The Flim-Flam Man

Jimmy resisted the temptation to roar along the salt flats with our trailer in tow.

After a quick stop to admire Bonneville Speedway from an Interstate rest area we pulled up – car and trailer – to a pump for gas in Wells, Nevada. “You folks have been around.” A face with an amiable smile appeared outside Jimmy’s car window.

“Everywhere but Nebraska,” the grizzled face and Jimmy said in unison. The face had seen the map of the continental United States on the side of our travel trailer with every state filled in with a colorful sticker showing our inspection of it except the above mentioned.

“Couldn’t you have swung through the corner of it?”

“I guess not,” was Jimmy’s uncharacteristically short reply as he wanted to get on – gas to get, miles to go.

“Are you from England?”

“Yes.” No explanation of my origins. Oh, well.

“Where are you folks headed?”

Washington State,” more abrupt this time, “and we’re not stopping here for gas. It’s too expensive.” Of the three stations to choose from, Jimmy had pulled into the one that was 50 cents a gallon more than the other two.

“Well before you go I think you ought to have a look at this snap, crackle and pop that’s coming from your trailer.” Of course you don’t look at a noise, but we knew what he meant so hopped out to have a ‘look.’ Clothed in a bright red polo shirt, clean denim shorts and startlingly white socks, I assumed the guy was just another customer, being friendly and helpful as Americans tend to be.

“D’you see this?” He was talking to Jimmy but hands on knees I bent over to peer into the depths of the trailer suspension between the twin axles.

“This here can work loose when you’ve done a lot of miles. D’you see this strap? If it starts to wear it will just snap and your suspension will drop.” Expansive and dramatic gestures accompanied this last sentence. It sounded feasible. Jimmy and I looked at each other in alarm. “Where’d you say you were headed?”

“Washington,” Jimmy repeated. “I’ve just had the front axle aligned. Wouldn’t they have seen that?”

“Not necessarily. Not if they weren’t looking for it.” Hmmm.

“Are you sure you didn’t hear the tow assembly cracking?” Jimmy asked. It always sounds as though the trailer is trying to break out of its bindings with the use of a lump hammer on the truck hitch whenever Jimmy turns left or right.

“Oh, I think I’d recognize it if it was that. Why don’t we just jack it up and have a quick look.”

If. In hind sight, that should have been my second clue. The sway bars on the tow hitch always crack. They cracked this time as we pulled ‘round to the pump. I heard them. He heard them too. The first clue was his dazzling white socks along with still clean clothes late in the afternoon and un-mechanic-y slip on shoes. But the clues were slow to tumble into place in my mind made sluggish by miles of boring interstate travel.

Two desultory mechanics in properly greasy overalls and steel toe cap shoes slouched at the back of the quiet workshop. Salaries would make them complacent. Who was this guy?

I hadn’t started to ask myself these questions yet unnerved as I was by our possible predicament.

“Just back up there and pull ‘round here,” the guy said, gesturing for Jimmy to pull up beside the workshop. Jimmy and I were silent with our own thoughts at this point.

Old Hank – that wasn’t his name, he just looked like a Hank – was quick to bring out an air jack, dragging the heavy air pressure hose behind him like a recalcitrant dog not wanting to go out in the rain. Having shown Jimmy, and Miss Nosy who knows nothing about mechanics, the possible problem on the driver’s side, Hank curiously jacked up the other side. That it was easier to access, the light was better on the side away from the building and we were out of sight of the proper mechanics may have been factors.

He took both wheels off the ‘wrong’ side of the trailer showing skill with his air gun then removed some bolts and metal straps from the suspension thingy.

“Look at this. See how it’s worn? Once that starts it will snap in no time.” He shoved the metal strap under Jimmy’s nose, too close to focus on it then tucked it out of sight under his leg.

“So what are you saying?” Jimmy asked him non-committally.

“You need to replace these straps. They come in a kit. You should really replace the whole thing,” and he waived at a large triangular piece of metal that now dangled uselessly between the axles. Our trailer was jacked up and balanced on two wheels instead of four with the other two wheels and various strange bits lying on the ground. I now wondered if even all the King’s horses and all the King’s men could ever put it together again.

“What would that cost?” asked Jimmy feeling unwillingly reeled in.

“I’ll get you a price,” and old Hank’s knees brought him to a standing position with enviable speed. He shot off and Jimmy followed at a reluctant pace. I took the opportunity to examine the ‘damaged’ metal straps. To my untrained eye, they looked sturdy, robust even after 20,000+ miles bumping along with bolts through them – not on the verge of snapping.

I caught up with Jimmy as he loitered alone in the workshop, no sign of the other mechanics for a second opinion now. “What do you think?”

“I don’t know.” This is the manner in which we begin every tricky discussion. “Why would we need the whole kit when just the straps are worn? If they are. Which they probably aren’t.”

“What are you going to do?”

“I’ll wait and see what price he gives us.”

We kicked the dirt around on the floor and sweated gently in the Nevada summer heat.

“Here we are! This is what you need.” Hank appeared with a heavy duty replica of what was hanging forlornly, but probably totally undamaged, under the trailer. “And here are the straps.” They looked exactly the same as those scattered on the ground where Hank had discarded them.

“How much would that cost?” Jimmy asked.

Hank held up the gleaming bronze part, which he had identified as an equalizer, as though it were a first place trophy. “Six hundred and eighty eight dollars and three hundred dollars for the labor.”

A strange noise erupted from Jimmy, something between a PA! and a HA! with a bit of a hiccup thrown in. Perhaps the gleam wasn’t bronze but gold.

“That’s for both sides,” Hank countered.

“I’m not paying that!”

“You can put it on your credit card.” Well, yeah Hank, we realize that.

“I can’t afford that,” Jimmy retaliated, actually meaning forget it!

“Well, how much can you afford?”

That was the last straw but Jimmy remained outwardly calm and polite. “Just put it back together please and we’ll be on our way.”

I felt less congenial. “I hope you’re going to watch the bugger and make sure he puts it all together properly.” Humpty Dumpty and all that.

During the 63 mile drive to our campsite for the night, I stared at the door mirror for the first 40 miles watching intently for flames licking out from the wheels for no other reason than remembering a previous catastrophe. And for the same reason my sensors were also vigilant for wheel wobble.

“Do you remember the time I had the oil changed on the truck in Arizona and they told me there was $600 of work that was urgently needed.”

“Oh yes, I remember that.”

“And do you remember that I phoned the mechanic in Washington who’d worked on the truck several times. He checked his records and told me their quote was way out. They were just looking for work.”

Everything made sense then. The flim-flam man is alive and well in Wells, and he probably slept well that night.

Thanks to him, we didn’t. And haven’t since.

We must get that suspension checked.

Salt flat feet

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