Sing the following to the tune of My Way (with apologies to Old Blue Eyes): Flat Tires, I’ve had a few, everywhere from Melstrand to Timbuktu . . . Okay, I have had more than a few and I have never been to Timbuktu, but I have had a flat in Melstrand. The last time the little warning light and chime went off on our last car (leaky valve stem), I dropped it at Blake’s Service and wandered across River Street for a cup of coffee while it was being fixed. Sitting there pondering exactly how many flat tires I have had over the years, the only answer I could come up with was ‘too many’. Unlike gassing up or changing the oil, getting a flat tire seems to be one of those events that sticks with you, particularly if there were unusual circumstances involved.
My first flat tire is memorable for a couple of reasons. I was all of sixteen and less than a year into my, “Hey, can I borrow the car?” phase. The car in question was my mom’s Chevy Caprice (dubbed the ‘whale car’ or ‘tank’ due to its enormous size and 350 engine). One morning, after an evening of cruising with my buddies Mitch and Jim, dad woke me up with my marching orders: “Your mother’s car has a flat tire. Put on the spare and take it to the tire shop and get it fixed.” Having never even jacked up a car on my own before, I got a few pointers, did the switch to the spare, and headed off to a muffler/tire shop in south Marquette. “You want me to take off the spare and put this one back on?” the tire guy inquired before adding, “Where the heck did you drive over a frog spear?” I looked a little baffled so he continued, “You know, one of those three pronged, barbed spears people use when they go frogging?” He held up what was left of it and added, “I have taken a lot of sharp things out of tires before, but this was a first.”
It was summer and dad’s License and Regulation office (not the Driver’s License Bureau) was still located in Harvey a couple of miles south of the tire shop, so I drove out to tell him the good news. Knowing he would ask the same question, I figured out we had visited Mitch’s sister the night before. She lived on a dead-end street just north of Wright Street within a stones throw of the Dead River Basin. A good chunk of this area was ringed with cattail and rush marsh – perfect ‘frogging territory’ so this was the best bet. Dad said a frog spear through the tire was also a first for him, but he took it well (he also let me pay for the repair).
I managed to drive my brother’s Camaro (he was in the Army at the time), my mother’s tank, and my first car (a Chevy Bel Aire) over some pretty brutal terrain the three summers I worked at the Huron Mountain Club without another flat. At the beginning of my Junior year at NMU, dad found a used S-10 Chevy pickup in Iron Mountain and made me a deal. If I sold the oil burning Bel Aire, he would front me the money for the pick up. That way, when I was using his truck with a topper to haul band gear, he would have my truck to use hauling wood and such. I loved the idea of having my own truck, but had no way to foresee the game of ‘tire roulette’ that was about to begin.
Without a topper on the back, the S-10 was very light so I took to keeping two washtubs of sand in the back for traction in the winter. I ran snow tires for the back wheels year round because we did a lot of backcountry touring on some sketchy roads. I had to be a little careful because with an empty box and no topper, backing up in any kind of sandy soil resulted in the back wheels chattering and jumping as they tried to dig in. My first flat with the S-10 was memorable because it happened on a horrible stretch of County Road 550 on a crystal clear, fridge minus 10 degree night in February. I was on the way to the Crossroads Bar to have the owner sign the contract for our next weekend band job when my left rear wheel lost the will to live. I pulled over as far as I could and managed to get the jack in place before the cold sucked the life out of my flashlight.
I was contemplating walking the last two miles to the bar to summon help when a good samaritan in a bigger truck pulled up and parked behind me. He left his vehicle hanging a good five feet farther out than mine so his headlights brightened my job. It also lessened the prospects of me getting picked off by a passing car while wrestling with the tire. We took turns removing the lug nuts because no matter how thick my military issue gloves and liners were, my hands were freezing. When we finished, I offered to buy the samaritan a beer at the Crossroads, but he said, “Nah, that’s okay – you would have done the same for me.” He drove off and I continued to the Crossroads where I ordered, not a beer, but a nice hot cup of coffee. I met our bass player Lee there and when he complained that I was late, I grabbed his hand with my freezing fingers. ‘`Did you have car trouble?” he asked, after which I told him the tire tale.
Examining the tire the next morning revealed it had a rip in the sidewall. Knowing there was no repairing it, I made an appointment to get two new tires. The shop had to order what I wanted so I tossed my extra spare in the box to make sure I didn’t get stranded in the meantime. A month later, I drove the bass player from band rehearsal to the ‘new’ Marquette Mall where his wife worked at a grocery store. It was late evening and the parking lot was mostly deserted as we drove from one end to the other. We were yakking about something when we drove over the curbed medium that separated the ‘IN and OUT’ lanes in the middle of the vast parking lot. True, they were snow covered, but it was still a bone headed rookie driver move. When Lee got out of the truck, he said, “Hey man, I hear hissing – I think you’re getting a flat!” Great! After my last winter tire change, I was not anxious to start another cold weather tire swap. Being less than two miles from home, I proceeded with deliberate haste and managed to get home with air to spare. I may have not been the only person to have an encounter with these curbed lane markers as they were removed a couple of years later.
In the morning, it was apparent the front wheels had survived hopping the curb but the right rear snow tire had not. After jacking up the truck and removing the flat, I tossed it into the trunk of the ‘whale car’ and took it to the shop instead of putting on the spare. With a block under the back axle, it made sense to not have to jack it up twice – it wasn’t going anywhere.
The tire jockey rolled the repaired tire and wheel into the lobby and asked, “What the heck did you hit?” I told him the story and he nodded knowingly. He continued. “Well, that explains it. The inside of the rim was bent. I was able to pound it back into shape and it holds air. If you have a spare rim, I would swap it out in case this one is cracked. I wouldn’t wait too long.” Luck was on my side for a change, timing wise. A couple of weeks later, I had the new snow tires mounted on my two good rims, kept my second spare on board, and tossed the damaged one in the garbage just in case it was cracked. Surely my tire woes were now behind me.
Using dad’s truck for band jobs, I wasn’t putting a lot of miles on my truck. Our guitar player mustered out of the Air Force later that spring. The band was done, but I had a new summer job at NMU’s Field Station just east of Munising and south of Picture Rocks National Lakeshore. I was able to have my truck out there for the summer (more backwoods adventures), but there wasn’t enough free time to rack up a lot of miles. That fall, there were seven weekends when I had to drive out to the Field Station and open it up for retreats held by various departments from the university. On one of the weekends, another buddy decided to come along for the ride. Things were fine until we neared Melstrand. I was telling Wayne about the turn off from the Park Road H-58 we would be making onto the gravel road leading south to the Field Station when there was a loud ‘pop’ from the back right followed by a familiar ‘flop flop’ sound. We pulled over to discover a hole half way between the treads and the wheel rim. It was bigger than a silver dollar. I took out my vehicle logbook and checked the mileage – it was less than 2,000 miles since this set of tires were installed.
After limping home using my trusty (and by now well used) spare, I showed my father the damaged tire. He said, “That should be covered under warranty.” When the dealer looked at it, he didn’t say much. After he swapped the damaged tire out for a new one, he presented me with a bill for $25. This was half the price of a new tire, but being new to this warranty game, who was I to question it? Dad, on the other hand, could not believe the charge and, without mentioning it ahead of time, he stopped at the shop on the way home from work and asked for an explanation. The dealer informed my father he had to charge for the replacement because, “I don’t know how it was damaged. You know how young guys are – they beat up their vehicles doing stupid stuff.” When it was pointed out there is no rational way to explain any ‘stupid kid stuff’ that would blow out a chunk of sidewall on a tire with such low mileage while driving on a paved road, the guy pulled out a ten spot to mollify dad. I won’t besmirch the tire brand because they were good tires, but the dealer never saw anyone from my family again.
With brand new rear tires, it seemed that my tire woes were again behind me. I was still driving my S-10 when I arrived in Ontonagon in 1975 but then the front tires started taking turns going flat. The third time the school auto shop had to patch one of them (yes, we had a fully functioning auto shop as part of our vocational offerings then), I resolved to upgrade. I went to the Michelin dealer and told him I wanted the best steel belted radial tires he had put on the front. At first he refused, saying, “You should not run with normal tires on the rear and radials on the front.” “Look,” I said, “I run on snow tires because I am off road a lot. I know all about the handling concerns with mixed tires, but I am not driving my truck like some high performance race car. You can write it on the bill that you warmed me, but this is what I want.” He agreed but did not seem convinced I knew what I was doing. It would be another ten years before I sold my trusty S-10, but I am happy to report I never had another flat after I twisted the dealer’s arm to sell me top of the line front tires for my old beater truck.
Before our kids went to college, we picked up a used Mercury Sable they both drove during the combined seven years they attended NMU. The first year our daughter had the car in Marquette, she called and said, “Gee, we had a little wet snow and the car isn’t handling well at all.” We were on the way to visit that weekend so I told her to park it and I would take a look. Just as she described, a spin around the block had me slipping and sliding all over the place. I ran over to our friend Dan’s fabricating shop and asked him to take it for a spin. Dan is a car hound so after a quick trip down the street and back, he pulled it into his shop and said, “Yep, feels like a tire issue.” We took a good look at the ‘all season radials’ (as described on the window sticker when we bought the used car) turned out to be ‘touring tires’. Dan said, “Touring in this case means these were intended for travel, like freeways, not necessarily snow. Get yourself a good set of all season radials and that should take care of it.” Two hours later, the car had new tires and behaved like a true Yooper vehicle should in winter.
During our married life, my wife and I have always opted for the best tires we could find. With front wheel drive station wagons, we were fine with radial tires year-round. When they stopped making the wagons we drove for twenty years, we got into smaller sedans. The all season radials were fine, up until they weren’t. Unfortunately, it was my wife who found out it was time to upgrade to actual snow tires for our smaller, lighter sedan. I was returning from a late fall visit to the WOAS-FM West Coast Bureau. My plane ended up circling the Houghton County Airport several times while they plowed the runway so I knew the driving was not going to be great. In times like these, I really wish I was wrong.
From Twin Lakes to South Range, my wife found herself driving through a hellish mix of heavy wet snow and sleet. A kindly person ahead of her in a truck would use their turn signals to let her know when the road would bend left or right. She was a little shaken when she arrived at the gas station in South Range but a little relieved that it was just raining there. Unfortunately, as she climbed the hill through Hancock, the heavy wet snow returned and she bogged down half way up the hill. Cell phone coverage at the airport terminal was not great then but if I stood over by the car rental area, I was able to talk to her as she described her predicament: she was pulled over on a wider section of road and could not go any farther. I was able to get a hold of a wrecker service in Hancock and (happily) he said he had just gotten back from one job (he had about 40 that night) and was just a few blocks away from where she was stuck.
The nice wrecker driver towed her all the way to the top of Quincy Hill and gave her the sage advice she already knew: “Tell you husband it is time to get ‘Finnish Four Wheel drive’ (aka: snow tires) for your car – it is too light to run on radials in this kind of snow.” When he called me back at the airport, he told me she was on her way. He also repeated what he had told her about needing actual snow tires and I thanked him profusely for getting her out of trouble.
We had not bought actual snow tires since I still had my S-10 many years ago but lighter cars meant it was time to go in a different direction. I don’t even mind that my wife reminds me she had suggested snow tires long before she had her hellish drive. I had resisted them at first, but no longer. Just like clockwork, we swapped out the summer tires for snow tires in November and vice-versa in April. Now that we have upgraded to a heavier Jeep, we are back to all season radials.
There is one other musical angle I need to mention. The band Pure Prairie League used to perform a great song called I’ll Fix Your Flat Tire, Merle. The chorus goes, I’ll fix your flat tire, Merle / Don’t ya get your sweet country pickin’ fingers all covered with erl / Cause you’re a honky, I know, but Merle, you got soul / And I’ll fix your flat tire Merle. PPL wrote it as a kind of tongue-in-cheek homage to ‘the greatest country singer alive’ (Merle Haggard). I will point out we started playing it in the Easy Money Band about the time I finally put my Chevy S-10 tire woes behind me. Every time I sang it, it was my little tip of the hat to me being tired of messing with tires.
Top Piece Video: Speaking of Pure Prairie League circa 1986 – live in Cincinnati!