Fair warning: This is not one of those exciting car-chase type stories, like “The Fast and the Furious” or “The Bourne Identity” or “Winnie the Pooh.” This is one of those frustrating, money-into-a-bottomless-pit, neverending maintenance type sagas. Didn’t want to mislead you.
The adventure begins late in June, when I get into my car to drive to work. My warm yet devastatingly handsome brown eyes scan the horizon for potential threats as I put the key into the ignition of my stylishly dilapidated 1993 Mazda 625. (It used to be a 626, but it got demoted because of the huge dent in the rear panel.)
The key won’t turn. I crank the steering wheel over and shove against the gear shift – two actions that (experience has taught me) usually free up the key and allow me to crank the car. I try again. Key still won’t turn. And now it’s stuck in the ignition. And the steering wheel lock has engaged.
This can’t be good.
I make alternate arrangements for transportation to work, and call the service department at my local Mazda dealer. I explain the problem, and there’s 18 seconds of silence on the other end of the line. “Your key is stuck in the ignition?”
“Huh. Hang on a second.” I hear a bit of scrabbling on the phone, as though the mouthpiece is being covered on the other end, and then, faintly: “Hey, Earl! Pick up on line two! Guy’s key is stuck in his ignition! You ain’t gonna believe it!”
I speak to Earl. Earl offers various suggestions, all of which I have tried. Finally he says “Well, bring it in and we’ll look at it.” This does not inspire confidence.
So I talk to my father-in-law. He knows cars. He has done tons of maintenance work on cars. He’ll know what to do.
He listens to my problem, and says, “Oh, that’s easy to fix. You just need to replace the ignition switch.”
Thank God. It’s an easy fix. I was worried I’d be out hundreds of dollars over this stupid key stuck in my ignition. So, what do I do to fix it?
“I know this guy who works on Mazdas. Name’s Earl. Lemme call him …”
Hope begins to fade.
“Or, we could try to do it ourselves. It can’t be that hard. You just need to get a replacement ignition switch. Go to this guy I know. He sells auto parts, but don’t ask him where they come from. If he yells “ATF” while you’re talking to him and the employees begin burning papers and shredding documents, just run away and don’t look back.”
Luckily, nothing strange happens when I go to get the part. I had visions of an “ignition switch” being a self-enclosed metal thingydoo – something that could be inserted directly into the steering column and *voila! * the problem, she is solved.
This is not the case. The “ignition switch” is actually 4,836 individual pieces, only one of which is a self-enclosed metal thingydoo. I gaze at the cacophony of springs, notched bars, keyed fobbins, self-adjusting stabilizers and random metal parts. My hope is that all this stuff is just shock-absorbing packaging, like cotton wads or Circus Peanuts.
I take the ignition switch to my father-in-law, and we spread all the pieces out on a picnic table and gaze at them in fearful puzzlement, like monkeys trying to read Sanskrit. He turns to me. “We may be in over our heads on this,” he says.
Nevertheless, the following day he comes to my house and we begin Project Ignition Switch Swap (or PISS, as we came to call it). After 90 minutes, we have succeeded in removing the steering wheel from my car. We can see the old ignition switch, with my key still nestled cheerfully inside. We cannot for the life of us figure out how to get the ignition switch off the steering column. We try drilling, pleading, brute force, the application of blood (don’t ask), and finally dynamite. Nothing works. Finally, my father-in-law slumps in defeat. “I can’t do it,” he says. “Let’s go to a mechanic.”
We drive five miles down the road to a mechanic he knows. They come tow the car and keep it for several days. At one point I get a phone call from the mechanic. “I found the problem,” he says. “Your Rastafarianism was hung up on your Halliburton. Musta happened when the nacelles cross-wired the warp core.” His advice? Replace the entire steering column. That would be cheaper, quicker and easier than trying to replace the ignition switch. “I hate them thar ignition switches,” he says. “Only a Sanskrit-ignernt monkey would try to replace them thangs.”
So I tell him to replace the steering column. A week (and $320) later, he calls me to tell me the car is ready.
The next day, I happily snuggle behind the wheel and prepare to go to work. I turn the key (which turns quite smoothly, I must say) … and nothing happens. The car won’t crank.
I mutter a few colorful colloquialisms, arrange alternate transportation to work, and tell my lovely and talented wife that my battery is dead. She and I go battery shopping that evening. I replace the battery. The car starts. The adventure is over. Finally.
The next day, I’m taking my stepson to daycare. I walk him inside, and then return to my car. I hear the ominous music start when my hand moves toward the ignition, but like all foolish people in horror movies, I ignore it.
I turn the key. Nothing happens.
If you were interrupted or startled by a distant scream, the sound of ultimate suffering, around 7:30 a.m. on Tuesday, July 20, my apologies.
I get a tow back to the same mechanic. He keeps the car for a day, and tells me that I was lucky – it wasn’t the alternator, as we had thought. It was the terminals on the battery cables. They were broken. He replaced them, and the car started right up, no problems. So, after four weeks, a total of $390, and endless levels of frustration, I’m finally going to get my car back.
Yesterday afternoon, my lovely and talented wife drove me to the mechanic’s to pick up my car. I go in, pay the guy for replacing the battery cable terminals, and walk out to my car.
You know this isn’t going to end well, don’t you?
The car won’t start. I sit in the driver’s seat in utter disbelief. I’ve become some sort of automotive equivalent of Job.
Luckily, the mechanic steps in again – his assistant accidentally left the parking lights on. They charge the battery, and the car starts right up. It’s running just fine now.
Although I keep hearing this ominous music in the background.