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Saturday, February 23, 2013

The unconventional way to break in a new car

Never in my life did I believe that I could own an automobile as long as I have owned my 1999 Toyota Corolla. It has 227,000 miles on it, and as long as I get the oil changed every 2,500 miles now and get the things fixed that need fixing, it will continue to run and run and run.

I thank my dad and sister for convincing me 11 years ago on Friday, February 22, 2002 to purchase the Toyota over four other cars (including a jeep). They obviously had an instinct and knew enough about Toyotas to say it would do me good to go in that direction.

But if anyone treated a car the way I did within the first month I had the car, they'd think I was abusing the darn thing.

How? Well, let me set the story up with how we got to this point:

During February 2002, I was having on-and-off problems with my 1993 Ford Thunderbird LX. I had gotten that car in December 1996 and, believe me, that, too, was an awesome car to have, especially with the sun roof. And when I moved to the Florida Keys in 1999, I spent many a trip going up and down the Overseas Highway with the top open.

Still, my car was breaking down at the 175,000-mile mark. I could start the darn thing up and it would start to overheat no more than about a couple of miles into the ride. I didn't know why, but our computer guy at the Key West Citizen, a young man named Jeremy, had a good friend of his who fixed cars who was visiting for about a month or so from Ohio. They both took a look at the car and said, "It can be fixed."

So I put my trust in Jeremy's buddy to fix the problem. Well, this was no cheap little venture. I think on his friend's behalf I spent over $650 getting parts and putting my trust that they will fix the problem and I can continue on with my life and being able to get around town and cover things.

One of those things I had planned to cover was the Florida High School Athletic Association 1A wrestling championship at the Lakeland Center some seven-to-eight hours from where I was on the Florida Keys. It would have been easy for me to tell third-year Key West High coach Troy Bowe to call in the results, but I literally watched his program grow up in the three winters I was living in the Keys. And he had taken quite a few wrestlers with him to Lakeland this time around after they had survived district and regional action.

Bowe had 119-pounder Max Hooten going. He had 130-pounder Bayardo Gomez. There was also 145-pounder Mike Weber and heavyweight Aaron Barker. But the three guys I thought could make a dent in the end were 135-pounder Tony Lombardi, a tough-nosed wrestler with a street-wise mentality and well-versed with his moves, 215-pounder Cody Granger, a senior with a never-ending motor who only knew one direction -- go, and 189-pounder Justin Duck, a senior and easily Bowe's best pupil. In three years, he had improved a little each time out and now he was one of the favorites to win the weight class.

Just one year earlier, the Conchs and Bowe had one wrestler go after a state title in senior heavyweight Chaz Jimenez, a super-sensational kid who played on the football team and had carved his own little niche on the wrestling mats. But 20 seconds into his championship, he got caught in a move by his opponent and not only did the opponent take him down, he broke his leg, too.

An unfortunate end to the season, but at least a feather in the cap of the program just two years in. And now, those Conch wrestlers, Bowe and "Sid" -- assistant coach Randy Lehan -- were going back to Lakeland to make an even louder noise in their third year as a program. And I wanted to see the end result, which I was figuring would be Duck's state championship.

Yes, I admit to being a disgruntled rebel as a sports editor who really wasn't a sports editor, a decision that was out of my hands the previous August when the far-from-brilliant minds at the Citizen thought it was a grand idea to make someone else an executive sports editor over me. But I also knew that covering high school sports was still our bread and butter and at any newspaper, it's pretty darned important. And my attitude of "a day not in the office is a great day covering something" was becoming my almost everyday mantra.

But to get there, I needed a working car. That, too, was pretty important.

Back to Jeremy and his buddy. Jeremy was a smart young man to be our paper's IT guy at 23 years old. He was also dating my assistant Jen, so I knew him quite well at the time. It was Thursday morning, February 21, 2002, and Jeremy and his friend both told me the car was ready. The buddy had been tinkering with the car for the better part of a week, so it better be working and not overheating. He was pretty assured the car would go without trouble. OK.

I started up the car, thanked them and off I went. And once again, some two miles after leaving their place, the car began to overheat. And I can see this was not going to be good. I managed to get the car back to Jeremy's place and bitched both of them out this time. I finally broke down and decided to take the car to the dealership that I was working with in case anything went wrong. They were able to diagnose the problem far better than Jeremy's friend could.

Cracked blocks. I called Jeremy back and got his friend and told him what the dealership workers told me.

"Oh," was his first reaction. "I don't do cracked blocks."

I hung up. Angry. Wanting to wring his neck. What a waste of freakin' time!

I knew it was over for my Thunderbird. It obviously could not handle the Florida heat anymore. So the next trick was getting a new car the next day. I could only drive the car locally before it overheated its way to a stop and I walked what was about a mile from my apartment on Duck Avenue to the Citizen building that night to work.

Come Friday morning, February 22, 2002, I had a long day ahead of me. Up at 10 a.m., I began to take some of the stuff in my car and put it in the apartment, some stuff I would keep in the transfer to whatever new vehicle I was about to purchase. The car staggered to the dealership just over a mile away, but it got there, the last time I would turn the engine off once I parked it.

A guy named Steve came out of his office and asked if he could help me and I said, "We could be here awhile." So the first 45 minutes was spent looking at cars in the lot, me being choosy over what I wanted to get in the front seat of, and comparing prices, which is far from a recreational sport considering the expensive lifestyle of the Keys and the minimal money you are left with at the end after paying bills.

And I realized by about 11:30 I couldn't make this decision alone, so I made a phone call to the one person who I thought could help me that lived nearby.

My ex-girlfriend Beth. Even though we had broken up 11 months earlier, we were still living in the same apartment complex and we didn't despise being in the same area together. I knew she was off from work on Fridays from her hygienist job. The one thing I will always say about Beth was that at times, I probably put her through hell with things she didn't want to do, but she was an absolute trooper. I still hope her husband realizes how lucky he is to have her.

Naturally, one of the things we get to do with cars is to test-drive those babies. And I got to do that with Beth -- five different times in five different cars. We would go up to Mile Marker 8 about six miles away and come back each time. I loved the jeep that I drove, the kind that you can basically unbutton and drive in the wide-open. But I can still hear my mother telling me how dangerous those things were, especially with a guy I grew up with who had a serious accident when a jeep he was driving did not hug the corner right and flipped over on him, causing him injury.

But Beth and I did agree we enjoyed riding in the white Toyota Corolla that was on the mostly Ford lot. The car had very few miles on it -- 13,927 to be exact -- and it just felt right. That's when I made a phone call to New Jersey to talk to my dad and sister, who were both on the phone at the same time, both convincing me I couldn't go wrong with a Toyota. My dad had a 1991 Toyota himself and he loved his, so that was convincing enough that I would take it.

That was just after 4 p.m. Well, little did I know that the next two hours of my life would be spent going over paperwork, hearing Steve tell me about the payments, me agreeing to a plan that would be the right fit for me, me making another phone call about financing, etc., etc. etc., with Beth still being a trooper about all this. Oh, and once I got the car in my possession, I had to move everything that was in my old trunk and car into my new car. That was a whole lot of fun, too.

It was finally 6:30 p.m. and my nearly eight hours on the lot was over. I felt like I put a full day in at the dealership myself. And I still had work to do and catch up on what was going on in the wide world of Keys sports.

It wasn't until 7:30 when I walked in to work. Jen knew I was not in a good mood the day before with her boyfriend or his buddy. But on this day, I was just happy to have her there and know that I had a new car. I think I laid out a page while she took care of the other pages and I just called around to see what was going on in local sports. And that meant getting the phone call from Bowe to tell me how his wrestlers did from up at the Lakeland Center. That came after 9:30 p.m.

Hooten, Gomez, Barker and Weber were gone, all losers in first-round matches and only two of them winning wrestlebacks before losing a second time. But Lombardi, Granger and Duck were still alive. I knew what I was going up to Lakeland to see that next morning.

Yes, I was determined to test drive the new baby I had in a very unusual way after I got done with work, which I did by about 12:45 in the morning like I normally did. Jen went home after laying out the pages and I got the last of my stuff done, but I still had one phone call left. I had not told Troy whether I was officially coming up his way or not to cover the event because of the whole car fiasco that I had told him about. I know he was upset when I told him the car broke down and I didn't know what I was going to do. But I was pretty darned determined to make it up that way and I felt good with the new automobile, so I was going to leave a message on his cell phone, figuring he may have turned the phone off to let it charge overnight.

It was after midnight. One ring. Two rings. Then a pickup.


"Troy? Sorry to wake you up. I meant to leave a message with you to tell you that I was going to be coming up this morning. I will see you later on."

"Cool. See ya then."

It's the little things you remember, I guess.

Anyway, still awake at 1 in the morning, I got home to the apartment and packed my bags for what would be a four-day road trip. The first two days would be spent in Lakeland, the next two at my cousin Marcia and her husband Jim's place in Stuart. I had state wrestling to cover on Saturday in Lakeland and on Tuesday, I would be at Pope John Paul High in Boca Raton for Key West High's boys basketball state tournament sectional semifinal.

Four days worth of packing was done and my bags were in my brand new car heading north ... for a loooooooong ride.

As anyone knows, if you live in the Florida Keys, nothing is close by. The ride to Florida City alone is 10 minutes short of three hours. Whether I liked it or not in my time living there, I still had to acknowledge local speed limits and you weren't allowed to go any faster than 55 mph. So it was about 5:30 in the morning. I arrived in Florida City and I had a decision to make -- take US-1 up to I-95 and drive for free up to Vero Beach or jump on to Florida's Turnpike, pay tolls and go up to Yeehaw Junction or start on I-95 going north and get off an exit that runs perpendicular with the Turnpike and jump on, saving in toll money until getting to Yeehaw Junction.

I chose the third option, getting off at the Fort Pierce exit and getting on the Turnpike there. Still, it was about 9 in the morning by the time I finally reached Yeehaw Junction. I figured I was going great and that the rest of the ride wasn't going to take long. Well, somewhere in the middle of this vacant hole of nothing but farms and orange groves called State Road-60 did I make a mistake. I was doing my best to avoid local traffic ... but found myself getting further and further away from my destination. I had to stop to eat something at 10:30 and I didn't care if it was Waffle House ... which it turned out to be.

Coffee. More coffee. A third cup? Absolutely! I was somewhere on US-27 heading north. Little did I know I should have just kept taking SR-60 into just below Lakeland and going north on US-98. Worse, the weather was cloudy and drizzling. And temperatures were in the low 50s, a 20-degree difference from what I left hours ago.

By the time I got back onto the road, it was 11:30 and I knew I was running late, and worse, I had a premonition I wasn't close to where I was supposed to be. I figured I'd be at the Lakeland Center no later than 11. And now it's noon. Finally, I'm on I-4. And I realize that my exit to get to the Lakeland Center is still another 15 miles away. And there's traffic on a miserable Saturday afternoon. And if I hear LeAnn Rimes' "Can't Fight The Moonlight" one more time on the radio of my new car, I'm going to scratch somebody's eyeballs out.

Worse, I had never been to Lakeland before, so I had no idea of this huge place I was going toward. The only thing I had was directions and following signs to get there. It was just after 12:45 p.m. that I reached the Lakeland Center, a huge arena just to the west of the main downtown area.

I was relieved and tired. But the car got me to where I had to go. It was one heck of a test drive -- over 350 miles.

I found the entrance way to this big building and got my press credentials, following the directions of those who pointed me to where I had to go. There were eight mats set up inside the arena, two rows of four mats. But in a huge place where all three classifications were wrestling for state titles, I had to be patient to find out when my three remaining Conchs were still wrestling.

Somewhere in the throng of wrestlers, coaches and officials, I found Mike Hess, a man who had helped to develop wrestlers in the Florida Keys by running a club there. His pupils were members of the Key West High team, including the three guys who were still left. He had the misfortune to tell me Lombardi had lost to Jacksonville Bolles School's Justin Kaperman in a tough bout, 5-3. I knew he had a very special relationship with Tony Lombardi, so it hurt him that he had to describe the match and how his guy came up short. For Tony, it meant he had to go to wrestlebacks and the hope of a state championship was gone.

But Duck and Granger still had their semifinal matches to go. I got there in time. I saw Duck and he was prepared for his opponent. With my press pass, I was allowed to go anywhere within the confines of the floor, but I couldn't actually go on the mat. So behind Troy and "Sid," I watched as Duck -- my favorite of all the Conch wrestlers -- take another step toward a state championship by dominating Lecanto's Billy Simmons, 9-1, to reach the final, just like his good friend Jimenez the year before. I can still remember Justin coming off the mat in a business-like manner, shaking hands with his coaches and just isolating himself as Granger went on to his semifinal bout at 215. Cody was in a tough bout with Lake Wales' Sam Smith. Unfortunately for him, Smith outpointed him in the end, 4-3. His hope of a state championship was gone.

This allowed me to catch up with the coaches on what was going on. In the three seasons I knew Troy Bowe, he had waited for this moment ... to take a group of talented youngsters to the state meet and let them experience what the state championships were about. Troy is a former grappler himself from wrestling-crazy Wisconsin. Randy was a state champion from Pennsylvania who was a Division III All-American in the sport. Those two coaches ate, drank and slept the sport and the guys they were coaching were taking in everything they were teaching them.

This was a good time to be a Key Wester. The wrestling team was rolling in its third year, the boys basketball team was on its way to a memorable run in the state 4A playoffs. Definitely a good time to be covering all this ... and being away from the desk that was hindering me and the office I was hating to be in more and more each day. I didn't want to miss a thing as the so-called "guy in charge."

In their wrestlebacks, Lombardi lost another tough match, this time to Hollywood Chaminade-Madonna's Brian Nitzberg, 4-2, but Granger was able to upend Jacksonville Episcopal's Samuel Ritter, 8-2, to get to the third-place match, another big step for the program.

In between matches, I had a chance to talk with Lehan, a very knowledgeable assistant and one of the best in any sport I've ever come across. I told him I was doing a column on him and he was sorta hesitant about any attention he was getting, but I assured him it wasn't going to be too over-the top. In between matches, I found an hour out of my busy schedule to make it over to the nearby Lakeland Ledger, asking their sports department heads if I could use their Internet and computers to write a column, which I was able to do. I banged that baby out in just about an hour, confirmed with Jen that she had the story, and told those at the paper I'd be back to write my story afterward. I wasn't sure if they were all that crazy about me using their computer, but they were nice to me nonetheless. Back in the miserable, cloudy, yucky weather I went to the Lakeland Center again. 

Inside, I finally found a spot to sit at on press row. It was just myself, my press pass around my neck and a notebook along with a folder of information I needed for the day I was there without a chance to actually sit down. Sitting next to me was a young man who was there to do stories for various newspapers, including the Star-Banner in Ocala. His name was Richard and I think he found it interesting that I was coming up from the Keys to do a story for my paper. I think we spent the better part of the late afternoon and early evening just talking papers and wrestling and we struck up a friendship that still lasts 11 years later.

The finals were set to go off at about 6:30 p.m., and that meant all the finals of all 14 wrestling weight classes in all three classifications. First, though, was the end to Lombardi's and Granger's seasons. Lombardi defeated Tallahassee Chiles' Steve Sivyer, 13-9, to take fifth place at 135 pounds. And Granger finished his career off in a fantastic way -- he pinned his opponent, Pierson Taylor's Andre Reese, in 4:58 to claim third place in the 215-pound class.

Was Duck going to make for a storybook ending for the Conchs in the third year of the program? Could the first state title be in the making?

I was going to have wait a while since Duck was at the late end of the 42 championship bouts. But the good thing was that all eight mats were still out there and those finals were going to go quickly, so no one had to wait too long. I could see the determination on his face. He knew if he wanted this state title, he was going to have to get by the toughest competitor he would face all year. Eric Flinchum of Crestview was a tactician, a master of moves and if Duck got caught, it could be "Goodnight, Gracie."

The time was now -- it was just before 8 p.m. Neither Flinchum or Duck gave in to the other. But the big move of the match came in the second period when Flinchum decided to take the bottom position. He got a big reverse for two points and those two points proved to be the difference in the end as he was not going to allow Duck to put him in a uncompromising position, playing defense the rest of the way. Flinchum came away with the 4-2 victory. And the look of bitter disappointment was still on Duck's face long after the match was over. His wrestling career was over and two points separated him from the gold medal he was battling for all year.

Key West High's day and night were over. There would be no gold medals, but a second, third and fifth was not a bad way to end the night. Still, the thing that made Bowe most proud -- in the final team total, Key West High finished in fifth place with 46 points, just one point behind Pensacola Christian, who took fourth.

Fifth place for little Key West High, a third-year program that had grown up in front of my eyes, the same way another fledgling program I remember back in the early 1980s called Brick Memorial High School in New Jersey took off. There were no championships, but fifth place? Hey, it was a reason to celebrate.

The team had planned to stay in Lakeland through Sunday morning before returning back to Key West, so they were going out to an area bowling alley for midnight bowling. They invited me to come, but my battery was literally near empty and I still had a story to write, so I politely declined. But Cody Granger's mom wanted me to take a picture with the three guys who won medals of some kind that day along with Troy and Randy/"Sid." I was hesitant about it, but then decided, "Why not?" This was just another part of the time capsule called my career. They were on their way to what they were doing and I was on my way in my new car back to the Ledger to write the story of the day/night.

Another hour on their computers and once Jen said she got the story, all was fan-flippin'-tastic. She said she had everything under control. It was about 10 p.m. and I was hungry. I found the Days Inn (which doesn't exist anymore, it's under another name) that I was going to stay in overnight. Right down the road was a Steak and Shake. I remember getting a hamburger, fries and a soda, then returning to the hotel to finally check in. It was about 11:15 and worse, the temperature had gotten into the mid-40s ... and I was still in a short-sleeved shirt without a jacket. All I kept wanting the person at the front desk to do was confirm my credit card, give me my key and let me get into the room.

That took almost five minutes. They wanted my license plate, which, of course, I couldn't remember verbatim, even to this day. I eventually got the key, got my bag, turned on the heat in the room, turned the TV on, and passed out. I had told the guy at the front desk I did not want room service -- and to not be bothered.

I collapsed in my bed sometime around midnight and didn't wake up until 2 p.m. on Sunday. Wow, was it wonderful sleep indeed. I didn't normally work on Sunday and Monday, so I took it easy in the hotel room that day and night, even if the temperatures didn't get any higher than about 52 degrees. The highlight of my Sunday night was watching the closing ceremonies of the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. By Monday morning, I was out the door and on my way to Marcia and Jim's place in Stuart in the new car. I stayed there overnight and wrote my preview of Key West's boys basketball state tournament game against Pope John Paul II High at their place. On Tuesday, February 26, I saw Key West beat John Paul II to advance to the regional final. I went to one of the local Kinko's to use the computer to write my story. When it was done, I finally headed down I-95 back to US-1 and back to Key West.

The car survived the 740-mile venture. And when Key West beat host Monsignor Pace of Miami in the Region 4-4A basketball final on Saturday, March 1, a game I couldn't go to in person because the executive sports editor thought it was a terrific idea to send the one other person in my department to some newspaper convention in Miami, I was heading back to Lakeland on March 7 and 9 for the state Final Four in 4A.

All totaled, my car had tallied close to 2,000 miles in the first month I owned it. Nobody I know takes a car or a motorcycle out and says, "I think I'll break it in by driving from Florida to New York state and back." That was basically what I did with the car.

And 11 years later, the car is still with me, though I seriously think 2013 may be the last year I have it. It has done me plenty of good, and easily the best car I've ever owned. It has taken 15 trips up from Florida to New Jersey and back. It turned over at 100,000 miles on my way to cover a boys basketball game at Baker County High School in a Christmas tournament on December 30, 2005. And it went over 200,000 miles on my way to cover another boys basketball game on March 4, 2011.

On the ride to 200,000 miles, I was on my way to cover the Palatka High School boys basketball team's FHSAA 4A Final Four semifinal against Cardinal Gibbons of Fort Lauderdale -- at the Lakeland Center. Oh, the irony!

I've taken plenty of rides with that car. But you always remember the first -- and breaking the car in with a 350-mile, one-way trip to watch a group of wrestlers try to finish something they started two years earlier ... that was a heck of a way to break in a new car.

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