It started with a smell and a denial. Most car problems do. The smell of something gone wrong and a denial that something could.

All of us are destined to have a certain amount of car trouble in our lives. Rather than woe-is-me, it makes sense to see it as our common destiny. My turn today, yours tomorrow.

I burned up my first car, a blue Corvair, when I was 16. No one told me I had to put oil in it. I thought the car would run forever on teenage bravado.

Like most people, I’ve seen about everything. I’ve had belts snap, radiators rust and tires fly off. Twenty years ago, the Suburban caught fire. That seemed noteworthy until the Volvo wagon, housed in the mechanic’s garage, burned up a few years after that.

The latest adventure started a few weeks ago. I smelled something in the car. "Something" like coolant. “Something” like the car was overheating.

“Denial” included convincing myself that since air conditioners are running full blast in August, coolant is as much a summer smell as is suntan lotion, cut grass and honeydew melon.

Sue and I had gone to see “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” Quentin Tarantino’s excellent new movie. If nothing else, women should see it for the scene in which Brad Pitt takes his shirt off and every guy in the theater does a gut check.

Sue was sitting next to me on the passenger side of the Jeep. She was wearing a new pair of beautiful tan pumps. They were really stylish. The sorts of shoes women wear when they have a movie date with Brad Pitt.

“Something’s leaking in your car,” she said. “Look at the side of my left shoe.”

I looked. The shoe had a greenish brown stain on it the size of the bottom of a pepper grinder.

Shoes are a source of great pride for a woman. Great pride and great anxiety. No matter how many pairs a woman has, and even if she is not a shoe horse, she is always one pair short. Short until she finds a pair of stylish tan pumps and for awhile, the sea of anxiety recedes and there is footwear peace.

We had a moment. A moment of silence for her shoes and silence for her plight which included the life she had chosen.


A week later the car overheated, and as often happens, it did so out of town away from the healing influence of John Axt, the last of the honest mechanics. Car trouble may happen two blocks from your favorite garage but often, two blocks can be more like 200 miles.

A place where you know nobody and have no friends. No friends, including the passengers that have been unwittingly drawn into your car repair vortex and rue the day on which they made your acquaintance.

Fortunately I was alone — Sue had served her penance — when the smell of coolant became stronger still and the temperature gauge, which normally sat impassively between hot and cold, moved precipitously to the right toward hot. Then, the arrow almost disappeared altogether immolated by the lava erupting from the radiator.

Denial. Maybe it will cool down. Maybe this is just a mistake.

I stopped the car and raised the hood. I raised the hood because I wanted to show the car I was serious and I wasn’t messing around. Raising the hood also indicates a certain car core competence.

I let the car sit for half an hour, unscrewed the radiator cap, added water and then started the car. I learned something. Unless you screw the cap back on, the water will boil over again. Which it did. Which I understand now.

The car is headed back to the garage. I am optimistic, because life requires it. Optimism and a new pair of stylish tan pumps.

Herb Benham is a columnist for the Bakersfield Californian and can be reached at or (661) 395-7279.

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