What I'm Driving At: Another Roadside Attraction

"Now, that's a good-lookin' car," Ed said as he walked up to my daughter Morgan and me just outside Cave-in-Rock, Ill., on the banks of the Ohio River. "Zat a '98?""It's Chevy's new Lumina LTZ," I told him. "Looks pretty good, doesn't it?" The car was painted in Chevy's incomparable torch red. A snazzy little spoiler flipped off the edge of the trunk lid, and pseudo-ground-effects body work at the sides and front gave the car an undeniable sort of NASCAR semblance that was destined to impress in such a wholesome heartland as Southern Illinois. While Morgan waited out of the sun in the leather-trimmed front bucket seat, Ed and I cooed over the LTZ's new 200-horsepower V6. "That's that 3800 Series II motor, ain't it?" Ed asked. "That's strong."Ed was bound to know. He ran Ed's Automotive, downriver a ways out on the Shetlerville Blacktop. In fact, he'd traveled some 12 miles to come see the car at the urging of Rev. Bob Davis. Maybe Rev. Davis was feeling a little apologetic for having accidentally flipped a 15-amp fuse onto the exhaust manifold about 20 minutes earlier. Of course, it hadn't mattered to me, since I'd been able to dislodge the fuse using a long stalk of roadside ragweed. I just appreciated the fact that Ed and the reverend would take time out of a beautiful Sunday morning to see if there was anything they could do. Attractive as the Lumina LTZ was, framed by the lush, rolling hills and rich, alluvial fields straddling the Ohio, its single most distinguishing feature on this day was its open hood.That and my frantic pacing around the car in a cellular-phone war dance. Morgan and I had just left the lair at Cave-in-Rock made infamous by river pirates in the 1790s, when she asked, "Dad, why did the air conditioner turn down?" During our drive up from Nashville, she'd been adjusting her own temperature with the clever dual-zone thermostat, so I was about to explain that she needed to slide the controller into the blue zone if she was hot. Before I could dismiss her 10-year-old perceptiveness with such a deft adult stroke, a waft of hot, humid air filled the car as the air conditioner fan died. The car's engine power suddenly evaporated out from under my accelerator foot like a quick summer squall off hot asphalt.I pulled over to pop the hood as the car idled. Belts looked fine; what else could I possibly check? Once again behind the wheel, I determined to high-tail it back to the cave and to the security blanket of its surrounding village. Three raspy coughs, then nothing. Not one jolt, volt, amp, or ohm of electricity. I couldn't even spark the flashing hazard lights. This Lumina was altogether extinguished.The Rev. Davis swung by first. Together we fumbled a fuse or two, and then I worked the cellular phone in quest of roadside assistance. By the time Ed arrived, a AAA wrecker was miraculously on its way. Being Sunday, Ed groaned at my chances for mechanical salvation that afternoon; but he quickly spotted the "dead battery" indicator and offered to open up his shop on my behalf. "At least we could check if your alternator's chargin'," he said. "If so, we'll just swap out your battery, and you'll be good as new."I thanked our two roadside Samaritans for their assistance, and I wrote down Ed's phone number and directions to his garage. They each pulled off in different directions with a friendly wave, and Morgan and I looked for a shady spot where we could sit and wait on the wrecker. I hadn't even locked the car when a distant "hail, fellow, well met" greeted us from across the desolate lane. "Junior" Austin urged us into his air-conditioned home nearby. As if old friends, his wife Charlotte and he whiled our wait for the tow truck and distracted us with gentle talk about local traditions and recent vacations. When the wrecker arrived 90 minutes later, I couldn't shake Junior's hand until I had shifted the load of history books and tourist pamphlets that the Austins had urged upon me.Our wrecker driver, Ben Phipps, was instructed to take us about an hour north to Harrisburg, Ill. I would have to call Shetlerville Ed later to thank him for his offer just the same. Meantime, Morgan and I were accumulating acquaintanceships at an astounding rate. In an earlier time, when the despicable Harpe brothers, Samuel Mason's Wilson Gang, and the Ford's Ferry bandits freebooted through this pioneer terrain, chance encounters with roadside geniality generally ended in mayhem and massacre.Not so this Sunday, even though the sight of a spanking-new Chevy and its two hapless occupants might have suggested easy pickins. Instead, Denzil Perkins, owner of the Harrisburg Amoco station, not only diagnosed an alternator malfunction free of charge, he also set aside a quiet, makeshift office for me to prosecute my next strategic assault: I would now have a rare opportunity--for an auto writer, at least--to evaluate firsthand Chevrolet's 365-day, 24-hour Roadside Assistance program.Chevrolet operator Joe Jarvis answered first--after a 25-minute hold. Since I'd arranged a AAA tow to an independent service station, Chevy Roadside assistance couldn't help, or so he said. Any warranty work would have to be done by a Chevy dealer, and all Chevy dealers would be closed on Sunday afternoon. "Thanks, Joe," I thought to myself; "now what?" Denzil said, "Try the Plaza Motel up the street--see it up there? Your car'll be safe here till you figure out what you want to do." Morgan and I shuffled off to check in. Redialing 1-800-CHEV-USA from the motel room was out of the question; the "2" key on the phone entered two 2s for every push.So it was back to Denzil's for a second attempt to secure roadside assistance. This time, a 50-minute hold earned me a chance to talk to Randy--the man, the fixer, the 'round-the-clock roadside assister. Randy took charge. He ordered a Monday-morning tow from Denzil's place to the Buddy Poole Chevy dealership two blocks up the street. Randy faxed the dealership a repair order that would be waiting for the service manager when he got to work. Randy promised that the dealership would reimburse my motel room charges. In the end, he afforded us a worry-free night's sleep in a strange town that Morgan and I now had a delightful rest-of-the-afternoon to explore. With Randy at the helm, Chevy's 24-hour Roadside Assistance was a good thing, and I determined to admit as much--under oath, if necessary.By 11 o'clock Monday morning, the Lumina LTZ was back in action, ready to rock. The problem? "Don't know," said Jim Sherwin, the service manager. "The alternator wasn't charging when we checked it this morning; but when we removed the alternator, it checked out A-OK. So we reinstalled it, and everything's fine. Musta been a connection." Not exactly what I wanted to hear; but not exactly something I could do much about. Would Jim tell me how to get reimbursement for my motel room, I asked. "You'll need to call Roadside Assistance for that," he said, bouncing that ball back where it came from. I decided to swallow the charge myself; by now, an hour's wait on hold for a $30 payback no longer seemed an even swap.Morgan and I bid our adieux and got in the car to leave. A sound like a donkey's bray followed us out of the car lot. "What's that?" I asked Jim back at the service desk. He put the LTZ up on a lift and diagnosed bent control arms in the rear suspension. The grappling hook used to anchor the car during Sunday's tow probably should have found a different location. A mechanic heaved on the control arm with a yard-long screwdriver to regain a little clearance between parts. "That'll get you home anyway," Jim said. It did. I was relieved. Morgan was grateful.I've been ribbed a bit ever since my return. "I bet I know what you'll be saying about that car," is the typical comment. I suspect that means my friends aren't expecting me to "love up" on the Lumina LTZ very much. But the truth is, I liked it more than just a little. In its all-American way, it looks pretty snazzy; it's actually quite perky with its stout V6, and it handles crisply for a midsize, mid-priced family sedan.Ironically, it's also the leader in its class in recent consumer quality ratings. In the present instance, of course, I wouldn't have minded if better attention had been paid to simple electrical connections at the assembly line; but, hey, to paraphrase the bumper sticker, cluelessness happens. So do random acts of competence. When it's Sunday and you're miles from home, the type of phantom breakdown that afflicted this Chevy Lumina LTZ may seem an inscrutable act of God. Then again, in this day and age, you could say the same about the ability of a giant corporation to assist a little guy who's stranded with his daughter out in the boonies. But how, I wonder, to account for the kindness of strangers who expect nothing in return?

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