Harrison was still at the beach Friday morning when his little brothers and I decided to take his 1990 Jeep Wrangler to run a couple of errands.
As I noted in my column last week, I’ve been taking Harrison’s Jeep to run errands even when I didn’t have any errands to run. The reason is because I love his Jeep. I love it like a cool spring day with the windows open and a breeze blowing through the house. I love it like an ice-cold beer on a hot summer day. I love it like a first date or a 20th anniversary. That Jeep is so much fun to ride around in, and so I take it whenever and wherever I can.
And with Harrison gone for a week at the beach, I could take it everywhere.
So we ran our errands without a care in the world until, at the last stop, we got back into the Jeep to fire it up and head home.
If you will, come with me on a journey under the hood of the Jeep. Don’t mind the quarter century of grease and oil splattered all over the engine – we’ll get to that soon enough. For now, let’s look at the three belts running behind the fan at the front of the engine.
You see those two belts there with the green lettering that are all black and shiny? Those are the new belts. But do you see that one there that is gray and whatever lettering was one time on it is now covered over with the grime layering the rest of the 26-year-old engine? Yes, that one with the dry rot. That is not a new belt.
Now, keep your eye on that belt as I crank the engine. Oh! Look how the dry-rotted rubber teeth just shave right off! And there, the belt is coming aloose from the crankshaft pulley. See how it flies off the pulley and wraps and twists itself around the fan!
A terrible racket of flapping and slapping came from under the hood of the Jeep.
I looked at Robert. Robert looked at Nathan. Nathan looked at me. We all looked at each other as I turned the key in the ignition to cut off the Jeep.
“That didn’t sound good,” I said to Robert and Nathan.
“Nope,” Robert agreed.
“Nope,” Nathan agreed.
We opened up the hood and immediately spotted the culprit making all that noise. The belt had come off and wrapped around the fan.
“That doesn’t look good,” I said to Robert and Nathan.
“Nope,” Robert agreed.
“Nope,” Nathan agreed.
Confession time: I’m not the most handy person in the world. I’m the only person I know who has ever broken a shovel. I’m never afraid to try, and I can sometimes accomplish what I’m trying to do, but for everything from woodworking to small engine repair, I’ve usually made a disaster of anything I’ve attempted. The one thing I’ve had some success with is plumbing, but I looked all through the Jeep and could not find a single spigot.
Nevertheless, I’ve changed belts before, and I was fairly confident I could do it again. And I also know that just about any job that needs doing someone has already done it, recorded it, and put a video on Youtube. So I got the boys busy searching videos on Youtube while I tried to establish a rescue team.
The first call I made was to my dad. Even at 43-years-old, any time I run into a problem that I can’t immediately solve, I just call my dad. Especially when it comes to solving issues with cars. My grandfather owned a service shop, so my dad grew up knowing more about fixing cars than all the Youtube videos in the world.
But my mom and dad were out hiking to waterfalls in northeast Georgia on Friday.
So then I called my wife. Jean doesn’t know any more than I do about changing a belt on a car, but I always like having her around whenever there’s a catastrophe because shared misery is better than suffering in silence. Besides, I needed tools and someone was going to have to go get me a new belt.
I roughly knew the principles of what needed to be done, and I started trying to find the right bolt to loosen the belt tensioner. I identified the right bolt, but I kept second guessing myself. I know that the belt has been replaced at some point in past 26 years. Even so, it sure did not look to me like the bolt on the belt tensioner had been turned since the car was new.
Robert and Nathan showed me the Youtube videos they found, but those were all useless and with the glare from the sun we couldn’t see them anyway.
Among the stores in the parking lot where we were stranded is a pizza shop, so I sent Robert and Nathan inside to get something to eat while we waited for Jean.
When Jean got there with tools, I sent Robert and Nathan with her to get the new belt, but before they left I tried the ratchet on the bolt. The bolt didn’t budge. At all. It was like it was welded on there. “Better get some WD-40, too,” I said.
While they were gone, my buddy Quin rolled up. Quin and I used to play soccer together in an Over-35 Sunday league. I happened to be wearing one of my soccer jerseys, which I guess is how he recognized me with my head inside the engine compartment and 26 years of grease and grime covering me from head to toe.
He asked if I needed help, but I told him Jean and the boys had gone to get me a belt and I thought I could handle it. Then we talked soccer for a while, which is one of my two or three favorite topics of conversation. But eventually some guy that Quin had blocked in a parking space wanted out, so Quin rolled on.
I stood around the open hood, occasionally trying the ratchet on the bolt.
Another guy rolled past, put his window down and asked if I needed help. I told him I thought I had it, I was just waiting for a belt.
A third guy asked if I needed help. I explained about the belt.
“That always happens,” he said.
I confirmed that it does, although I can’t remember ever having a belt shred off like that before. I remember having a belt on a car that shrieked and screamed, but I took the car to a mechanic to have it replaced before it shredded.
At last, Jean and the boys showed back up with the belt and the WD-40. We sprayed the bolt up pretty good, but it still wouldn’t budge.
Once, when I had to replace a belt on a riding lawnmower, I was able to work the belt around the pulleys by turning the pulleys with my hands and pushing the belt with my thumbs until the belt snapped into place. It was tough work done through sheer brute force, but it accomplished the job.
With the bolt stuck and the WD-40 not loosening anything up, I thought maybe we could work the belt into place.
I put Robert on the job of turning the pulleys while I tried forcing the belt around. But nothing was going. So we sprayed some more WD-40 and looked at each other.
“This isn’t good,” I said to Robert.
“Nope,” he agreed.
Nathan, by now, had given up on us entirely and was sitting in the car with Jean eating the pizza.
That’s about the time John Bell walked up. I don’t know Mr. Bell, but he’s close in age to my dad, and that was good enough for me.
“What have we got here?” Mr. Bell asked.
I explained about the belt and the bolt. He looked at the engine and confirmed for me that I was working on the right bolt.
“You need a longer ratchet where you can get more leverage,” he said.
With confirmation that I was trying to turn the right bolt, I gave it another shot, this time planting my foot firmly against the bumper. I yanked and pulled and then there was a terrible screeching of metal as the bolt broke its stranglehold and started to turn.
Covered in grease and grime from fingertips to elbows, Robert and I had the belt on in a couple of seconds.
But now I had a new problem that, were it not for Mr. Bell, would have left me and the Jeep in the parking lot overnight.
I knew the belt tensioner had to be pushed back and held in place, but I couldn’t figure out the best way to get the leverage on it. Mr. Bell asked what kinds of tools we had, and when we produced a hammer, he pushed the tensioner down to tighten the belt and held it while I tightened the bolt back down.
If I’d been in my car and the belt came off, I’d have been cussing the whole time and kicking the tires and yelling at the kids. It would have put me in a foul mood for the rest of the day. I might even have just called someone to tow it to a mechanic.
But my love for Harrison’s Jeep knows no anger. I couldn’t get mad at that Jeep for falling apart on me. That’s just what a 26-year-old Jeep does. Robert and I both busted our knuckles and bled on Harrison’s Jeep, but that’s okay with us.
“It makes you feel good to fix something with your hands,” Robert said as the wind blew through our hair as we tooled down the road with our new belt.
“It does,” I agreed. “And now that I’ve bled on the Jeep, I feel like I’ve earned a few more hundred miles driving it.”
Harrison is very generous about letting me drive his Jeep. Even if he’d probably never admit it, I’m sure it annoys him some when he randomly sees me driving down the road in his Jeep. It must be a pain, at 20-years-old, to want to drive his own vehicle that he bought with his own money and still have to ask his dad for the key (because – somehow! – it always ends up on my key chain).
But what’s good for Harrison is that when he’s 40-something-years-old, he won’t have to worry about not getting in touch with me when his Jeep breaks down. Because likely as not, I’ll still be the one driving it.
Rob Peecher is author of Four Things My Wife Hates About Mornings and the proud father of a son who has a Jeep.