Scratched car leads to an inquisition and a cover-up

SATURDAY'S HERO

May 14, 1994|By ROB KASPER

A scratch appeared on the side of the station wagon and I immediately became the Grand Inquisitor. I rounded up the prime suspects, the members of my family, and began the interrogation.

I felt it was my duty. After all, I wash the family cars, and I figure that makes me pooh-Bah of car care as well as chief scratch and nick detector.

I began the interrogation gently. I wanted to coax the guilty party into confessing. "Do you have anything you want to tell me?" I asked the suspects. "Perhaps there is something on your conscience?"

The suspects gave me blank looks. I changed tactics. In one-on-one interviews I glowered at each suspect and asked: "Who put the scratch in the station wagon?" "Not I," said the 13-year-old skateboarder. He was a suspect because he has a few "priors." Recently his flying skateboard had been implicated in a series of attacks that resulted in big holes in household

walls. Despite the team's destructive past, the kid claimed he and his board were innocent of the car-scratch charge. When I checked out his story, I saw that the scratch was too high on the body of the car to have been made by a passing skateboard.

So I asked the next suspect: "Who put the scratch in the station wagon?"

"Not I," said the 9-year-old bicycle rider. He was a suspect because I knew he was in the habit of squeezing his bike past the station wagon when the car was parked behind our house. The scratch looked like it could have been made by the end of some bicycle handlebars.

The kid shrugged off the charge. I grabbed his bike and attempted to re-enact the crime. I found that the scratch was too low to have been made by a passing set of handlebars. Both kids were cleared on technicalities.

The only suspect left was the frequent driver of the station wagon, my wife. She gave me a complicated, but convincing story. First, she admitted that she sometimes "forgot" to tell me when "the car bumped into something." But she added that she was absolutely positive that no such bumping incidents had occurred within the past week. How could I challenge such a brilliant defense?

Searching for clues to the crime, I mentally reconstructed each trip that the car had taken in the past week. I remembered that amid the runs to grocery stores, and the --es to school and the office, there had been a trip down a narrow alley.

In that alley there had been a trash can. In that trash can there had been a fluorescent tube. The two metal prongs at the end of that tube had jutted out over the edge of the trash can, into the path of the car. And, I remembered that one morning, when I was on car-pool duty, I had driven that alley, brushed against that trash can and had probably scratched the car with the end of that tube.

The crime was solved. Once I had determined that I was the guilty party, my opinion of the severity of the offense changed. No longer was it a high crime. Now it was just one of those things.

I began to think about ways to make the scratch go away. The car had a small container of touch-up paint in the glove compartment. I figured if I painted over the scratch, it would disappear.

I called a professional car painter to get some tips. Basically the pro painter, Michael W. Slate of WesBen Body & Fender Inc. in West Baltimore, told me to go ahead and use the touch-up paint, but not to get my hopes up.

When you brush touch-up paint on, you often apply it unevenly, he said. And a scratch that has been loaded up with new paint "sticks out like a sore thumb," he said. Getting an even application is one reason many body shops use a spraying device to apply paint, especially the new metallic paints. Brushing on touch-up paint works better, he said, when you are trying to cover up a small nick. Nonetheless, Slate told me to proceed. He told me to remove any loose paint or rust, then apply a base coat of the touch-up paint to the scratch. When the base coat dried, it was time to brush on a clear coating. This was an imperfect repair but it would, he said, protect the car from rust.

"It buys you some time," he said. But "you are always going to see your touch-up."

The great station wagon scratch inquiry taught me some valuable lessons. The next time a scratch appears on my car, I am not going to spend time trying to figure out who was responsible for the crime. Instead, I will immediately devote all my energy to a quick cover-up.

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