Tragedy + Time = Comedy (or The Day Our “Good Car” Nearly Killed Me)

I sometimes joke that I married Dedee for her car.

It’s not true, of course, but I know for a fact she married me for love. I was 24 years old and flat broke. I had no job and no serious prospects for one. What I did have was a degree in radio/TV & theater, which pretty much explains the lack of employment.

When we got married, Dedee drove a 1979 Mercury Cougar. It was half a city block long. When she pulled up, the front bumper arrived a good 3 minutes before she did. We called it The Good Car. A fitting name.

Dedee's mom Ann, Dedee, & me in front of The Good Car

Dedee’s mom Ann, Dedee, & me in front of The Good Car

We called my car The Beast. It was a 1976 Buick Century with a cracked-and-peeling white vinyl top. My mom bought it for me when I was in college for $600 to replace my previous car: a ’74 Plymouth Volare with a hole in the gas tank that filled the car with gas fumes. So, at least The Beast didn’t require me to keep the windows rolled down year round. (To my knowledge, no good pictures of The Beast exist.)

The Beast had AC but it didn’t work and I sure didn’t have the money to fix it. It had transmission issues, too, ever since the day a school bus caught the front bumper as it was parked alongside the road and then dragged it a hundred yards or so. The school district was afraid I might sue them (not that I would’ve known how) so they quickly paid me $400 to get me out of their hair.

I didn’t fix the transmission and kept driving the car even though it shimmied badly whenever it got up to 50 mph, which wasn’t often. Instead, I bought food.

The Day It Almost Happened

Dedee and I were married in 1988. I was 24 and she was 26. Six months later, I landed a job selling advertising at a St. Louis radio station. I had one good suit, a few cardigans, and a smattering of skinny ties. I was ready.

Most days, I drove The Beast to work. But if I had an important appointment — one at which the client might actually see me get out of the car — I took The Good Car instead.

Over time, the Cougar developed a leak in the power steering fluid line. It’d spit fluid onto the manifold which created this terrible burning chemical smell.

Have you ever heard the sound a car makes when it runs out of power steering fluid? “Whine” is too weak a word. So is “groan.” It sounds otherworldly. Alien. It sounds quite a bit like this:

In those days we were rolling-for-pennies broke and couldn’t afford to get it repaired. So, we did the next best thing…we kept a can of power steering fluid in the trunk and refilled it whenever we heard Godzilla roar.

One day, I had a very important meeting in downtown Clayton, MO — the wealthy business district of St. Louis — so I needed to take Dedee’s car. I hopped in and took off. Godzilla shrieked at the first turn, but I drove on because I didn’t have the time to add fluid.

Clayton is a very difficult place to find parking. I made loops around the block looking for a space while pedestrians rubber-necked to see what in heaven’s name was making that awful screeching sound. There were no empty spots. I decided against a parking garage for two reasons. First, my wallet was empty. But more importantly, I imagined how much worse the car would sound when the echo of a parking garage was added to the mix.

I circled the block. Parents shuffled their kids off the sidewalks. After three or four laps, a spot opened up and I parked between a Mercedes and a BMW. I stepped from the car as nonchalantly as possible and crossed the street toward my client’s office building. A Gucci-clad woman stopped me.

“Sir…your car is on fire.”

I spun around. Sure enough, I saw flames belching from underneath the engine compartment.

Competing inner voices began barking orders in my head.

“Move, Lhamon! Go put it out!”

“Stay where you are, you moron! Find a pay phone and call 911.”

“You really want to see an explosion take out the Beemer? Your insurance isn’t that good.”

“Do I have to remind you that your car is ON FIRE?!”

“Forget about that! This is your Good Car. You really wanna drive The Beast from now on?”

I started across the street. I changed my mind and walked back.

People in Brooks Brothers’ suits and Christian Dior outfits were staring.

I ran across the street, unlocked the car, and popped the hood.

As I lifted the hood, flames belched up toward me with the sudden inflow of oxygen. I stepped back onto the sidewalk. My mind raced through my options. Should I back away 20 yards or so and watch it burn? What if it explodes? That’d surely take out several cars nearby. Maybe I could try to put the flames out. But how? I had no fire extinguisher and I wasn’t about to take off my jacket and smother the flames with My Good Sport Coat.

So, I did the only thing I could think of. I stuck my head into the engine compartment…and started to blow.

For a time, it was like blowing out a gag birthday candle. The flames would go out only to re-ignite when I came to the end of my breath. I persisted. After a few minutes, the flames finally went out for good.

I learned later that the power steering fluid squirting out of the line had ignited on the hot manifold.

I closed the hood, adjusted my tie, buttoned my coat, nodded to the spectators, and crossed the street to call on my client, smelling of burnt chemicals.

When my meeting was over, I found a pay phone and made the call I was dreading.

“Good news and bad news, babe. The good news is no one got hurt. The bad news is we’re down to one car for a while…and it’s not the good one.”

Dedee pulled up about 45 minutes later in The Beast. She slid over to the passenger side and I got in. We’d need to come back the next day and take the Cougar to a service station.

As we pulled away, we rolled down the windows to kill the stifling heat. A few minutes went by. We looked at each other and started to chuckle. We both realized at the same time that our old ’76 Buick Century with its peeling vinyl roof…

…had become Our Good Car.

A Closing Thought

I recently read an interesting opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal called, Advice for a Happy Life.  The author — Charles Murray — suggests that young couples ought to at least consider marrying young. He says, “If you wait until your 30s, your marriage is likely to be a merger. If you get married in your 20s, it is likely to be a start-up.”

I’m sure there are advantages to both, but I’m glad Dedee and I had a start-up. When you marry young, you’re forced to plow through the lean days together, depending on each other for support. The times when we couldn’t figure out a new way to turn mac ‘n’ cheese and a can of tuna into a desirable meal are now fond memories. It proves the old adage:  Tragedy + Time = Comedy. These days we get quite nostalgic thinking of the early years of our marriage. They were simple times. Good times.

Oh, there’s another plus of a start-up marriage…in those early years, when you can’t scrape enough cash together to go out, you have a lot more time for indoor recreation.

And that, my friend, is the Good Life.

Questions: What stories do you have from your early days of marriage? If your marriage was a start-up, did the lean years pull you together? If your marriage was a merger, what advantages did you enjoy? Tell your story in the comments below.

Author: Greg Lhamon

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