Tuesday, January 22, 2013

A Letter to Bewildered Friends Concerning the Slow Decline to Sudden Danger

Dear the soon to be judgmental,

A few years ago I needed new brake pads.  I had an older Buick.  That purple wine colored model with the huge trunk.  I'm sure you've seen a few around your town.  Good enough cars but not the height of fashion or performance.  It got the job done for longer than it probably should have and I actually ended up really missing it when it finally died.

Anyway, I'm not talking about when it died.  I'm talking about when I needed new brake pads once.  I had heard the tell tale signs of squeaking and squealing.  I'm not ignorant to a car's needs and knew exactly what I had to do.  I needed to take it in and get the brake pads replaced.  Just take it in.  I even had a place I liked to go.  They recognized me and everything.  So, all I had to do was take it in.  Just take it in, Stephen.  Take it in, Stephen.  Stephen, take it in!  Stephen!  Ste-goddamnit take it to the place to get the thing done!

But I didn't.

I don't want you to get the wrong impression about that statement.  It's not like I waited until they were really squealing loud before I finally gave in.  Nor did I industriously decide to change them myself as a self reliant member of society.  No, see, I rode them, as is, until they were destroyed.  Let me share with you a little bit about what that's like.

At first there was an air splintering squeal that would mellow into a low metallic shutter.  It was the shutter of what was left of the pads and the mount they sat on, also the metal clips that hold the brake pads in place, pushing raw against the metal rotor.  Have you ever heard a train stop?  It's like that.  It's JUST like that.  It's not a single screech, but a few separate pitches of screech all at once.  It was actually a screech NOTE being played from the undercarriage of my car, and oddly enough, not entirely unpleasant.  It was like a loud flute.

When I first set out from a cold start the car actually stopped better than it ever had before.  Cold metal hitting cold metal doesn't give very well and the car would practically stun to a halt.  Then, friction would take hold of the situation and start creating heat.  And more heat.  If slow moving cold metal stunned to a stop, fast moving hot metal sort of glided to a roll, until it slowed, then caught and stopped.  So, the faster I was going the further back I would have to start applying the break.  Remember how I said it sounded like a train stopping?  Well, it kind of felt like a train stopping too.

This "honeymoon" phase of not having break pads lasted a month or so.  I could get around pretty much the same as I always did, but with a lot of forethought.  It actually kept my mind focused on driving like never before because I had to watch for every little subtle change in the traffic to plan that far ahead.  I found that paying attention more meant I had to stop less, and for a while everything was just fine.  Then that heat and friction did what they always do and started to eat away at the metal that was being used to stop about a ton of steel going sometimes upwards of 70 miles an hour.

Yeah, 70 miles an hour.  Don't worry, I'm going to address that, just let me get this out first.

The grinding came next.  At first it was relatively smooth considering what was happening.  It was even and consistent like an axe being sharpened on a stone wheel.  But applying the brakes was starting to mean less and less to the performance of the car.  I rolled faster and for longer, even when pushing the pedal completely to the floor.  I started taking mostly side roads and avoiding long trips.  I started doing things other than applying the brake to slow the car down.  Swerving a little side to side to bleed off speed.  Letting off the gas when going up hills.  Even pulling the car into the grass a little to let the rough terrain kill my momentum.  All the while the grinding got worse, vibrating the car with such a low, sick growl that I couldn't tell if it was the car groaning at the effort, or my stomach from the experience.

Let's take a quick breath.

This is crazy right?  This is the story of a crazy person.  Yeah, I agree.  At no point when this was happening did I think I was doing something good.  At the time we were having financial trouble, and I was convinced that there was no way to afford break pads, and that this was the only option I had left.  I kept the severity of it from everyone.  If I had let slip even a hint of what was happening to any friend or family member they would have instantly it fixed.  I can't even explain where my head was at and why I had practically invented this cross for myself to bear.  Something deep inside told me to endure my situation and that I was doing what I had to to keep us afloat.

Which is crazy as hell.  Don't ever let your car get like that, like ever.  Seriously, someone will help you.  Hell, if you know me, I'll help you.  If anything this is a cautionary tale about being a stupid person that doesn't ask for help.  Ok, anyway, let's hop back in.

The grind quickly turned into what I can only describe as what it was.  The sound of a piece of machinery SCOOPING metal from a trench made in another piece of machinery.  The mounts where all but destroyed and the calipers, which hold the pads around the rotor and are involved in the "squeeze" to slow down, were starting to take the hit.  What remained only acted as a shield to allow the calipers themselves to dig into the rotors as they spun hot dust into the air.  It must have been the reverse of making a clay ashtray on a potter's wheel.  Or like a metal lathe shaving away all the unwanted layers of the only surface that can be manipulated on a motor vehicle to directly slow it's momentum.

Using the brakes had become a supplemental step in how I drove that car.  The brakes were something that kept the car stopped after I had already managed to slow it down through all my previously stated means.  I dreaded driving.  Absolutely dreaded it.  The back roads weren't so bad but I had to navigate downtown traffic on a daily basis, including getting into and back out of a parking garage.

The posts of metal that were digging into the rotors on a daily basis had started to groove the plates and wear down little pot holes in their path so when applied forcefully the car would buck and jerk and rattle and roar until finally the groove was deep enough and I was slow enough that the brakes would hard lock and the car would kind of skip to a stop.

Imagine dealing with that long enough that you started to get good at it.  My dread of driving started to melt away with the routine of successfully driving.  The new way I had to adapt to was becoming all but habit.  I could shoot up, yes SHOOT up, the ramps in the parking garage, accelerating as I went higher and then whip around two corners jerk through a gap between floors, twist the wheel at an empty space, jam on the "brakes", and ride my rodeo horse of a car right into the cavity, lurching to a stop inches from the concrete wall.

During this, I don't know, episode, of my life we bought a house and moved in.  I know this because the first time I turned down the road to view the house before buying it it took me forever to drive the .2 miles I needed to go because I hadn't seen the house yet and didn't know how far back I need to start taking evasive maneuvers.

Driving home, to that house, via the interstate, going 80 miles an hour, is when the robust system of luck and fairy dust finally broke down and 50% of the pedals in my car became absolutely useless.  I was about a mile away from my exit so I jammed down on the break to start my descent.  There was a brief moment that the car pulled back and then it shot forward again with an anti-climactic pop.  The last of the metal had been scoop out and as  the calipers were hydraulically pressed inward.  Now they only rested comfortably in a perfectly shaped trough of their making.  Happy little hermit crabs, snug in their homes.

Queue my life instantly halting as the full situation dawns on me like the beginning of a Road Runner cartoon. I queried my mind, my trusted companion for years, for suggestions and it returned nothing.  I could have, scratch that, SHOULD have put on my emergency lights, pulled off the road, and let the car slow down.  Then I should have called a tow truck and had my wife come get me from the mechanic.  That sounds reasonable and sane doesn't it?  I bet you all would do that thing.  It's nice and human.

No, the lever was jerked down on the one armed bandit in my mind I call "stress related solutions" and the reels came up, "go, for, it."  So, it was decided, by me, that my best option was to try and get home, with NO FUCKING BRAKES AT ALL, GOING 80 MILES AN HOUR!

My exit was coming up, but score, there's a hill right before it and it's long and curved.  I took the exit, and viewed my first obstacle: an almost 270 degree left turn through a red light.  Couldn't do that, but there's a way to slide off to the right.  I had to take it even though it lead away from my house.  To the right does, however, lead straight into train tracks which were thankfully devoid of an actual train that day. I took a little hop over the raised tracks and looked down the road at the few driveways I could see.  Cruising down past the houses I had one goal: steep driveway.  And, as if queued from off stage, one almost immediately appeared.  A perfect specimen that was about 40 degrees up.

I jerked the wheel into the empty drive way.  The sudden turn bled a lot of speed and the incline took the rest.  I let the car glide up the driveway and it hung comically at the top for a second and then I started to fall backwards.  I used the momentum to complete my three point turn and got pointed back in the direction of my house.  I then had to use the gas to push myself towards home which felt ludicrous after I'd just had to use GRAVITY to stop myself.  So, I push back the way I came and I got across the tracks again, and got through the light that had thwarted me the first time and start up one side of the overpass.  The hill slowed me down again a good bit, but my heart sank when I crested the apex and saw not only a red light at where I needed to turn left, but cars stacked behind it and traffic flowing freely on the crossroad.

I said before I'm not completely ignorant about cars, and that's true.  I know all sorts of little bits of trivia about how it all works together, I just don't have much experience with repair and upkeep other than topping off fluids and replacing burned out lights or clogged air filters and replacing what feels like over a hundred tires in my life time.  Something I do know, and also knew back then, was that when you put your car in park an actual physical pin is pushed between the teeth of the gears so that they are completely restricted from spinning.  It's called a pawl and it looks about the size of a big key.  Your brakes are just gripping the wheels but there's not obstruction, only friction, but with the parking break a piece of metal has been laid down between other pieces of metal and it locks the whole system.

I was rolling uncontrollably towards a group of cars.  There was no fancy little driveway trick here, I just needed to stop.  There was only one other thing I could think of that would stop the car from moving forward.  There was a slight hesitation as my mind played out the picture of a thin piece of metal breaking off and getting twisted around in the churning fluid of my transmission.  I pulled onto the grass to my right, and I through the car into park at about 35 mph.

Jee-zuz Christ.

It sounded like I was dry firing a Gatling gun.  I thought the brakes had been making a racket.  No sir, THIS was a noise to write home about.  I was SURE I was listening to my transmission act as a circular saw as it cut deftly through the tiny, insignificant parking pin.  Or worse, the pin was made of some kind of undestructium and was shearing the teeth off the gear.  I could only hope that it slowed me enough to keep me off the road.  The buzz was blasting away my sanity as I watched the ditch (my LITERAL last ditch effort to stop) get closer and closer.  And then the car stalled and locked and skid to a quick stop in the muddy grass.

At that moment I didn't pray, because I don't pray, but I did apologize profusely to my poor Buick Century. I should never have let it get this far, I knew that now, and if she could just limp home, just 1.3 miles, I would take care of her.  I promised.

She started back up with the first turn of the key.  I waited for a giant lull in traffic and I pulled out and drove down the road.  I took the corner onto my street and I coasted home under the power of the idling engine.  I rolled to an exhausted stop in our gravel driveway.  I put her back in park (it still worked!), and I turned her off.

Silence.  Just pure silence.  The silence of space.  The silence of calm.  The silence of a baby after it's cried itself to sleep.

The car sat right there where it had rolled to a stop for a while before a friend of ours came out and swapped our the rotors and calipers (actually just one caliper if you can believe it), and put fresh break pads on.  He also calibrated the rear brakes so that they were actually catching the inside of the drum instead of doing absolutely nothing, as they had been the entire time this was going on.

"Oh, right," I said.  "I'm supposed to have four of these."  He gave me that look that men give one another when they know someone has survived something IN SPITE of themselves.  And, he only charged us for parts.  He's a really good guy.

So, why?  Right?  Just why any of it.  I don't know.  I honestly don't know why I went through that.  Was there a part of me that was terrified of being the reason we had to spend money?  Was there a part of me that was just THAT lazy?  Dear god, was there a part of me that was just curious to see what would happen?  How far I could take it?

All of the above, I think.  I could have gotten the money somewhere.  I'm lazy but not THAT lazy.  I had to have known that eventually I was going to end up in a situation exactly like the one that happened.  I've tried to distill down a reason or a thought process and there just isn't one.  The recorders were turned off for this one.  I remember actions completely devoid of intent.  It's like when people describe being possessed.  I could see myself being a complete idiot, but I couldn't do anything about it.

Also, I would be lying if I said I didn't look back on all that happened, the exciting climax especially, with a sense of adventure.  I've been of the mind for a while that for an adventure to count there has to be at least a small risk of danger.  Well, then a huge risk of danger should do it, right?

It's something out of a pulp novel or a bad movie.  The brakes are out?  Are you serious?  But, I mean, I DID that.  Something happened to me in real life that is considered a movie cliche'.

I'm sorry if I sound excited by that, because it was actually pretty awful.  It was stupid and dangerous and irresponsible to myself, my family, and the other people on the road.  It was all around a pretty dipshit thing to do, and the fact it took MONTHS to get to that point is just, well, we can start with embarrassing and work through the worse ones as we go.


But, at the same time, it is a priceless and irreplaceable experience in my life.  I could have wrecked my car. I could have been arrested.  I could have hurt myself.  I could have died.  But NONE of that happened.  I made it home.

I made it home.

God, just breathe in that air.  Breathe in that air of a planet where stupidity and triumph can live together in harmony.  Where things can go to hell and you can survive.  Where it can even be your fault and you can still survive.  Where you can make mistakes and still make it home.  That's the electric, rarefied that air gusts past you, only for a moment, after you've had an adventure, no matter how ridiculous the circumstance.

Chiggie Von Richthofen

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