‘Ain’t No Use Jiving . . .’

I drove the Texas Gal to work this morning, something I do maybe one day a week, maybe because of the weather or maybe just so we each get an extra half-hour of sleep. I cleared maybe a half-inch of wet snow from the windows and hood of the car, then got inside and adjusted the wipers.

And as I did, I thought about my 1977 Chevette, which had one of the strangest bits of auto design I’ve run across in the dozen vehicles I’ve owned and/or driven over the years: As is standard, the turn signal stalk was on the left side of the steering column: flip it up for a right turn and flip it down for a left turn.

As has also become standard, the signal stalk also controlled the headlight beams: push it forward for high beams, pull it back for low beams. (I’m old enough, of course, to remember when high/low beams were controlled by a large push-button on the floor.)

Where the Chevette differed from any other car I’ve had is that the windshield wiper and washer were also controlled by the signal stalk: Twist the knob on the end of the stalk a little bit forward, and the wipers went into slow action. Another twist forward put them into fast mode. A twist backward provided one sweep cycle of the wipers. I don’t recall what I had to do to wash the windshield, maybe twist the knob further back or maybe push the knob on the end of the stalk toward the steering column.

That was a lot of tasks assigned to one thin stalk of metal.

And for a few years, it was no problem. I got the Chevette – a brown two-door that I called McQueeg after its license plate, which began with the letters MQG (and I have forgotten the three numerals that followed) – in 1984. The Toyota I was driving while in graduate school in Missouri broke down irreparably while I was visiting Monticello, where the Other Half stayed when I was in graduate school.

We got the Chevette for a good price from the local Chevrolet dealer (whom I had known while I was at the Monticello Times); whoever had traded it in had tampered with the catalytic converter so the car could not be resold at retail without a lot of costly repair. We paid the dealer what he’d given for the car in trade, and each of us had a problem solved.

And then came a Saturday night during the summer of 1987. I was living in St. Cloud and heading to Minot State in North Dakota in a couple of weeks. The financing for a much newer Toyota station wagon was in the works when I drove into the Twin Cities’ northern exurbs to spend a day with Rob before I headed off northwest.

I left Rob’s about nine o’clock that summer evening and had the high beams on as I drove along a township road approaching a highway, where I would turn left. As I got closer to the highway, it began to rain, and then a car turned from the highway and came my way. I needed to switch from high beams to low beams, signal my left turn and turn on the windshield wipers, all functions controlled by the single stalk to the left of the steering column. I reached up and evidently tried to do all three things at once . . . and I snapped the stalk right off the steering column.

The oncoming car whooshed past, its driver blinking his high beams in irritation. I stopped at the end of the township road, looking at the signal stalk in my hand. I was baffled, bemused, nonplussed and a whole lot of other adjectives. Eventually, I turned on the interior light and placed the stalk into the socket from which it had broken. I could still signal turns. I could still switch from high beam to low beam and back. I could not use the windshield wipers, but luckily, the slight bit of rain that had started moments ago had stopped.

I shrugged, headed toward St. Cloud without further incident, picked up my Toyota the next day, sold the Chevette with full disclosure to a former student of mine, and in about ten days, I headed to Minot.

And here’s a track that I sometimes think of when I recall that moment on the township road as I held that metal stalk in my hands and wondered what would work. It’s Bob Dylan’s “Everything Is Broken,” and it’s from his 1989 album Oh Mercy.

Video deleted. [Note added February 8, 2017.]

Tags:

Leave a Reply