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September 13, 2011

Could be the Transmission. Could be Cell Tower.

By Sarah

So, I'm driving my 20-year-old world traveler of a daughter to Logan the other day down I-89 when Pilot dashboard
about about an hour into the drive, somewhere around Quechee, the "D" light on the dashboard of
my  Honda Pilot starts flashing. No sound coming from the front or rear ends. No change in power. Just a freaking flashing D.

 Now, this is the first automatic I've ever owned. You had no choice with the Pilot which Honda figured would be driven by sedentary, lazy mothers like me. But after talking to a mechanic, I've been thinking there's more to it. Something to do with computers. Because after I pull off in a panic and call my husband (No. Help. Whatsoever.) who tells me it's nothing and to Google it on my iPhone if I'm concerned, I call down to Grappone Honda in Concord, N.H. ,where I bought the car all the way back in 2004. (Going on 127,000 miles, thereby beating my frugal parents own record of keeping cars for at least seven years.)

Fortunately, there is still a mechanic on the premises as it was Saturday and they closed by three. I tell him the problem - simple enough, right? - and he gives me not one, not two, but at least four possibilities. And here all I want to know is if I can make it to Boston in time for my daughter's international flight.

"Could be the transmission," he starts, immediately sending my adrenaline spiking. Transmission? I'd heard horror stories of people driving cross country, their transmissions failing for no reason Buzzard and them being stuck in the scalding desert with buzzards circling overhead. "Could be a loose connection. Probably a loose or corroded connection with the sensor."

I relax a bit. Everything in this car is corroded from driving on miles of salt-covered roads in the winter. This is nothing new.

 Then he says, "Could be the oil. You low on oil?"

"I don't know. Wouldn't the oil light come on?"

He sniffs. "Not necessarily." 

Okay, I think, check the oil.

"Then again,"  he adds, "could be cell towers. They can mess with the communication system."

Seriously? "Cell towers?" He's screwing with me. I can imagine the other mechanics stiflling guffaws. He told her it was the cell towers! "You're making that up."

"Ma'am, there's lots of stuff going on you have no idea."

Guess so. Anyway, the point pertinent to him is that he'll be closed by the time I hit Concord. Final advice? Drive for a few miles. Maybe one. Maybe two. If the light starts flashing again, call a tow truck. It's over.

Let me just pause in the story to note that it is approximately 2 p.m. My daughter's flight to Rome Rome does not leave until 9:45. Call me neurotic. Call me a Nervous Nellie, but THIS is why I allot so much time to get to the airport, for emergencies. My people are Lithuanians well-schooled in the philosophy that if anything shitty can happen, no matter how remote, it will. Example: no one expects Cossacks to kick down the door in the middle of the night, dragging you to your death. My people did. And that is how I am able to write you today. I am the product of survivors.

And, somehow, this applies to the Pilot which has been mostly trouble free aside from a prior drama over the Check Engine light. (Who here has not suffered through a Check Engine light?) This is where I miss my friend, Trish, who again talked me off the ledge when the Check Engine light suddenly appeared during a cross-New York State trip on a book tour. No, it wasn't that I hadn't tightened the gas cap past three clicks. ( I KNEW you were going to say that.) It was because my O-rings were shot. So there.

This was different, however. Check Engine I could handle. A flashing light I could not. I added a quart of oil, got back on the highway and the light remained a solid happy green D, once again proving that 99% of electrical problems can be solved by unplugging or turning something on and off. Alas, just as Anna and I were laughing about cell towers, the D started flashing again at 22 miles in.

Ignored it. Like Charlie said.

Sailed into Logan. Turned off car to drop Anna curbside at airport. Turned it on. Solid green and it has been so ever since.

So, what to make of this? Are the computers that control our cars - and our lives - sending us to a premature death? What good is a warning system if the warning system causes us to have a heart attack at the exit for Storrow Drive? What good is having a witch for a daughter who inherited her grandmother's propensity for fizzling electronic items?

And what to do with a husband you could have clobbered who turns out to be right?


P.S. On the way back from Boston, I passed "Hillbilly Highway," the makeshift on and off ramp onto Hillbilly highway I-89 that was cut through a Royalton farm on a road washed out by the flood. Had it not been for this, locals would have been trapped. Best part? The owner of the farm, instead of being pissed, set up a farm stand and sells sunflowers and tomatoes for the new "commuters."




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Sarah, of all the people I know in our age group, you are the person who I would think would have the least trouble with her O-rings.

Unless I am in the wrong thread, which wouldn't be the first time here at TLC.

Sarah, heh. Drive to Logan sounds too familiar for my mental health. A Storrow Drive merge is a heart attack all on its own. You're a better mom than I am.

The single biggest reason I refuse to give in and buy a new car. The 'Stang runs just fine, has a little bit of this new-fangled 'computer' stuff in it, but overall is basically what it should be: a CAR. These new ones, lights start flashing if it rains too much.

This could be the answer of the decade:

"Ma'am, there's lots of stuff going on you have no idea."

No shit, Sherlock.

This summer, we finally said good-bye to our 1999 Lincoln Navigator. 12 years and 140,000 miles. The last 18 months, there were lights on and off in that thing like a pinball machine. We dutifully took it to get it checked every time until the Lincoln mechanic seconded our own local mechanic: "It's the damn compuders. Don' worry aboud it."

Then one day I drove it and it was like trying to control a horse. A big, banged up, silver horse. The transmission. Sigh. The transmission light never even came on.

Great blog, Sarah! xo

The car I drove died. Okay it was in an accident and totaled by the lady's insurance company. My father said Nooooooo...take the money and rebuild it.
A month later his mechanic produced a (ahem) brand new car.
I wasn't quite in the merge lane when the bells and whistles started pinging. No exit for miles and by then my dad (Mr. I don't need no stinkin cell phone)is who knows where.
There is nothing that can get your blood pressure up better than standing on the expressway waiting for a tow truck.
He fixed it again and I didn't trust it but managed to get to Lauderdale so okay.
THEN I got pulled over in the middle of the night. Not registered. The tag didn't belong to the car. The car didn't exist. What?
My dad's getting up there. Maybe he forgot to register it I think so I take him down to the tag agency the next day and they printed out the death certificate.
Once they issue a certificate of demolishion you're through. You're finished. It's over. You might as well sell it for junk even if it runs like a top it's a zip lock full of spark plugs to the DMV.
If anyone would like to write a blog about public transportation I'm there!

Sarah, you have the most adventurous kids! I am endlessly impressed by them and by the parental units' willingness to gulp back your own terror and say with hugs and smiles, " Have a great time."

Life is a blinking engine light!

Xena, oh, warrior princess of South Florida, you crack me up. Having just signed over my 2001 Accord to my Miami daughter, I have discovered that the great State of Florida has some of the most bizarre automotive rules anywhere, and the most expensive, too. Your story just seals the deal on that conclusion.

Gosh, Sarah, I'd have been just as freaked out. My "new" Civic had some weird light come on while I was driving it, just a couple months ago. Took me 20 minutes of cars whizzing by as I sat at the side of the road trying to find what the heck that little flashing triangle meant. Turned out I hit some other weird button and turned OFF something--something I had no idea was even meant to be on, since I have zero clue what the heck it is meant to do.

This is also my first automatic in the last 40 years. What gives here? Hondas used to be so simple. And they used to get great gas mileage, too. My first Honda, in 1974, got 53 mpg, and was the reason I learned to drive a stick shift. Now I'm driving a tiny Civic, but the best mileage I've ever gotten is 38 mpg, usually on the highway. Doesn't that seem backwards to y'all? Shouldn't technology have advanced in nearly 40 years, instead of going backwards like that? Logically, by now I should be able to find a car that gets 300 mpg.

OH, car stuff. I truly feel for you...there's nothing so terrible (except Cossacks) ( :-) ) as being in a car where something is--maybe--wrong.


The Hank P Ryan method is definitely "ignore it." (I know that's not a good idea, actually) But sometimes machines DO fix themselves.

Sounds like my Ford Escape. Which as a 2005, I bought in 2004, and is cruising at 165,000 miles now. No thanks to the dealer! LOL! Back around 47,000mi and still under warranty, it started stalling. Called them, and while the boy was doing what most guys do (checking the fluids and connections), I tell them that according to him the transmission fluid is black. Never coded, either.

Bring it in. Cant find anything, but changed some valve that was faulty on earlier models as a precaution. Stalls in the middle of major road construction. Realize that I can keep it running if I slam it into neutral fast. Get it back to the dealer...nothing. Change that same valve. (BTW, Laura in Pa got to experience this fun with me once on a booksigning roadtrip.)

Then, it got real bad. Still no coding or lights. Left it with the dealer for a total going over, and then met my parents half-way to do the pick up. The sucker stalled within five minutes. Had it flat-bedded back. The next morning, mom is in their office with my key and the bill for the truck. FIX IT, she says, because if my daughter gets killed then I will own you. LOL!

Transmission fluid is black, oh my, they say. No shit, say we. Got an entire new transmission, but had to pay 1/3 as it was out of warranty. Darn them.

Now, I sometimes get the check engine light in the winter. Especially if I have driven through sloppy slushy snow. Turns out the gunk in the wheel area can make it code, too. Sigh.

Hank, you sound like my mother. When her engine caught fire, my first question was "Didn't the engine make any noises first?" "Yes," she said, "but I just turned up the volume on the radio so I wouldn't hear it."

My only gripe with our Toyota Camry is its irritating nanny complex: that maddening ding-ding-ding if I don't immediately fasten my seatbelt. I always buckle my seatbelt by the time I get out to the end of our little road, but sometimes I need to rummage in my purse or put on lipstick first. My mechanic just laughed when I asked him to disconnect that alarm. "They've got it on the same circuit as something crucial just so you can't," he said. Aaaarrrrgggghhhhhh!

My car is an '86, Sarah, and still runs well with close to 200,000 miles on it. I asked my mechanic what he thought of the new cars.
"They aren't cars," he said. "They're computers with wheels. Can't even work on them right."
Your blog explains his cryptic remark.
Glad you and yours are safe.

Sarah, I am so sorry about those Cossacks. One variant of which is "Kozaks." Please accept my apologies on behalf of my people.

Debby - I love your mom. What a tude. And she's right. Uhm, I think.

Glad to know I'm not the only one with computer car issues. It's sad, isn't it, when something as quintessentially American as a good ole car can't be fixed in the driveway. And for those keeping score at home, my Honda was built in Ohio.

Harley. I always knew there was something violent about the way you smiled and constantly act so nice.

I love my computer controlled car. It gets better gas mileage and pollutes less than the models before it. An example, In a year, and 1980's Honda Civic dumped about 10 pounds of stuff out the tail pipe. My 2003 V6 less than a pound in five years.

Love it! The farmer is great! If you've got lemons, make lemonade. He's got it down pat.

Cars. I remember my dad's old English ford. Five pieces and you could see them all, and even I could figure out the problem.

No more. I can't even figure out what anything is under the hood.

We are a modern, equal opportunity blog. Lithuanians and Kozaks co-existing in peace.

I drove the Silver Bullet with a red flashing "D" light for a year. Mechanic said it was nothing. Then one day my entire dashboard lit up and smoke billowed out from under the hood. I barely made it to the dealership. They put a big "DO NOT DRIVE" sign on the windshield, and I walked over to the used car lot and bought another car, not as dear to me as the Silver Bullet, but okay. It was a sad day for the Let's Ignore It team. I get a lump in my throat just thinking about it. Sob!

But, really, short of an Aston Martin, couldn't we all have guessed William drives a Mustang?

My "airbag malfunction" light came on in my car a couple of weeks ago. It looks like a guy sitting in the seat (with his seatbelt on) with a big egg on his lap. It came on once before, last year, when the car was only a few months old, and it took them three days to figure out they didn't know why. This time they just installed a new sensor, or something.

By flashing "D", do you mean the "D" that indicates the car is in drive? Or is there a separate "D"?

I'm glad my Mini Cooper is a stick.

Nancy P. -- a new bumper sticker! "Life is a blinking engine light!"

I have so many stories about my Ford Pinto -- not funny at the time, of course -- for example, stranded on the dark, deserted road, with a full moon, after watching a werewolf movie . . .
I can still get extra-excellent service from Toyota by referencing the Ford Pinto experience, to which they do not ever want to be compared . . .

Our second car, a 1999 Ford Taurus had the check engine light come on 47,000 into owning it. Took it straight to the dealer. 3 return trips later, they replaced the engine. Long story. Drove off the lot, 15 minutes down the road the check engine light came on again. Never went back. The car now has about 180,000 miles on it and the check engine light went off. I think it finally just burned out.

I am currently driving a Honda Fit. No warning "words" just weird little icons to indicate something could be wrong. I have to get the owners manual out everytime I see one. The first time it happened I about had a heart attack. It was the craziest thing I ever saw. It looked like two () with a wavy line beneath it. Turns out i needed air in the tire.

I miss my 65 mustang.

Now I am glad I have my 21 year old Honda Civic. Enough computer stuff to barely run a diagnostic on it but easy to see everything else so it is fixable. I love my car. Yes it is an automatic, with Vancouver drivers there is enough to pay attention to without having to worry about using a stick.

Tina - I have Fit lust.....can't find one around!

Sarah, my mother told me once that no other ethnicities have anything on us when it comes to being occupied and put-upon. I'm frankly confused about the whole thing. I'm half Slovak, and for the record, the Slovaks were the beleaguered peasants in the Dracula novels. I can't quite reconcile that with the assaulting marauding hordes.

In other news, I know absolutely nothing about auto mechanics and I am not ashamed to admit it.

And, yet, Harley, your name is Harley.

Cell Towers?? Gee, Sarah, I learned something today!

Elaine, I am jealous! What make is your car?

I used to have a job that had me on the road just about every day, and I put lots and lots of miles per year on my cars. It was essential for me to have a reliable car. The worst car I had in that period was an '86 Mazda 323. The engine had to be replaced, and the dealership kept saying it was MY fault, the service manager yelled at me when I questioned him about this, I was told that the warranty wouldn't cover the problem, they refused to review my maintenance records, I attempted to contact the company that wrote the warranty and it had disappeared from the face of the earth...Sigh...So I had the engine replaced at a local garage instead of by the dealership. A year later I received a letter from Mazda informing me that that particular model was being recalled for the exact problems that I had had with it. They reimbursed me for nearly all of what I paid to have the car repaired. My next car was also a Mazda 323 - my research showed that the company had taken care of the problems in the earlier 323s. I bought it from a dealer in a different city, though, and had GREAT experiences with that dealer! I had over 150,000 miles on that car when I turned it in. I would have bought another Mazda but the place where I bought it no longer sold Mazdas and I did not want to do business with the place where I bought the first one.

My current car is a 2003 Honda Civic that I bought in 2007. I love it as much as I loved the second Mazda. I have never had any sort of problem with it. I just go along with whatever the service manager at my neighborhood garage tells me needs to be done to keep it going. He loves Hondas and I swear he has his staff take extra special care of that car! I've never needed anything other than routine maintenance done on it.

Ohhhhhh . . . yellow blinking light! I was so used to our rusty old Volvo's yellow blinking light I forgot it was supposed to be a warning. That Volvo - which is, by the way, held together with chewing gum and spit and about three and a half rolls of duct tape - took us old folks back and forth from Boston to L.A. multiple times: from graduate school to children's boarding schools and colleges; first careers to second and one retirement; vacations in Quebec and Washington state, Texas and Vermont, Wyoming, The Cape, Eureka Springs, Arkansas and all over the Ozarks.

That yellow light is still blinking. As ever Step just says, there's nothing wrong. He will continue to say that until the dear old thing loses its last battle with a pothole. And I'll probably say, "See. I told you." We'll both laugh and go looking for another used Volvo.

I have a 14-year old Chevy minivan with a computer system that is starting to feel its age. Once a day, the horn honks five times. No more, no less, no reason. Sometimes the automatic door doesn't want to close, so it will shut (playing a little tune as it does), then pop open. Two or three rounds with the control panel finally shuts it.

For a couple of years the "Service Engine Soon" light kept appearing/disappearing/appearing. I decided to wait for the "I Told You I Was Sick" light to come on. Eventually, I got a transmission transplant and the light stayed off.

Doesn't matter. I love my minivan. It's the right size to put all my books, my table, my EZ-up canopy, and my accessories, plus I could probably get my show saddle in. We're at about 210,000 miles - I'm going for 300,000.

I love these stories! They remind me of my mother who used to pat the dashboard of the Rambler and say, "Good girl," whenever we got thru a traffic jam without her breaking down. Thank you. They make me feel all warm and cozy.

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