Contemplating Murphy's Law: Crossing a new bridge with an old car -- well, sort of old

Posted: Sunday, August 24, 2008

Those who are familiar with the term Murphy's Law will recognize this statement: "Whatever can go wrong, will go wrong, and at the worst possible time, in the worst possible way."

Many people from commercial announcers to my grandmother have coined phrases similar to this, but I never really believed it. No matter how many things go wrong, I always figure there's a reason for it; you know, cause and effect: I did this, so this happened; or I didn't do this, so this happened -- or didn't happen.

I'm not one to believe in random events, but now I'm starting to change my tune.

It began with a flicker. Not an alarm, not even a flashing light, but a flicker. I was driving my 2004 silver Toyota Rav4 down North Cohoe Loop, going home after a Fourth of July evening spent dipnetting with friends at the Kasilof River, when my oil lamp flickered for maybe one-tenth of a second; twice. Then nothing. If it had been dark, if I had to look in my rearview mirror or even if I blinked at the right time, I would have missed it. So when the lamp stayed unlit, I ignored it.

My car and I went about our business for three more weeks without a mishap. We even made a drive to Anchorage and back, plus a side trip to Whittier with my Aunt Barbara in tow. Nothing.

My aunt and I were coming back from Homer when I heard it: a rattling noise on the right side of my car, like a cat getting its ears scratched every time I stepped on the gas. When I took my foot off the gas, there it was again. Despite the noise, the 80-something miles back to Kenai was nothing to my car. It didn't seem to have to struggle to gain speed, and other than the rattling noise, nothing was out of place, the oil lamp wasn't even on. Again, I ignored it.

It wasn't until two days later when we were on the Sterling Highway about 15 miles outside of Cooper Landing when disaster struck.

I was behind the wheel, and when I sped up to pass a car the rattling in my car became worse. The cat had turned into a lion, and it was not pleased. The oil lamp began to flash steadily, as if screaming at me to pull over. I started panicking when my aunt said we'd pull over at the next gas station to put oil in my car. Then she read in the owner's manual: "do not drive even one block with the oil lamp on, you could ruin the engine."

The car became silent.

We coasted to a stop at a guardrail on the side of the road. SUVs, sedans, semis, RVs whizzed by us, some honking, others not caring how close they got. I tried starting my engine, nothing, not even a cough. "Oh great," I thought. "Great, great, great. What the heck am I going to do now?"

About 40 minutes were spent finding a tow truck and then waiting for said tow truck to come get us. And instead of heading toward our destination, Seward, we drove back to where we started.

The mechanics were shocked when my car came to them on a tow truck. Quickly they brought her into the garage, opened the hood and discovered I'd need a new engine. About a $5,800 expense, if I was lucky.

More, shall we say, adult words were going through my mind at that point. I thought, "Where the heck am I going to come up with $5,800? And what the heck am I going to do for a car?"

Lucky for me, my aunt was there to help with the tow truck, and my mom and grandma were there to help with the bill.

I spent the last three weeks or so driving a rented blue Dodge Neon. When I checked on my car Friday, the mechanics had it hoisted up on the risers, the wheels were gone, and a hole gaped at me where the engine and transmission should have been. The mechanics showed me my old engine covered in rust-colored gunk. That's the oil they told me. On Tuesday I was informed it was the oil pump that gave out. It wasn't cracked or in pieces, it just gave out.

No matter how many times I tell myself this wouldn't have happened if I had done this or that, I was told there was nothing I did and didn't do that could have changed things.

My car was returned to me Thursday with a brand new engine, new transmission fluid, new oil, almost new everything. It's nice to be in my own car again, but I can't help but wonder if the whole process was worth it. Would I have been better off buying a new car? What happens if my engine gives out again?

I guess I won't know until I come to that bridge, but I hope I don't have to cross it for a while.

Jessica Cejnar can be reached at

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