My Most Unfortunate Expense

After writing a story for the Chatham Memoir Writers group two weeks ago, I was unable to attend the meeting to read it. The prompt was “My Most Unfortunate Expense”. My tale of that follows.

1981 Buick Skylark. I don’t remember ours looking as nice as this one in the photo.

My Most Unfortunate Expense

To the casual observer, it would appear my most unfortunate expense was the time I used our lottery winnings to purchase lifetime supplies of elderberry wine and silk boxer shorts, and whatever money was left over, I spent foolishly.  Nah, that is all made up, we never won more than $2 on a scratch off.  My most unfortunate expense was the purchase of a 1981 Buick Skylark.  

We were in the market for a new, more fuel efficient car.  As much as we liked the Honda Accord, in 1981 it was a bit beyond what we could afford and due to its popularity, there was no wiggle room for dealing.  My father-in-law had purchased a Buick Skylark in 1980 and seemed to love it, espousing it’s handling, fuel efficiency, comfort, etc.  He let me drive it while he sat next to me in the passenger seat, talking up the car as though he were the Buick salesman.  It did drive like he described. It was less expensive than a Honda Accord and after looking at a couple of other car models, we ended up choosing the Skylark.  My father-in-law beamed.  All of the cars on the lot had a number of bells & whistles we felt we didn’t need and we wanted one with a standard transmission so we had to wait for our bare bones, special order car to be delivered.

After taking delivery, I noticed immediately leaving the dealership, that the car did not handle as crisply as my father-in-law’s Skylark, it felt a little sluggish.  My father-in-law said, “Oh, mine felt that way too at first, but as the car breaks in, it will handle better, you will see big differences after a thousand miles or so.”  Fifteen hundred miles later, the car still seemed sluggish to me.  It was about 8 months after getting the car that I did begin to notice changes, but not for the better.  Running errands one day, we noticed a line of fog on the inside of the windshield close to the dashboard.  Going to work a couple of days later, the windshield really began to fog up.  I discovered the car’s thermostat had ceased to function, an easy fix, but this kind of stuff should not happen to a car less than a year old.  This incident served as the inspiration for me to purchase a Chilton’s Manual for troubleshooting and repairing a Buick Skylark, the internet and Google were more than a decade away from being created.  

About a year after buying the car, we were driving back from visiting my wife’s family in Vermont when my wife suddenly declared, “My feet are wet!”.  I had no idea what the cause could be, and we were still an hour from home so I couldn’t consult the book that became my bible – The Chilton’s Manual for Buick autos.  Within a few minutes after the foot bath, the windshield began to fog up.  I suspected the thermostat again.  My hopes for a simple fix were dashed when my research disclosed the cause to be a corroded heater core.  The Chilton’s provided step by step instructions how to change the heater core, but the cover was not easy to access.  However, I should not be doing this type of stuff to a 13 month old car.  

My Bible

Our decision to go with a bare-bones vehicle bit us on the rump the time we visited Colonial Williamsburg and Richmond, Virginia.  We made our trip in mid-June because it was not supposed to be quite as warm as later in the summer.  As luck would have it, an early heat wave invaded the area.  The banks with digital displays broadcast, along with the time, temperatures as high as 102 degrees!  Bare-bones car meant no AC.  With air vent fan on full blast and windows wide open, the atmosphere inside the car was comparable to that of a steel mill melt shop.  Oh, I forgot to mention that, due to a minor fender bender that had not yet been repaired, the passenger door couldn’t open.  To exit the car, my wife had to crawl over the center console then out through the driver’s door.  Oh, I also forgot to mention my wife was five months pregnant, which somewhat hindered her ability to exit the car.

The Skylark evolved into an albatross.  One small thing after another would crap out.  Nothing was easy to fix or perform routine maintenance on,  largely because of things being difficult to access.  To me it seemed this car was designed to vex those that tried to fix it.     

By the time our son was two, we had owned this Skylark for 5 years.  My car repair skills had advanced over this time.  With the Chilton Manual resting on the engine, I was able to fix most of the things that crapped out on this car.  I became very adept at this, so much so our neighbors thought fixing cars was a hobby.  Another skill that had strengthened over this time was my ability curse.  It was not long after I opened the hood of the car, or laid on my back to change the oil, that I would begin to swear.  I had to tone it down so the neighbors could stop gasping at my fluency as I “enjoyed my hobby”.  Worse yet, our son would watch me fix the car.  We had gotten him a battery operated Jeep and he would drive it around in the backyard.  It became apparent that he paid attention to closely to me working on the car because, while driving his jeep, he would stop frequently, lift the hood where the batteries were, shake his head and with his sweet three year old voice say, “Son of a bitch.”  I guess he thought, because of the Skylark, that cars needed to be worked on every 10 feet.

Another scene in the play called “The Horror of the Skylark”,  occurred while on my way to work.  I was less than a mile from my office when the car bucked, lurched and belched a cloud of steam from the exhaust.  I immediately scrunched my nose at the smell of anti freeze.  I had the car towed to a repair shop near our home and was told that a gasket had blown and the valve cover cracked, it would be a week to 10 days before the car could be repaired.  Six weeks later, the car was still at the repair shop.  I stopped there on my way home to see what the deal was.  A very nervous repair shop owner told me that someone had tried to steal the Skylark, the thieves had broken the steering wheel cover trying to start a car which couldn’t start.  He would replace the cover at his cost – gee, thanks.  I looked at him, now I was shaking with anger, and said, “I don’t know what makes me angrier, the fact that my car is still not fixed, or the fact that if it had been fixed, these jerks could have stolen it and I would be rid of the biggest piece of junk ever.”  He just gaped.  A week later the Buick was repaired.  Great.  

There is an epilogue to this play.  When I first began to experience issues with the Buick, my wife’s parents were slated to visit us for a weekend.  A car that I didn’t recognize pulled into our driveway, a red station wagon.  You could imagine my surprise when I noticed the guy behind the wheel was my father-in-law!  “What happened to your Skylark?” I exclaimed.  

“Ah, it was junk,” said the guy who, a little over a year earlier, told me it was the best car ever, “How about making us some coffee.”

Ernie Stricsek

The Chatham Memoir Group

September 30, 2022

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