Even superheroes slip up now and then

I met a superhero over the weekend.

Not the kind in “The Avengers,” as enjoyable as that entertainment was (I actually saw it that first huge weekend, which is unusual for me). More like…  did you see “Unbreakable,” about a very ordinary guy who gradually comes to  realize he is invulnerable (except to water) and far stronger than a normal man?

More like that.

We had an eventful weekend. My little grandson had to go into the hospital on Friday night. He had a virus that his sister and cousins had been passing around, with fever, and because he was only three weeks old, they put him in Children’s Hospital and did a spinal tap on him. I would have thought that excessive, except his father, my elder son, actually had meningitis when he was only two weeks old, and it was caught just in time.

The good news, the wonderful news, is that he’s OK (except for a temp slightly over normal) and is home  now.

Anyway, Saturday, we were visiting him, and when we got out to the car, it had a flat. I got out all the gear to change it, including one of those ridiculous little dogleg tire irons that never work. And true to form, this one did not. Oh, I got three of the lug nuts off, by standing on it to loosen them. But by then the too-soft metal at the fitting had bent, and it wouldn’t grip the remaining nuts.

So we called the roadside assist number on our insurance card, and waited.

After awhile a man parked next to us in a plain dark-blue pickup. No markings, and certainly not the wrecker we had expected. Very unassuming vehicle — a secret identity pickup truck, if you will.

Out of it got an ordinary, unassuming man in regular streetclothes. He looked sort of like Reginald VelJohnson, the actor known from “Family Matters” (the guy whose life Steve Urkel made miserable) and the first “Die Hard.” No uniform or coveralls or anything. It was when we saw him open his tailgate and start putting on kneepads — serious kneepads, like the ones that the Delta team wore in “Black Hack Down” — that we asked, “Are you here for us?”

Yes, as it happens, he was.

We showed him the tire. I showed him the useless, bent tire iron.

He reached into his unassuming pickup, and revealed his super power. It was … having exactly the right tool for the given situation!

He pulled out a heavy, 25-inch socket wrench with a 3/4-inch drive mounted on its rotating 1/2-inch drive. It gripped the nut tightly enough, and provided sufficient leverage, that it was easy to remove the nuts even one-handed. Like butter. Or like Superman, depending on your preferred metaphor. (I went out the next day and purchased one exactly like it. I works beautifully. Why, oh why, don’t cars come with these, instead of those useless little junior crowbars?)

Oh, but you say, any ordinary mortal could  have the right tool once, in a given situation. But he went on to show that this was no fluke. We were wondering how we were going to get that tire repaired over the weekend, when the man said he could do it right there.

He opened his hood, and used jumper cables to power a small air compressor he had in the truck bed. He had the hole from a broken-off screw plugged in a couple of minutes, and slapped the tire back on. Then, he drove off into the streets of Columbia as quickly as he’d come.

The perfect wrench was one thing. The MacGyver-like rig to repair the tire was something else. I resolved that I wanted to be this guy when I grew up.

This is the kind of superhero the world needs, and I was glad to have met him.

Unfortunately, there is a postscript.

With the baby getting out of the hospital this morning, we headed to the beach. At a stop to walk the dog, my wife noticed a bubble popping out of the side of that same tire.

I checked it with a gauge, and it had 40 pounds of pressure in it, instead of the usual 30 or so. I let some air out, and we drove to a tire place (fortunately, in my iPhone I have a computer of comparable power to the one Superman had in the Fortress of Solitude, and found the biggest tire place in Aynor was 1.4 miles away). We had a new tire in about 40 minutes.

Superheroes aren’t perfect. Sometimes, in the midst of struggling against supervillains, or merely life’s pedestrian vicissitudes, they forget a key step. In this case, checking the pressure before putting the tire back on.

As Uncle Ben put it so well: With great power comes great responsibility.

31 thoughts on “Even superheroes slip up now and then

  1. Silence

    Glad the new baby is OK, that kind of thing is very frightening – speaking as the parent of a (now healthy) NICU baby.

    Lots of times the tire shops put the lug nuts on too tight, usually with a pneumatic impact wrench. I put all 200 lbs of my weight on the tire iron, jumped up and down, and still couldn’t break the lug nuts loose one time.

  2. Steven Davis II

    40 pounds in that tire didn’t cause the problem or hurt the tire. You could probably put 100 pounds of air pressure in that tire before it’d cause a sidewall to burst or bubble a sidewall. The only thing that 40 pounds does versus 32 pounds is make the contact surface with the ground less, the edges had less contact than the center of the tread.

    So have you gone around and checked all your lugnuts to make sure you can get them off on the side of the road if you need to? It’s better to find that out in the driveway and not on the shoulder of I-20 at midnight.

  3. Burl Burlingame

    My daughter and I were driving on the mainland and our rental car decided to lock us out. The company sent around a guy with an amazing variety of tools — more than 200. He said he could open any car. Except ours. The car would fight against the slimjim, pulling it back to locked. He wound up jimmying the trunk and then disassembling the rear seats and crawling into the car. Turned out the car’s “computer” had gone bonkers and was fighting every effort to open the doors. Our solution? Drive with the windows down.

  4. Silence

    @Brad – I’ll defer to Steven’s tire knowledge, but I’d say that the tire had a manufacturing defect causing the sidewall to bubble out. You should try to return it to wherever you bought it for an exchange. Even if it’s got a few miles on it they should exchange it, because it’s not an issue of wear and tear, it’s defective.

    Invest in a decent tire iron as well. The OE stuff is very lightweaight and light duty. If you are in the habit of changing tires a lot, get a decent jack. A good bottle jack doesn’t take up much room and it’s way better than the scissor style jack that most cars ship with today.

    Or take the bus.

  5. Bart

    Steven is correct. 40 pounds of pressure did not cause the bubble on the side of the tire. That is directly related to a flaw in the tire, not air pressure. You may want to address this with the tire manufacturer even if it was an old tire. Shouldn’t have happened.

    Naturally, as Steven pointed out, the higher the air pressure in the tire, the rounder the profile and the less tire surface comes in contact with the road surface unless you have excessive weight in the vehicle.

  6. Karen McLeod

    What ever happened to the old fashioned jack and +shaped tire tool? Way back when I managed to mangle one of those cheap tire tools trying to get a tire off. And I can never get these new jacks to function well. Hiss. Boo. On a happier note, I’m glad your grandchild is ok.

  7. Silence

    @ Karen – by “old fashioned jack” I assume you mean a bumper jack? Nowadays car bumpers are plastic instead of steel, and are designed to crush in a collision, so you can’t pick the car up by them anymore. The jack would simply tear the plastic covers right off of the bumper.

    The 4 way lug wrench (one that looks like a +) has 4 different sized sockets so that it can work with different sized lug nuts. The modern (L shaped) ones tend to have a flat blade on one end to remove hubcaps and also double as a jack handle. I guess the thinking was that your lug nuts would all be a standard size, so you didn’t need 3 other sized sockets, and the multiple uses of the new tire tool saves weight and cost.

  8. Brad

    Thanks so much, Karen. I just added a picture of him that first night in the hospital. But he’s doing great now. They were just being extra careful because he’s so young.

    Silence, I DID invest in a more-than-decent tire iron — that’s it in the picture at the top of the post. It’s perfect. I was going to buy one for each of our vehicles, but they only had one like that at Harbor Freight, where the superhero guy recommended I buy it ($10.99 for the wrench, three or four dollars for the 3/4″ piece on the end). They had some that were 6 inches shorter, but I didn’t want to give up the leverage.

    And Karen, those + pieces ARE better than what came with the old Volvo. But not as good as the item pictured above.

  9. Brad

    Y’all have made me wiser about tires. I just figured that it was too great a coincidence that that same tire that the superhero guy (how about “Tireman”?) had worked on was the one that gave out, and figured there was a cause-and-effect relationship. I guess I should have had more faith in him than that. (He gave me his card with his number. Do you think I could get a signal watch to call him with, like Jimmy Olsen’s?)

    Actually, the pressure was a little more than 40 lbs., but according to y’all, still not enough to explain what happened. And I believe you.

    At the Aynor Tire Mart yesterday, I got my truck tires checked (we were taking two vehicles, because one of us has to go back at midweek) because J. said one of them looked low. My tire gauge wouldn’t even register on that one, while another showed 32 lbs.

    I asked one of the guys at the tire place for some air, and he told me to pull over and he’d check them. The one that didn’t even register had 28 lbs on his much-better gauge; the one I thought had 32 actually had 36. Rather than lower that one and make them all 32 (which I think of as the perfect pressure), he just raised them all to 36.

    When he was done, I offered my hand and said, “Thanksbuddy,” just the way Sam Shepard said it to Levon Helm in “The Right Stuff,” only with a Pee Dee inflection (I speak Pee Dee, having been born in Bennettsville). He shifted the tire hose from his right to his left, slapped hands, and said “Anytime” around the cigarette dangling from his mouth. Not a superhero, but another good guy to know when your tire is low.

  10. Silence

    I did catch that you had already invested in said socket wrench – Harbor Freight is great for cheap tools.
    One thing to keep in mind is that when a mechanic or tire shop installs your lug nuts with an impact wrench and applies too much torque, they can end up breaking one of your lugs (wheel studs), or more frequently, damaging your brake rotor by warping it.

  11. Steven Davis II

    You might want to invest in one of those cigarette lighter powered air pumps. New vehicles aren’t even coming with spare tires now, you get a bottle of Fix-A-Flat and a small air compressor. You could also look at investing in a tire plug kit, they’re about $10. You pull out the nail, insert the plug with the tool provided in the kit, cut off the remainder sticking out and air up the tire. That’s what your “hero” did on the side of the road. With the right tools, you could have been back on the road in about 10 minutes rather than having someone else come by and do it for you.

  12. Brad

    Steven — exactly. That’s why I’ve resolved to get the right tools. Then I, too, can be a superhero, without having to suffer through a bite from a radioactive spider.

    I’ve got an air compressor at home, but not one of those little portable ones like he had.

    I dig tools. Whenever I’m at Lowe’s for some other purpose, I end up spending part of my time wandering through the tools. I’ll find something I’ve never seen before and think, “THIS would have been perfect in that situation I found myself in back in…”

    Harbor Freight is pretty hard-core. Makes Lowe’s look wimpy. SERIOUS tools…

  13. `Kathryn Braun

    Man, knock wood, but I cannot recall the last flat tire I had–maybe in high school. Where are y’all driving?

  14. Steven Davis II

    Harbor Freight is anything but hard-core. 99% of their tools are throw away Chinese junk. I do shop there for things that I don’t want to spend hundreds of dollars on that I’ll use once. I was just there this weekend for their big parking lot sale.

  15. bud

    My kids seem to have a lot of flats. I have had a few nails in tires that I caught before the air seeped out. Last full-on flat was about 4 years ago. Last one before that, probably about 10 years.

  16. Silence

    I got a 12v air compressor at Harbor Freight, I think it was about $7.00. It’s slow and noisy, but it already saved me .50 and a trip to the gas station to inflate my wheelbarrow tire.

    Brad – don’t confuse Harbor Freight’s junk tools with the lifetime warranty stuff sold at Lowe’s/Home Depot/Sears/Ace/True Value – I did my own math and figured out that I lose tools more often than I break them, so getting a set of them at Harbor Freight was OK. If I were going to be on the Mars mission or on a desert island, I’d rather have the good stuff.

  17. Karen McLeod

    Brad, your grandson is so cute! @Silence, I know that you can no longer use a bumper jack, but couldn’t devise a jack that can be used with new cars with the “ratchet up” action the old jacks used? Half the time I can’t get the new ones to work, and when I can, I still end up with scraped knuckles. I still find a 4 way lug wrench easier to use, and I feel like I have the means to help others as well, or are all lug nuts the same size now?

  18. Bart

    If the impact wrench is set at the correct psi or pressure, it won’t overtighten the lug nut. Unfortunately, the mechanics in most shops don’t bother changing the setting when changing a tire.

  19. Rick

    I am with Kathryn. I haven’t had a flat tire in over 40 years.I buy good tires put about 70 thousand on them and buy again if I haven’t traded the car.

  20. Steven Davis II

    Rick, so you also don’t drive on roads where there are things like nails or other things that can puncture a tire. A nail will puncture an expensive tire just as fast as it will a cheap tire.

  21. Tim

    I buy good tires, but have had issues. Once while driving on the interstate in the rain, a truck next to me hit some that flew into my front left sidewall. Nothing like a blowout at 65 MPH. Except maybe changing tires on the left side of your car on an interstate shoulder. Somehow I got my wife to the airport on time despite the PTSD from the experience.

  22. Silence

    One time my wife ran over an eating utensil and it lodged in her tire, causing a puncture. She continued to drive on it until she got home (several blocks) and parked it in the driveway. When I went to check on her flat, I removed the item from the tire. I told her that in the future, when she came to a fork in the road, it was not necessary to run it over with her car.

  23. Nick Nielsen

    I got to change tires on the side of the road a week ago, but that was for my work van. The right rear blew out and the van didn’t even swerve. The provided tools were adequate, although I like the idea of the ratchet for the lug nuts.

    The only problem? I was on SC113, the Wagener Highway, which is mostly turns and hills. Finding someplace flat and hard enough to jack the van up took some time. I just limped on down the shoulder on the rim until I found one of those paved turnouts to nowhere.

  24. bud

    I just limped on down the shoulder on the rim …

    That makes me think of that old song about the hippy dude who had a flat in rural Mississippi and wound up in the local honky tonk. There were references to green teeth, brother John Birch and a host of other redneck stereotypes. The name of the song and the artist eludes me.


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