by Harry McCoy
IT happened on a dismally cold, rainy sunday in january of
1966. Not only was the weather miserable on the Jersey Shore, but my head wasn't feeling so well, either. I was home on se mester break during my junior year of college, and I'd spent the weekend bar-hopping in New York City with old high-school friends. I had just settled down on a well-worn sofa in my parents' family room for an afternoon of football when the phone rang. I considered not answering it—I truly had no desire to do any more socializing that weekend. But for some reason I picked it up. It was Bill, one of my fraternity brothers, and he needed my help.
You know those guys who just seem to have a black cloud over their heads? Bill is one of those guys. On this particular occasion, he had spent the weekend as I had: partying in Greenwich Village. He'd had one too many beers the night before and had jumped a curb on East Sixth Street, blowing out his tire and ending up with a bent fender. He'd spent all his money in the bars, too, so a tow was out of the question. And since this was 1966, an ATM was not an option. To make matters worse, two burly NYPD officers were not-so-patiently waiting for him to move his car, a red '64 Plymouth Fury, which was jutting out into the street. Not to mention that, at any minute, the rain was predicted to turn into what the New York Times likes to call a "wintry mix," i.e., freezing rain, sleet, and snow.
"Could you please come up and help me move this piece of crap?" he pleaded.
As any handyperson knows, handiness is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing for obvious reasons: You save a lot of money fixing stuff yourself. But a curse because once everyone knows you're handy, you get calls like this all the time. I was the resident Mr. Fix-it of Phi Delt, a fact not lost on Bill.
There was nothing I wanted to do less. But what could I say? He was a brother—and the abuse I'd get back at school if I didn't step up would be merciless. So I grabbed my father's toolbox from the garage and grumpily headed out the door and up the Garden State Parkway to New York. An hour later, I found Bill, shivering by his car in what was now a steady rain. As the cops looked on, increasingly impatient but apparently not enough so to lend a hand, we changed his tire, only to discover that the fender had bent in such a way that it was now rubbing against the spare. If Bill turned his steering wheel to the left, even just slightly, the spare would be abraded and blow out. And we still had no money for a tow. And the cops were still waiting. And our heads were still throbbing.
Groping for an idea, I started rummaging through the toolbox. I knew I needed a "spacer" to separate the tire from the bent fender, which we had no way of straightening. A piece of wood? A piece of metal? The tricky part was the thickness. Too thin and it wouldn't create enough space between the inside of the wheel and the brake drum, which could cause a blowout. Too thick and I wouldn't be able screw the lug nuts on tight enough, which could cause the spare to loosen (and maybe even come off) in transit. Either way, not good.
Two open-ended wrenches were the best I could come up with. (Did I mention that the rain was starting to freeze?) We removed the spare again. Using black electrician's tape, I taped the wrenches onto the brake drum between the lug bolts. Then I put the spare back on and started tightening the lug nuts. As I tightened, the extra cushion of space created by the wrenches pushed the tire outward just enough so that when Bill turned the wheel, the bent metal missed the tire. Alleluia! In theory, Bill should now be able to drive—and steer—without blowing the spare.
We got in the car, eased off of the sidewalk, and gingerly hobbled several blocks. Then I jumped out to have a look. It seemed to be holding. Bill then cajoled me into following him through the Holland Tunnel into New Jersey. It was dark now, and the freezing rain was mixing with sleet. We stopped again on the Jersey side. And to our utter surprise, my solution was still holding up.
Bill decided we could make it back to his parents' house in Manasquan, not far from my folks' place in Point Pleasant. But we couldn't risk a speed of sixty-five miles an hour on the highway, so we made our way down Route 35 instead, slogging through every little burg between Jersey City and Manasquan. Miraculously, the wrenches held. And two hours later (twice as long as the trip usually takes), we limped into Bill's driveway.
Needless to say, this episode only enhanced my rep as the MacGyver of our fraternity (a full nineteen years before the first episode of MacGyver aired), which, for the aforementioned reasons, had its pros and cons. But those are different stories for other days.
Harry McCoy, a former schoolteacher, now lives in northeastern North Carolina, where he is known as the Mr. Fix-it of his retirement community
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