Three days before Christmas, 2020 the temperature got up to 40º. There was no snow on the ground, and there hadn’t been any snow since October. Two days before Christmas there was a blizzard with winds up to 50 mph that dropped between 8-and-12 inches of snow. The temperature plummeted down into the single digits. It was like the weather had suddenly realized Minnesota was fairly warm and people were relishing not having to shovel their driveways, so it quickly threw everything it had at us just in time for Christmas. 2020 was like that.
We had gone to the store three days before Christmas to stock up on necessary items…like beer. Christmas 2020 was a hellish time because of the viral pandemic wreaking havoc on the planet, and it was one of the last gasps of a year that saw tragedy piled upon tragedy. People lost their jobs, companies had to close, and almost 350,000 people lost their lives to the virus in the United States alone. Our family did not gather for Thanksgiving or Christmas but instead stayed isolated in our homes and watched TV and met with other family members via the computer. A vast difference from all the other years I’ve been alive. Beer helped make 2020 merely horrible instead of tragic, at least for our household.
Anyway, we had gone to the store and basked in the relatively warm 40º weather the day before the storm. Our SUV started up without a hitch. We went around town practicing social distancing, wearing masks, and trying to make as many of the things we had to do as contactless as possible. We stopped the SUV three different times and it started back up each time without a problem. We made it home and settled back into our quarantine.
During our settling back into quarantine though, we discovered that we had forgotten to get dog treats, and our two huskies were giving us the evil eye from across the room every chance they got. So, the day after Christmas we went out and got in the SUV in the 9º cold to go get dog treats. My wife put the key in the ignition and turned it.
She tried again. Nothing happened.
We stopped to consider what was going on and it occurred to us that the cold might have sapped the battery. That had to be it! We have a battery pack that acts as an air compressor, power source, and battery jumper. I got it out and set it up on the SUV’s battery, then got in and turned the key.
We have another vehicle, however, it needs some work and isn’t really optimal to drive right now. We’re waiting for the pandemic to ease a little before we haul it to a mechanic. I was thinking it would be better in the cold to jump the SUV’s battery directly from a running car, so I was just going to back the Nissan out of the garage and park next to the SUV in the driveway. I got in the Nissan and turned the key.
I tried it again. Nothing happened.
I hooked the battery jumper to the battery and got in and tried to start it again.
I went inside and cooked some bacon up for the dogs. They were happy.
How could both of the vehicles suddenly just die like that? I kind of understood the situation with the Nissan, it hadn’t been driven in a long time. I filled the gas tank on the 3rd of July. Now, on the day after Christmas, the gas gauge still pointed to above the three-quarters full mark. We haven't gotten out much. I figured the cold was the last straw and that battery just needed a charge. But it had only been a couple of days since we’d gone out in the SUV. What was up with that?
The next day our neighbor was out and about in his yard and I asked him if I could trouble him for a jump. He’s a wonderful, helpful guy so within 10 minutes he was over with his pickup truck and we had the hoods up and the jumper cables connected. I got into the SUV and put the key in the ignition. I turned the key.
We let the vehicles sit there and he revved his engine for about five or 10 minutes then I tried it again.
When nothing happened again, the neighbor said he had a battery charger that we could hook up to the Nissan so at least we could have a vehicle that ran. After he got back it only took about 15 minutes of charging to get the car started. We left it running (the garage door was open, of course) and hooked the charger up to the SUV’s battery. After about half-an-hour the engine still wouldn't start, so it became “obvious” that the problem was with the battery. I hopped online and bought a battery from the local car parts place and drove the car over and picked it up via contactless curbside delivery. Within 15 minutes I had the old battery out and the new one in place. I got in and put the key in the ignition. I turned the key.
I went in and had a beer. My wife and I talked and we have a neighbor who has done work on our vehicle before. For some reason lately, he hasn’t been around. So we talked some more and we have another neighbor who I’ve talked with briefly, but never really found out much about what he does for a living. My wife thought he was a mechanic, so I went over and knocked on his door, wearing a mask, and practicing social distancing. We talked for a while and when I told him what was up he said, “Oh, you need my neighbor Josue, he’s an excellent mechanic. He only speaks Spanish though, I can act as interpreter if you’d like.” I told him that fortunately, I speak a little Spanish, so we were all set. And that was when the neighbor I sort of knew called the neighbor who I’ve only waved to on occasion. Josue came over and the three of us talked about my problem. After about five minutes Josue said we should go over to my place so he could take a listen and maybe get some clues, and so we did.
With one turn of the key, Josue said “It’s the starter”, and that was that. I told him I would call him when I got the new starter and everything seemed hopeful again. As hopeful as it got in 2020, anyway.
I got online and ordered a starter, never having seen the starter under the hood of the SUV sitting in the driveway. My in-laws loaned the vehicle to my wife before the pandemic so she could drive to her job. She no longer works there, but we still have the SUV. It’s a long story. Anyway, that was on a Saturday, the starter was set to be delivered on Monday.
The starter arrived late in the afternoon on Monday. I waited to call Josue until the next day. When he came over Tuesday morning the temperature was up to 11º and I felt horrible because he had to work in our small garage with the door open. He brought a heater with him so I hope that at least helped a little. He worked on getting the starter out for over three hours. It was impossible to get to and the bolts were also impossible to loosen. It finally came out from under the SUV and I traded Josue the old starter for the new one. After another hour, Josue came out from under the vehicle and said “It doesn’t fit.” We compared the two starters and sure enough, the new one didn’t really look anything like the old one.
I went in and had another beer. Then I got online again and with the old starter in my hand, found an exact match. I ordered it and it arrived before noon on Wednesday. I called Josue and he came over and we compared the starters. They were almost identical, so he crawled under the vehicle in the freezing cold, and in under an hour, he had it in place. “Get in and turn the key!” he told me. I did as I was told.
Josue scratched his head and got back under the vehicle and removed the new starter. He brought it back out, hooked it up to jumper cables, and with a screwdriver shorted the terminals so that he could see if the starter worked. It worked like a charm! Nothing wrong with the starter, so what could the problem be? Josue scratched his head again. “Maybe fuses,” he said. While he crawled back under the vehicle to replace the starter again, I found the owner’s manual. After yet another hour spent under the SUV, Josue climbed out and I showed him the diagram of the fuse box in the owner's manual, but there was nothing that said “Starter”. After another hour of poking around and looking, Josue found a box under the hood labeled “Power Distribution Box”. He opened that box up and there in all their glory were the high-current fuses that protect the vehicle’s major electrical systems. And there, all by itself, alone and with a halo surrounding it like that child in a manger you see so much of this time of year, fuse number 11 was labeled “STARTER”. Josue pulled that fuse, a strange, cubical fuse that didn’t look like any other fuse I’d ever seen, and said “I’ll be right back”.
In ten minutes he was back with a new fuse. He inserted it into the box, closed the cover, and said “Try the key”. I did as I was told.
The engine turned over and started right up.
After spending $400 on an unneeded battery, an unneeded starter that didn’t fit, and yet another unneeded starter that finally did fit, not to mention the hours that Josue put in despite the bitter cold, it turned out that the culprit had been a $3.00 fuse all along. I could have screamed, but I didn’t. Josue chuckled about the whole experience. I paid him the pittance that he asked for and doubled it, and added on some traditional Southwestern chile that I had made and had stored in the freezer, hoping to make the freezing cold he’d been working in for so many hours now seem a little easier to take.
So, if you’re ever in a pandemic and after a blizzard that brings in a foot of snow and near-zero temperatures you find that your car won’t start, relax and start small. Remember that the longest journey begins with one step. I wish I’d never taken that first step into 2020, but there really was no choice; it was certainly a journey. 2021 has to be better, doesn’t it? I honestly hope that NOTHING happens in 2021, but that doesn’t seem likely, either. Nothing in the universe happens only once.
A blown fuse. I almost blew a fuse when I found out that's what it was all along. And below is a mugshot of the culprit showing its actual size. Little piece of...so and so.