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The Truth, Mainly - 01/12/1998

Automotive crisis during Rockies holiday: domestic discord revealed

I don't normally like to go public with domestic discord, but I know my wife is going to blab this story to her friends. So hear my side first.

We're driving to Colorado, see, for the holidays, both to visit kids and grandkids and to spend time in the mountains. Whenever we're on the road, my wife and I have a running dispute: she likes to get gas when the tank is half full; I like to wait until there's maybe a half gallon left.

The high-water point of my driving career came in 1968 when we ran out of gas at 2 a.m. and managed to coast several hundred yards right up to the pumps of the only open gas station within 50 miles.

It was a masterpiece of fuel management, an automotive "Ode to Joy." We sat a moment in silence, save for the whimpering of the children.

"Well," my wife said, "we might as well get gas while we're here."

She was being sarcastic. She grew up in one of those families that keep their tanks full. Once when her mother was visiting, we ran out of gas in the Gateway parking lot.

"Isn't the gauge working?" my mother-in-law asked.

"Oh, grandma," my daughter wailed, "Daddy doesn't buy gas till we run out."

"After 20 years," my wife said, "you can get used to walking down a highway with a gas can."

God knows I've explained it often enough. It's physics. It's a question of inertia and drag. It goes like this:

A full tank weighs more than an empty tank. Weight increases inertia and drag. Increased inertia and drag play hell with your gas mileage. Ergo, the less gas in your tank, the more miles per gallon.

So people who drive around with full tanks, I instruct my family, might as well be throwing dollar bills out their car windows.

Now we're halfway between Ft. Morgan and Greeley and my wife is leaning over to look at the gas gauge.

"Shouldn't we get gas?" she asks. "Or would you rather freeze and starve halfway up the mountain?"

"Nolo problemo," I say. "The warning light isn't even on yet."

It comes on as I speak.

"There's a station right up there," she says.

"Wrong side of the road," I say. "Besides, we already know, don't we, that when the light comes on we have three gallons left. That'll take us 80 miles. We only have 60 to go. We'll get gas in the morning."

"What is it about feeling secure you don't like?" she asks.

"You wanna feel secure," I say, "you live in Sweden or some other socialist utopia. America's all about living close to the edge."

"You talk that way every time you get west of North Platte," she says. "Did you ever notice that?"

We get to the cabin all right, and next morning I'm ready to go the 11 miles into Estes for groceries. It's 15 degrees and the car won't start. I pop the hood. It's a 90 Toyota and what I see is nothing like what I see when I pop the hood of my 76 Dodge pickup. My wife comes out to watch.

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"Electrical problem," I say. "But how's a man to fix an electrical problem when they hide the sparkplugs and distributor and magneto?"

"Maybe," she says, "it's run out of gas."

"Cars don't run out of gas when they're not running," I explain. "There was gas in it when we got here so there's gas in it now."

I wiggle some wires that might be sparkplug wires, knock against what could be a distributor, bang on three things which look nothing like a magneto, get back in the car and crank it. Nothing happens.

"Well," she says, shivering a little, "do you suppose we freeze first? Or starve to death?"

"No," I say. "We'll call the Toyota dealer in Ft. Collins and he'll fix it."

"It'll cost $294 to get it towed to Ft. Collins," she says. "But you'll get awfully good gas mileage on the way."

She's right. It will cost $294. So I call our neighbor. He comes over.

"Gas line freeze-up," I say.

"Outta gas," she says.

He takes me to town to get some de-icer. Says he needs to go in for gasoline anyway. Says he likes to keep the top half full.

"While we're there," he says, "we'll fill the gas can. Can't hurt."

When we get back, I put the de-icer in the tank and crank the engine. The battery sounds tired. The engine doesn't start.

"Try putting in the gas," my wife says.

"OK," I say, winking at my neighbor. "We'll humor the little woman."

It starts. She smiles. My neighbor looks away.

I have no idea what she'll make of this for her friends. But I think about it a while and I have a good idea of what I'll make of it:

By running out of gas, I just saved a $294 towing charge.


Lincoln English Professor Satterfield writes to salvage clarity from his confusion. His column appears on alternate Mondays.


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