There’s a Viagra commercial in heavy rotation. It shows a grizzled old Viagra user driving an old car down a dusty highway. The car begins to steam and the guy pulls into a service station, buys a bottle of water and pours it into the radiator. The gravelly voiced narrator exclaims, “You’re at the age where you aren’t thrown by curve balls.”
I’m not sure what the baseball reference has to do with knowing that water goes into a radiator, but I’m sure it does because there are very highly paid ad executives who cleared the copy. I get a bit of a chuckle, though, when this seasoned old boomer pulls his malfunctioning midlife crisis into the service station and fixes it with zero effort and just a little cash. He’s back on the road in a matter of mere minutes. And even if he couldn’t fix it himself, he was at a service station. He was never in any real danger.
One morning back in the late 90’s I was driving my old beat up Chevy truck on a lonely stretch of highway when the radio stopped working. As I looked at my gauges, I noticed they were all going haywire. Suddenly my power steering went out too. I wrestled the truck to the side of the road accompanied by the wonderful smell of burning electronics. The engine was dead before I rolled to a stop halfway between Sealy and Brookshire, Texas.
I sat at the wheel for a minute contemplating my situation. I guessed I was pretty close to halfway between the two small towns, which meant I had a hike of nearly 6 miles in either direction. Since it was summertime, it was already nearing 100 degrees and all I had to drink was half a warm Coke. This was going to suck tremendously. Add to that, I didn’t have any money for a tow or repairs. I was at least a week out from payday so even after my epic journey to merely reach a phone, I would still have to find someone willing to come pick me up and take me home. Then I’d have to find rides to and from work for the next week, and then get a ride back out here to whatever garage the truck ended up in (likely towed by some government agency that collects derelicts), and then, finally, pay to have it fixed. This was a veritable kingdom of suck and I hadn’t even gotten out of the car.
Then smoke began to seep out from under the hood. Probably oughtta have a look at that, I suppose.
It was very obviously the alternator, as the burning and smoking came directly from there. I assessed what might be needed for repairs. Deep socket, either ½ or 3/8 inch, a crowbar to place tension to remove and replace the serpentine belt, and probably jumper cables once it was all done. Hmm. A glimmer of hope.
I waited until the burning stopped, although if it hadn’t I don’t know what I could have done with a warm coke. I guess I assumed that if the truck burst into flames, the arriving crews might save me a six-mile walk. When I figured it was safe to leave, I dialed up my Discman, tossed it into my backpack, and headed… Where? Which way should I go? Sealy is a much larger town where I would be far more likely to find help, but Brookshire is 6 miles closer to home. I looked both ways for a few seconds before deciding that I’d take my chances with closer to home.
I was about 300 yards into my trek when a car pulled over. The guy rolled down the window and in a very thick Spanish accent he said, “Ees dat you truck? You need a ride?”
“Yes, thank you.”
He unlocked the doors. “Okay.”
I got into his car. I was not a little nervous, this being my first hitchhiking experience and all. This dude looked kind of rough, too. He was all sleeve tattoos and greasy hair. I then realized that with my black Pantera t shirt, ripped jeans, and long hair, I didn’t exactly look like a Boy Scout myself.
“Hey man, thanks for the lift. I just need to get to a gas station.”
“Sorry, I no ingles,” he said, “Ees ok.”
And with that, he turned up the heavy metal and we got on the road.
At the Brookshire exit he pointed and I nodded. He pulled into a Jack in the Box and I got out to use the phone.
“I wait?” he said.
“No thanks,” I said, “This is fine. Thanks so much.”
“Ok. Good luck.” He said, then gave me a thumbs up out the window as he drove off, death metal blaring.
What an awesome dude!
The first thing I did was ask some of the people in the Jack in the Box if there was an auto parts place around. Then I called from a pay phone. No, they did not have an alternator for a 1990 Silverado. They would have some in the next order, but not today.
The next thing I did was call my dad. Collect. Because that’s how we did things back in the day.
“Dad, my truck’s on the side of the road somewhere between Sealy and Brookshire. I need you to take off work and go to Autozone and get an alternator, a socket set, and a crowbar. Then come pick me up and drive me out there so we can fix it.” (The conversation was a bit longer than that, but this is essentially it.) After a couple of hours of drinking coffee and fielding strange looks from the locals, dad arrived with the needed parts and we were on our way.
“Do you know what you’re doing?” he asked as I released tension on the serpentine belt.
“Not really,” I said, “But the alternator was on fire earlier, so even if this doesn’t fix it, it still needs to be replaced.”
“No, I mean how to get that belt off and back on again. If you do it wrong, it’ll ruin your truck.”
“Good point.” I said. “Well, there’s a diagram there, so I guess we’ll just put it back that way.”
I began loosening bolts as cars, trucks, and semis blasted by at 90 mph, rocking the workspace.
A while later, we had it all put back together again. Dad turned his car around and gave me a jump. I waited a few minutes and tried the key.
Ignition! Gauges! Boom!
I was back on the road. Back on the road without a tow. Back on the road without a huge garage bill. Dad and I fixed that mofo ourselves on the side of the road in the middle of the sweltering Houston heat and among psycho highway drivers. And all this was accomplished without a smartphone, a service station, or even any Viagra.
Your move, grizzly Viagra guy.
Special thanks to my dad and the kickass Spanish-speaking metalhead for making this story possible. I couldn’t have done it without you!