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  • Writer's pictureJim Martin

The Beloved Corona--Part 2: Life Lessons

Updated: Oct 14, 2020

I should mention that the main function of the Beloved Corona was to transport me the 143 miles from my college dorm to Cape Cod where I served with the Air Force National Guard one weekend per month. I had joined the Air Force National Guard for two reasons:

  1. I liked playing the tuba, and the Air Force Band at OTIS Air Force Base on Cape Cod had an opening in the low brass section, and

  2. There was no way I could afford to go to college without the free tuition the National Guard provided for students at state colleges.

So, I took some tests, sat for an audition, and was accepted/recruited. This all seemed like a great idea until I had to go to basic training, but more on that later. I’m still trying to get through this car story.

I learned some important lessons because of this car. The first was that there are many ways to skin a cat. (Not that I was the first person to learn this lesson—or that anyone should actually know even one way to skin a cat.)

The day the horn stopped working is a good example. It just quit on me. All of a sudden, no matter how hard I pressed the horn button on the steering wheel (and I tried it about 100 times at every conceivable level of pressure and from every conceivable angle)... Nothing. The horn was dead.

I jumped out of the car and popped the hood, just as E.N.A.B had taught me. I found the horn mechanism itself and gave it a good solid thump with my ball peen hammer. Nothing. Eventually I decided that it was probably the button on the steering wheel that was bad, because the horn mechanism itself seemed indestructible. A trip to the now familiar auto parts store revealed that there were many types of switches one could purchase fairly cheaply. I chose one that bore a remarkable resemblance to a doorbell. (It may have been, in fact, an actual doorbell.)

Somehow, managing to apply everything I’d learned in a junior high school electricity class, I installed the switch under the dash and re-wired the horn, battery, and switch in a new simple circuit... and it worked! Now when I pressed the doorbell inside the car, the horn sounded. Cat = skinned. Sure this presented some challenges during the annual safety inspection when the gas station attendant looked at me through the windshield and said, “Okay, now sound your horn.” But I cleverly learned to hit the steering wheel as one would in a normal car, while simultaneously and surreptitiously pressing the doorbell. Worked like a charm.

The Beloved Corona was shockingly reliable and faithful—which should have been no surprise because that’s just like my uncle Charlie. I drove that car everywhere. I drove it back to college. I drove it to my Air Force National Guard duty weekends. I loved driving it. Anytime anyone needed a ride, I always offered to take them. Sure the Beloved Corona had its issues. For example, the breaks didn’t work all that well, but as long as you planned ahead for any stopping you needed to do, it was fine.

Then one day, all of a sudden, the car wouldn’t start. I turned the key, lights on the dash lit up, headlights worked, audible electrical clicking sounds, but the engine would not turn over. I was stumped. Unsure what to do, E.N.A.B being uncharacteristically unavailable for some reason, I consulted various people. One of them was Bob. Not BOB!, this was a different Bob. This Bob was an older and wiser musician (trumpet player) in my Air National Guard band. He was pretty old-world handy. He said, “It’s probably the actual switch inside the mechanism where you insert the key.”

“You think?” I replied.

“Well, if there were no power at all coming from the battery, then none of the dash lights would come on."

“Ahhh.” I said.

He went on to suggest that this theory could be tested by placing the ignition key in the “on” position, finding the two electrical terminals on the starter, and connecting them by touching a screw driver to each terminal and then touching the shafts of the screw drivers together in an “x” shape completing the circuit.

I couldn’t wait to try it.

With the key in the ignition turned to the “on” position, I leaned over the engine with a screwdriver in each hand. I located the starter (I was getting better at this sort of thing) and touched one screw driver tip to each terminal bolt protruding from the end. Luckily the bolts happened to be conveniently accessible if I leaned over the driver’s side front fender in just the right way. Slowly and carefully I brought the shafts of the screwdrivers toward each other forming an “x.”

I wasn’t expecting the large sparks that arced as soon as the screw drivers completed the circuit. I flinched, pulling my hands (and the screw drivers) away in some ancient, annoying survival reflex generated deep in my amygdala. I took a deep breath, catching a whiff of that telltale electrical short smell that was filling the air, and stepped forward again, screw drivers in hand. This time, as I managed to hang on, I noticed that the sparks only lasted for a fraction of a second as the screw drivers were crossing that last micron of space before they touched. What happened after that, was that the starter began cranking! I kept the screw drivers in place until the engine caught and was running. Then, I carefully maneuvered them out of the engine compartment and closed the hood. Sure, this wasn’t a long-term solution, but I was pretty sure it I could start the car this way for at least a few days.

Roughly six weeks later I was still using the screw drivers to start the car. In my defense, I fully intended to develop a long-term solution… but I was busy. And I confess, I grew to like the sparks. And I liked impressing my friends with my car prowess. What could go wrong?

What I didn’t realize was that the “sparks” were not just a cool party trick. They were that for sure, but they were also, more technically, small fragments metal from the screw driver shafts that were converted to plasma and scattered across my engine compartment. They were landing on inconsequential things like my hands, or the engine block. It turns out they were also landing on the fuel line.

I distinctly remember the night I pulled up to the gas pump. I shut off the car, because everyone knows that it’s not safe to fill a car with gas while it’s running. I filled the tank, thinking about how great it would feel to get back in to my car and see needle of the gas gauge pointing emphatically at the “F.” I topped off the car, popped the hood with my handy screw drivers in hand—the ones with the shafts that were all charred from electrical discharges. As I started the car (I’d gotten quite good at this by now), several things happened at once. Sparks flew, of course—all the more fun to watch at night time. But I also noticed that as the engine was cranking up, a perfect, almost impossibly thin stream of fuel was spurting from a pin hole in the fuel line. It had that flawless parabolic shape as if it were coming from a drinking fountain.

Over the previous many weeks of starting the car with the screwdrivers, I had become extremely successful at defeating the annoying warning messages coming from my amygdala so that my hands wouldn’t recoil when the sparks flew. This left me in an oddly relaxed state giving the more cognitive parts of my brain plenty of time to assemble the pieces of the scene that was unfolding in the engine compartment.

It was all happening in slow motion. I saw with crystal clarity the little parabolic stream of fuel spraying delicately and accurately onto the part of the engine block that was most deeply coated in grease. I saw the individual spark that alighted in the greasy fuel mixture, igniting a bluish flame that began to creep up the side of the engine block. In my mind’s eye I saw tomorrow’s headline with the photo picturing the blackened crater where the gas station used to be. I saw it all.

This turned out to be an important night for me. It was the night I discovered that ten years of tuba playing had given me the equivalent of a super power. Without considering any other options, I stood to my full height and drew in an enormously deep breath. Leaning forward into the engine compartment, I directed as powerful and voluminous a stream of air as I could muster directly onto the spreading flames. To my utter astonishment, the fire was extinguished. Yup. I blew out an engine fire. Then I drove the car home.

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2 Kommentare

Jim Martin
Jim Martin
07. Sept. 2019

Thanks, Beth! It's been a blast to remember all this and get it written out. And definitely looking forward to visiting you guys on the Cape sometime! Maybe we can get it to coincide with a story slam!

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Beth Marcus
Beth Marcus
07. Sept. 2019

What a great story! My husband loves to tell stories about fixing his old Saab in mcgyver-like fashion with paper clips and chewing gum ... he is very much enjoying your stories as I read them aloud! We’ll have to get you guys to come visit on Cape Cod one of these days.

You are a great storyteller... we have a story slam event coming up at the brewery where the topic is “I knew I was in trouble when...” and my guess is you would have some amazing tales to tell (lol)

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