MEMORABLE MESSES by bill orth
We all have our little proclivities when shopping for a used car, like checking the service history, looking for accident evidence, etc, etc. Along with all the usual criteria, I have a personal one that means a lot to me: what’s it smell like? (Remember the tale about the Capuchin monkey that ran wild in someone’s Jaguar XJ6, biting chunks out of the seats with one end and fertilizing the interior with the other?) Most car nuts are sensitive about a careless mechanic’s left-behind fingerprints or other blemishes left in their pride-and-joy, but the Big One to me, offensive smells, is something much more permanent. I can’t stand smoker’s cars or ones with other odious odors and will immediately look elsewhere when a prospect is odiferous. (In today’s world, if an expensive car smells like smoke inside—deduct $5000! Even then, it’ll be tough to sell) I think new-car smell is heavenly, and while I don’t expect a four-year-old SUV to still be virginal, for example, there’s plenty out there without sweat-stained seats and grotty carpets to choose from. Call it a character flaw if you want, but even when our kids were little I was paranoid about messes in the car and outlawed food and gum. All that having been said, I’ll now confess about some ‘crimes against interiors’ that are in my checkered past!
One Friday evening while we were in high school, some friends were joyriding in one of their mothers’ new ’63 Impala. There were three guys in the front seat cruising around with all the windows down on a balmy Florida evening. They also had some M-80s. From time to time they would light one and toss it out at some unsuspecting target. However, one of these missiles was deployed at a bit more than cruising speed and the windstream blew it into the back seat, where it exploded, leaving a smoking black hole eight inches across in the houndstooth fabric. It was quite a sight! The whole interior of the car lit up momentarily, but the clouds of smoke and wool batting lingered for blocks—along with ringing ears. They spent the rest of the night shouting “What’d you say?” at each other, while driving around looking for an unattended matching car to swap rear seat cushions with. Found one, too.
Then there was this horror story: I was driving the six-month-old 1966 Volvo 122S that my parents had given us for a wedding present. I was on my way home from the store with a gallon glass jug of milk sitting on the floor in front of the passenger seat. Some oaf pulled out in front of me and the sharp brake application caused the jug to topple over. I had grabbed for the plastic handle, but just missed it. It fell onto its side, and for a moment it looked like things would be all right. Then—in slow motion—a crack appeared and the jug split open! A full gallon of milk cascaded into the passenger footwell, splashing around with the car’s movements. Frantically trying to think what to do, I considered that the car had a form-fitted rubber floor covering instead of carpeting and the footwell just might contain the spill! I was only a few blocks from home, so I gingerly drove along, trying to keep the wake down. When pulling away from stops, the tide would flow back under the bucket seat and fill the right rear footwell, then surge back to the front during even the gentlest deceleration. As I pulled into our street, however, I became aware that there wasn’t as much milk on the floor, front or back, as there had been. Where could it have gone?
Hollering at Myrla to get sponges and water, I looked under the passenger seat and saw that the rubber mat had two long slits cut in it where the seat tracks protruded. Under the mat was a one-inch-think pad of woven insulation material that looked like horsehair. As the milk flowed back and forth, lots of it had passed through the slits and soaked into the insulation! Did I mention that this was August, in Florida, and we were supposed to be at a friend’s wedding in three hours? And this un-air conditioned Volvo was our only transportation. Fortunately, cars were simpler then and I was able to get the seats out and the huge one-piece rubber mat dragged out into the yard. Then the sodden insulating mat was removed, dripping milk all over everything, while Myrla swabbed down the bare metal floor with vinegar. We drove the car stripped that way for a week while the hosed-down mat and pad dripped dry on the clothesline, but that Volvo still smelled funny on hot days for as long as we had it.
Seven years later, we had just bought a magnificent two-year-old Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham, with ritzy brocade cloth upholstery. We also had a sick cat. Headed for the vet, she huddled between my right hip and the pulled-down center arm rest. Cadillacs of that era had what looked like a bench seat, but it was actually two individually adjustable sections—split right by the driver’s hip. Arriving at the animal hospital, I opened my door, held it with my foot, reached down and gently picked her up behind her front legs. As she became vertical she released a pitiful meow….and a sloppy torrent of feline diarrhea! Aghast, I swung her across my lap and held her out the door until the gusher subsided. Then I looked over the devastation in my new Cadillac. The dash and steering wheel were liberally splattered from the swing-over, as was as my lap, and there was a thick yellowish-brown pool next to me that was slowly receding down the split between the seats! There was also a wide-eyed lady sitting in the car parked next to us who had been watching the whole affair.
We only lived a few blocks away, so I hustled home, steering with two sticky fingers and squirming as my pants soaked through. Hollering for Myrla to bring sponges and water (again) as soon as I screeched into the driveway, the cat was forgotten as we feverishly tried to mop up the god-awful mess. Unfortunately, cars weren’t so simple anymore and getting the seats out was a monumental project, complicated by all the power seat motors and maze of wiring under there---not to mention the thick deep- pile carpeting—all of which were now saturated with an unspeakable fishy slurry. Women, especially moms, face such disasters with amazing aplomb and after about an hour Myrla had captured the worst of it. More time was spent swabbing with quarts of clean vinegar (again) and after awhile the job was as good as it was ever going to get. But that Cadillac always smelled a little funny on hot days for as long as we had it.
-- Bill Orth --