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RUTLEDGE: Crash course in brake repair costlier than ‘calling the man’

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Saturday, October 7, 2017

My daily commute to work measures an hour each way. I don’t mind because it’s a smooth cruise up and down Interstate 81, which is good polish for my singing voice.

Lately, I’ve been singing the Gas Station Visitation Blues. My main ride is broken, and my gas-guzzling backup has my wallet running wide open.

The work commute involves hardly any stop-and-go traffic, but nevertheless, freeway driving has somehow managed to take a heavy toll on the brakes. My main commuter is my father’s old 1996 Chevy S10 pickup. It had been a mostly idle farm truck for my mom since Dad passed nine years ago.

Mom turned the S10 over to me when she no longer needed it, and I have enjoyed feeling closer to Dad in his old truck. I feel so close to him, in fact, that I could almost hear Dad urging me to “Call the man” when the front brakes started wearing out.

My dad would have taken the truck straight to a repair shop and paid whatever they charged for repairing the brakes.

“I’d rather pay them to do it once,” Dad would say, “than pay twice to do it myself.”

I’m starting to fully understand what he meant by that.

Attuned as he was to vehicle maintenance, Dad was never a do-it-yourselfer with car repairs. “Motor oil is the lifeblood of your car,” he also would say. “You should have it changed every 3,000 miles.”

Dad stopped changing his own oil after a job that involved twice forgetting to replace the drain plug and three times driving Mom’s car into town to buy oil.

It could be that I was lulled into overconfidence by successfully installing front brake pads and rotors on the S10 last winter. With help from my inspiring do-it-yourself friend Paul Lockhart, I also installed a new master cylinder during the winter repair job.

Smoother stopping kept rolling until a few weeks ago when I took Max the wonder dog on a harrowing ride to the bottom of our nearly vertical driveway. Heading to Grandma’s for a walk, we were backing down when the brake pedal inexplicably met the floorboard.

Gaining speed in reverse, with no means of stopping or even slowing down, is an awful feeling. I flashed on Fred Flintstone’s method of stopping his prehistoric ride but knew that wouldn’t work. Decades of watching “The Rockford Files” reruns might have saved us. I did what Jim Rockford would do when someone tried to take him off the case by cutting his brake lines—I panicked.

I managed to steer the backward-racing pickup Rockford-like across the cul-de-sac, avoiding a parked car and two mailboxes before coasting to rest against the incline of a neighbor’s driveway.

A rear-brake cylinder had sprung a leak, so I performed a rear-brake repair and cylinder replacement. Paul came over to help me bleed the system. “That’s not good,” he said when I fractured the release valve on a front-brake caliper.

A few days after replacing the broken caliper, I ensured further brake-repair experience by fracturing the release valve on the opposing front caliper. At that moment, I heard my father’s voice again.

“Have you learned anything from this, son?”

He used to say that a lot, too.

Contact Mark Rutledge at mrutledge@reflector.com or like him on Facebook at Mark Rutledge Columns.

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