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The Mysterious East (east of Tupper Lake, that is)

August 22, 2008
By Bob Seidenstein,

I've always been intrigued by bizarre unsolved mysteries.

In my younger, more naive days, I took them at face value and believed unknown and unobservable powers were at work.

Now, in my cynical dotage, I believe things - even weird, mysterious things - are, like everything else, governed by the rules of physics. However, the problem is getting enough evidence to find out which rules govern which phenomena. Some nagging examples are the Abominable Snowman, out-of-body experiences and spontaneous human combustion.

Certainly, I've had my share of anomalies, two of which involved, of all things, the tires of my standard ride for 40 years - the pre-1970 VW Beetle.

While for most people a flat tire is a rarity, for me and my old Bugs, it was business as usual. If I didn't get a flat every three or four months, I figured I'd been spared by divine providence.

Why was that? Was I doomed by sinister forces? Did I vibe tires into oblivion? Was I the victim of some strange Teutonic curse?

Of course not. Physics, remember?

Here's the thing: At one time, almost everyone had a VW Bug. But then, long after they got rid of it, they had a stash of its tires in their garage. And so, through my decades of Beetle ownership, I had a huge supply of tires given to me by former VW owners struck by sudden garage-cleaning impulses.

The price was right, but there was one big problem: By the time I inherited the tires, they were already on their last treads. And so, the flat tire became my way of life.

Mystery Number One

With my first flat, which happened in front of the hospital in 1972, came my first major VW mystery.

I got out my "tool kit," which consisted of the tire iron and jack, which came with the car. After I loosened the lug nuts, I grabbed the jack, which was made to fit in slots on the bottom of the car. There was one on each side, just in front of the rear wheel, so if you put the jack in the slot and started pumping, it'd lift that side of the lift off the ground.

At least that was the theory, and I'm sure it worked fine with a new VW. But with my then 10-year-old, 170,000 mile rust bucket, it didn't work at all. What happened was the jack kept going up, but it didn't take the car with it. Instead, it kept carving a nice big reverse V in the car's undercarriage.

I quickly realized what'd gone down with the car not going up, but had no idea what to do about it.

Suddenly a car pulled up behind me. An old guy got out, asked me what was wrong, and I told him.

"Yeah," he said, nodding sagely. "Those jacks that come with the cars are about as useless as a one-legged man in a butt-kick contest."

"So what's the answer?" I said.

"A scissors jack," he said.

Then he went to his car, opened the trunk and came back, scissors jack in hand.

"You get one of these babies," he said, shaking the jack," and you can lift the car from any part of it. And since your front tire's flat, we'll lift it from the axle. If it'd been a rear tire, we'd jack it from the engine."

He then jacked up the car and I changed the tire. Then I thanked him and he took off. And after that, I took off - directly to Ames, where I bought a scissors jack.

Mystery Number Two

This one occurred a few months later in what's now Sears' parking lot.

This time it was a rear tire.

OK, no biggie, I figured, and got out my scissors jack and my tire iron. I put the jack under the engine (as per the old guy's instructions), and lifted the car a bit. So far, so good. But when I tried to take off the lug nuts, they wouldn't budge. It was as if they'd all been tightened by God Almighty himself.

I pushed, I pulled, I cranked, I heaved, but nothing changed except my blood pressure. Finally, I put the tire iron handle at four o'clock, spread my legs, grabbed the iron with both hands, and pulled up for all I was worth.

My knees creaked, my back cracked, sweat poured down my face, and I was locked there, vibrating like a guitar string.

Still, the lug nut didn't pop but I was afraid a couple of other things would.

I stopped and did the only sensible thing - I limped over to Madden's, to ask my genius mechanic Vern Friend what was wrong with the lug nuts and what I could do about it.

"There's nothing wrong with 'em," he said. "Just is, those lugs are the worst to break. And they're almost impossible to get off with the VW tire iron."

"So what do you get them off with?" I asked.

"A breaker bar," he said.

"What's that?"

"This," he said, rummaging around in a pile of tools on the workbench, then handing it to me.

(FYI: A breaker bar's a socket at the end of a two-foot solid steel bar, and it's called a "breaker" because it's got so much torque, it can break the hold of any bolt)

With the breaker bar, I easily loosened the lugs; with my scissors jack I lifted the car. Then I changed the tire, reversed the process and admired my handiwork for a bit.

After that, I drove uptown to Bob Agnew's auto parts store, where I immediately ordered one of his finest breaker bars.

"Tried to change a flat, did you?" he said, with a puckish twinkle in his eye.

I just nodded. One Dope's mystery was obviously just a good parts man's common knowledge.

But while that mystery had just been solved, I was still left with the Biggest VW Mystery Of All -- namely how Volkswagen could make such a good carand stock it with such lousy tools.

Maybe it's not as famous as the Abominable Snowman or spontaneous human combustion, but it's no more solvable either.



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