Old copper gets fired up

September 08, 1999

Monday was Labor Day, and thanks to Old Copper, boy did I labor.

The faithful old pickup gave out by the side of the road over the weekend, as I was hauling my bike home from a ride along the Potomac Creek (having been downgraded from river, thanks to the drought).

Angry as I was over the truck letting me down in the middle of nowhere, I couldn't help but feel partially responsible, since the reason it let me down was a fuel tank that, while still appreciably damp, did not have liquids in enough abundance so as to be pumped into combustion chambers where they might be called on to do some degree of good in the propulsion department.

So I rode my bike back home - more exercise than I'd bargained for, but I've learned that with Old Copper it's always wise to have a transportation Plan B waiting in the wings, which is why my bike is usually in the bed at all times.


Faced with the option of finding a gas can, filling it up and driving back to the truck, or simply calling AAA, thus helping to drive membership rates up for everybody, I picked up the phone and had the truck hauled back to civilization.

But now there were more problems. The gas line between the tank and the engine must go through East Berlin because by the time the fuel had completed its journey and was ready for burning, the battery was too worn down to turn the crank. So I got some jumper cables, but by then there was too much gas and oil flooding and fouling everything for it to start, and I was getting really annoyed.

It was then I harkened back to my childhood and remembered something I used to play with as a kid, called "Starting Fluid." I went to Sheetz for a can of it and read the label. Sure enough, it could actually be used on automobiles and not just as a modified flame thrower. Who knew?

Reading further, I saw that the instructions advised spraying the highly combustible stuff into something called a "carburetor." I'd heard about carburetors long, long ago, but I always thought it was a joke. It sounded so made up. "How do you berate a car? With a CAR-buretor, har har har."

I peered down into the engine compartment and identified about a half-dozen items that I thought looked potentially like a "carburetor." Rather than try them one at a time, I figured it would be more efficient to spray starter fluid on all six. I did, and - nothing. I hosed down the entire engine, and still nothing.

Then this lightbulb went on over my head. Maybe, just maybe, I thought, I should try turning the key after I spray on the starting fluid. And sure enough, one crank was all it took to send a sheet of orange flame from the engine bay wide enough to threaten three nearby state forests.

The oil-sheened motor roared to life with uncommon spirit for about 10 seconds, then died as suddenly as it had started. Worse, the battery had exhausted the one crank it had left in it and was not up to a second try.

So re-enter the jumper cables.

Oh, and did I mention that it was pouring down rain the whole time? So I had all the basic elements: Water, fire, electricity and starter fluid. And maybe gasoline, although at this point I wasn't really sure.

The thought briefly crossed my mind that it might be wise to turn the whole operation over to someone who knew what he was doing, but only briefly. I had committed too much emotional capital to the project to turn back now.

And, believe it or not, it all came together in some mechanical harmonic convergence of arcing wires, igniting explosives, moisture-fed currents and shimmering diodes. Like Frankenstein, the motor roared into a surreal, almost humanly lifelike state, complete with big-budget audio/visuals of smoke, sound and fury, as only Old Copper can do it.

Regrets? I have a few. But what's a couple of singed eyebrows in return for knowing that when the chips are down, I can roll up my sleeves, pull out a set of tools and - completely on my own - set an engine on fire.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist

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