My Low Automotive IQ

If there’s one place I shudder to go near, it’s under the hood of a car. For therein lies the nightmare of an intimidating labyrinth of hoses, filters, valves, wires, and belts. Locating the parts that those things connect to is, for me, a complete guessing game. Though I’m proud to say I’m quite skilled at identifying the engine, the battery, and where to add the oil, I can only imagine what my moment of fame would be like in TV hell…

“Hey, Ros!! Welcome to “Find Those Things Under The Hood!!” You’ve got thirty minutes. Can you find the alternator? Remember…if you find it, you get the car!!!”

I’m on the show’s set with the hood of a brand new Toyota Sequoia opened before me. Instead of getting busy with the task, I stand frozen, looking at the camera in front of a large studio audience. “Three million viewers!” the show’s host had told me excitedly back stage, with a big, hearty pat on the shoulder. “This is your day, buddy! Own it out there. Make it happen!” My attention falls further into the camera. I’m a deer in the headlights. I’m under hypnosis. Before three million viewers, I’m a zombie staring into oblivion.

“Oh, there’s no alternator in that camera,” assures the host. “Might I suggest you try the car?”

I turn to the Sequoia and peer into the dizzying mechanical mess that, somewhere, contains the alternator. Truth be told, I don’t even know what an alternator is. For decades I’ve heard the word, but I never gave it any thought. I would like to say it is a part that provides drivers alternative music through their satellite radios. I would like to say that, but I don’t. “And just why would such a music-providing device be located under the hood of a car?” the automotive industry would ask. “Well, that’s a really, really, really good question,” I’d say. “Because the alternative music recording artists petitioned for it to be there?” I do have my obvious moments of undeniable hopelessness.

My head under the hood, and aimlessly probing at things here and there, time is running out as the host stands next to me. “It’s been twenty-nine minutes, Ros. You’ve got sixty seconds…just where is that alternator?”

For half an hour, I’ve set a show record for taking the longest time to identify an automotive part. During four commercial breaks, three special guest appearances, and in front of the studio audience, confidence finally arrives. I point to the alternator seconds before the buzzer sounds. “That thing!” I say. “Yes…that thing!”

There is an awkward pause in the studio as the audience is watching a closeup of my selection on some overhead monitors. It is the pause that not only precedes disbelief, but I’m certain is widespread amongst three million viewers as well.

“That?” asks the host. “That is your answer?”

I have pointed to a cloudy plastic container. “Yes! That!

The host’s voice shifts into a consoling tone—softly sympathetic and fatherly, as if I were his son having just struck out at home plate…again. “Sorry, my friend. No alternator there. That’s the car’s windshield washer fluid reservoir.”

It was hard to distinguish between snickers or tearful sniffles that were coming from the audience. It was also hard to locate the nearest exit sign so I could make my quick escape, and never return to that harrowing place in TV hell.

“Of course, no one walks away from here empty-handed,” the host proclaims in an upbeat voice. “For playing today, you’ll receive a free set of jumper cables!!”

Good grief. Where is that exit sign?

*  *. *

The labyrinth of automotive. engineering beneath a vehicle’s hood is highly impressive. How all of those parts fit and work in unison is beyond me. I am forever impressed by auto mechanics who diagnose and perform work on cars. Covered in grease instead of blood, and holding wrenches instead of scalpels, they are the surgeons of the automotive world.

And then there are people like me who break out in a cold sweat when we enter an auto parts store. All I need is something to make my car’s interior smell better, and five steps through the front doors I’m already feeling like an idiot.

“Excuse me,” I say to an employee walking by. “Do you have those tree-shaped smelly things?”

“Smelly things?”

I can feel the cold sweat beginning. Tiny ice-cold droplets beading off my forehead as if this were an arctic expedition. What am I doing here? Why didn’t I just go to Hobby Lobby and buy a basket of potpourri?

“You mean an air freshener? he says.

I roll my eyes at myself. “Yes. That’s it.” But I know deep down, he could’ve said, “You mean an alternator?” and I would’ve replied, “Yes. That’s it.”

My low automotive IQ is best illustrated (and I really hate to admit this) whenever I get an oil change. It’s always some teenage boy who approaches my car and asks the world’s most difficult question…

“Good morning, sir. What kind of oil would you like?”

He might as well ask me what the exact measurement of the earth’s circumference is in inches. I’d probably have better luck.

I give him the easy-out answer and say, “Whatever oil you suggest.”

But he’s young and smart, and knows I’m an idiot, and says, “I suggest 10W-40, but would you prefer full synthetic, synthetic blend, or conventional?”

Synthetic? First thing that comes to my mind is a polyester shirt. Synthetic blend? Polyester/cotton shirt. I find myself looking at the teenager’s shirt that looks very polyester, and I’m wondering if it’s made out of motor oil? And why do motor oils and tax forms sound so similar? 10W-40 oil, 1040 tax form. By chance, does the IRS offer a choice between conventional and synthetic tax forms? This is all so confusing.

The teenager stands by my window, tapping his pen on a small clipboard. He seems like a nice kid, just a bit impatient. But perhaps it’s because two cars have pulled in line behind me, and he simply needs an answer. My automotive IQ is not helping. As pressured and indecisive as I am, I figure out exactly what oil I want.

“I’ll take a conventional synthetic high-mileage 10W-40 Schedule B please.”

His pen stops tapping, just falls dead. He’s not writing down a single thing I’ve said. I’m the worst. The absolute worst possible customer. And I’m a grown man. How did I ever make it this far in life without knowing what oil to get, how to articulate a tree-shaped air-freshener, or possess any knowledge of the alternator? A third car has now pulled in line behind me.

“Sir, a ‘schedule B’? That kind of oil doesn’t exist.”

I shouldn’t exist. Not in this line anyway. I can’t even give an educated guess regarding what type of oil my car needs. And my poor car. To think I am its owner. If there were ever a Car Protective Services agency, I’d be on their radar.

The kid’s pen resumes tapping. A cold sweat runs down my temples. I need out of here.

“Excuse me,” I say, as I put the car in drive. “I forgot to feed my fish.” And drive away.

Feed my fish? That’s the best I could come up with??? A quarter mile down the street, I get the feeling that I need to redeem myself, to make things right, or at least prove that I’m not a complete automotive flop.

Then I see it. I hit the brakes and make a sharp right turn. A big smile forms instantly as I come to a stop. I roll down my window to be greeted by an attendant. “Good morning, sir! Welcome to The Car Wash. What can we do for you today?”

My smile grows larger. I’m in heaven. This is my car, and I know my car. “The Works,” I say. “I’ll take The Works.”

“Great choice,” he says. “Nothing better than someone who knows what he needs.”

I step out of the car, hand him the keys, then walk off into the sunshine toward the waiting room. It is the start of a very good day.


Copyright Ros Hill 2016


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