The Devil in the Trailer

By Tom Neale, 6/30/2005


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Like the steel skeleton of a long dead beast, the old trailer lay buried under years and years of old boat. I’d bought the boat because I wanted her. The trailer was just what she happened to be strapped to, and the only way to get her from the field of weeds to the water. But first I had to put a big ball on the stern of my “Police Edition” 1996 Chevy Caprice. This was like performing a hip replacement on an elephant with a crowbar and hammer. It was something you had to do so you could make the thing move, but there was always the issue as to whether you wanted it to move that badly. Holding that chunk of steel up under the rear end with two hands while turning nuts on bolts with two more hands while wondering what would happen if the wrench slipped and hit the gas tank was almost enough to make me break down and take the car to the shop. But like most boat owners, I have to pinch pennies when I can.

Next came wiring the Chevy for the trailer lights. “A piece of cake,” said all the packages of lights. I’m pretty good at wiring, having lived on a 53 foot boat for over 25 years, so I thought I could figure out which wires to splice into on the car. I did figure it out. It was a piece of cake. Except that the car wouldn’t run afterwards. “Oh yeah,” said a Chevy mechanic with a beer that I cornered next weekend. “The new cars have all this computer stuff and you probably got the computer all excited. Don’t mess with computers, man.” He showed me the right wires for a twenty.

Next came the lights on the trailer. “Sure, they work,” the guy had said as I was writing my check for the boat and trailer. “At least they did the last time I looked,” he added after he had pocketed my check. The only working those lights did was to work loose and fall off while I was trying to pull the trailer by hand across the muddy field to my car. My idea was to wire tie the wiring harness to the outside of the frame. I didn’t think anybody would see past all the rust to notice the wires. My wife did. I had a snake in my engine room, so I figured it’d be no problem to make her happy and run the new wiring harness down inside the frame. (Not that I had any choice.) The snake found a bolt going through the frame, about half way back, and stuck there. I tried to pull it out and it stuck from that direction too. “Nobody’s going to notice this snake hanging out of this frame,“ I said to my wife, “at least with all these wires flopping around and attracting attention.” That idea wasn’t a hit either. Two hours later, the snake had decided to let loose whatever it had in its death grip, and I was shoving the wires through. A couple of gallons of CRC later, I had the system juiced for action and plugged it into the car, which was running again. There’s a warm joyous feeling about seeing a rusty trailer all lit up with new lights, glowing like an old favorite Christmas tree that’s lost all of its needles but that you haven’t taken the lights off of yet.

I had only a short distance to go on a semi-deserted road to offload the boat, so I decided to give it a try. With the boat off the trailer, it would be easier to work on. I launched the boat, bounced the trailer back to the parking lot in the marina, and drove back out to get some more trailer fixing equipment—the first item on the list being more CRC. I knew my luck had changed when, while returning on the marina road, I saw a nice trailer roller lying in the middle of the road. I stopped the car, looked around to be sure that nobody was seeing me pick up this road kill, grabbed the roller, and jumped back into the car, a smile on my face. Surely, luck was changing and it’s always nice to have spare parts, especially for an old trailer like that. The first thing I noticed when I got back to the parking lot was that the trailer was missing a roller—the very one I held in my hand, to be exact. The retaining washer and pin had long since rusted away.

With all the miraculous engineering and construction expertise of our civilization, you’d really think they could come up with a better way of securing rollers. State of the art seems to be flat washers with crimp retainers that you can’t crimp because they’re inside the recessed cavity of the ball they’re securing and it doesn’t much matter because they’re all gonna rust loose in a few months anyway. But it’s what I was stuck with. So I decided to take seriously this thing about rusting.

I bought another gallon or so of CRC and stood upwind and starting spraying. After about an hour of this I began to feel really good about anything ever rusting on that trailer again. The next time I backed the glistening trailer into the water I noticed people standing around the ramp in mute amazement. I was sure they were impressed with my lube job until I noticed that every person smoking cigarettes was backing away. Carefully. Then I saw the oil slick spreading around the water. “It’s not from my boat,” I quickly said, “you can check my bilge all you want.”

About Trailering

1. Usually you first realize your trailer spring has broken when you look out the side view mirror and see smoke curling up from where your fender is cutting into your tire. Trailer springs frequently show surface rust early in their life, even if you spray them with fresh water and lubrication after each dunking. But inspect them regularly for signs of cracks or breaking or deep rust. Often the most difficult part of replacing them is freeing the rusted bolts. This may require heat which, depending on your skills and equipment, may require a professional.

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(Of course, you know, all that stuff I just said about putting an oil slick on the water was a totally untrue exaggeration. I’m just like you. I would never put an oil slick on the water.)

The next major hurdle was the tires. The cracks in those things looked like what you’d see in an aerial shot of the Grand Canyon. This may seem like a no brainer, but nobody that I could find had ever heard of the numbers on my tires. One guy said that this probably had something to do with the fact that these tires had been made before anybody working in a tire store today had even been born. Finally giving up on the “do it yourself penny pinching” concept, I decided to take the wheels to a good auto mechanic’s shop down the road—where the sign says they can do anything. I cranked the trailer up with a jack, inserted cinder blocks and wood, removed the wheels with a friend’s impact wrench and took them in. They were glad for the business even though they told me that they had never replaced tires that old before. Like most good country mechanics, they figured out what to put on the rims and ordered them on the very next truck, which was supposed to come in a “few days” at which point they’d get them on right away. At the appointed fewth day, I called. “Are those trailer tires ready?” There was a very long pause. Then, “Well, I’ve never seen anything like it,” the owner said. “They came all mashed up and we can’t get them to go on the rim.”
“You mean they don’t fit?”
“No they fit all right, it’s just that they came on the truck all mashed up and we can’t get them tight enough on the rim so that we can fill them with air. We’ve been having to put an inner tube in each one, blow it up, unmash the tire, and then it’ll fit against the rim and we can put air in it, but we only have one inner tube that’ll work so we can only do one at a time. But we’ll get them done for you by this afternoon.”

Late in the afternoon I pulled up to the garage. “Are those trailer tires ready?”
The guy just looked at me, shook his head, opened his mouth to say something, closed it again, and pointed over to the corner. There I saw the entire garage crew standing around the tire man who was down on the floor wrestling and hugging a tire around one of my rims while another guy was trying to get it to hold air. Another tire was on a rim with a cargo strap cinched tight around it, in a hopeless effort of making that fit snug. Nothing was working, except the one-at-a-time inner tube fix.

The owner looked at me with a concerned look on his face. “I’m sorry, but you’ll have to come back tomorrow. There’s no way we’re going to get this done today.” I looked at the poor guy on the floor wrestling the tire and figured I wouldn’t blame him in the least if he pulled out a gun and shot the thing. Then I’d have to pay for a patch too. So I smiled and said, “That’s fine, I’ll be back tomorrow.”

The next day all was well and they charged me the normal fee, muttering, “We’re never going to use that truck again. Damned fool said they packed ‘em tight like that so they could stuff in extra tires.” But they had fixed the problem, and I felt pretty stupid (not unusual for me) for not having gone to them earlier.

So I have my trailer and I can pull my boat out of the water to start fixing it without paying a Travelift. It’s a wonderful feeling. It’s a wonderful boat. It’s a wonderful trailer. I just don’t go far with it—and thank heaven for deserted country roads.

Copyright 2004-2005 Tom Neale