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Darrell Huckaby - Overheating radiators put summer getaways in peril

Here we all are, in what used to be the very midst of the summer travel season. With the early start of school these days, it's more like the tail end, so if you haven't been on vacation yet, you'd better light out soon or forever hold your peace.

And since I brought up the joys of travel, let's face the fact that life on the road is not always a bouquet of roses. To paraphrase the great Forrest Gump, stuff happens. Lots and lots of stuff. And when your mode of transportation is a vehicle built by human beings - who are not, never have been and never will be perfect - well, sometimes that "stuff" comes in the form of mechanical difficulties, otherwise known as "the car breaking down."

Honesty compels me to admit that my family's recent travels have been miraculously free of mechanical inconveniences. (That loud sound you hear is me - knocking on wood.)

It wasn't that way when I was a kid. We generally traveled in 7-year-old Buicks. Whenever we left the house for a journey of more than a hundred miles, car trouble was a distinct possibility. If that trip were to be extended beyond a hundred miles, a breakdown was almost a given.

"Running hot" seemed to be the most common malady of the cars built in the '50s. The scenario was always the same. First Daddy would drive along like a bat out of hell for a couple of hours and then the red "hot" light on the dash would come on. My father's reaction was always the same. He would drive faster, insisting over my mother's protests that the increased wind resistance created by the higher rate of speed would "cool off" the engine.

It never did.

Before we knew it, steam would be coming out from under the hood as we continued to barrel down the road. This would be followed, of course, by loud cussing on Daddy's part and pleading on Mama's part for him to pull over - which he would eventually do.

This would lead to more pleading, of course, on the part of my mother. She was always insistent that we let the car cool down before taking off the radiator cap and adding water to the cooling system. Daddy, being the impatient type (and yes, I am just like him) could never wait that long.

There was an art to taking the cap off a steaming radiator. A rag was required, of course, because the cap was always as hot as blazes. But despite all efforts to avoid the creation of a mini-geyser of scalding water, one quarter twist of the radiator cap and, "Thar she blows!"

Eventually, we would get enough water into the car's system to drive it to the nearest filling station - although sometimes we would have to repeat the mini-geyser routine half-a-dozen times along the way. Once we arrived at said filling station, a guy in a greasy jump suit would replace a hose or thermostat or water pump - or all three - at twice the going rate for such repairs. Then we would be on our way.

One summer, my parents got a wild hair and decided we would drive to New York City - a quite ambitious undertaking. We made it to Richmond, Va., before the water pump went out. While Daddy slept in the back seat, a guy in greasy coveralls fixed the car. And he didn't charge twice what the job was worth, either.

He charged three times.

Later that afternoon, we stopped for gas at a service center on the New Jersey Turnpike. A helpful attendant noticed, while checking the oil, that one of the radiator hoses was cracked. He offered to replace it for $10.

My daddy had been warned not to get taken by the evil Yankees who would be lying in wait to take advantage of poor dumb Southerners.

He slammed the hood of the car, and away we drove.

Fourteen miles into New Jersey, the "hot" light came on on my daddy's Buick Electra.

He drove faster to make the wind blow through the radiator.

Two miles later steam began to rise up from under the hood.

He drove faster still.

Four miles later, the car gave up the ghost and the engine shut down and there we were, on the side of the road on the New Jersey Turnpike.

It took a while, but finally a highway patrolman came by and radioed the nearest service center for help. Two hours and a litany of cuss words later, the same friendly service station attendant who had warned us that the radiator hose was about to blow showed up and replaced the hose. He charged us $10.

Plus another $50 for road service.

And at about eight o'clock that evening, a scant 22 hours after leaving Porterdale, we arrived in the Big Apple.

You won't believe what happened when we tried to drive home - but that's another story for another day.

Y'all have fun if you decide to travel. I think I will just stay home, where it's safe.

Darrell Huckaby is a local author and educator. He can be reached at dHuck08@bellsouth.net.