KENAI -- Kenai resident Banana Forks is in good condition following emergency surgery and a three-week stay in an Anchorage "hospital" last month. Sources say the 1994 Ford Ranger is comfortably resuming her normal schedule with little to no lingering pain.
Forks, a purple 9-year-old, four-wheel-drive, manual transmission pickup, was rushed to the "car hospital" Jan. 11 after suffering a shattered transmission while traveling along the Seward Highway near Portage.
"Everything seemed fine, then there was this terrible breaking noise and she just started shaking," recalled Jenni Dillon, Forks' companion of three years. "We tried to see if she could keep going, but it just would have done more damage."
Dillon and a friend waited apprehensively on the side of the highway for more than an hour until a tow truck could transport the wounded vehicle back into Anchorage. Forks was taken to a service department in a well-known dealership, where technicians said it could take some time for a diagnosis.
Due to responsibilities at the Peninsula Clarion, Dillon said she could not wait with her mechanical friend.
"I hated to leave her there. I mean, I know she's used to places like that; she's been in enough of them," Dillon said. "Still, if a company can make such obnoxious commercials, who knows what they could do to my poor truck?"
Dillon flew back to Kenai, where she waited for word of Forks' diagnosis. It was two days before technicians called to say the truck would need surgery just to determine the problem. A day later, they changed their mind.
"At first, I was scared. They said it was either the transmission or transfer case, and they'd have to go in to find the damage," Dillon said. "Then they called back and said they didn't have to go in, because when they bled the transmission fluid, the pieces just started falling out. Falling out! That can't be good."
By that time, Dillon had some tough decisions to make. The "hospital" said new pieces were no longer available for Forks' transmission and a rebuilt unit would have to be shipped up from the Lower 48. Technicians estimated nearly $2,600 for parts and labor.
"I love my truck, but I'm not a wealthy woman," Dillon said. "I didn't know how I was going to pay for that."
She admits she started considering other options.
"I thought about replacing her," she said. "I love her, but this can't keep happening."
Dillon is no stranger to car emergencies, and said she tends to take a dim view of "car hospitals" in general, having been swindled in the past.
In fact, that's part of how she met Forks.
In the late 1990s, Dillon drove a 1989 Nissan hatchback, but its battery exploded inexplicably in the summer of 2000. She took it to a car hospital and they told her the car needed a clutch transplant. Wary of the explanation, she went for a second opinion -- 150 miles away -- and learned the only problem was a clutch cable, a mere $30 fix as opposed to the $700 plus quoted by the "hospital."
She continued driving the hatchback until the toasted electrical system -- a fair-thee-well from the dysfunctional battery -- was too much to take.
Instead, she decided to take a chance at meeting new cars, but quickly learned that some people who make a living introducing cars and owners don't always treat women well.
"If they even spoke to me instead of my step-father, all they would ask is what color I wanted," she said. "I never cared about color. It's what's inside that counts."
Finally, she struck out on her own, meeting Forks through an independent seller in Portland, Ore.
"It was love at first site," Dillon said. "She was everything I was looking for, in good condition, and the people were willing to make a good deal."
Since then, the two have been through a number of adventures together. Forks reliably got Dillon between her hometown of Canby, Ore., and her college home in Tacoma, Wash., once a month.
She took Dillon, her mom and her sister to Phoenix in the summer of 2001, and escorted Dillon and her sister on a nine-state road trip back to Oregon a few months later. It was on the road trip that Forks received her name, though neither Dillon nor her sister remember why.
"The whole thing was fabulous," Dillon said. "We laughed the whole way, and Bananas was so good to us."
Just six months later, Dillon gave Forks an expensive cruise to Alaska as an anniversary gift. Dillon put the relatively young car on a ship and sent her off to Anchorage, where they met up a few days later.
It was in Alaska, though, that Forks started giving Dillon problems.
In May, while Dillon and Forks were on a weekend excursion to Anchorage, Forks experienced her first significant health failure, having to be rushed to the "hospital." That time, Dillon took Forks to a small "hospital" on the outskirts of town and asked for quick help. The technician said a new clutch would be needed within nine months, but he could "patch" the problem for the present.
The patch lasted about three hours and got Dillon to her driveway in Kenai before giving out. The car was taken to a "hospital" in Kenai, where Forks underwent a $900 operation to replace the clutch.
Then, things were fine -- until the January incident.
"I couldn't imagine that something else could break," Dillon said. "But it did. I really had to think about getting a new car, but I new the old girl had some life in her yet."
So Dillon and her family found a creative solution. Rather than paying the Anchorage "hospital" $2,600, they asked the technicians to ship the transmission pieces to a family friend in Oregon. The Oregon dealer rebuilt the transmission for relatively cheap, then sent it back to Anchorage, where technicians put it back into Forks. The operation took time -- nearly three weeks of Dillon paying for a rental car -- but in the long run, it worked out, coming in at just under $1,600.
Dillon and Forks were reunited Jan. 31 in Anchorage. The two were a bit wary of one another, with Dillon wondering if Forks would let her down again and Forks doubting Dillon's loyalty. The trip back to Kenai was long, slow and quiet (as Dillon forgot to bring the faceplate for Forks' stereo).
But the relationship is recovering from tragedy, and the two are happy to be together once again.
They just hope it will last.
Jenni Dillon is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion.
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