Jammed and Stretched

Posted on January 22, 2011


This is a dumb post. It isn’t really about anything except a car door, a small chunk of ice, and a seat belt. And to a minor degree, Thomas Edison, but that’s really pushing it.

Let’s start at the beginning.

I had big plans when I got up Friday morning. I made a list of what I was going to do, even allotting each item a specific amount of time. My son, Shaun, had a math test, and because he’d worked so hard studying the day and night before, I told him to get a little extra sleep and promised to drive him to school. Then I’d head right home and start attacking that list.

We left at 8:20. It was cold and snowing lightly, that kind of fluffy snow you see in movies and think, “Wow, that looks fake.” It was exactly that kind of snow. I got into the car and started the engine. Shaun got in on the passenger side and pulled the door closed. Only the door didn’t close. It made a thumping sound, as though something were hanging down outside the car from the inside. He checked, but there was nothing there. I got out and walked around to the other side and looked. I didn’t see anything that would prevent the door from closing. But then I checked the latch and when I pressed on it, I saw that it was jammed. When we tried to close the door, the latch just kept bumping into the thing it’s supposed to catch on. Now it was 8:25. The bus was long gone and Shaun had to get to school for his test. I asked him to hand me a ballpoint pen. I fiddled around with that for about a minute, trying to unjam the latch with it, but all that did was bend the pen.

I got back in the car and told Shaun to hold the door closed as much as he could. Even with him pulling hard, there was at least a one-inch gap of daylight and frigid air coming in, so I turned the heat on High and set it to blow right on us. Then I drove him to school, more slowly than I normally would, which helped him keep the door up against the side of the car and helped me try to come up with some way of getting back home by myself with a passenger door that wouldn’t shut.

After we arrived at school and Shaun got out, I considered getting the rope I had in the trunk. But the armrest wasn’t open at the bottom, so there was no way to loop anything through it. My only other option, it seemed, was to hold the door closed while I drove. I leaned way over to the right and pulled on the armrest, to see if I could reach. Then, with my left hand on the steering wheel and my right hand tugging on the passenger door, I began the eight-mile trip home.

Within minutes I began to encounter several sources of discomfort. For one, the lid to the hard plastic storage compartment between the front seats was pressing into my ribs. For another, the heat, by now a frightful temperature, was blowing full blast directly into my left ear. I was on a major road with school buses behind me and more buses passing in the opposite direction. It was still snowing and the roads were covered with slush, which the buses were launching onto my windshield at an impressive rate. The windshield wiper control, of course, was to the right of the steering wheel, requiring me to let go with my left hand and reach over the wheel to flick it on. Very soon the windshield wipers were smearing dry, gray streaks all over the place and it was getting hard to see. It was almost impossible to pull on the wiper control to squirt washer fluid, and the one time I managed to do it the stuff shot right over the roof and landed on the back window. Also, because the door was partly open, it was now snowing inside the car. When the snow met up with the hot air from the heater, it melted immediately, so while my left ear was almost in flames, the rest of me was cold and wet.

About a half-mile down the road I thought of wrapping the seat belt around the door handle and then buckling the belt. This idea worked beautifully in my mind. And in fact it worked in practice too, and I kept looking at the road and then back at the door, each time swelling with pride and hoping Shaun would meet the challenge of his math test with equal mastery. But then I made a left turn at the stop sign and the door flew open, I suppose because of some law of physics that I was now much too tense to identify. Pulling over to the side of the road to let fourteen school buses go by, I unbuckled the belt and wrapped it around the handle again. But this time I wrapped it around twice and pulled on it, hard. It seemed as though it wouldn’t slip off anymore, and I again felt that thrill of snatching a solution out of thin air. I thought this must be what it feels like to invent something important, going through that process of trial-and-error, like Edison coming up with the incandescent bulb. Back on the road, I immediately realized that I’d missed my chance to turn down the heat, but at least I could now sit up straight, and so my face was in much less danger of being incinerated.

I planned my route home to get there with as few left turns as possible. When I did have to turn, I could feel the door trying to break free. By now the younger kids were standing at their bus stops and I worried that the door would swing open at just the wrong moment, like a flipper on a giant pinball machine, and take out three or four second-graders in one swipe. To avoid this, I pulled hard on the seat belt with a constant force. My right hand was beginning to turn blue, either from the cold or from the complete lack of blood circulation; I wasn’t sure. Also, my entire arm felt as though I’d just done three years’ worth of isometrics. When I finally pulled into the driveway at home, I tried to let go of the seat belt, but my arm remained extended straight out for several seconds.

About an hour later I repeated most of this procedure and drove to the service department of the car dealership. They determined that some ice behind the latch was the problem, sprayed some de-icer into the jammed mechanism, and within three minutes had the door closed. Then I returned home — warm, dry, and relaxed. My arm still hurt and my neck was a little sore, and I probably had second-degree burns inside my ear. But I also had a new-found appreciation for the luxury of two free hands.

As I said, this isn’t really about anything, except a car door, a small chunk of ice, and a seat belt. And the ingenuity of Thomas Edison inventing the light bulb, only without any of the brightness.

In fact, you’ve heard the expression Dumb as a post? I think this is the one they meant.

Posted in: Exasperating