unplain jane studio



Where there's smoke

This is one in a series of tales and unexpected lessons in business, leadership and/or life. It involves our 1991 Ford 350 Econoline van named Big Bertha and provocations including but not limited to luck, karma, oversights, auto mechanics and/or spontaneous combustion. 

Sometimes I forget and I push the button anyway. Only then I’m reminded that the down arrow is a cold relic from before our time together, when Big Bertha’s electric windows were animate.

When we first got Bertha, the window of her driver’s side door could be coaxed open about half way through human contortion and muscle. Closing it required four hands — two pressing upwards on the outside of the window and two on the inside — which wasn’t always practical and probably not entirely safe. We therefore abandoned the technique, got the damn air conditioning fixed, and counted our blessings that the window was operative enough to see through.

Months passed, and we added thousands of miles to Bertha’s odometer. It never once occurred to me that the driver’s side window could possibly have any life left in it. Then one day, as several of my family members and I were arriving to set up my booth at the next art festival, we began to smell something. More accurately, we began to smell something NEW, because Bertha had always produced olfactory bedlam.

Sniff, sniff. Something’s burning.

Naturally, we shut her down and popped open the hood because even though we wouldn’t know how to fix her, we sure wanted to look like we would. The plumes of smoke I was bracing for were nowhere to be found.

Someone who was clearly not in the know said, “The driver’s side door is on fire.”

With stagnate windows and manual door locks, if there was one thing I knew for sure, it was that the door was definitely not on fire. Then I saw the smoke seeping out from the base of the window. With no supporting evidence, apparently the door’s autonomic nervous system had been firing away all this time.

Quickly, my resourceful brother-in-laws, husband, Siri and YouTube conferred on the location of the wiring within the door panel and before actual flames developed, they disconnected the fuse (or wires or cables or whatever). Had it been any other vehicle on the planet, I would have then immediately rushed it to the automotive E.R. for full repair and inspection. But at this point in my relationship with Bertha, I shrugged and said, “Well, we weren’t using that window anyway.”

The truth is, that wiring could have flamed up at any time. The chance it would happen in the company of people who had experience wiring houses and cars was pretty slim. There was a reason that window didn’t work, and choosing not to operate the window wasn’t actually fixing the problem.

Moral of the story: Smoldering fires can be more dangerous than a full blaze. Small problems can turn into crises given time, fuel and neglect.

This story was originally published on August 18, 2016.