A while ago I received an urgent roadside call from my son. It was a cold and rainy night, and somewhat late. He was on his way home with my car and calling from somewhere along the side of a busy highway. I could hear cars and large trucks shuddering by him, occasionally drowning out his voice.
He wanted to know if I could bring him some gas. The car had ran out. While he was on the highway.
“How did this happen?” I asked.
Which was a silly thing to ask because I know very well how it happens. It happens when you ignore all of the warning chimes announcing the car is low on gas and then the car stops running because gas is what it needs to run and now there is no gas as indicated by all the chimes and warning lights.
The dashboard might also display something like “0 miles left”, but I personally have not pushed it that far to know for sure.
Still, I asked him anyway.
“I thought I could make it home,” he answered. Which is a reasonable goal, because when the car is home it becomes my problem.
“Where are you?” I asked.
“On the Parkway,” he replied.
“Can you be more specific?”
“Near the exit,” he said.
“Which exit?” I asked.
“The one I take to go home.”
I told him to put on his flashers and stand outside the car on the passenger side as far away as he could, preferable on the other side of a guard rail if there was one.
Then I grabbed a gas can, filled it up at our local filling station, and took my wife’s car to the Parkway to get him and my car safely home.
When I was his age I ignored the gas gauge too. A few times. But cars then didn’t have sophisticated warning lights to catch the attention of unobservant drivers. When the unassuming dashboard needle reached E it was time to gas up.
The first time I ran out of gas the needle was actually below E. I figured the gauge must be broken. It wasn’t. Through trial and error I discovered that once the needle rested firmly on E there was still a good 25 miles of driving time.
On one of those trials I had to walk to a gas station, buy a gas can, fill it up, and then walk back to my car. It was about 3 miles round trip.
Driving a car was a lot more adventurous then. My first car was a used, beat up Ford Pinto. Under just the right conditions it would explode. That is why I tried to keep as little gas in the tank as I could. At least, that was the excuse I gave whenever I ran out.
And if the car didn’t explode, a breakdown was a very real possibility. For example, I could blow a tire. Or the car might overheat because it was low on oil. Or the tailpipe could rust and drop to the ground and my car would sound like a motorcycle and sparks would trail behind me on the highway.
I could also park my car and lose it. There was no key fob to press to remotely open the doors and honk the horn and flash the lights. And even if I had a remote key to help me locate the car it wouldn’t work because there was a good chance I left the radio on and the battery was drained. And there was also the possibility that the key fob I didn’t have was actually locked inside the car.
I did that a few times too. Lock my keys in the car. Once when it was still running.
The real problem, of course, was that there were no cell phones. Running out of gas or breaking down on the highway was a lonely proposition. The universal signal for help was to open the hood of the car and peer inside to make sure the engine was still there. With any luck at all a good samaritan with some knowledge of automobiles would stop to help.
That was when we weren’t so suspicious of good samaritans who stopped to help.
Thankfully cars these days are much more reliable and safer to drive. Driving is no longer the adventure it used to be. Reaching destinations a little more certain. My car tells me when it needs maintenance and, if anyone listens, when it is out of gas.
A while ago I also received an urgent roadside call from my daughter. She had plenty of gas but needed a tow truck.
My next car will announce when it is getting too close to the vehicle in front.
If anyone listens.