Wednesday, September 7, 2016

The One Where the Car Fell On Me

[The Hack Mechanic / September 2016, BMW CCA Roundel Magazine, all rights reserved]

It is said you’re not a real musician until you’ve had an instrument stolen, a real software engineer until you’ve lost three days of code, or a real mechanic until you’ve bled on machinery. 

I know. I’m the one who said it. And I’m all three.

Getting hurt while working on cars seems to be the price of admission to the ride. Cuts and scraped knuckles are annoying, but the real risk is working underneath cars.

Readers of my first book know the stories of a) the physics professor (I repeat: physics professor!) I had in college who died when a car fell on him in his driveway, and b) the time I had a car topple off a floor jack when the jack sank into soft asphalt on a hot day. Because of these events, I am assiduously careful when I jack up a car. I always “double-jack” it (jack it up, set it on jack stands, then leave the floor jack in place as backup). And, after the asphalt incident, I never play the dangerous “I’m just changing a wheel I’m not actually under the car so I don’t need the jack stands” game.

In my garage, I have a mid-rise scissors lift. A stand-mounted electric pump drives fluid into two large pistons that force the lift upward. You push a button to energize the pump. The lift has four mechanical lock-stops at one foot intervals. When you hear the lift click past the stop you want, you flip a small lever to engage the lock, then push a large lever on the pump to release the fluid pressure and set the lift down on the stop. I’ve always regarded it as very safe. And it is. If you don’t have a brain fart.

So here’s what happened. I’d just installed braided stainless lines on Otto, the ’74 2002tii, and was bleeding the brakes. The car was up on the lift with all four wheels off. No fluid came out the left rear bleed valve, so I began to scooch under the car’s left rear corner to undo the line I’d just installed and see if fluid came out. I had my entire upper body under there when I heard the hydraulics release pressure and saw the lift slowly drop. I scrambled to get out from underneath but wasn’t fast enough. 

My life did not flash before my eyes. I didn’t think “this way? I go this way?” I didn’t think, as I’ve often joked, “if I die under a car, Maire Anne will kill me.” Oddly, what ran through my mind in the roughly two seconds it took for the car to drop was whether my rib cage would get punctured, or whether, as was the case with a local garage proprietor I know, my head would get pinned (he survived).

And then the car stopped. It came to a gentle rest on the hubs and discs. And, incredibly, I was fine, because my body was behind the rear hub, and there’s about 10” between the bottom of the hub and the underside of the rear fender. My sole injury appeared to be a scratch about an inch and a half long on my left shoulder blade. The next morning, the scratch blossomed into more of a contusion because the car actually hit me before it stopped.

How did it happen? I’d taken the left rear wheel off and leaned it against the wall of the garage, but before I crawled under the back of the car, I’d carelessly moved the wheel, and it was leaning directly against the release lever on the pump. When I scooched under the car, I apparently nudged the wheel with my leg, which depressed the pump’s release lever.

But that shouldn’t have mattered if the lift was sitting on a lock-stop. Why in God’s name wasn’t it? The scary part is that I have no explanation for this. I never put the lift up without locking it. There’s no reason to. It takes just a few seconds. The only thing I can think of is that perhaps I’d moved it up for just a moment to grab a dropped wrench, then was interrupted, and when I came back, I just assumed the lift was sitting on a lock-stop.

After the event, my brain said “finish the repair; you’ll process all this later.” So I did. I raised the lift back up, made certain it was locked, and finished bleeding the brakes.

In the ensuing days, I thought a lot about what happened. Some injuries result from dancing in risk’s cross-hairs for too long, but I don’t think this was one of them. I think it was just a rogue event. I wondered whether the car’s controlled descent (it floated down on depressurizing hydraulics; it didn’t topple off a stand) would’ve crushed me or merely pinned me. Throw in a pig carcass and it would’ve made a good episode of Mythbusters. I opted for “pinned,” as the other possibility was unfathomable. My main concern was that I’d dream about being crushed by a car, but I haven’t yet. I’ve instituted a new three-part procedure: 1) Make sure the lift is on a lock-stop. 2) Make sure nothing is near the release lever. 3) If you’re going to actually work under the lift, roll two wheels beneath it as fail-safe blockades. “Brain fart” makes it sound funny. It wasn’t. This can not happen again.

They say that, when people have near-death experiences, their life often comes into clearer focus. They tell their family they love them more often, quit their jobs, do bucket list stuff, take the big trip they’ve always wanted, buy the XKE, that sort of thing. I am already very happy with my life, am pretty gratuitous with spreading the love, and have more cool cars than I know what to do with. And I’d already begun re-prioritizing things to bring my singer-songwriter self back into the fold several months ago, gigging again and recording my 3rd album. And, really, I’m just not a bucket list guy. I’m shaken, but not stirred.

Oh all right. An M1 and a trip to Fiji with Maire Anne. And maybe another guitar. I did actually have one stolen. Because I may be a hack mechanic, but I am a real musician.