A Casino in Reno: Part One: Life is a Crapshoot, Right?

April 28, 2013

Wonderful Ones, this happened the day before we planned to drive far away, across the mountains to visit Reno, Nevada.  I had fueled the car and pressurised the tires just so when it occured to me that the engine oil had not been changed since the previous fall. Yikes! More than ten thousand miles had rolled under the wheels since then and, indeed, the oil was blackish and wornout looking on the dipstick.

I thought at first about running the car over to an oil-change franchise, but I had heard stories about such places which had unhappy endings.  The Hyundai dealer wasn’t an option at that late point on a Satuday, either, so I decided, finally, to change the oil myself.  I’ve done this numberless times on various vehicles, though not on anything newer than my 1998 pick-up truck.  Our family sedan, however, is a 2012 compact aerodynamically low to the ground and with an engine compartment crammed with largely incomprehensible mechanical and electronic “stuff.”  Nevertheless, motor oil is motor oil I told myself as I got to work elevating the wheels on blocks just enough for me to squeeze underneath the front end of the car.

The oddly oversized oil-drain plug was easy to get to and luckily I had the correct wrench to remove it.  As the oil poured into a pan I wondered why it looked more red and clean than it had on the dipstick.  Once the last of the oil had dripped out I replaced the plug and then skooched over with my nose to the bottom of the car to remove the old oil filter. That thing was in a nice tight spot, and–dang!–my gripper tool wouldn’t hold; the filter canister simply would not unthread from the engine block.  Well, OK, this wasn’t the first oil filter I’d had difficulty removing and with the day growing old I went ahead and poured four quarts of fresh oil into the top of the engine anyway so we could at least make this trip without compromising the motor.  Later, I would take the car to the dealer for the multi-point checkup it needed in any case and have them put in a new filter then even if it meant changing the oil a second time.

Fine, but then a really curious thing happened.  When I re-checked the oil level on the dipstick it was higher, MUCH higher than it should have been and still quite a dark color.  I was startled and utterly baffled for long seconds until, at last, the penny dropped:  I had poured the new oil in on top of the old oil!  I hadn’t drained the engine at all, instead I had drained the transmission!!

What followed was an hour of denial and desperation.  It was late in the afternoon on a weekend and instead of having checked off one pesky problem, I suddenly had two egregious complications to fix really fast or we would not be going on our long planned road trip after all.

Now, let’s break from that moment and step back in time one week to the previous Saturday.  MM and I  had been out to a birthday dinner at a chic spot in downtown Oakland.  There were many friends at table, we were nicely dressed and we had a good time.  At the end of the meal the division of the check was rather complex, everyone (except the birthday girl) with their wallets open, counting money and helping to make change so that each paid her/his proper share.  The next day was a different, sadder event: a memorial for another dear friend who had succumbed, too young, to cancer.  Again good clothes were called for and while dressing I realized my wallet was missing.

Had I misplaced it during all the money handling and pants changing that had gone on?   Whatever the cause the wallet had vanished, and now replacing my driver’s license might take a while, the credit cards perhaps even longer….not even to worry about the lost cash.  This put our Reno travel plan for the week ahead in jeopardy (sound familiar?) because I would need my DL and cards for the trip.  At that moment it seemed best to cancel our hotel reservations while we could still do so without a penalty.  Well, wouldn’t you know, after the credit cards, bank card and hotel had all been cancelled and as I was standing in line at the DMV to apply for another driver’s license, MM called to say the lost was found!  The black wallet had slipped off the bureau top into one of the drawers and down among my black socks.  Everything was there.

That week old episode was a hassle, no doubt about it, but in the end there was a comical element to it and not much harm had been done.  Sooner than I had imagined I had shiny new credit/debit cards (in the same ratty wallet) and the hotel reservations were easily remade.   This new crisis, on the other hand, had worse implications.  The cat sitter had by now made room on her calender for our three days away,  the reservation dates were in this case so close that cancellation would mean the loss of real money and, for me, a big hit to my personal credibility.  It might be amusing to have lost a wallet in a sock drawer, but would I be so easily forgiven for carelessly sabotaging our trustworthy chariot more or less moments before we were to drive it away on a pleasure trip?

That question followed me around the room biting my heels as I walked in furious circles sweating and trying to think my way out of the mess.  I had an crankcase badly overfilled with (still) dirty engine oil and a transmission with no fluid at all.  I could fix the former now that I had identified the correct drain plug, but what could be done about the latter?  Was it feasible to replace the lost transmission oil, and why couldn’t I see a fill-tube for it there under the hood? A call to the dealer just before they closed confirmed my fear:  our transmission was a “sealed” component which could only be refilled using a garage lift, some specialized knowledge and several quarts of a certain expensive fluid which probably couldn’t be found at the type of auto parts place that might be open on a Saturday night.  In other words there was no way I would be able to fix the transmission myself as might have been possible with an older vehicle. Our little car simply wasn’t going to be going anywhere soon.

At that point I picked up the phone again and this time called Expedia, prepared to cancel our reservations for the second time.  At the last moment, though, I hesitated and instead went outside, drained the engine oil down to a normal level, took the car off it’s blocks and cleaned up my oily rubbish.  I had needed to clear my head with action while I tried to think if there were plans C, D or F which might save our getaway.  But, after rapid reflection as well as passing them by MM, my various ideas (a rent-a-car, the train, my truck) were for various reasons tossed into the rubbish container too.  I contacted Expedia once more and was a click away from ditching our reservations when our neighbor arrived home from her day on a hiking trail and asked what was going on.

J. is our friend –and what a friend– ’cause the next words from her lips were, “Take my car. I insist!”  For years she’d driven a reliable enough old beater, but two weeks before this she had traded up to a brand new silver Corolla over which she was still suffering buyer’s remorse.  The idea of driving off to a distant vacation in a new vehicle the owner had not even bonded with yet gave me the hebee-jeebies and caused MM to wrinkle her nose.  Still, J. was adament that she would not need or use the car for the days we’d be away, and I began to feel it would be wrong to look such a freely given gift horse in the mouth.  We accepted, finally, but on the condition that J. use my stick-shift truck in case she did need to get around.

So, the lost wallet was found and now the journey to Reno had been saved in the nick of time.  Were the gods for me or against me this week?  I was confused and chastened but glad in any case to be getting out of town.   We did leave about midday on Sunday and had an uneventful three and a half hour journey across the Sierras to the Silver Legacy Resort and Casino in downtown Reno (I’ll mention some things about our experience in Part II of the story). With the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, however, I think that we should not have accepted our angel’s loan of her car.  It would have been smarter to decline, even at the sacrifice of our getaway, for several reasons.

For one thing J.’s car was so brand new it had, I was surprised to find, only 350 miles on the speedometer.  This meant we would effectively be the ones to break in her engine during the trip.  These days a new car break-in period is short (about 500 miles) and is only a matter of driving conservatively and gently excersizing the engine throughout it’s normal RPM range. The consequences of doing it job badly, however, could be shorter engine life and I’m not sure even now that hours of sustained freeway driving, to say nothing of two climbs to the top of Donner Pass (7227 feet), is really a suitable break-in regime.  I did try to vary the engine’s speed as much as possible and was careful not to lug it even slightly while going up hill, so I’m hoping no harm was done.

The second thing was that after we’d accepted J’s offer she found an injury on her heel where her hiking boot had created a silver-dollar sized blister and then rubbed the skin completely off.  She insisted this did not alter our agreement, that she’d be fine without her car, but actually she became worried enough about infection that she visited a doctor while we were away.  She tried to drive there in my truck but couldn’t depress the clutch enough to start it and had to ask a friend to take her!

Finally, there’s the fact that shit does happen, furniture does fall off passing pickups, rocks do roll onto the road in mountain passes and inebriated drivers in casino parking garages can back into other cars.  By taking J’s Corolla away from her for two days we were exposing it and ourselves to a world of hazards any one of which could do severe damage to her car and to our friendship with her.  As it happened we were able to return her car unscathed, washed, vacuumed out and with a full tank of gas.  J. was relieved to have it back and acknowledged in a perfectly nice but frank conversation that she just might have been too impulsive in offering it to us.  For my part, I allowed that taking her up on the offer had been one of at least three notable goofs during the week which I expected to find in my “permanent file” up in The Cloud or wherever it might be.

Washing J.'s car before handing back the keys.

Washing J.’s car before handing back the keys.

The morning after we returned I had our disabled car towed (free, by AAA) to a friendly nearby transmission repair shop where it’s tranny was refilled with the authorized fluid and it was put back on the street before noon.  Then, I drove it to the dealer where the engine oil was finally changed and the balky oil filter replaced.  It was also given a routine detailed inspection and even washed!  At that point it was possible, I suppose, to say, “All’s well that end’s well.”  At least my wife seems to think so, bless her.  Just now she remarked, “It’s past tense, honey. It was just a little conflagration of events.”

There was, at any rate, a fateful moment early in the affair when one of the gods must have looked down from on high and deigned to save me from terminal mortification.  If, while flat on my back under our car, I had actually succeeded in breaking loose that oil filter and unscrewing it,  the quarts of hot black motor oil in the still filled engine (which I thought was drained) would have gushed out onto my chest and face and into the street. That, Wonderful Ones, would have really been a bad trip!



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