I’ve had a number of situations I would consider defining moments for me. For many people, a lot of the defining moments are the same types of situations, such as marriage, the birth of one’s first child, divorce, graduation from high school and/or college. The defining moment I share with you now doesn’t fall into any of those categories. What I recall about this time is the difficulty of finding motivation, strength, and value within myself. I was involuntarily unemployed, so I basically had all the time in the world. At the same time, however, I felt like I still didn’t have any time.
Because I had so much, time lost its value. Because I squandered my time, I lost sight of my own value. My wife and I were renting a basement apartment from her brother and living off her near-minimum-wage part-time job and my unemployment insurance checks. I felt like a useless, worthless piece of nothing. With each payment deposited to our checking account, we struggled to determine which of the bills was most crucial to be paid next. I lived primarily off cold cereal, and I started mixing water with milk powder from our long-term stored food to save the expense of fresh milk.
To top off this downward spiral of events and emotions, my wife’s car broke down. Without the means to take it to a shop to be fixed, I began to diagnose the problem on my own. I figured it shouldn’t be too much trouble. I had, after all, successfully worked on my dad’s 1976 pickup truck in years gone by. This car, however, proved to be much more difficult very quickly.
Comparing a 2003 coupe to a 1976 full-size pickup truck is like comparing a half-empty gallon-jar of pickles and a can of sardines, with the latter being the coupe. Not only was the working area much smaller, but there were many more parts to deal with too. For some reason, air bags and air conditioning and fuel injectors and sensors of every type caught on over the years and became standard equipment on newer cars. I could barely squeeze my hands into areas under the hood of the coupe where I could nearly fit my whole body in those same areas in the pickup.
The symptoms pointed to a problem with either fuel or ignition. The spark plugs and wires were good. We had replaced them the year prior. The battery was still good. The alternator tested fine. The air filter was still moderately clean, and we had kept up on oil changes. In my mind, there were only two other possibilities. One required a $10 part. The other was an $800 fix at a nearby shop. I crossed my fingers and changed the fuel filter.
I held my breath as I turned the key to try to start the car.
It was no use. The car wouldn’t start.
That meant we had a worst-case scenario. I had to take the car in to be fixed by someone who was qualified to change the fuel pump embedded within the fuel tank; to the tune of $800.
There was only one problem with that. I didn’t have $800 to spend on car repairs. I didn’t have $800 period. That didn’t change the fact, however, that my wife needed the car to get to work and school.
Consequently, I decided to do the bravest, stupidest thing I had ever done. I decided to tackle the job myself.
After borrowing $250 from my father-in-law to buy a replacement fuel pump and a car repair manual, I started pulling that little car apart, with no hope of being able to hire someone to put the thing back together for me at any point in the foreseeable future.
I was pretty proud of myself when I finally got the fuel tank removed and confirmed the part I had bought with borrowed money was the right one for the job – it was a perfect match to the bad fuel pump. I marveled at the cheap plastic construction of the fuel tubes on the pump. “How on Earth did I get that out without breaking those little plastic nipples/tubes?” I wondered to myself. I made a mental note to be sure to reattach the fuel tank with extra caution.
After siphoning the fuel out of the tank to make it easier to lift back into place, I began worming the tank through all the other parts on the car’s undercarriage to get it into the right spot. With a twist here and a turn there, I had it in a position where it needed just a little bit of a boost to be snugly back in place. I gave it a little upward push, and CRACK!
I don’t remember exactly what I did next, but I will never forget the feeling of utter despair and hopelessness I felt in that moment. I was so close to likely having fixed the car on my own and getting things back in order, but instead, I managed to make the situation even worse. I had broken a $250 part I bought with borrowed money. I couldn’t borrow that much money again just to end up breaking another one. I couldn’t borrow the money to have someone else fix the car, and I wouldn’t ever have that much money to spend on car repairs as far as I knew in that moment. My unemployment checks would soon run out. Without a car my wife wouldn’t be able to get to and from work. Without an income, we could become homeless and destitute. In that moment, I felt I had just missed a minor success, and instead, doomed my wife and myself to a terrible fate.
In retrospect, I was making things out to be much worse than they really were – but that’s how depression works.
I did, however, learn that, given an abundance of time, the human mind can come up with brilliant solutions to life’s problems. This is the part of my defining moment I like to focus on, looking back.
With no other options available, I spent a lot of time staring at the broken fuel pump. I cursed the engineers who designed it and the manufacturers who produced it. How could they possibly have been so stupid!?
However, while I stared at their blunder, which was now my problem, I devised a plan that I dared execute only out of sheer desperation. It could be dangerous. If the plan failed, it could potentially end with the car in flames. I was, after all, dealing with the pressurizing and distribution of gasoline from an electrically-operated component.
I carefully measured the broken plastic tubes and headed to the hobby store. I picked up some small brass tubing, super glue, and epoxy. A careful search on the internet informed me that super glue would not likely be dissolved by gasoline.
I inserted the brass tubing inside the cheap plastic tubing, creating a durable internal skeletal sleeve. The fit was perfect, allowing an application of super glue to adhere the parts securely. After giving the super glue time to cure, I drenched the whole top of the component with 2-part epoxy resin, completely enveloping the brass-plastic tubes in the glob of glue, aside from their openings for fuel flow.
After the epoxy cured, it seemed I could probably hit that part of the pump with a hammer without doing any damage. Of course, I wasn’t taking any chances. I reassembled all the car’s parts very carefully, and this time the fuel tank went up into its spot without any obvious signs of damage. I still had to be brisk with it though, so I was wary when I went back to try to start the car again.
To my pleasant surprise, the car started right up. There were no signs of fuel leakage, even with the pump running. No warning lights illuminated on the dash board while the engine ran, and nothing seemed out of the ordinary. Nothing, of course, except that I had just fixed a $250 critical component of a modern vehicle with less than $10 worth of supplies from the hobby store.
Looking back on this moment, there are two things I learned: First, human ingenuity can be astounding at times, and I’m human - so that includes me. Second, desperation is the polar opposite of fun, but sometimes it can be in those desperate moments we shine our best.