The burning of the Phoenix

On a fateful summer day, a station wagon meets its fate—and then rises from the ashes. Hey, if it’ll drive, it’ll do.


1978 Pontiac Grand LeMans Safari

Names have been changed to protect the innocent. But it’s not hard to guess who’s who if you know Susan’s family.


On a hot summer day in July, the Fraser family packed the car, a 1982 Pontiac Grand LeMans station wagon. In the roomy trunk they put a jar of sun tea, a jug of water, plastic dishes, and assorted picnic food. As you may have guessed, the Frasers were going on a picnic. A fairly normal thing to do in July, you might say. However, that fateful summer day in July proved to be anything but normal.

As the Frasers got in the car, Meredith, the oldest daughter, said, “I hope this old crate can get us to the Uintas.”

“Oh, don’t be silly, Meredith. Just because it’s old doesn’t mean it’s broken or defective or anything.”

About fifteen minutes out of Salt Lake City, a light grey steam started seeping out from under the hood. “Uh, Dad? Don’t you think we’d better stop?” inquired the only son in the family, Barnaby.

“Nonsense. This car always does that. It’ll be fine. If it gets any worse we’ll stop and let it cool off,” said Andrew Fraser. About five minutes later, the car hit its top speed of about 48 miles per hour1—it was going down a hill. The steam was darker and heavier now.

“Dad, we’d better stop. Look how dark it is, and there’s more of it, too.” said Olivia uneasily. At nine, Olivia was the youngest child. “No, it’s not,” claimed Mr. Fraser. “You just think it is because you’re seeing against the hill.”

“Uh huh,” muttered Olivia suspiciously.

By the time they reached the top of the hill, the steam, which was really smoke, of course, was inky black and pouring out from under the hood. “Well, just to make you kids feel better, I’ll stop. Barnaby, you hop out and take a look.” After Barnaby opened the hood, he blew on his fingers for a few seconds, then stared in horror at the complex machinery. Flames were licking at the engine! No one in the car could really tell what was happening to their beloved Valdez (so named because it was a boat and it leaked oil)2 until Barnaby scooped up some dirt and started pouring it onto the smoking carburetor.

“The car’s on fire!!! The car’s on fire!!!!” shrieked Meredith.

“Everybody out!!! Throw some dirt on it!!!!” commanded Mr. Fraser.

“Hurry!! Hurry!! Hurry!!!!” exclaimed Mrs. Fraser.

“Ooooooohhhhh boyy!!” put in Olivia, who had taken off her shoes and was now dancing on the hot asphalt.

Meredith, always considering her safety first, stood what must have been 40 feet3 away, in case the car exploded, and threw dust and gravel in the general direction of the engine. Due to their scientific properties, the dust made it a few inches until it settled to the ground. The gravel, however, flew through the air all the way to the station wagon, then rattled over the metal car parts like marbles in a pinball machine. Not especially helpful, you might comment. Not so! Meredith’s blind throw technique jarred loose an oil dipstick that hadn’t been seen or used in months and was consequently left behind on the shoulder.

Soon, despite Meredith’s poor aim, Olivia’s hot feet, and the general chaos, the fire was out. Just to make sure, Mr. Fraser poured all of the water and sun tea all over the engine. He still wasn’t sure, so he added a little pink lemonade to the rather bland, watered down mixture, slammed down the hood, and said, “Let’s go to that gas station down the road and we can hose it off. We better take it slow, though.”

The Valdez took it excruciatingly slow. The young Frasers weren’t even sure the engine was running at first- they thought it was coasting. It took ten minutes to go half a mile. At one point Barnaby asked to get out and walk so he’d get there faster. Mrs. Fraser, however, would not allow it.

Sitting on a hill at Jerry’s Gas ‘n’ Go several hours later, sipping orange Crush, Meredith, Barnaby, and Olivia discussed the tragedy. “Meredith, why were you standing so far away from the car? Only the gravel actually got to the engine, and there are probably still pebbles rattling around in there.”

“I was afraid the car would blow up,” explained Meredith in a hurt voice. “At least I found that dipstick.”

“Well, it’s just a good thing I thought of putting it out with dirt. We could have all been goners. I burnt my fingers on the hood, too. It was really hot. And I was the one who smelled the burnt oil smell. Boy, did it stink.”

“The worst part was when I had to get out of the car without my shoes on. The gravel was hot so I had to jump up and down, but there was broken glass right where I was standing so I cut my feet. Look at that, bleeding all over the place,” complained Olivia as a small red dot of blood oozed out of her big toe. “And by the way, Barnaby, why didn’t you just pour water on the fire in the first place?”

“It, uh, was too far away. As far as I knew, that car was just a time bomb waiting to go off. Like I said, you could’ve all been goners.”

Meredith interrupted. “We can’t call it the Valdez anymore. Probably all the oil is burned up, so it won’t leak anymore.”

“We could call it the Phoenix. You know, the bird that burns itself up every thousand years or something and then rises from the ashes again,” suggested Barnaby.

“But the Valdez is only seven years old, and I don’t think it will ever rise from anything. Uh oh, it’s awfully hilly between here and home. I hope we don’t have to stay at Jake’s Gas ‘n’ Go for the rest of our lives,” said Meredith.

“It’s Jerry’s, and I still think ‘The Phoenix’ is a good idea,” said Barnaby.

“I agree. ‘The Phoenix’ it is,” decided Olivia. There was a moment of silence as the Fraser kids pondered the significance of the moment.

“Where is that dipstick, anyway?” asked Olivia.


This article appeared on pages 10–11 of Issue 12 | October 2013.

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