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It started with a grinding noise somewhere near the front tire.
A visual inspection didn’t turn anything up, but later our Suburban began shaking every time I braked. Something was clearly wrong but I still drove it a few times out of necessity — to church, to buy some tortillas…you know, necessities. Then, the kicker. This time I braked and the entire vehicle shook the way a car does when a teenager is learning to drive a stick.
Rattle rattle, thump thump, grind, stop. Breathe, pray.
“That does it,” I said. “The Stagecoach is grounded ’til further notice.” (We call our Suburban The Stagecoach.)
I’m no mechanic — we might as well establish this from the outset — but that hasn’t stopped me from logging hundreds of hours repairing various automobiles over the course of my forty-four years. There are a few reasons for this:
- I’ve learned that 60% of the challenge in repairing something is the fear of taking it apart.
- I hate spending money on anything that’s not either delicious or entertaining.
- I’m a man.
But largely, it’s because my wife grew up watching her dad fix everything short of a broken heart (he builds race cars for fun), so, you might say the pressure is always on. Whenever something breaks, be it plumbing, a vehicle, a gutter, or whatnot, she asks me these six little words: “Is that something you can fix?”
My wife is an amazing woman. When she asks me this question it’s always with the utmost sincerity, no doubt seasoned with compassion for my fragile male ego. She would never say, “My dad could fix it” (though he could) and, if I answer, “No,” she always smiles and accepts that we will have to pay a professional.
For me, this is torture.
My “No, I can’t fix it” declaration causes something in me to shrivel up, so I often avoid that by saying, “Probably,” meaning, “I have no idea,” and then off to YouTube I go. Let us pick up the story there.
A little research and thirty minutes under the Stagecoach led me to a bad rotor. I sent her dad a text image, evidence of my triumphant diagnosis.
“Better change those calipers, too,” he texts back. I quickly search changing calipers.
“Of course,” I reply a few minutes later. Duh.
YouTube is the poser handyman’s best friend; I don’t know how men faked technical proficiency prior to it. After watching a few videos, I stand before my beautiful bride, puff up my chest, and proclaim, “Yeah,” faking nonchalance. “I CAN FIX IT.”
A few days later I pack the five-year-old into the car and head to AutoZone, soon to be known as the orange auto store, orange being the motif of their signage, the store’s only distinguishable characteristic evident to my son. There would be other colors to come.
Saturday we begin. According to the YouTube videos I’d watched, after unbolting the tire, the rotor was supposed to come off with a few smacks from the sledgehammer. Yeah, no.
Scroll, scroll, scroll. Send pictures to her dad. Get short replies.
It appears that on a ’99 Suburban, the nut holding the hub’s rotor needs to come off also…with a 36mm socket…which I don’t have…and that nobody has in stock. Saturday being almost over, I clean up, inform my lovely bride that (through no fault of mine) we are dead in the water till I can find the right socket, and start searching the internet for the elusive part.
Midweek, I strike cyber gold: Napa Auto Parts can order me the socket, so off to the blue auto parts store we go. The following Thursday I’m ready to give it another go. Almost immediately I discover another snag —- bolts, four of them, crusted shut from 20 years’ worth of Alaskan weather to boot. I watch some more videos with no clear answers but luckily I have an ace in the hole: a friend in the form of a certified Chevy mechanic who answers his texts.
“You need to take the hub assembly off,” he texts after checking the diagrams.
At this, I begin wondering if my “I CAN FIX IT’ was a bit premature.
He sends a follow-up text. “You’ll probably need to order new bolts because you’ll kill ’em taking them off. You’ll also need to take the tie rods off first to reach them better.”
Google tie rods. Watch video. “Oh, sure. Got it.” Yep, premature indeed. By this point I’m well down the rabbit hole, so back under the wheel, I go where I notice something else: I have no idea how to take off a tie rod. YouTube, more YouTube, and still more YouTube. Finally, I find a video with a tie rod assembly that matches mine. The lady in the video says, “Now take your pickle fork.”
I pause. Take my what?
“Take your pickle fork, and put in between the tie rod…”
Ladies and gentlemen, I’m here to testify: Pickle forks are real. Fortunately, they’re not all that expensive ($11) and readily available at O’Reilly’s, the green auto parts store, as is the 15mm impact grade socket I also don’t have to take off the bolts I’m going to kill which I can’t reach without pickle forking something under the wheel.
The second Saturday morning I stand before The Stagecoach, determined to give her new shoes lest the heavens fall. My wife decides to take most of the girls out shopping and waves as she leaves, “Have fun pickle forking.” It sounds much more fun than it is.
But it worked, and I only bashed my finger once and with hardly any blood loss. I smacked the pickle fork in between the tie rod and the control arm (I think) and they separated with a clang (I’m pretty sure this is a good thing). I held my pickle fork aloft in triumph and sang a silent aria to the good people at the green store. Now I’m on a roll, and my wife is gone. This calls for Rush.
The b-side of 2112 playing on repeat in the background, as well as two of my sons, were the only witnesses to the next three hours of impact wrenching, stud post pounding, and caliper replacing fun. I managed to get one rotor replaced, the caliper switched, and the brake pads inserted…wait a minute. The brake pads were too big. My wife returns and asks, “Think you’re getting close?”
Nope. Not even close to close. Also, the brake line is leaking. CAN WE FIX IT?! Crickets.
Back at the orange store to replace the brake pads that their computer swore would fit on the Stagecoach, we discover a mystery. It involves pad sizes and caliper parts that three orange-cloaked auto parts employees are befuddled by. In the end, they settle on a new pad that looks mostly like my old pad, and we’re off.
The guy with the YouTube video dedicated to fixing leaking brake lines ensures me I need to get some more brass washers. This time the boy and I go to Carquest, the red, white, and blue auto parts store because we’re driving by it. The boy gets a slushie, I get my washers, and we’re set for Saturday repairs, Part Trois.
The third Saturday, I tackle the other wheel. Lugs off, pickle fork in, big socket whirrr whirrr, kill the other four bolts…I’m getting good at this. I get the wheels changed, new bolts in, etc… All that’s left is to put in the new pads.
Ah, the pads. These are decidedly too small. Forget you, orange store, we’re going green.
I never thought I’d hear myself say that.
At the green store we get a new set of pads that look different from both sets that preceded them. The new pads slide into the new calipers with ease and perfection, and I pat myself on the back with black sooty fingers. Now for the endgame, the brake lines, which the red, white, and blue store washers pinch into submission. Swallow your fluids, you pesky brake caliper, I need to see about a girl.
I test the lines, I test the brakes, I hear no grinding. Victory! We have victory!
I walk into the house, calming my giddiness along the way so that when I finally pass my wife I can give her a calm thumbs up and a nonchalant assurance. “Done. Fixed it.”
She cheers, my pride surges, we’re back in business, and I can get back to performing the functions God more readily designed me for, with a keyboard and a mug of coffee.
A few days later, a friend texts me about helping him format a Kindle version of his book. This I answer with confidence and no preparatory YouTube research required.
Yes, I can definitely fix that.Published in