Saturday, August 27, 2011

Living in Interesting Times

Was it Confucius who cursed "may you live in interesting times"? Because we just might be experiencing that curse.

The scenario: alternator shot on our van, with no parts or service until next week, and a weekend hurricane breathing down our necks.

Interesting times, indeed!

On Thursday afternoon, we spent the afternoon on a beach in Dennisport, on the southern shore of Cape Cod. The sun was shining, it was hot, but a strong wind was blowing in from the south and cooled us. Looking out to sea, with Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard beyond the horizon, we could see cloud cover obscuring the sky. Facing the warm water on the beach, the sand blasted our skin—sunglasses were mandatory for protecting our eyes. Sand got everywhere, but we didn't care. This was probably going to be our last day at the beach, so we were going to enjoy every minute of it.

When we were hungry for dinner, we piled into the beach to head back to the cottage, where we would shower, change, and then head out to dinner. The van had been facing out to the sea, and with the salt spray and sand, I wished I could stick the van in a shower to clean the windshield.

The trouble started when I started the engine. Like most vehicles, lots of lights come on when you turn the ignition, but they go out as the van warms up. Except some lights didn't go out: the battery light and every door ajar light—even though all doors were securely closed. Also, the engine made a strange noise, as though a belt was rubbing.

I didn't want to stay where we were, so we headed back towards the cottage, which was only about five minutes away. Throughout the trip, the lights went out and came back on. The sound went away as we exited the beach parking lot and didn't come back. The van operated as I expected it to, except for the lights. We made it to the cottage without incident.

At the cottage, we contacted the nearest AAA office to find a service centre, only at that hour, nothing seemed open. And so we cleaned up and then walked to the main street—a couple of blocks away, and had dinner at a crummy Mexican pizza place. I wrote a scathing review on Urbanspoon.

We walked back to the cottage as the rain started. Was this the start of Hurricane Irene, and were we going to be stranded in Cape Cod? Only tomorrow would tell.

This morning, the storm had passed. The sky was cloudless, the wind calm. The calm before the storm.

We really were stupid about the van. Because the heavy rain of the night before, we rose around 9:00, made a leisurely breakfast, and checked out what things we would do after we fixed the van. By the time we actually pulled out of the cottage, it was noon. And instead of driving directly to the service station, we stopped at a grocery store to get supplies. And then we went to the service station.

Rick was very nice. Even though his station was busy, he took the time to determine the problem. It didn't take long: it was the alternator. The battery was strong, but the voltage didn't budge at all when we started up the van. The challenge then lay in finding a part that would work with our Canadian van. Rick called all of his distributors, without success. The soonest he could get an alternator in and install it was Tuesday, next week.

We needed to check out of the cottage by 10:00 the next morning. So time was not on our side. Rick said that even if he had an alternator, there was no way that he could install it today. And because he wasn't open on the weekend, he wasn't much help. He wished us luck and asked us to call later, once we knew what we were going to do. He would be available to help in whatever way he could.

And so we returned to the cottage, stressed. We were in a crisis. The girls were worried, but Lori and I remained outwardly calm. We had been in tighter jams before and had gotten ourselves out of it.

We hit the Internet. We searched for dealerships in the area. The closest place that we found was a dealership in Weymouth, an hour-and-a-half away, almost in Boston. We had them hold the alternator. It was 3:30 and they closed at 5. Someone would be on hand until 6.

I called Rick to ask his opinion: if I drove to get the part, would our van make it? He said that it may make the journey there, but it wouldn't make it back, especially if it started to get dark and we turned on the lights. I said that if I found a way to get the part, would be know of someone who could install it on Saturday. He paused, and then said that he would. Even though he wasn't open on Saturday, he would be at the shop at 8:00.

Our saviour.

We searched for a car rental agency. The closest one that could help us was in Barnstable, about 20 minutes away. There was an airport with a Hertz. I bid the girls farewell, hopped in the van, and sped off.

I left the van at the airport and took the car. It was 4:45. The GPS said it would take a little more than an hour to get to the dealership. Not acceptable, in my mind. I flew as fast as I felt I could without attracting the attention of any speed traps, and knocked more than 15 minutes from my trek. By 5:30, I had a new alternator in my hands.

I returned to the cottage, starving. I hadn't eaten since breakfast. My first priority was to feed myself and my family. And so we headed out to our last dinner on the cape. Seafood. Very good seafood.

I'm stupid. I forgot to heed Rick's warning about driving in the dark. After filling our bellies, we drove to the airport and picked up the van. Lori drove it with Lainey; Sarah and I followed in the rental.

As Lori pulled on to Highway 6, I noticed the taillights start to dim. I crossed my fingers that she had enough juice to make it to the service station. We would drop it off and then I would drive the rental to meet Rick in the morning.

We were close. So very, very close. But no cigar.

About half a mile from our exit, the lights really dimmed. The van slowed. Lori pulled over onto the shoulder. The taillights appeared sleepy, like they were drifting off into a lovely dreamland. And then the van stopped. Dark. As Lori and Lainey piled into the rental, I learned that there were no lights at all on the dashboard as Lori coaxed the van as far as it could go.

We're safe. We're all right. The van is now at the garage, waiting for Rick to show up and install the alternator. With any luck, we will be ready to go long before Hurricane Irene comes up the coast. With any luck, we can resume our vacation, travelling about New England, without a care in the world.

But with the firm memory that we have lived in interesting times.

To be continued... ?

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