June 10, 1995
It was unusually cold for June, and a steady rain made it feel even colder. Justin and I had picked this day to install fog lights on the car, in my mom’s driveway, in the dark. We attempted to drill into the bottom of the bumper, but the bumper’s resilience outlasted our persistence. Plus it was raining and really cold. And it was dark.
Eric had gone to see REM with his girlfriend, and after dropping her off, joined our little fog-light-install-in-the-rain party. We elected to drill into the sheet metal below the bumper, as carefully as possible, and mount the lights a little lower. By the time we got them in and working it was well after midnight. The holes we drilled that night make an encore appearance a little later in our story...stay tuned.
With the top down on a gorgeous summer day, Justin and I were on our way to JoAnne Fabric in St. Clairsville, in search of fabric and notions for a cow-print recliner project we were working on. We stopped at a second-hand store in Bridgeport where we scored a bag of springs for a buck, and then headed west on I-70.
About a mile down the road, we noticed a large plume of smoke over the horizon. After cresting the hill, we spotted the source...a brand new RV was on the shoulder, smoking heavily. The elderly owners were standing nearby, and the only other arrival on the scene was a truck driver. We immediately pulled the car over and tried to help.
The trucker’s lone fire extinguisher was little help, and we waited a seeming eternity for a fire truck to arrive. At various points, Justin was partially beneath the vehicle attempting to slow the flames. The occasional exploding tire terrified everyone on the scene. The owner shocked us all when he re-entered the now fully engulfed vehicle. He emerged seconds later with a box of ammunition (he was concerned it may go off, injuring someone).
A single fire truck finally arrived with two firefighters on board. With I-70 now closed in both directions, and a shortage of trained manpower, Justin and I grabbed a firehose and drug it across the interstate. Despite our best efforts, the RV was a total loss. The owners were safe, but emotionally devastated.
Cat and I were getting more serious. I had convinced her to take the last few classes she needed to finish her degree. She convinced me to face a problem I had been avoiding for a long time.
Like many teenagers, my relationship with my dad was tough. My parents had divorced when I was young, and I lived with my mom until I was 12. I decided to move in with my dad and I spent a year with him and his wife. Things ended poorly, I moved back to my mom’s house, and for 5 years my dad and I had no real contact.
I was 19, had finished my first year of college, and was dating the girl who would eventually become my wife. I reached out to my dad, we agreed to sit and talk for a while, and on the appointed day, I headed for his house in Cadiz.
The top was down and I was enjoying US 250 West, although my stomach was in knots. As I rounded a bend, a coal truck approached in the other lane. It discharged a large rock just as we passed each other, putting a large crack in the upper corner of the windshield. It sounded like a gunshot, and had it been off by a few inches, it could have been much worse.
It took all of about ten minutes for my dad and I to patch things up. Apologies were made, tears were shed, and we’ve been close ever since. His relationship with the car, however has always been somewhat contentious.
Taking a guess at the date here, but this story is too legend to omit.
Driving through Rayland on our way to Smithfield, Justin says “Pull over!” I hadn’t noticed the hitchhiker standing across from the Rayland Volunteer Fire Department.
“That’s Shorty, he needs a ride home,” explained my passenger.
Shorty was aptly named, as he was Smithfield’s only little person. He was known to be a heavy drinker.
“Seriously?” I asked.
Shorty hopped in the back seat. He smelled really bad. Like alcohol mixed with a month of no showers. His feet didn’t reach the floor.
We delivered him safely to Smithfield.
He was useless at troubleshooting idle problems.
July 4, 1996.
No major events this day, just a crystal clear memory. I was working at Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel for the summer. On my way to work a midnight shift in Follansbee, driving north on Route 7 through Brilliant, top down, Rush’s “Dreamline” giving those tweeters a serious workout, fireworks lighting up the night sky all around me, I felt an overwhelming sense of contentment. I had the girl, the car, the job, and I was less than a year from graduating from Duquesne University. And, at 60 mph, there was no reminder that my car wouldn’t idle quite right. At that moment, all was right in my world.
I had applied to Medical School at a few colleges, and I had an interview at the University of Cincinnati. Justin and I made the trip, and after the interview in the morning, started back to my apartment in Pittsburgh.
Near the Burgettstown exit on Route 22, late in the evening, Justin points to the side of the road. “Watch out...deer!” Our attention diverted to the berm, we never saw the other deer, dead center in our lane, lying on it’s side, feet pointed towards us like two perfect little ramps. The Rabbit met the deer at around 70mph and immediately went airborne. We landed hard but never lost control. The CD changer in the glove compartment jammed permanently. The heater fan began working for the first time in years. We have heat!
The erratic idle was unaffected.
Early May 1997
It had been three years and I was more determined than ever to get the idle right. Armed with a wealth of knowledge about the engine, and access to my Uncle’s garage (and tools), Eric and I decided to tear the engine down. We would replace the head gasket, redoing the job that Justin and I had almost gotten right in 1994.
That first effort had taken about a month. This time, we had the head off in about 2 hours. When we got the head back from the machine shop a couple of days later, it took about 2 hours to have the car back together.
It was time to start it up.
This was it. Remember when you were seven and you were the first one up on Christmas morning? You made your way down to the living room, heart pounding, really really sure that there would be a pile of presents, but a little terrified that there may not be any at all? That was us (well, me anyway). A still erratic idle, after all this work, would be just too much to bear. Surely we got it right this time.
The starter whirred, the engine sprang to life, and the tach landed at 700 rpm and just sat there. It was as smooth as Ray Liotta sipping brandy in a hotel bar. As persistently rock solid as Charlie Watts laying down the backbeat in “Satisfaction”. It just….ran.
I had owned the car for three years, driven it around 30,000 miles, and it finally idled. Like a regular car. Never again would I be at a stoplight, left foot on the clutch, right foot holding the brake while simultaneously goosing the throttle just to keep it running. Fast food drive-throughs would become non-events.
One other thing became clear that night in Uncle Chip’s garage. I’m never selling this car.
Late May 1997
Cat and I took a road trip to Washington D.C. for my cousin’s wedding, and for the first time I was comfortable that the Rabbit would get us there and back without incident.
Cruising across I-68 in Maryland, the engine purring just as God and Ferdinand Porsche had intended, I had another of those “all is right with the world” moments. I also have a clear memory of driving past the U.S. Capitol at night, top down, a million stars above, and my girl by my side.
Cat and I had taken a trip to Pittsburgh. We were leaving Oakland on Fifth Avenue and prepared to merge onto the Boulevard of the Allies. I caught a glimpse of some oncoming traffic out of the corner of my eye, so I hit the brakes. The truck behind me, a full-size Chevy carrying water for Culligan, did not. He hit us square in the rear end, hard enough that the Chevy bowtie on his grill made a clean imprint on my trunk lid.
We weren’t hurt. The Rabbit, however, was totaled.
If this were any other car, the story would end here. But if that were the case, this wouldn’t have been titled “Act 1."