New-fangled car fails

The Entire History of Automobiles in Western Civilization probably could have been based on and written in the Trujillo household where I grew up, on Railroad Avenue, or what we called Tough Street.

It’s not that we had an abundance of cars (Dad bought the first one, a 1942 Plymouth in the early ‘50s).

It’s not that we possessed great knowledge of cars (when the dial pointed to empty, we surmised it was time for a fill-up or a ring job, an expensive procedure at the time and a word foreign to my grandkids.

It’s not that we could even afford anti-freeze. In cold weather, my brother and I took turns draining the water from the radiator each night and sometimes remembering to refill it the next morning.

And it’s not that we traveled enough to learn much about how cars operate (Dad often took out a loaner from B.M. Werley Auto Company, where he worked).

So there we were: Thankful to have a car — any car, unschooled about how they operated and mostly stay-at-home car owners, given the several times our Plymouth went kerplunk.

Of course, we Trujillos (and most of the denizens of Tough Street) envied the more affluent families who actually loaned their children a family car so they could drive all of two blocks from Seventh or Eighth Street — the town’s Silk Stocking District — to get to school or go on Saturday dates.

The loaner program for employees worked well, provided the A-1 Used Cars held up. I liked it when the only car available was a model newer than ours. Often Dad would drive a newer car home (three blocks — our house was on the 900 block), leave it there and later walk back to the car, to pick up Mom for an appointment.

I would offer to “service” the loaner; the only service I performed was taking that car to my friend, Billy’s house, where they let me use an industrial strength vacuum cleaner.

Naturally, I felt it was my job to make sure the car was operable, and I’d take Billy on a test drive, to Seventh and Eighth Streets hoping to impress some of my rich classmates with my temporary feigned opulence.

Some of them might have even been impressed, seeing me do the used-car tour with a number of cars and — of course — spreading arrogance on thick.

I bought my first car, a ‘49 Chevy for $150, from Coach Nick DiDomenico. An incident, which my sister Dorothy will deny ever happened, really did, when I offered her a ride. Seeing that my car was low on gas, Dorothy gave me a dollar to help out. In those days, there was no self-service, so an attendant, James Lujan, began pumping gas. Feeling guilty over Dorothy’s expenditure of a whole dollar, I asked Jim to stop filling when the pump reached 50 cents. I told Dorothy, “The needle is all the way up to empty!” but she insisted. That got me four gallons-plus.

Part of the Automotive History tome I considered writing deals with flat tires. They were unavoidable in those days, and the excuse that “I had a flat tire on the way to school” usually sufficed. If I had riders and if we arrived late, we made sure to synchronize our stories when our home teacher, Sister Mary Llanta, asked us, separately, “Which tire was flat?”

Much more could be written about mid-20th-century mechanics, but let me fast-forward several decades.

Bonnie and I bought a new rechargeable car from a Santa Fe dealership just weeks ago and congratulated ourselves on our zeal for conservation, hoping our hybrid would pollute the planet less.

Would you believe that before we’d had the car a week, we had to call someone from Roadside Assistance make three house calls? Fortunately, it was a different technician each time, or we would have invited the fellow for lunch.

Each mechanic produced a portable battery charger to jump the car. I wanted answers, inasmuch as the battery was completely dead each time. There was no flickering interior light, no clock lights, no horn.

As a person experienced in jumping dead autos, I wondered why our new car showed absolutely no signs of life. The inoperable car syndrome happened three times, the third time, not exactly a charm. It required towing to Santa Fe. We have the car back now but still have no clue as to what caused it to fail each time.

When we phoned the dealership in Santa Fe, what we got was: “Oh, it’s probably a dead battery.”

Duh. Will you please revive it? And since when does a brand new car fail three times?

The electronics of that machine allow one to start the car by simply pressing a button, as long as the key is somewhere near — in the catchall, in my pocket. We worried about being stranded, most likely on the road to Santa Fe.

The car comes with a nozzle that resembles a vacuum cleaner hose; that gives juice to the big battery in the trunk. The other battery, a 12-volter, apparently takes care of other functions.

At the dealership the third time, one of us asked if it would be necessary to tote that charging device everywhere we went, and also carry a l-o-n-g hose so we could plug it in to electricity.

That’s the kind of exaggeration I’ve tried to foist on my granddaughters. I’d tell them that in the early days, cars did not have radios, and even portable radios required cords. The alternative would have been to equip the radio with a 20-mile-long cord.

For several days our combination gas-electric car has faithfully started. But just in case, if you see a white hatchback near Camp Luna, with a harried driver trying to keep the car going, any offer to push the car by hand will be accepted.

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