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2005.09.12 The Bastard Officer From Hell Walks Again... Again

posted Oct 28, 2009, 9:57 AM by Troy Cheek   [ updated Oct 28, 2009, 10:02 AM ] sooner than you fix one thing...

As I wrote last week, I once worked with an officer whose idea of preventative maintenance on our patrol car was to shut it off whenever and wherever it happened to be and just tell Troy about it the next day. Whenever I'd ask if he checked this or adjusted that, I'd get the same response:

"Hey!" he'd shout, backing away and holding up his hands as if he expected me to attack him. "I told you I don't know nothing about no technical stuff like that."

I'll admit, there are times when I prefer that approach to some of the alternatives I've seen over the years, which include "drive it until it falls apart" and "try to fix it ourselves." I spent many a night shift trying re-wiring an old Jeep after the shift supervisor tried to "fix" the blinky lights.

I guess that's why it was a surprise when my partner radioed one day and said that the patrol car had quit.

Sigh. "Which remote corner of the property did you leave it in?"

"Huh? When I noticed it acting up, I pulled it over next to the smoking area under that shade tree. Why would I leave it out in the back forty?"

"Sorry, buddy. Flashbacks to some other guy. What are the symptoms?"

"Well, the radio was getting distorted and I noticed the lights were barely lighting. When I started it up last, it was a struggle. When I pulled it over here, it kind of stuttered a time or two and then died. Now it doesn't seem to have enough juice to crank. I think maybe the battery's gone completely dead or the alternator conked out."

Bless you, Brother. "Well, the last time this happened, it was because the electrolyte level in the battery was low. Let's check that."

Darn, that was fine. The boss wandered over and asked what we were doing. My partner filled him in while I checked wires. The boss puffed on his cigarette and ordered "If Troy can get it started, take it to the shop and have it checked out. If he can't, call them to send a truck for it."

About that time, I checked the wires going to the back of the alternator and the biggest one came off in my hand. The insulation looked a lot like a marshmellow at your average camp out. I tried to scrape the burnt stuff off to see if the wire was still good inside.

"Well, it looks like Troy found the problem," the boss muttered. "Let's watch and see if he can fix it."

About that time, in my efforts to scrape the insulation off the wire, I accidentally touched the wire to the alternator casing. The metal alternator casing. The well-grounded metal alternator casing.

With the wire which apparently runs straight to the positive terminal of the battery.

BZZZZAPPP! The boss jumped back and very nearly almost dropped his cigarette, which is either a sign of extreme surprise or of an impending apocalypse. I forget which. "Boss, I think I can fix this."

"Call the shop, Troy."

After disconnecting the positive wire from the battery, I called.

"Thank you for calling Cracked Head Automotive, now licensed to service cars and trucks in 49 states (sorry, Tennessee!)."

I told him who I was and why I was calling. "It might just have been a bad connection which caused an arc that caught the insulation on fire, but I'd feel better if you'd checked the alternator function and put a new end on that wire."

"Well, let's not get ahead of ourselves, sir. If it's throwing sparks at you when you try to start it, we'd better start with checking the battery and starter."

"No, it didn't do that when we tried to start it. It did that when I tried to fix it."

"Sir, if you're going to fix it, why are you calling us?"

"Because I don't have the tools or the time or the parts or the diagnostic equipment to fix a car like this. Can you send a tow truck out to the hospital to bring the car in?"

"The hospital! Is everyone okay? Just how dangerous is this car?"

"No, you idiot! I work at the hospital. It's a hospital vehicle. I told you that back when I first called."

"Oh, sorry. Um, sir, we don't dispatch tow trucks anymore. You'll have to call our toll free number to arrange that yourself. It's a free tow if you have your car brought to us for service."

"Fine. What's that toll free number?"


"Um, excuse me, but since when is 976 a toll free area code?"

"Sorry. Wrong number on the list here. The number is 1-811-CRACKED."

"Of course it is."

I called. "Thank you for calling Cracked Head Roadside Assistance, now licensed to tow cars and trucks in 49 states (sorry, Tennessee!)."

It turned out that I had called my local shop to be given a toll free number which rang a service center in Arizona which in turn dispatched a tow truck from next door to the local shop. The first guy I talked to could have yelled out the window to dispatch the truck.

"And don't worry about paying the tow truck driver, sir. We'll have the local shop just put that on your bill with them."

"Put what on the bill?"

"The charge for the tow."

"They told me there'd be no charge if I had them do the work once it was towed."

"Well, then that will be on the bill."

The truck eventually arrived, pulled into the wrong parking lot, and circled around until someone got suspicious and informed Security. About the time I heard about it, the driver had given up and moved to the back. I jogged around to the back and flagged him down. Well, actually, I flagged down a couple of cute nurses, and they flagged him down.

"Man, I was looking for everything but a patrol car."

"They didn't tell you to look for a blue car with green lights on top?"

"No, they said a green car with no lights."

I showed him how I had disconnected the battery for his safety. He promised to point that out to the guys at the shop. Then he proceeded to try to roll up the power windows.

"They said you'd need to come down and sign a form before they can look at the car. You need a lift?"

"Can you give me a ride back to the hospital once you unload?"

"Um, no."

"Then I don't need a lift. Tell them one of us will be by later."

One of us did go by later and sign. The next day, there was a note on the message board for us to call the shop.

"Thank you for calling Cracked Head Automotive, now licensed to service cars and trucks in 49 states (sorry, Tennessee!)."

I told them who I was. "What's the story on the car?"

"Well, it's just about ready to go. We've replaced the alternator and the wire, and now we're just about to replace the power steering pump."

"Whoa! Who authorized you to do any of that?"

"Well, a guy from your department came by and signed some papers yesterday..."

"Yes, he did. You told us we'd have to do that before you'd even look at the car. I argued with you about it because we'd never needed to do that before. And then I told you to diagnose only and not to do any actual work until you called and checked with my boss. If he doesn't get authorization from the hospital, they won't pay him for any work done on the car, which means that he won't pay you for any work on the car."

"Um, yes, of course. I meant to say that we need your authorization to replace the alternator and the wire. Incidentally, we've also noticed that your power steering is leaking pretty badly. Would you like us to check that out as long as we have the car here?"

"Don't touch the power steering. It was working when the car quit, so I don't want you messing it up. I'll transfer you to the boss for authorization on the other. How long will it take to do the work?"

"Your car will be ready in a couple of days."

"We don't have that long. Besides, you said earlier it was nearly finished."

"In that case, give us an hour."

About an hour later, the boss called and told me to take one of the 2nd shift guys down to the shop to bring back the car. "They replaced the alternator and that wire you found. Hey, was there anything wrong with the power steering?"

"Not that we've noticed. I think I added some fluid to it, but that was a couple of months ago."

"Okay. Well, carry on."

I took Robbie the Robot--I mean, Robbie the 2nd shift guy--down to the shop. I told them who I was, arranged payment details, and gave the keys to Robbie. I checked the receipt and saw that the tow truck was both free and on the bill.

I stood at the desk and watched Robbie walk out to the car, start it up, and pull out of the parking space.

And then I watched him back right back into the parking space.

"Troy, there's something wrong with the power steering. I couldn't even get it to turn."

Luckily, I grew up driving cars that had never even heard of power steering, so I can do pretty good without it. Even so, I could barely drive the thing around the parking lot and I didn't want to try it on the streets. I went back inside.

"Excuse me, but is it possible that you neglected to put the power steering back together under the assumption that you'd convince us to replace that pump after all?"

He looked aghast. "Sir, we never had your power steering apart. You never authorized those repairs."

"Well, the power steering was working a few days ago, and now it isn't. I know I haven't done anything to it, because it's been with you."

"Sir, it was leaking pretty badly. Are you sure you don't want us to replace that pump for you?"

"Not unless you want to pay for it yourself."

"Pull around to the side and we'll put some fluid in for you."

I pulled around to the side, popped the hood, and checked the power steering system. I didn't see any indication of leaks. I did see that the power steering fluid resevoir was bone dry. Well, there was a little sticking to the sides and in the corners.

A rude young man came out to the car carrying a jug of fluid. He had Robbie crank up the engine and turn the wheel as the fluid was added. It took a quart and a half to "top off" the resevoir.

I asked him "Why did you drain the fluid?"

"We didn't. It leaked out."

"It had plenty when I last checked it two days ago."

"You have a leak in the pump and the high pressure hose. Fluid is just going to pour out of it."

"This is me looking skeptical." Besides, I still didn't see any leaks.

"We told you about this the last time the car was in for service."

"The last time the car was in for service was two weeks ago for a blower motor and new tires."

"And we told you then that it was leaking."

"I don't remember that."

"Well, maybe the guys at the front desk forgot to point it out to you, but it was certainly on the diagnostic report."

"This is me still looking skeptical."

He shoved the remaining half quart of fluid at me. "Here. You might need this before you get home."

I would have argued some more, but I could hear somebody in the back on the phone saying something about "just get down here and get this bastard out of here!"  Discretion is the better part of valor and all that.

I sent Robbie on his way. The running gag for the next week was to ask each other if the power steering had quit yet. It hasn't yet, but it has leaked down from overflowing to just plain "full." I may have to add some more fluid.

Here in a month or two.