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When horsepower meets horse power

January 20, 2012
By BOB SEIDENSTEIN ( , Adirondack Daily Enterprise

We all know if you do something enough, it becomes second nature. But if you do it a whole lot more, can it become first nature?

I don't know. I only know after having commuted to work and back over 6,000 times, it's something I do without thinking.

Not that I'm completely oblivious during the ride, mind you. But still, whole chunks go by without me realizing it, so much so that all the rides have merged into one. Or at least almost all the rides have, because there's one I'll never forget.

It took place early in my teaching career, on a February day. My car at the time was a 10-year-old Volkswagen Bug with about 180,000 miles on it that I'd bought it from one of my Navy pals. He'd bought it when it was a year old, paid $1,500 for it, and put another $1,500 into it in the first year he owned it.

But don't think the car was a lemon. My pal drove it for seven years without any problems, and in the two years I owned it, it ran beautifully. It got about 40 miles per gallon, never lost a drop of oil and never needed any big repairs. Plus, it always started, even on 30-below-zero mornings.

Its only drawback was its speed or more exactly, its lack of it. It had a 36-horsepower engine and a top speed of maybe 60 mph. But even then it was only on downhills - and long, steep downhills at that. And if its top speed was 60 going downhill, you can imagine what it was going uphill. I never made a study of it, but I do remember driving from Keene Valley to Lake Placid in the breakdown lane, sometimes in second gear.

Even though a lot of people would dissed my Bug, I loved it. I also took scrupulous care of it - never let any of its maintenance lapse, and always drove it sensibly. Plus, I always, but always, let it warm up before I drove it.

According to the Bug owner's bible, John Muir's classic "How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive," warming up an old Beetle was vital. As I recall, it had to do with the automatic choke: When you started the car, the automatic choke poured more gas in the cylinders, which cut down on lubricating the pistons, which caused a lot of excess wear and tear or something. So the thing to do was wait till you heard the rpm's drop, which indicated the choke was off. It was hardly a big deal, since the whole warm-up only took about a minute.

The day in question

As for my unforgettable ride? Read on

there I was, in the Paul Smith's parking lot, back in February 1973, waiting for my car to warm up. It was a gorgeous winter's day - bright blue sky, blinding sunlight, and pure white snow everywhere. And of course it was cold. Not classic bone-freezing cold like 20 below, but not in double digits either.

I revved the engine a few times, twiddled my thumbs, diagrammed a sentence or two in my head, and voila, the engine was warmed up.

My drive to town always had two highlights - literally. One was going up Easy Street Hill; the other was going up Harrietstown Hill.

Easy Street is a little over a half mile long, but it's steep - a 6.5 percent grade, according to my PSC colleague Bob MacAleese. There's a pretty long straightaway before the hill, so if I had my old VW hitting red line at the bottom of the hill, I could make it to the top without the indignity of shifting down to second gear.

As for Harrietstown Hill? It's a mile long, but again according to Bob Mac, it's almost a 4 percent grade. It doesn't seem like a big deal, and it's not noticeable in a car - unless the car's a 10-year-old '64 Bug with 180,000 miles.

Luckily, before the hill is a long straightaway followed by a good-sized dip, so by the time I hit the hill I'd be flying and the momentum would carry me a ways before I had to downshift, and struggle the rest of the way up.

Hooves on the horizon

On that bright February's day in 1973, I was on the Harrietstown Hill, in third gear, with pedal to the metal, when I looked at the speedometer. I was cruising at a breakneck 30 mph.

Then I looked up at the road and ahead there they were - horses!


You bet.

They'd broken out from the stable at the top of the hill, but they seemed to come out of nowhere, because the snowbanks were probably 10-feet high. But while I missed their entrance, I sure didn't miss their sprint down the road, towards little old me.

There were five or six of them and they all looked like they'd escaped from the "Book of Revelations." They were galloping full-bore, nostrils flaring, eyes bulging, as frantic and flipped-out as it gets.

I pulled over as far as I could, hoping they'd pass by and not take it into their freaky heads to do something really weird like jump through my windshield.

I held my breath and waited and watched. When the last one finally thundered by me and tore off into the sunset, I exhaled and collapsed in my seat. A few minutes later I got my head together and drove off to town.

I don't know what happened to the horses after that, but I assumed everything went well, since I never heard any more about them or that incident.

But even though I never heard anything more, I thought about it plenty. On one hand, it didn't seem all that dangerous. But on the other hand, something about it nagged me, as it was dangerous. But it eluded me.

Then it struck me what it was. I got in my car and drove to the scene of the crime. Then I measured the distance from where I'd first seen the horses to where they'd entered the road. It was, as I'd suspected, a half-mile.

So what?

Just this simple equation: I was going 30 mph when I first saw the horses, who were a half-mile away. Thirty mph is a half-mile a minute. A minute is what I took to warm up my car.

So if I hadn't warmed it up, I would've been a half-mile ahead of where I was, which would've been plowing into a bunch of horses in an ancient, rusted-out, rear-engine car.

A lot of people believe your life is what you make it, that you are the sole agent of your success or failure and that luck plays no part in it.

Other people believe in fate, that things happen because they were predestined to. Those people also don't believe in luck.

When it comes to such heady cosmological issue, I don't know what I believe. But I do know this much - I believe in luck.



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