Samaritans to the Rescue

Call it luck, call it fate, call it the Grace of God, or call it coincidence, I recently experienced another amazing occurrence of serendipity.

Only 18 hours after completing my two-day run across Utah and Nevada on The Loneliest Road in America, the Mustang suffered an unusual breakdown. I departed Reno early on Saturday, September 29 to visit my aunt and a couple of cousins—a detour from the Kerouac tribute—in Ashland, OR. The drive was estimated to take about four hours. I planned to stop at a casino along the way and watch some college football, since the early games start at 9 AM in the Pacific time zone. I reached Diamond Mountain Casino in Susanville, CA, had a big country breakfast, and watched Penn State (my alma mater) trounce Illinois. All in all, a good start to the day.

I’m lucky that I stopped at this little casino, the perfect place to watch college football on a Saturday morning

But when I went back outside to my car, there was no start at all. The key turned in the ignition, but nothing happened. After a few minutes of fiddling with the ignition switch, located in the dash in early Mustangs, I discovered that something quite bizarre had happened: the ignition cylinder had fallen apart! When I parked at Diamond Mountain that morning and shut off the engine, something in the spring-loaded outer cylinder had popped loose. I discovered this by removing the ash tray adjacent to the switch, which enabled me to reach my hand behind the dash and feel the loose parts. Worse, as I shifted the parts, I heard the snapping sound of a short—never a good sign. I knew I needed to disconnect the battery before something serious shorted out or a fuse blew; unfortunately, my car was parked almost bumper-to-bumper with a car in the facing row.

Soon a couple of local guys pulled up in a pickup. I asked for their help in pushing my car back a few feet, which they gladly provided. I raised the hood and disconnected the battery, and then got to work pulling the ignition cylinder out of the dash. I removed three or four pieces, but could not figure out how to disconnect the terminal end from the wiring harness.

I had the sickening sensation that I was going to be stranded for days. Susanville is a small town, and the chances that a parts store would stock an ignition cylinder for a 67 Mustang were very slim. And of course it was a Saturday, so if any parts needed to be shipped in from Reno, the earliest I could expect to receive them would be late Monday or even Tuesday! Nevertheless, I used my Garmin to phone a couple of nearby auto parts stores. As expected, nobody stocked a complete ignition switch.

This is what the switch is supposed to look like. Mine popped apart in Susanville, CA on a Saturday morning.

I phoned Aunt Barbara and told her about my situation, saying that it looked almost impossible that I’d get to visit Ashland. We were all disappointed, especially as two of my cousins and their extended families had joined her for a visit.

Meanwhile, the Mustang attracted plenty attention, especially with the hood raised. Several people graciously offered to help, and one group set off for an independent parts store. The further I got into inspecting the cylinder, the more I realized that the casing—a combination of metal and plastic parts that snap together—had simply separated. This gave me some hope, yet I was still frustrated that I could not disconnect the back of the cylinder from the wiring harness.

At that opportune moment, another helpful individual walked up to my disabled car. He introduced himself as “T,” and said he knew a little about ignition switches. I was sprawled across the driver’s seat, still trying to get that harness free, so I deferred to his experience and let him have a try. Within a few moments, Attilio (“T”) Aguirre, a heavy machinery mechanic for Cal Tran, figured out how to loosen a small nut from the back of the cylinder, which disconnected the wiring harness.

Now that the whole cylinder was out, we confirmed that nothing was broken. As suspected, the two casing halves had merely separated.  It was easy enough to fit the various pieces back together, including a compressed spring inside the switch, but it was obvious that the casing had not been securely fastened during factory production. “T” mentioned that he and his wife lived just a few minutes away, where he had a workshop; so while he held the switch tightly in his hand to keep the pieces together, his wife drove the two of them home. A few minutes later they were back, and “T” proudly showed the rebuilt switch, its outer casing pieces securely crimped together. He reattached the switch to the wiring harness and installed it in the dash. At first he had trouble inserting the key cylinder, but I recalled the procedure for using a paper clip to properly clock the cylinder, and it slid right in.

We connected the battery, and the car cranked immediately with the turn of the key. What a sweet sound—and what a relief! We then pulled the battery cable again so that I could reinstall the ashtray and lighter, as I needed the receptacle for my GPS device. Once everything was back together, the battery connection was tightened down. Just three hours after the breakdown, the Mustang was as good as new.

Big hearts live in small towns. Attilio (“T”) Aguirre, at right, knew exactly how to rebuild a vintage ignition switch, and saved my day. Gerald Mack, left, offered moral support for the better part of three hours.

During the past few days, I’ve contemplated the razor-thin line between disaster and setback. Certainly the Mustang has had some delays caused by mechanical issues—a loose brake caliper in Denver that could have been calamitous, and a separated ignition switch that might have broken a day earlier while I was in the middle of the Nevada desert—but thanks to the help of Good Samaritans, the worst scenarios were averted.

It’s all part of the adventure of taking a 45-year-old car on a cross-country odyssey. The tour is not an “everyday” excursion by any means—and I wouldn’t have it any other way.


9 thoughts on “Samaritans to the Rescue

  1. Glad it all worked out Shooter. Hope all the rest of your travels are free of breakdowns and that you have a wonderful time. Always, Gumby.

  2. It makes you realize what a great country we live in and how there really aren’t any strangers out there…just friends we haven’t met! Best of luck to you on your trip, Bruce. I look forward to the next story!

  3. Wow, great story! There are some fine people in this country. And just think—you’d never have met any of these people, and they’d not have had an opportunity to bless you, had this not happened! Surely it was frustrating at first, but it must have felt great once everything was set aright.

    • This trip is sort of like a “walkabout,” only with a car. I’m seeing things that inspire me and meeting people who thoroughly impress me. This country of ours is really an amazing land to explore.

  4. Whew, thank goodness hey? It’s awesome that good people are still out there and stop to offer assistance. One thing handy about a classic car, while getting parts is tricky, it seems that a car savy garage guy is able to work on them…not like the cars you buy now.

  5. Pingback: People are the best part of road trips. | Victory Rolls and V8s

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