Life’s nagging fears: Bad car sounds

For me, one of life’s greatest fears isn’t what I’ll do if my daughter doesn’t go to Dartmouth (she didn’t) or how I’ll support my latte habit if I go broke in retirement (I’ll kick the habit). It’s what I’ll do when I get a rattle under the hood of my car or a knocking around the muffler or any other mysterious noise that erupts when I’m cruising down I-95.

It could be a shaking, a shimmying or a hissing because they come in all different decibels and dimensions, but they come when you least expect them — new car or old.

I usually become terrified that (pick one): a wheel is going to fall off while I’m speeding down the highway racing to work, the engine is going to conk out, a hose is going to burst, or the muffler is going to hit the road and cause sparks that ignite the gas tank and then KABOOM. You get the idea.

I recently had one of those horrible experiences when I couldn’t figure out where the noise was coming from. There were several possibilities — a water pump about to go, the universal joint cracking, the transmission slipping or a leak in the radiator.

These things happen at the worst possible time, like when you’re hundreds of miles from home on a family vacation in northern Maine or driving through the desert wasteland in New Mexico. You’re terrified that the wife, the kids and the family dog will be lost out there on the frozen tundra or the sweltering sands with no water and no cell phone service. (These fears have kept me from going on vacation for the last seven years.)

One time we broke down on the Canadian border on a Sunday in a brand new minivan. As father of the family and mechanic-in-chief, I followed my standard operating procedure: I opened the hood, looked around like I knew what I was doing, scratched my head in confusion, nodded discouragingly and told the womenfolk, “It’s the bilateral mojometer, and I don’t have a spare.” They, in turn, nodded discouragingly and then hysteria erupted. For the record, I screamed the loudest.

Last week, I was driving to an unknown location in the backwoods of Fairfield County. Since I have problems working my cell phone GPS, I wasn’t sure where I was going, but I knew one thing — I was far from home and far from civilization, and it was getting late.

Just then, I hit a bump and a noise like staccato machine gun fire erupted. It got louder and louder, but I couldn’t tell whether it was coming from the air conditioner, the wheels, the engine, the tailpipe or the radiator. Hoping against hope, I kept driving, thinking that if I said a very sincere and desperate prayer, the noise might go away.

It didn’t, so I pulled off the road and searched up and down. I got my clothes dirty trying to look under the car, but I couldn’t locate it. I couldn’t even tell whether it was a rattle, a knocking, a hissing or four string quartet.

Then, I was seized by the old familiar fear that I was going to break down far from home, where vicious bears and coyotes roam the streets after dark in search of fresh middle-aged meat. So I skipped my appointment, headed back to I-95 and drove 45 mph all the way home, expecting the floor to fall out from under me.

Fortunately, the car and I made it to the garage in one piece, and when the mechanic asked me what the problem was, I answered, “There’s a noise.” He looked at me quizzically, waiting for more information to help him with his investigation, but I stammered and sighed. I couldn’t tell him where, how, why, what kind. Nothing. I couldn’t even tell him whether it was in the front of the car or the back.

Anyway, I left the car overnight so he could trace the noise with his special noise-location sensor, but the next day when I went back, he said, “I didn’t hear anything.” I felt like Jeb Bush after a drubbing by Donald Trump.

Let me explain a fundamental principle of life. Car noises never go away. They may hide for a time, but they’ll return when you least expect them, while you’re on some lonely country road late at night or trapped bumper-to-bumper in rush-hour traffic. Yes, my worst fear is an elusive noise in the car. My second worst fear is the mechanic can’t find it and thinks I’m an automotive hypochondriac.

Contact Joe Pisani at joefpisani [at] yahoo.com.

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