Peter Shelton

Saab Story

Posted in Life in Central Oregon, Personal History by pshelton on February 13, 2016

You are what you drive. With the family gathered over Christmas, I told the story of Footsie’s car-alarm tantrum in the ski area parking lot. It was snowing. It had been a beautiful, soft storm day on Mt. Bachelor. I was heading home in a glow.

I love Footsie. She’s old. Like me, she groans. She’s got a little rust. She could use some replacement parts. But she’s loyal. Her breakdowns have been few and relatively minor: universal belt, clutch. She’s great in snow – she’s Swedish. She’s got 370,000 original miles. Eighteen years. One engine. She rolls the road with sure-footed assurance.

Some of her quirks (some of my quirks) mystify the family. One is Footsie’s rear hatchback. The two hydraulic lifters that hold the back open lost oomph and then gave up entirely years ago. I replaced them. The new ones leaked fluid and lost power eventually, too. I replaced them. When the third set gave up the ghost I changed tactics. Now I lift the heavy hatchback with a clean-and-jerk motion, power it up over my head and support its weight on an old ski pole. It works perfectly. My own little “World’s Strongest Man” moment. Daughter Cecily worries that the ski pole will slip or collapse, and I’ll be crushed while reaching in for that day’s skis, neatly slotted through the ingenious (did I mention Sweden?) ski-specific opening between trunk and passenger cabin.

Another sign of Footsie’s age: the door-mounted button that used to pop the trunk latch doesn’t any more. No problem. I just use the key to open the back.

A third failing that I had not bothered to rectify: Footsie’s key fob worked only intermittently to lock and unlock her doors. The battery was dying, but hey, I’m dying, we’re all dying, slowly, we hope. Fixing this was not high on my priority list. Again the analogue solution – the key in the keyhole – worked just fine.

There are other examples of decrepitude, but these three were the ingredients of my humiliation. The parking lot was beginning to empty out. I leaned my skis against the bumper and slipped the key into the hatchback lock.

All hell broke loose. The horn barked. The lights flashed. Footsie was in full panic mode. And it didn’t stop when I removed the key. It didn’t stop when I tried the fob. Nor when I opened the driver’s-side door. I knew this was Footsie’s rational (programmed) response to a perceived invasion. But I was powerless to reassure her, to make it stop. People in the area were beginning to stare. Who could blame them? Who is this fool who can’t shut off his car alarm?

I tried starting the car. The ignition was locked. I tried starting over again from scratch. Slammed doors. Locked them. Unlocked them. Jammed my thumb on the ineffectual fob button. Finally, I popped the hood, rummaged around in my pack for a multi-tool, and disconnected the battery. The resulting silence throbbed with the absence of screaming.

A nice young man in the next row left his pickup, and his girlfriend, and walked over. “How about disconnecting the horn,” he suggested. But neither of us could positively identify the horn, or a wire that might be disconnected.

“Where’s your fuse panel?” he offered, hopefully. Yes, I thought, and together we attempted to systematically test likely suspects. He’d pull a fuse, the one marked “horn,” for example, or “central locks.” I’d touch the battery cable to its post, and the shrieking would begin anew. One fuse on the chart said, somewhat cryptically, “burglar alarm/telephone.” Aha! But no – same discouraging result. The light was fading. The young man shrugged his shoulders, said he was sorry, and returned to his gently purring pickup. The lot was almost empty. I was on my knees in the snow, putting the panel back together, when a car pulled up alongside. Another Saab. Another white Saab of a certain age.

At this point in our family dinner party everyone except me was in hysterics, tears rolling down cheeks. Tears of what? Of pity? Of forbearance? Most likely it was it a kind of shared release – that Dad and his old car could be made fun of, finally, in a family way. With every new sentence, every attempt to regain my storyteller footing – my patriarchal dignity – the convulsions intensified.

Later, Ellen blamed a “giggle fit.” It needed to happen. Don’t take it personally, she said. It was just one of those overflowings.

Son-in-law Adam has never openly mocked Footsie. He is impressed that I, a non-mechanic, have coaxed so many years and miles out of her. But he is constitutionally unsympathetic. He is Mr. Upgrade. When things start to fall apart, he upgrades. Anthropomorphizing, loyalty, sentiment – these things don’t figure in.

Cecily protested that her laughter was driven at least in part out of concern for my safety. She was practically born in my old VW bus careening down the road from Telluride to the hospital in Montrose. That beloved van, Tortuga, already ten years old on Cecily’s birth day, gave us a few more years and a wonderful 265,000 miles. After the first 200K my dad expressed his fatherly concern this way: “Do you worry about metal fatigue?”

My parking-lot angel was named Chuck. “We’ve got to stick together,” he said, when I thanked him for stopping. His Saab was a ’95. Nicknamed Flicka, which is Swedish for “girl.” I told him that Footsie is an approximation of the word men in Madagascar’s capital city, Antananarivo, hissed at my daughter, Cloe, when she was there for an undergrad semester abroad. It means “white girl.” Cloe’s 39 now, a doctor, mother of two of our grandchildren.

Chuck scrolled calmly through the sequence of events. “What probably happened,” he theorized, “you accidently set the anti-theft with your fob. It had just enough battery left, and you bumped it in your pocket, or something. Then when you tried to open the trunk without first disarming the anti-theft . . .” The only way to turn off that part of Footsie’s brain, he felt sure, was with the key fob. He offered to take me to town, to the auto parts store for a new fob battery. He even offered to ferry me back up the mountain afterwards.

Turned out that was not necessary. Saint Chuck dropped me off at home, and I prevailed upon Ellen to make the return trip with me. It was completely dark by this time, and snowing hard. My dear wife gets anxious driving in extreme conditions. And if we succeeded in getting Footsie going, she would have to caravan behind me, on furry white roads, flakes like asteroids rushing her windshield, another 20 miles back down to town.

The recharged fob worked. But not before one last round of ear-shattering honking as I labored in the headlights of Ellen’s Honda to reconnect the car battery. Everything was going to be OK. We would crawl through the night safely back to Bend.

On the way home, one image played again and again in my head. There was Footsie, alone in the vastness of Mt. Bachelor’s parking lot, becalmed under a new coat of white, with a giant, safety-orange cone on her roof. A thoughtful Mt. Bachelor employee had placed it there against the possibility that her owner might not return that night. The plow drivers would soon be called to action. Another foot of snow, and my White Girl might just have vanished from sight.

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One Response

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  1. talkinggourds said, on February 15, 2016 at 10:25 pm

    brilliant essay, as always… autos have become our horses, since we drive them. but that will change…


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