Battery Acid Reflux: The Worst Possible Solution for a Car That Won’t Start

Warning: The following story contains graphic nudity. Please note that this loaded, double-worded disclaimer is distinct from its one-worded cousin, nudity. The single word tells us that an impending moment will merely include the appearance of breasts and/or butts. No problem; we’re all adults here. Tack on the word graphic, though, and bar the door. Now we’re guaranteed that another body part will make an entrance, well-rehearsed and ready for its close-up. If sirens are going off in your head, turn the page.

Photograph by Aaron M. Conway

It was not intentional. Almost nothing in this tale was planned or carefully considered, especially the astonishingly poor decisions that led to its conclusion. The beginning had been quite ordinary and almost boring: a typical Friday afternoon in Cincinnati featuring moderate weather, me at my workplace and my first wife, Carolyn, at hers. (She has given permission for me to tell this story; it’s unrelated to our later amicable divorce.) We shared a single car back then. Carolyn drove it to work each morning, dropped me off at my job, and picked me up at day’s end. Ordinary. Typical. No double or even single-worded disclaimer is required, but just wait.

On this Friday afternoon, around the time I’d expect Carolyn to be on her way, she phoned instead. The car wouldn’t start. It made that dreaded low growl that quickly descends to nothing. A helpful friend drove me over to Carolyn’s employee lot in Mt. Adams, where I attempted to demonstrate that a male right foot is what’s required to start a car—but that macho theory failed. That battery was d-e-d, even though it had started right up that morning.

The car, a used Volvo, had an unknown pedigree of former owners, so we knew nothing of the battery’s age or condition. I’d nicknamed the car Uh Clem, a cute reference to an obscure joke on an obscure comedy album by The Firesign Theatre, a group that today might not even rise to the level of “obscure.” None of that, however, compared to the obscurity of the provenance behind Uh Clem’s battery. We were stumped, and we had no membership in any organization that would come and rescue us. It was here that I made Poor Decision No. 1: to get this baby started by employing the law of gravity.

The small parking lot sat at the top of Celestial Street, a nice, long, straight incline. I could easily roll the car, pop the clutch—those were the days, kids—get the engine going, and deal with the dead battery from home. Carolyn and our conscripted friend joined me in pushing Uh Clem out to the street and positioning it for launch. I got in, and down I went. Down, down…and done. My brilliant plan had accomplished less than nothing. Instead of having a disabled car in a parking lot, we now had a disabled car at the bottom of Celestial Street, obstructing traffic.

Poor Decision No. 2 popped up right here, suggested by our friend. Despite the situation he found himself in as the result of doing us one favor, he decided to compound his punishment by offering to go buy a new battery. Nice guy, but he’d apparently forgotten the old saying, “No good deed goes unpunished.”

If you’re becoming impatient for the graphic nudity to appear or are wondering how it might result from what’s happened so far, don’t worry. It will arrive abruptly and unexpectedly, just as it did to us.

Our friend returned from the auto parts store with the new battery, whereupon the depth of Poor Decision No. 2 became clear: Not only had nobody thought of purchasing jumper cables that would start us up via the friend’s car, but nobody even considered that jumper cables could connect the old battery with the new. Or that we should have gotten tools to install the battery. He was right there at the auto parts store. Don’t ever do drugs, kids.

Such cluelessness, however, does not come close to the bottomless profundity of Poor Decision No. 3. I myself must take full responsibility for this one, but it seemed to make so much sense to me in that moment. I stared at the new battery and noted the seals atop its cells. Those seals look pretty tight, I thought. What if Carolyn sits at the ready in the driver’s seat, waiting for my cue, and what if I flip the new battery upside down, quickly touch its terminals to the dead battery, and provide enough brief voltage for Carolyn to start the car? Sure, a little acid will spill out, but I can deal with that and wash my hands when we get home.

Here’s some important information to remember about those seals on car batteries: They’re for decorative purposes only. They do not, even for a fraction of a second, prevent corrosive liquid from completely spilling out. It’s almost as if battery designers gave no thought to the possibility that a customer might flip their product upside down—a serious oversight.

It didn’t feel so bad. Besides, no physical pain could approach my feelings of bottomless stupidity, only worsened by my companions’ hysterical laughter.

Holding the battery close to my waist, I quickly flipped it over as I leaned toward the terminals under the hood. During this action, which lasted perhaps one second, the entire contents of the battery’s acid solution—I believe the amount is approximately 136 gallons—washed onto my waist and ran down my legs.

If you think we’ve arrived at the moment where I screamed in horror, dropped the battery, hysterically tore off my clothes, and therefore initiated the promised scene of graphic nudity, you are incorrect. I wasn’t about to disrobe in broad daylight on a public street in Mt. Adams. Oxford, maybe, but never there. I toughed it out, deciding to soldier on unless I saw smoke rising from my body. Maybe I was kidding myself, but it didn’t feel so bad. Besides, no physical pain could approach my feelings of bottomless stupidity, which were only worsened by my companions’ hysterical laughter. By the way, in case you’re worried, I did later manage to father two children.

I should also mention at this point that all of this occurred some years ago. I and/or Carolyn may have misremembered some details. In fact, psychologists are hereby invited to explain why neither one of us have any memory of how we got ourselves and the car back home or how we resolved the issue of the battery (most certainly now out of warranty). Fortunately, for our purposes, this lapse doesn’t matter. What matters, and what we both remember quite vividly, is the following morning.

Saturday was when we normally slept in, so the morning doorbell was a rude awakening. A loud buzz, a pause, and another buzz. Who the hell was that? I fell out of bed, dragged on my pants, and opened the front door, where a young couple stood. As it turned out, they had rung the wrong bell; they had made an appointment with our landlord to view the vacant dwelling below us. As they apologized and hurriedly turned away, I could see that they were ill at ease. Like, really uncomfortable about something. They’d been trying, awkwardly and unsuccessfully, to avoid looking down. As I closed the door, I noticed myself.

The front of my pants had been raptured to Battery Acid Heaven. The waistband and seams were still there, but the rest of the fabric, down to my knees, had completely disappeared. Only the zipper survived, cheerfully dangling in front of my junk and concealing nothing. Graphic nudity! Are you happy now? Are you not entertained? Carolyn sure was when I walked back into the bedroom.

Last year, at one of those fashion shows where models parade on a catwalk in preposterous outfits no sane person would ever wear, the Carmar Denim company introduced something called “thong jeans.” Just Google that term, and you’ll see a surprisingly close approximation of how I looked on that long-ago morning. Carmar Denim’s pants, despite being just waistband and seams (with a little more generosity around the zipper), go for $216. You’re welcome to get some, or you can save about $50 by purchasing jeans at Old Navy and picking up a car battery at AutoZone.

Was I ahead of my time? Did Carmar Denim steal my idea? Should I sue? Unfortunately, my evidence went into the trash, and my witnesses never left their names. What about Carolyn’s corroboration? No, her credibility would be challenged, because she’s already a confessed perjurer. She’d framed Uh Clem’s battery. “OK, yeah,” she said years later. “I left the lights on all day in the parking lot.”

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