Bad News: There’s smoke coming out from underneath our car.
Good News: The car is no longer on fire.
If you’ve never been at the epicenter of an explosion before (this was my second time), I assure you it’s nothing like the movies. There’s no accompanying thematic music, for example, or a slow-motion action sequence, or witty dialog from a fearless hero. It’s thunderous and brisk and so violent that you’ll probably pee a little. In fact, it would be weird if you didn’t.
Being engulfed by fire is almost immediately followed by confusion, distress, and a fair amount of screaming, which normally emanates directly from the victim(s). In my case, however, it was all coming from my wife, who had witnessed the entire event from the air-conditioned comfort of her own car, a quarter mile away. To be fair, I believe this was her first time seeing me get blown up.
“GET OUT OF THE CAR!” she said. “IT’S ON FIRE!”
It took me a few seconds to recognize her voice over my cell phone’s speaker.
She sounded upset.
“GET OUT OF THE CAR!” she repeated.
I looked at my phone, the car’s only other passenger, and calmly said, “I’m working on it.” The task was easier said than done, though, because everything had stopped functioning — there was no power steering, no power brakes, no power anything. On the bright side, the engine was no longer making any horrific noises.
As I wrestled to get the car off the road, I thought about the set of circumstances that led up to this moment and tried to determine where things went wrong.
My wife and I bought this car for our kids to share several years ago, right after the first of them became licensed. It’s a 2006 Hyundai Sonata with a manual transmission. The kids believe we chose this particular model because we didn’t want them to be popular in high school. They affectionately nicknamed it “The Snot.”
Recently, my oldest daughter started complaining the car was making “scary noises” and noted the check-engine light had come on. “Don’t worry, the rattling noise is simply a loose dashboard bolt,” I assured her after driving it once around the block. “And that warning light is probably just malfunctioning.” SPOILER ALERT: it wasn’t.
It was this same daughter that called on her way to school and said the car had stopped working and she was stuck in the middle of the road, along with our other daughter and two of their friends. So, my wife dropped me off to deal with The Snot while she finished driving the girls to class.
When I got it started, the noise sounded less like a loose bolt and more like 2500 metal spoons fervently scraping away at the inside of a rusty kettle. I’m no carologist, but this seemed bad. Also, the car was indeed stuck — it was midway up a large hill and couldn’t generate enough power to move forward. Therefore, I decided to slip the car into neutral and simply let gravity suck me and The Snot backwards down the hill and onto a side street, where the two of us would wait for my wife to return. After navigating the reverse 90-degree left-hand turn, however, I opted to keep going and let momentum carry us to the top of the next hill. With the extra height, I now figured I could combine the laws of physics with the remaining engine power to propel us all the way back home, just like Tom Hanks did in Apollo 13.
My wife’s job was to wait at the bottom of the hill and let me know when the intersection was free from oncoming traffic. That way I could accelerate through the turn completely unperturbed. Not to brag, but this worked flawlessly. So flawlessly, in fact, that I remained fully committed to the original plan even after I squealed around the corner and realized smoke was heavily pouring from behind me. “Don’t worry,” I assured myself. “It’s not like the car’s going to explode the next time I shift gears.”
My mother claims that my sister must have been watching over me from heaven during all this and it was her who kept me safe.
But I don’t believe that.
I think it’s likely the work of my best friend from high school, whose exact afterlife location is more debatable. He’d definitely try to blow me up in a car just to give us something to laugh about later over lunch.
My sister just ensured that my kids weren’t in the car when it happened.
Originally posted on Medium.