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Houses and cars just can't resist causing trouble


This weekend wraps up another visiting-relative season. This is good because, as we all know, when relatives visit, your house and car conspire against you. Take for example, what happened when my mom and dad recently visited my family:

It began when we were sitting in our Baltimore home watching television weather reports on the mood of Hurricane Felix. We smelled something burning. It was not food. It was the smell of wiring smoldering. I went around the house unplugging things, sniffing electrical outlets and light switches. Outwardly I was calm. "Don't worry," I told the family, "just a little problem with the electricity." Inwardly I was fuming at the house. "Of all the nights to pull this wiring stunt," I wanted to yell at the house, "you pick the night my parents are here!"

I traced the problem to a lamp. The lamp had a faulty switch, which -- I am going to lapse into technical jargon here -- made it smell bad. I unplugged the lamp. The smell stopped. I told everybody to relax, and then spent the night half-awake, on sniff duty.

A few days later, I made a command decision to flee the house. If the house wanted to burn itself down, I didn't want to be there. That is not what I told the troops. Instead, I said, "Let's go the beach." This was our original vacation plan, which was delayed as Felix transformed once-gentle waves into bone-crushing walls of water. We drove two cars to the beach because even though there were only six of us, we had enough gear and groceries to feed and clothe a city of 700,000.

The smelly wires had caught me by surprise. But I had taken steps to avoid car trouble. Under the name of "preventive maintenance," I had parted with some cash. All those belts that could snap had been checked. All those precious engine fluids that could dry up had been replenished. All those filters that could clog had been replaced.

The tires were in good shape as well, at least until one of them hit a small piece of metal as we drove out of town.

It happened on Russell Street southbound, past Camden Yards, where the street connects with Interstate 95. This is a very busy stretch of road. Out of thousands of cars that zip down that street, mine was the one that had to hit that small, virtually invisible piece of metal sitting in the road. I heard a "pop." I ended up perched on the side of the road in front of an entry ramp to I-95. The right front tire, only a few months old, was flat. I couldn't move the car. My wife pulled her car in behind mine.

What followed was a 20-minute family drama. I removed the car jack and spare tire from the bottom of a trunk loaded with suitcases and beach gear. Grandpa, my dad, did not want to get out of my car. Grandpa is often confused these days, and stubborn. If he did not get out of the car, I couldn't jack it up and change tires. My mother and my wife worked on coaxing Grandpa to switch cars, while I got my 14-year-old son to help me loosen the lug nuts holding the tire to the wheel. When I used a wrench that was shaped like a bent "L," the nuts wouldn't budge. They had been tightened months earlier when I bought the tire, by a guy using a power wrench.

I scampered back to my wife's car, and pulled out a wrench shaped like a "T." The "T"-shaped wrench provided better leverage and allowed me to take advantage of the muscles of the 14-year-old. With both of us pulling on the wrench, my son and I got the lug nuts loose. Grandpa agreed to switch cars. We put on the spare, or "cheater tire" and our two-car caravan then limped back to a tire shop. The guys at the shop said the flattened tire could be fixed. About 30 minutes and $30 later we were rolling.

We got to the beach house in Chincoteague, Va., without incident. Things went smoothly for a while. Then one night, the electricity went out.

The next morning a lady who answered the telephone at the power company said the problem had been caused by salt collecting on the transmission lines. When power lines get loaded with salt from the sea air, she said, they arc, and cause power stations to shut down. The flashing power lines look, she said, "like aurora borealis." Usually rain cleans the salt off the power lines, but lately there had not been any rain. The power came back on after volunteer firemen hosed the salt off the lines.

That was the official explanation of why our lights went out in the middle of the night. But I knew better. This house, like houses and cars everywhere, couldn't resist the chance to torment summer visitors.

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