Monday, September 3, 2012

A Dance To The Music Of Time

I heard James May say it for the first time and he got it right. "Batteries are crap." James May is the nerdy presenter on the BBC's "Top Gear" program, an English motoring show that skewers everyone and everything in a way US television would never tolerate for fear of causing -gasp!- offence. In this instance May was testing a couple of electric cars and the crap he was talking about referred to rechargeable batteries. He's right batteries are crap. My Bonneville stuck by the side of the road is proof of that unarguable fact. Batteries lose their charge, their chemical composition changes and charges inside them mysteriously vanish when you most need them. Batteries are the most unreliable links in the chain of our tenuous civilization and when anything fails the best thing to do is blame the battery, if there is one. There is a battery in my Bonneville and I am squinting at it very old fashioned at the moment.

Or maybe not. Maybe five year old alternators become crap after 68,000 hard fought miles and stop charging the potentially crap batteries. Either way the lack of a spark brought forward progress to a halt Saturday afternoon as much of South Florida was pouring into Key West for a night of riotous drinking and subsequent public intoxication, fighting and general bad manners. I was riding the Bonneville in the general direction my desk at the top of the police station girding my loins to take a few dozen calls from the mentally impaired and verbally incoherent good time charlies on Duval Street as the holiday weekend progressed. I anticipated a lot of calls, a lot of headaches and a lot of activity requiring my close attention. Dealing with another dead battery in my life was not on the list of weekend activities.

It happened that black clouds closed in over Highway One near Mile Marker 13, between Baby's Coffee and Big Coppitt Key. I could see the rain spattering the highway up ahead so I pulled out of the long line of cars rolling toward Key West and stopped on the shoulder. I turned the engine off as one does, a small inconsequential decision that altered the course of my afternoon and impaired the start of my rather stressful work night because once the engine stopped, and I had pulled my waterproof Frogg Toggs out of the saddlebag, the engine remained mute even when I pressed the starter button and expected the 900 cubic centimeter powerhouse to burst back into life. All I got was a whirring noise from under the seat. Most unsatisfactory.

I think it was last Thursday, I have worked a lot of overtime lately and the days are merging into a long blur, when I stopped for gas at the Key Haven Shell and I put my credit card into the pump and the pump failed to respond. I stood there like an idiot waiting for the usual prompts and commands, zip code and so forth, and when none were forthcoming I had no idea what to do. I could have moved immediately to one of the several other pumps not in use, but I tried again, and again and used another card and nothing happened. I was stumped by the failure of technology.

It was the same problem I had with the starter failing to start. I pressed the button and got nothing more than a whirr from the machinery that has never previously given me a moment's trouble. I did the only thing I could do and called for help.

Chuck arrived minutes after the downpour reached my stretch of the highway but he raced to my workplace in most un-Chuck-like haste and I arrived with 50 seconds to spare. Chuck is one of those drivers who thinks speed is the devil's work but for me he sinned, grievously, and he got me where I needed to be. Praise Chuck! Meanwhile the problem of the recalcitrant Bonneville remains a mystery wrapped in an enigma inside a riddle, as the Man said about the Soviet Union's leadership, many decades ago. I returned to my abandoned Bonneville after work with a battery pack, fired the dead engine up and followed my wife home, she in the car. Ironically the Fusion with its own three year old battery did the same jiggery pokery to us just last week when we were the Ramrod Pool swimming. We faced the prospect of a three mile walk home in our salty wet skivvies until a kind youth connected his functioning car battery to my jumper cables and set our Fusion alight once again. I hate batteries!

The quick solution is to replace the motorbike's battery but my question is why did my month old battery take a dump? Is it defective? Or is the system charging it on the blink? I told Jiri to put a new battery in the Bonneville not because the old one was broken but because I wanted to preempt any problems! Irony where is thy sting? It seems to me the most likely solution is that the alternator has grown weary but to try to check this theory I have put the battery on a trickle charge in the hope it fails to take that charge. That would lay the blame fairly on the battery - cheap quick solution... BUT if the battery does take the charge I will have to take the bike to Mechanic Jiri and ask him to paw my love with a multimeter and check the charging system. If that is the problem then I can finally admit my Bonneville has at last left me stranded by the side of the road with a mechanical problem.

Five years and 68,000 miles with not a single issue is a fine track record, but I cannot help but remember that my new/old Vespa doesn't need a battery to run, starts with a kick start and in the event it needed a bump start it only weighs 230 pounds. The bulk of my 500 pound Bonneville on the deadly flat bicycle path defeated my every effort to bump start it.

One way and another it's just one small headache taking up tons of time in a world filled with far more serious issues. Yet it is a reminder of the infamous conclusion James May came to when he tested the electric cars on Top Gear: batteries are crap. Even when they aren't.