I travel a lot. Certainly, more than most of the shop owners I know. I wish I didn’t have to, but it has become a big part of what I do.
I wish all the trips were to exciting and exotic vacation destinations, but in all honesty, they aren’t. Virtually every one of them is work related, delivering training or discussing issues critical to the future of our industry.
There was a time when air travel was exciting. But, that was before we were forced to endure long delays, security check points, equipment failures, cancelled flights, pay fees for more than two bags and consolidate toiletries to less than 3.25 ounces of liquid anything. Now, it’s just something you have to do in order to get wherever it is you have to be, something that has become a little more than tedious and time consuming. So much so that you’re almost forced to create a number of clever and creative diversions in order to make the hours spent moving from Point A to Point B bearable.
Admittedly, there are times when it’s easier than others, like the time I was trapped in an airport with a women’s college gymnastics team and I got to watch as they dealt with the endless wait by walking up and down the halls on their hands, doing floor exercises on well, the floor, and by literally bouncing all over the concourse.
There are other times it’s not so easy, times when the junior anti-Christ has the seat behind you and spends four-and-a-half hours kicking the back of your seat (while his mother, the Devil herself, ignores it!). Or, when the lady next to you gets sick; it’s so rough you don’t need a blender to make a milkshake; the kid across the aisle from you decides to see just how long he can scream before you lose your mind; you can hear a hydraulic pump straining or wheel bearing grinding that you know you’re not supposed to be able to hear; or, you’re seated in the last row, the one right next to the lavatory on the second leg of flight that originated at the World Championship Chili Cook-Off and there aren’t enough coffee grinds in the world to try and kill the odor!
As a writer, I’ve trained myself to observe: to watch and listen to just about everything around me. It has helped me deal with the hours spent moving from one place to another. Sometimes it’s a blessing. Sometimes it’s a curse. Regardless, it’s almost always interesting.
Take taxi rides, for instance. I take them a lot, generally from an airport to a hotel. In fact, I just took one from the hotel to the airport at 5:30 this morning in the middle of a fairly severe winter storm. More about that in a minute…
Years ago, I took one in Detroit that cost me a London Fog overcoat and, fortunately, not much more. It was in a cab that was so rusted out I could see the road whizzing by through what was left of the floor pan; and a trunk so riddled with holes even the driver seemed surprised when we got to the airport, he opened the trunk and my luggage was still there!
There are a number of things that appear to be universally consistent when it comes to riding in a cab regardless of where it is you find yourself, and almost all of them seem to have at least something to do with what you and I do for a living.
For instance, I’ve noticed the MIL is almost always illuminated when I get into a cab, and when it’s not — the only reason it isn’t is because the bulb has either been removed or it’s burned out!
You’re probably wondering where all this is going, so I won’t keep you in suspense any longer. As I got into the cab this morning, I noticed what seemed like an odd reflection radiating off the floor pan on the passenger side, rear…just where I was about to plant both feet. Being the inquisitive kind of a guy I am — and a trained automotive service professional — I reached down and stuck my index finger into what turned out to be more than a half inch of water, water that I knew would be sloshing (technical term) around my ankles the minute we accelerated away from the hotel.
You don’t have many choices at 5:30 a.m., especially in the middle of a driving winter storm, so I took a deep breath, firmly planted one foot on the drive tunnel and the other on the raised area just to the right of the recessed floor pan and trusted my fate (and my footwear) to a higher power.
As it turned out, the water was the least of our problems! I knew that the minute we pulled away from the curb. About 100 yards into our run to the airport, the entire vehicle shuddered so violently I turned to see if we had been hit from behind. We hadn’t. The second time it shuddered I put on my “technician’s hat” and started to focus on the same kinds of things I would have been looking for if I were test driving the vehicle for a client. The first thing I noticed was that the Check Engine lamp was not illuminated. The second was that the speedometer was hanging down around 15 mph. To confirm a speedometer or Vehicle Speed Sensor failure, I checked out the taxi’s meter and, sure enough, the time was advancing while the mileage remained virtually the same.
I asked the cab driver how long the Check Engine lamp had been out and, in very broken English, he replied, “No problem. Is OK!”
I should have known better, but just as I decided to let it go the vehicle shuddered so hard I thought I lost a filling, so I continued, “No! Is NOT OK! This is what I do for a living. The speedometer is not working, the vehicle is shaking itself apart and the Check Engine light SHOULD be on! All in all, IS NOT OK!”
He turned and glared at me, “Is OK, no!”
In the meantime, my colleague and fellow passenger was doing a little glaring of her own. “Don’t antagonize him!” she whispered, “He’s liable to let us out of the cab right here!” I might have considered it, if it wasn’t pouring and just barely above freezing…
I knew I was diving into the abyss, but I couldn’t help myself. “If is OK, why you are tap dancing on the gas pedal? Why is the vehicle not moving faster? And, why the bang in the back?”
He turned and glared at me again, “Is OK. No? Is always like this.”
And, that’s when I realized just how much we really do need mandatory vehicle safety and emissions inspections across the U.S.!
How many times have you road tested a vehicle that shouldn’t have been on the road at all, let alone rocketing down the freeway with you in it? How many cars have you looked at that were in such bad shape they either needed to be repaired or they needed to be parked? I don’t know about you, but it terrifies me to be out there on the freeway with all those vehicles when I know just how many of them shouldn’t really be out there!
I finally convinced the driver to call his dispatcher to let her know that he would be headed back to the barn, hopefully before the cow fell over dead, only to hear the dispatcher reply that there weren’t any other cabs available and that if it was really all that bad, he would just have to wait until the shift ended to call again.
As we limped toward the airport, I wondered about all the broken cars I don’t work on, the ones you don’t work on, the ones no one works on at all, the ones just like this one, and I sighed. You see, while I’d like to believe this was an extreme, an aberration, I know it wasn’t. I know I wasn’t imagining the driveability symptoms I had just experienced either, just as I know this isn’t the only extreme or aberration out there. There is a whole universe of vehicles that are “dirty” or unsafe, vehicles that have Check Engine lights that should be on, but aren’t. Just as there are vehicles rocketing down freeways and interstates in communities like yours or mine all across the U.S. at speeds they should never see.
“Is OK?” I don’t think so. At least not while I’m in the car! Not while I’m in the car in front, behind or alongside either. Because as much as I hate traveling, it’s still something I have to do, and as long as I have to do it, I’d like to do it safely. And, doing it with cars like this on the road significantly decreases the odds of accomplishing that without bodily injury!
We finally made it to the airport with less than half the miles it had taken to transverse the same distance two days earlier showing on the speedometer. It had taken almost twice the amount of time because of the way the vehicle was running and still, less than half the dollar amount showed on the meter. I tried my very best to get this guy to recognize that his cab was sick and that he should get back to his garage while he still could, but I don’t think he took any of it very seriously. All he had to say was, “Is OK, no?”
I checked in, got my e-ticket, waited through the line to get to the security checkpoint and then through security itself. I got to the gate just in time to find out my plane was going to be delayed because of a leaking hydraulic line — not a real confidence builder when you’re about to be trapped in that plane at 34,000 feet for the next few hours. I took a deep breath and moved toward the counter just in time to find myself standing between one of the mechanics working on the plane and the gate agent.
“Have you been able to repair the leak? Is everything OK and are we good to go?”
The mechanic turned and said, “Is OK, No.”
I turned and said, “Is not OK… Is there another flight? ”