There are mornings when the only thing missing would be Rod Serling standing in the corner of the office waiting to utter those famous words that started so many of the early Twilight Zone episodes:
“Picture if you will…”
He was standing in the corner this morning when a client began to explain the problems they were experiencing with their 1995 Toyota Camry wagon. I know it’s hard to believe, but he was there…
“Picture if you will…a 1995 Toyota wagon: apparent victim of demonic possession…capable of independent thought and unilateral action.
A vehicle who will take its passengers on a journey they will never forget: a journey they are not prepared for. A vehicle that will exit the highway at an off-ramp that cannot be found on any map…an off-ramp that will ultimately lead them to their next stop…a short visit to The Twilight Zone!”
The symptoms weren’t what set the stage for another Twilight Zone episode “filmed” here at Schneider’s Automotive.
Like most of the all-too-many unusual and sometimes bizarre events that seem to punctuate my life like the fantasy writings of an over-zealous English major, the people who seem to pop into, and then out of, the office without warning are usually what set my head spinning — the people and the way they interact first with each other, and then with me.
After all, how could anyone be expected to deal rationally or responsibly with a conversation that started like this:
“Well, we’d like you to take a look at the Toyota because this is the vehicle our son is driving now…and sometimes it won’t start, and other times it will…But, we don’t want to spend too much money on it. Oh, yes! And, before we go much further, let me show you the ‘kill’ switch. It’s broken and it can sometimes be a problem.”
Me: “What kind of problems are you having with the kill switch?”
Mom: “Well, sometimes it doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to and the car won’t start.”
It took every ounce of self-control I had not to say, “Well, isn’t that what a ‘kill switch’ is supposed to do?” But, I knew what she meant and I had a pretty good idea where that kind of a response would take us…
Before I could go any further, she went on…
“…and other times it’s just fine.”
Instead, I asked the obvious question: “Well, how much money is ‘too much,’ and what kind of problems other than the ‘kill switch’ not working properly are you having?”
Mom: “I don’t know…We just don’t want to spend a lot.
“And, the problem is the vehicle won’t start every time and sometimes it will just shut off while you’re driving it.
“That can be very dangerous and disconcerting, you know!
“Oh, and my husband wanted me to tell you not to worry about the positive battery cable being loose, we know about that. It’s loose because we have to pull it off every night to prevent the alarm from going off in the middle of the night.”
I replied, “I understand…”
I didn’t really, but I had to say something, and suggesting that I understood seemed an appropriate response if the goal was to extract additional information from the two people staring at me from the other side of the counter.
Me: “Did you buy this vehicle new? Was the alarm installed in the vehicle when you bought it? Do you know if it was factory installed, dealer installed or, did you have it installed after you purchased the vehicle? Do you have the remote…the keyless entry transceiver? Do you have a wiring diagram or a schematic? And, what exactly would like us to do?”
Mom: “Well, all of it…”
The son — a brand-new driver with a brand-new driver’s license who had just inherited the vehicle and was the target of this demonic behavior — said: “Mom, what about the horn and the cruise control?”
Mom: “Thank you, honey! I almost forgot.
“OK…Sometimes when you hit the horn, the cruise control will engage, all by itself. Or, if it is engaged, it might disengage when you hit the horn! And, other times, the horn may go off when you hit the cruise control, or is it the other way around?”
Can you see Mr. Serling smiling that wry smile of his in the corner? I can.
Me: “Well, based upon what you’ve just shared with me, I would start by removing the alarm system; Although, I’m not sure that would have an impact on the cruise control/horn issues your son just mentioned.
“However, properly removing a complete alarm system — and returning the vehicle to the condition it was in before the alarm was installed — can get expensive.
“The horn/cruise control problem sounds like a short in the wiring that runs up and down the steering column. But, we won’t know unless or until you authorize us to go ahead with the disassembly, inspection and testing that might be required.
“Regardless, I still need you to tell me what you would like us to do.”
Mom: “I want you to fix it.”
Me: “No matter what it costs?”
Silence… “Well, nooooo…”
Me: “So, how far would you like us to go? How interested are you in eliminating these problems? How much are you willing to invest? It’s your vehicle and your money. So, it has to be your decision.”
Mom: “But, I thought you could fix it!”
Me: “We can fix it — but, as with all things, there is a cost associated with what we do. I need to know what you are willing to spend in order to know if that investment will be sufficient to solve the problem. If it is, we can go ahead and take care of all your concerns. If it isn’t, I need to let you know so you can consider other alternatives.
“I can’t fix the car any better or any more completely than you are willing to pay to have it fixed.”
Mom: “Well, I want it fixed. I don’t want my son driving a car that will die in the middle of an intersection without warning. And, I certainly don’t want him stuck someplace far from home in the middle of the night!”
Me: “Great! Then I’ll put down an initial fee of about $250 to test and inspect the vehicle and we can see where that takes us. But, you need to understand that with the kind of problems you are describing, it could go higher. If you are willing to let me know what your budget is, it will be easier for us to recommend a course of action that makes sense to both of us.”
The mom seemed somehow less patient than she was when our conversation first began: “I don’t understand why removing something like an alarm system should be so expensive. Why can’t you just take it out?”
It seemed like a reasonable question. After all, why can’t you just take it out? How do you explain something like that to someone who hasn’t a chance in the world of understanding how difficult just “taking it out” can be, how difficult it can become?
And, then, just as I was wandering off to consider Rod Serling, science fiction and the other worldly turn this conversation had just taken, I thought about the few minutes of a movie I watched just the other night and it came to me.
I turned to the son and asked…
“Did you ever see The Puppet Masters with Donald Sutherland? It was on cable the other night.”
Before I could finish the mother replied, “I certainly did. It was so horrible! These awful-looking, slug-like alien creatures would ‘glom’ themselves on to your back, than insert this long, ugly, gross-looking ‘thingy’ into your spine, taking over your whole body…Donald Sutherland worked for a special government agency and…”
“Whoa! Stop right there! That’s it! That ‘slug-like’ creature you just described: the one that inserted itself into the central nervous system of its host – have you got that visual in your mind?”
“I certainly do…but…”
“No ‘But’s! That slug-like creature is your alarm system! It’s wired into — or, at least, it can be wired into every system on your car. It can be wired into the starting system to prevent the starter from engaging. It can be wired into the horn to sound an audible alarm if someone is trying to break in. It can be wired into the fuel delivery system to prevent the fuel pump from working. It can be wired into the ignition system to prevent that system from working.
“It is specifically designed to alter and interrupt the normal function of your vehicle and there aren’t two of these systems that are wired or installed the same way…anywhere!
“That’s why it can cost so much…Because we don’t know what we’re up against until we get in there and attempt to surgically remove the ‘alien creature’ from its host: your vehicle!”
I took a deep breath and slowly let it go, pleased with what I knew was a great, albeit unorthodox explanation. I was even more satisfied when I could actually see the lights go on. She “got it!” She understood.
The work was authorized and a few hours later the “Alarm-a-nectomy” was complete and the tangled remains of the “alien creature” were laying alongside the Camry. The alarm had been introduced into virtually every system on the vehicle: ignition, fuel delivery, charging, lights and horns. And, removing it meant opening the harness, tracing each tendril, removing it, repairing the harness with solder and heat shrink, and then returning it to normal by taping it and then putting everything back where it belonged.
The exorcism was complete. The battery cables were cleaned and tight. The horn worked when it was supposed to, not when it felt like working. The cruise didn’t interfere with the horn…or, was it the horn interfering with the…?
When all was said and done, we were able to do something even Rod Serling had difficulty doing on all but rare occasion. We brought someone back from the Twilight Zone!
So, it shouldn’t surprise you when I tell you that I could hear him in the background when the Toyota’s owners came to pick up their Camry. I could hear him when he said…
“Picture if you will… a vehicle in which everything that is supposed to work, works as it is supposed to. A vehicle in which everything that is supposed to remain dormant unless called upon, remains so. A vehicle capable of taking you on that long journey to the Twilight Zone…And, a repair shop capable of ensuring you are able to make the long trip home again…”