A couple years ago I wrote about my memories of border duty on a cold winter's day, and earlier today I was thinking about a story that was related to those experiences. During my first trips to the former East German border during the winter months of the late 1980s, I'd drive my wife's and my vehicle on post when I got an alert call at zero-dark-thirty, and our car would remain in the parking lot at the 511th MI Company until I returned to garrison. However, being stranded in a tiny German village without a vehicle was less than ideal for a mother with two small children, so for a while my wife and I would wake up our daughters and pack them into the car, then the four of us would drive to the 511th, whereupon I would head off to the border while my wife drove home and put the girls back to bed.
This type of early hours lifestyle was hard on my wife and the kids, so as time progressed, my spouse and some of the other wives from either our church or the 511th worked out a plan to shuttle any stranded spouses on post to pick up their abandoned vehicles. When husbands returned to garrison, they'd call their wives to pick them up, and the couples/families would head home together.
I remember getting a "Lariat Advance" call on a dark, winter morning, and my wife rose to start her day as I was about to walk out the door. I said that I'd drive to post like we'd been doing in previous deployments, and my wife said that she'd arrange with someone to pick up our car in a day or two. I was on the border for a couple weeks, and when I returned to the 511th, I called my spouse to come fetch me. However, she said that the roads had been covered in snow for the duration of my absence and she'd never been able to pick up the car, so it was somewhere in the 511th MI CO's parking lot.
Of course, I was the one who had parked the car, so you'd think that I'd remember where I left it, but I didn't, and every car in the parking lot was buried under six to twelve inches of snow. After a half hour of searching, I finally located our vehicle, but then I was greeted by another rude discovery: the snow had melted at some point, and the resultant water had frozen into an inch of ice that was hiding underneath the snow. This meant that the car's windows and doors - and more importantly the locks - were frozen solid.
By this time it was evening, and darkness had already descended on the 511th. What I probably should have done was ask someone if I could crash in an empty bed in the barracks for the night, but I was tired from two weeks in the field, and I was cold, and I was hungry. All I wanted from life at that moment was a warm shower, a hot meal, and to sleep in my own bed. The only obstacle that was preventing me from achieving those reasonable requests was a frozen car door lock, which I was determined to fix.
I headed into the barracks and explained my predicament to a couple friends, and together we hatched a few schemes to try and rectify my situation. At first we chiseled the ice away from the lock, only to discover that ice had fully penetrated the lock's gears, so at the most basic level I couldn't put a key into the lock. I headed back to the barracks and grabbed a mop bucket from a maintenance closet, which I filled with hot water from someone's room in the barracks, then I hauled the bucket out to the parking lot and poured the hot water down the door. This didn't work, but I repeated the action several times hoping that each successive attempt would free up the gears a little more, but the lock refused to yield.
I should explain that the longer I stood in the cold trying to open the stupid car door, I grew angrier at my spouse for not having followed our plan to pick up the car sooner. However, if she had followed through, our car probably would have been sitting in our driveway with an inch of ice and six to twelve inches of snow piled on top of it, and my wife would have had to explain why there was no way for her to come get me.
I remembered a technique that I used to use when I was a teenager to kill spiders: you can use a can of Lysol spray and a lighter to create a low-tech flame thrower. I headed back to the maintenance closet in the barracks and grabbed a can of Lysol, then I borrowed a friend's lighter and headed outside to try out my latest scheme. As expected, the combination of Lysol and lighter made a perfect flame thrower, and I aimed the resultant flames at the frozen lock on the driver's-side door with the intention of finally melting away the ice. This didn't work, so I circled around to the passenger-side door and repeated my approach.
However, much to my horror, something entirely unexpected happened: the tiny plastic washer that was nestled between the lock and the car door caught fire; to be honest, I'd never noticed that plastic washer before. Adding insult to injury, even though I had immediately ceased my flame thrower activity, the fire from the burning plastic washer had already traveled inside the door, whereupon it quickly melted every bit of plastic that held the door handle in place, and the handle fell to the snow-covered ground with a discouraging and disgusting "clunk."
I stood motionless for a moment, then I'm sure that I uttered something profane as I realized what I had just done. To put things in perspective, the time was fast approaching 10pm, and I was still cold, tired, and hungry. My car was still encased in a cocoon of ice and snow - and I had just destroyed one of the two car door locks that were necessary for opening the vehicle. Once again, what I should have done was find somewhere to sleep in the barracks for the night, but I was determined to open the remaining @#$% car door, so I returned to the driver's side of the vehicle with my flame thrower, though I was careful only to heat the door and not the lock on this attempt.
My actions eventually achieved the desired effect, and I was finally able to open the driver's-side door. However, I had to let the car sit and idle with the heater and defogger running at full blast for several minutes in order to melt away enough ice and snow for me to see well enough to make the long drive home to our tiny German village. I was still unjustly irritated with my spouse upon my arrival at our apartment, but after a warm shower and a hot meal and a night in my own bed, I realized that my wife would have been just as stranded as I had been the night before, but with less options to rectify the situation.
That being said, she probably wouldn't have caught one of our car's door handles on fire, either.