Search This Blog

Monday, April 04, 2016

Right Place, Right Time

My main task yesterday was reaching the end of our national nightmare: getting rear fog lights on our car so we can register the da ... uh, thing, here in Germany.

To recap the state of play, internet research had yielded things that weren't completely true, and two dealers, the BMW mothership, and BMW North America collectively looked at me as if I was asking them to add a teleportation option to the da ... uh, thing.

I suspected the laws of physics had not, in fact, been suspended on our car. Having perused schematics and parts diagrams, the glaring lack of differences meant that it just couldn't be that hard. Fortified with this knowledge, I continued working my best Google-fu, and following a chain of searches I couldn't possibly reconstruct got from computer codes to this:


Cursory inspection immediately proved internet wisdom: it would have been easier to turn the car into a teleportation device than to have the rear fogs -- which we will almost certainly never need -- work without a damn wire.

Which is how I got to my main task yesterday. Armed with wire and connector pins, and diagrams and procedures, I headed off to our garage to finally slay a monster far more wily than St. George's dragon.

And save someone's life.

In journo-speak, I think this is called "burying the lede". Ordinarily, this is an editorial no-no, but, I hope, this will make sense later.

The garage where we park our car is difficult to describe, especially to Americans. It is down the street and around the corner from our apartment, and is really more of a closet than a garage. This picture will help:


Apartment buildings are built around the perimeter of the block, while parking facilities occupy most of the area in the center. Ours is shaped something like a two story donut, with the ramp to the second story and the exit to the street are on one side, and the admin building is in the center. Our car cubby is on the other, far less traveled, side:


As I was rooting around under the dashboard to get access to the lighting computer -- yes, really, that is a thing -- so I could add the missing wire to the light switch no one at BMW could be fussed to learn about, another guy in the third white door to my right pulled out his minivan, and drove it onto some service ramps, pretty much like these:


For those who aren't gear heads, these things are an easy, fast, and safe way to get some clearance under the car. Drive up on them, stop before going off the end, and you are good to go.

Having done that, he grabbed some wrenches and crawled underneath to do something or other, and I returned to dealing with my task at hand.

Then I heard scraping, and looked over just in time to see the ramps squirt out from under the front wheels and the minivan fall onto the guy.

He smacked the bumper with his right hand in a completely redundant effort to get my attention, then pretty much stopped moving.

That right there qualifies as an "oh shit" moment.

Having an adequate grasp on the obvious, I ran over and tried to lift the car off him.

As if.

I'm like almost every one else. I think of the thing I should have said, or done, minutes, hours, days or years after the fact. If I was as Johnny on the spot as I am in my reconstructed recollections, I'd be making a heck of a lot more money for writing than Great Guys pays me, that's for sure.

But just this once, the right thing showed up exactly when I needed it: grab one of the squirted ramps, slide it under the bumper, and use it as a lever to lift the car. It didn't get me much, only several inches, but that was enough for him to get out from under the car, breathless and face a bit banged up, but otherwise not particularly worse for wear.

Physically, anyway. I'll bet that will be a nightmare gift that will never stop giving.

I don't speak German, he doesn't speak English, so a crushing bear hug -- he out heighted and weighed me by five inches and fifty pounds -- got the message across.

A few minutes later, shaking from the adrenalin surge and practically sobbing (which I thought a strange reaction, but my wife the nurse assures me otherwise), I couldn't help but think how contingent all this was. Never mind the convoluted path that got me to Düsseldorf in the first place, had my trivial fog light solution not been so hard to find, and the dealers so incurious, and the manufacturer so ignorant about how they build their cars and even more unwilling to find out, and I wasn't on a trip that day, I wouldn't have been there to see the car fall on him.

And no one else would have, either. It could well have been many hours before someone passed that way (in the time I've spent working on the car to get it ready for inspection, I've never seen someone in that area).

It wasn't that I did anything heroic; that's a foolish thought, but rather that I was standing there, instead of all the other places I could have been, with just enough presence of mind to see a lever in a ramp.

13 comments:

Bret said...

Amazing his car didn't crush him outright, amazing that you got enough leverage, and amazing that he was still conscious and able to get himself out (or did you brace the lever and then pull him out?).

What's the equivalent for 911 over yonder? Did you call that first?

Amazing!

Hey Skipper said...

It didn't crush him outright because the wheels were still on, and the vehicle had just enough ground clearance to securely pin him, but nothing more than that. I don't know if the weight on his chest was enough to stop him breathing, only that he didn't make a sound.

From the car falling until he was able to pull himself out from underneath it (I needed both hands on the ramp to exert enough leverage), no more than thirty seconds.

The German equivalent of 911 is 112. Didn't give it a thought. Plan A was to muscle the car. Plan B was to run back to my car and grab the jack. Plan C, ramp as lever, occurred on the spot.

Funny mental moment: when I couldn't lift the car, I looked at the ramp and, no joke, thought "proper application of leverage".

Which is a line from Pirates of the Caribbean.

erp said...

Wonderful story Skipper -- American Ingenuity at work. Your living quarters in Germany looks to be the polar opposite of what I picture was your home in Alaska. It must have been quite an adjustment!

Clovis e Adri said...

Wow! Pretty amazing story.

And the first case I know where the lack of efficiency of a car maker saved lives (or at least one life).

Barry Meislin said...

Truly great story.

Only greater, perhaps, if in his uber-exhuberant thanks, your savee would have squeezed the living daylights out of you. (No good deed, etc....). But that's a mere quibble....

On the other hand, do you think you might want to slightly edit the following (perhaps)?:

"For those who aren't gear heads, these things are an easy, fast, and safe way to get some clearance under the car. Drive up on them, stop before going off the end, and you are good to go."

erp said...

Good point Barry. Perhaps the ramp should come with cinder blocks to place behind the back wheels.

Clovis e Adri said...

No Erp, as I understand it was not the car moving back, but the ramps being thrown out forward.

The driver probably did not drive up to the very end of the ramp, or it was not in an horizontal plane, or the floor surface had little friction, or some combination of all above.

I guess that German learnt the hard way to ponder all those things before using those ramps again. Thanks to Skipper (and Arquimedes) he will have a second chance.

And people ask me why the hell they need to learn Physics... I will use (with attribution but no royalties, per Bret) your little story in some future class, for sure.

Bret said...

Clovis wrote: "...with attribution but no royalties, per Bret..."

LOL

Hey Skipper said...

[erp:] Your living quarters in Germany looks to be the polar opposite of what I picture was your home in Alaska. It must have been quite an adjustment!

It has been. Our year anniversary here is day after tomorrow. It is high time I put something together about the joys of life under the German version of European socialism.

[Barry:] On the other hand, do you think you might want to slightly edit the following (perhaps)?:

"For those who aren't gear heads, these things are an easy, fast, and safe way to get some clearance under the car. Drive up on them, stop before going off the end, and you are good to go."


That's a tough one.

The statement itself is true, and I didn't want to clutter up the story with pedantic explanations.

The ramps have a ridge at the top that the tires have to roll over, and a ridge at the end to stop driving off the far side. Having done that, they won't collapse, can't be pushed sideways, and can't even sink into soft asphalt and then topple as jackstands can.

Near as I can tell, he didn't get the car all the way on the ramps (note, in the picture, the top is horizontal), so that the front tires were still on the slope. The friction between the concrete and the bottom of the ramps wasn't enough to keep the weight of the minivan from shooting them out to the front.

Aaaaannnndddd, now that I've typed all this, I see I've repeated Clovis, who accurately assessed the situation, despite being thousands of miles away.

Only greater, perhaps, if in his uber-exhuberant thanks, your savee would have squeezed the living daylights out of you.

That would have been irony on steroids.

[Clovis:] And people ask me why the hell they need to learn Physics...

The three semesters of physics I took were among the most interesting of my college career.

As an aside, aren't some of the simple tools — inclined plane, wedge, screw and lever — basically the same thing?

erp said...

So, it was driver error (a family tag line about a car* we bought many years before you were born). I see upon further review of the photo that the top of the ramp has a flat aka horizontal area the tires should sit upon, so the weight would all be pressing down on that area and not on the slope.

I would be honored to have my ignorance be the vehicle by which learning can be instilled into minds of the youngsters in your classes. :-)

*1969 Ford Country Squire

Bret said...

Clovis wrote: "And people ask me why the hell they need to learn Physics..."

Apparently, they only need to watch Pirates of the Caribbean. :-)

Hey Skipper said...

I can't be certain that pop culture was the font of inspiration, but still.

Clovis e Adri said...

Bret,

Well, to the very least, I can sell to the students they will be better screenwriters after my class :-)