it was the fuel pump in the first place. I had Detroit come out and crank it while I listened with the gas cap off.
Sure enough, I heard the fuel pump.
Sure enough, the fucking thing started.
Well, I guess that’s…I don’t know–a victory, maybe? That was Saturday. Of course, I go to test drive it, and the brakes are mushy.
Fuck.
Well, it was low on fluid before, and I had a leak somewhere–I figured it was somewhere in the area where I had changed the front brakes. Maybe something loose. I’ll look it, add some fluid, bleed the brakes–
I added fluid, and was still not getting pressure. I added more, and got nothing. I filled it up. Still no pressure. What’s this? Oh, brake fluid has sprayed all over the underside of the van.
Fuck, fuck, fuck.
I jacked it back up to investigate. It looked like it was in the steel brake line underneath the fuel tank. Did I damage one putting it back in? It seemed likely.
I decided to write all this down–now, at this point–to help me back up and regroup, and collect my thoughts and gain some perspective. No perspective yet, but I do have one hell of a headache.
We’re not up to the present yet. Sunday, I think it was, I again wake up early and have several hours before I go to work. I drop the tank again, and get at the brake lines. It actually looks like they are rusted or corroded behind the gas tank. It make sense–in the open spaces they can drip dry, but behind the tank, any moisture is going to be retained longer and cause corrosion. So, at least it wasn’t my fault, in the strictest sense of the word. Sunday night I took them out.
Monday night after work, I go to the auto parts store with the lines in hand, looking for replacement. I end up having to piece them together. Each one is over 9ft long. One is about 9 1/2, and the other is over 10. They are short-handed at the auto parts store, so the girl lets me go in back and worry out how to piece them. It’s hot–their air isn’t working–and I don’t quite know what the hell I’m doing even though I think I do.
I get the parts, and the special tool for bending the tubes. By the time I get home, it’s dark.

I decide to take Tuesday off from my day job. I call my boss and leave her a message Monday night, and then call Tuesday morning and talk to her. She’s cool with it. By the time I called–9am–I had been up for four hours working on it. I managed to get one line pieced together, but not the way I intended. There is some slack in the line. WTF? Okay, I’ll just bend that out of the way. That means I have to go back to the parts store for another piece. Fuck.
So then I’m trying to put together the other line, and something isn’t quite right. There are two lines running to the back, one to each side. The junctions for each of them TAKE A DIFFERENT SIZE FITTING. You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.
My receipts show I made four trips to the auto parts store that day. Although, for the last one, I got money back. Finally, I get it all back together. Looks like nothing left but the bleeding. That was about 10 or 11 in the morning.
Well, one thing led to another, and I didn’t get out there to bleed them until about three. Man, it’s hot. I get things set up, and then Detroit comes out to step on the brakes for me. We do the one on the left, and then it seems fine–it seems tight. We do the other back one just for the hell of it. Just fine.
Well. Maybe–just maybe–since it was all in the back brakes, the front ones don’t need to be bled. I’ll just take it for a ride to see. I start it up and roll back.
There are no brakes whatsoever. I can’t even stop rolling down the driveway.
Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuucccccccccccccccckkkkkkkkk!
I put it in neutral, let it roll to a stop. I had to turn the wheel to go into the street, more or less avoiding cars parked on the side. I put it in reverse, and back up a bit, and pop it in neutral. Still going. I feel like sticking my foot out. I pop it into drive, and I go forward. That’s the way I inched myself back into the driveway.
I get out and look under the car. Brake fluid is dripping promiscuously from three or four or seventeen different places.
Fuck.
I decided I would go out there again in a few minutes and do some damage control.

I ate lunch, got more brake fluid, and tackled it again. Either it was cooler, or I was getting used to the heat. I don’t want to become acclimatized to this shit.
I have a routine now. I jack up the back end. Again. I put the jack stands under it. Then I jack up the front left…again. This gives me more room from front to back. Once in a while I think about being crushed under the weight of the vehicle, and I wonder if that’s preferable to the mechanical discomfort I’m feeling. Christ, my head hurts again.
This is the third time I’ve done this part, so by now I’m pretty good at it. I disconnect the lines from the filler, disconnect the gas tank lines, and lower the gas tank just a bit. It looks like it’s just leaking in two spots: One of the connectors at the very front, and one just under the gas tank. Everywhere else seems good. That’s good news and bad news. The good news is, some of it is okay. The bad news is, I can’t just throw in the towel.
By now I’m a little more organized, and I have a plastic tub that has all the tools that I use for this job, which is surprisingly few: Fifteen millimeter socket for the tank straps, a nine for the hoses and also the battery, a small flathead screwdriver for some of the hose connectors, and for the lines themselves, a 13 and a 10.
Those little plastic pieces connecting the fuel lines–I’ve pulled them out and put them back in so many times–shit, one of them broke. It was shaped like a U, now it’s shaped like a J. Fuck.
Well, these are the new ones that came with the fuel filter. Do I still have the old ones? Yes I do. Okay.
From the places brake fluid is leaking, I am able to tighten the connections. Okay, maybe that’s all it was. I push the gas tank just a little (it’s supported by the jack with a piece of plywood on it) and I can get to that connector and tighten it a bit also. Hmmm. Okay. Anything else? Really? That seems to be it. I start to put it back together. The last part is the gas lines.
Oh, remember that plastic piece that broke? I don’t want the other piece to be stuck in there before I put it back together. I tilted the line to have a look–
And gas pours out, onto my face, and into my eye.
Why does good shit never happen in slow motion?
Ouch, this burns a little. In what would be probably my smartest move of the day, I went in the house immediately, limping because of the gas in my eye, and called for Detroit as I went to the kitchen sink and hit the cold water.
When I tell her what happens, she kind of over-reacted. She got the phone book and called poison control.
They said to flush it out with cold water. Check. For 10 to 15 minutes. Uh, check? The best way, they recommended, is to get in the shower and just stand there with the water going in your eye. It doesn’t have to be cold; it could be “comfortable.” How comfortable is water spraying in your eye that has gasoline in it?
The answer is “not very.” But I stood there, and I took it. I felt like I was being water-boarded by some really incompetent foreign agents. Poison control said they would call back in an hour and see how I was doing.
I’m fine, but I still have to go out there and put it back together. And then probably take another shower.
I put it all back together, and it’s now 8pm. In the summer, it’s still light out, but I have about 20 minutes of daylight left. I fill the reservoir, then run the trouble light out and call Detroit out to step on the pedal for me while I look.
The spot up front is still leaking. So is the spot under the edge of the gas tank.
“Okay. That’s good. You can stop.” I roll out from under the van once more, and start to gather my shit up. Detroit looks at me. “It’s still leaking. In two places.”
Fuck-shit-fuck.
By the time I come back in the house, I have collected my thoughts and gathered a strategy. “Okay–we have to have the van fixed by Monday.” Monday is when she starts back to work. “I only work at the liquor store Wednesday night and Saturday night. I have Thursday night, Friday night, Saturday day, and all day Sunday. I am not defeated.
“Yet.”

Thursday night there was an after-work function. I drank about 4 Margaritas in hour, then went home and fell asleep. Being old sucks. Friday after work I should have worked on it, and I was about to, I swear–
It started to rain. I’ll just wait.
Saturday morning, I gets up bright and early, see, planning to have a productive day beating this bitch down. Let’s analyze this: It’s leaking in two spots. Maybe that union is bad, back there…and maybe this other one is just bat-shit crazy and I should replace it.
Let’s see–which auto parts store have I not shown my face in yet?
Well, it doesn’t matter. In one trip, I stopped seven times at five stores. I learned a lot, but here is a synopsis:
*Engineers that design cars don’t give a flying fuck about the people who may have to work on them. If they tell you anything different, they are lying sons a bitches.
*Forget standard and metric. There is also a difference between Japanese metric and European metric. What’s the difference? Fuck you, that’s the difference.
*Everything on cars since sometime in the 80s is metric, except for when they want to fuck with you. Three-eighths of an inch is just a little bigger than 10 mm. Seven-sixteenths is right between 11 and 12 mm. Ask me how I know that. Go ahead and fucking ask me.
I finally have the last piece I need: a union that is European metric. Okay, then. I get back home and I bend the new lines that I have–
Because I had to buy some new lines because there is also a difference in the kind of connectors. There is flare tip and bubble tip. Whatever kind you have is going to be the wrong one.
–and I put it back together. It seems to go well. I have Detroit come out and step on the brakes while I look for leaks.
Success! Is it? Is it really? At this point all I hoped for was to not be mauled by a bear while I’m under the van.
I don’t have enough time to put it all back together. I have to take a shower and go to work at the liquor store. That was Saturday night, last night. I put everything away, and I’ll put it back together Sunday and drive it. I hope.

Sunday morning, I get up early and piddle around a bit. I’m not anxious to see what the gods of mayhem and automotive repair have planned for me today. By mid-morning, I’m on my back under the van.
Uhm…it looks like a drip or two in two spots. Uh…
I tighten them up at the same time that I ignore them. It ain’t easy, unless you’re me. I put everything else back together–the gas tank that I had lowered a bit and moved out of the way, and other random associated things that are probably important to the functional well-being of the vehicle.
Okay. Ready. Detroit comes out once more, and I bleed the brakes, also keeping an eye on the unions for leakage. So far, so good. The back is done. In between each wheel, I add more brake fluid.
And by the way, just adding brake fluid is a chore. See the first thing I learned about working on cars, above. The reservoir is under the hood, underneath crap, so I can’t pour directly into it. Funnel? No, a funnel won’t work either. I have a strip of metal about 18 inches long bent into a trough. I pour fluid on one end, and it pours into the reservoir like a Roman aqueduct.
I bleed the front. All good. All done. All right.
I’m going to take it for a test drive. I pick up the tools, but optimism is one thing that I’m not prepared for, so I don’t put them away. I lower the car to the ground, then get cleaned up a bit–face, arms, glasses, and the back of my head. I’m ready.
I get behind the wheel and I check behind me for obstacles that I could roll into and cause me to die in fiery crash. Here’s hoping.
I turned the key. Whir-rr.
It won’t start.
Of course, it won’t–it’s sat for about a month, running only twice when I knew I had it “fixed” before. I grab the keys to the truck and jump-start it. Okay. NOW are we ready to go?
Detroit is there to see me off. “You wanna come with?” I asked. No, she does not. She doesn’t want to take any chances and besides, she heartily dislikes when I needlessly end a sentence with a preposition.
I start to back up. I hit the brakes. It stops. Wow. I back up more. I hit the brakes. It stops again. I leave. My mission is to test drive it, put air in one of the tires that is low, and put some gas in it, because gas prices came down in the last couple of days.
I did all of this with no problems. My mission was a success. Not only was gas the cheapest I had seen it in several months–3.27/gallon–but as an added bonus, the check engine light that had been on for almost a year was now off.
It’s the little victories that keep you from going on a shooting spree.

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3 Comments »

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  1. When you die, you’ll shoot straight to Heaven.
    Impressive; not only can you write, but you can fix vehicles too.
    This piece makes all the other torture pieces look like a cake walk. : )))

  2. I’m proud of you for not giving up! I liked the last line: “It’s the little victories that keep you from going on a shooting spree.” Can totally relate!

  3. Detroit sounds like a keeper. She didn’t yell and scream at you like some crazy b&%t^h but helped instead = even if she bought that van in the first place. I like your writing on this piece. a kind of day in the life of . . . .


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