Zen and the art of golf-cart maintenance (with a little ghostly help from a friend)


Yes, my snubnosed, bullfrog-green golf cart no longer has the two halogen headlights that gave it such a froggy face. The little flivver’s two “eyes” originally contributed to our decision to name it after the automobile-obsessed, speed-demon, amphibian antihero of “The Wind in the Willows.”

One of the headlights had long ago filled with water. The other recently decided to stop working for reasons unknown. With a rare need to do much night driving on Center Island, I coped with it. But now that Pacific Standard Time draws down the nightly veil around 4:30 p.m., and the afternoon Paraclete water taxi doesn’t get me back from Anacortes until nightfall, I’m driving home from my dock in blackness like a mortician’s hat.

When last I returned from a trip to Outside, I luckily had packed my battery-powered headlamp, of the type useful for night hiking. Unfortunately, wearing the headlamp while driving Mr. Toad was no help; the bright beam only reflected glaringly off the plexiglass windshield. So I had to hold the headlamp out to the side of the cart with my left hand while steering (and veering) with my right. At least I got home without swerving into the Nootka rose brambles.

The new LED headlight shines like a locomotive’s lamp from the front of Mr. Toad, my little green golf cart.

A few years of island pioneering has taught me to think ahead, however, so as I rambled along the gravel cowpath on the way to the Nuthatch that night, I had in my baggage a newly acquired LED headlight for Mr. Toad.

I’d shopped online first. (Hey, I live on an island with no stores.) But I always read the one-star reviews of any item before I hit “buy.” Most of the cheap, Chinese-made LED lights suitable for a golf cart came with obscure brand names such as “Turboo” and “Bliauto” (product description: “Lights Pod Is Bright Enough to Provide Visible for You to Observe the Road Conditions Around The Car During Travel”). Reviews were littered with words like “junk.” Many warned that the supposedly waterproof units filled with rainwater within weeks.

So I’d bucked America’s shopping trends and actually walked into an auto-parts store in Anacortes to find what I needed.

I was drawn to a four-inch-square, 13-LED “pod” manufactured by Sylvania, for many decades a reliable name in the American lighting industry (who manufactured this item in Mexico, according to the fine print, but oh, well).

The one headlight cost double or triple what I might have paid for two lights online. But often you really do get what you pay for. And because this 2,100-lumen light was designed for offroad use — the box pictured Jeeps, swamp buggies and farm machinery — and a diagram promised a wide floodlight shining more than 200 feet ahead, it seemed like just one of these puppies would suit Mr. Toad’s meanderings. I would mount it front and center.

Installing and wiring the new light was my next challenge. I’m a word guy, not a skilled mechanic, but I savor such projects. It’s so satisfying when I get it right.

However, it’s almost always more complicated than I expect.

But as I often tell people, “I ain’t Joe Cantwell’s son for nothin’.” My dad was an aerospace engineer, one of many who played a small role in producing the Saturn V rocket that put human beings on the moon. So, the genetic material is there. I’m no rocket scientist, but if I fumble around long enough I can usually figure stuff out.

I had hoped to reuse the existing switch and wiring. But my circuit tester revealed no life signs. Oxidation had blackened the copper wire. The chrome switch was rusty. Those ducks were dead.

So I methodically ripped out the old wiring clear to the battery and replaced it with fresh 14-gauge wire I had on hand. I hitched a boat ride to Lopez with John the Mad Birder so I could get a new 12-volt switch. Installing the light involved squeezing and twisting my arm through narrow openings beneath Mr. Toad’s fiberglass hood. Carefully snaking tools through holes in the dashboard to crimp and heat-seal new connectors. At the end of Day 3 on the project I was very close to finishing the last connections.

But it had been a long day. It was, yep, 4:30 and getting dark, when the Nuthatch Ghost talked some sense in to me.

My sweet Barbara was never a nag, but she always knew when I needed a gentle goad. As the sun sank behind Lopez Island and I wearily contorted my hand to attempt another connection, the recesses of my imagination lit up with words my late wife would have said about then.

“How’s it going, sweetheart, are you almost done?” she’d have called from the kitchen door. “Dinner is on the stove and it’s getting dark, so I’m getting a little concerned for you.”

She’s right, she’s right, I said to myself. I can’t see what I’m doing, I’m tired and I’m going to make a stupid mistake. Probably blow all the fuses in the golf cart. Drop a wrench across the battery terminals. It’s time to call it a night and finish this off fresh in the morning.

A friend who lost her spouse to cancer told me recently of the long conversations she has with her long-departed husband. So far, the Nuthatch Ghost and I aren’t on a regular conversational basis, but there’s that vibe in the air.

“You’re right, darling. Thank you,” I sighed as I stowed my tools for the night.

The next morning everything came together easily. The wires connected, the new switch fit the hole where the old one had been, and the new headlight shone brightly on cue.

Last night, before bed, I had some letters to put in the mail bag for morning pickup. I hopped in Mr. Toad, flicked on the new light and zipped down the road. I parked by the grassy airfield and walked across by flashlight to the mail shack. Halfway across, I looked up and stopped in my tracks. O, the stars!

I doused my light. No planes were in the air. Ahead, to my east, Orion lay on his back, as if taking a siesta on his jog around the galaxy. The three stars of his knee gleamed like a king’s jewels in the cold November air. Gazing straight up I saw Barbara’s favorite constellation, the pulsing, huddled coffee klatsch of stars called the Pleiades, also known as the Seven Sisters.

Huh. Barbara was one of seven sisters in her family. Looking up, I felt that connection again. That presence, that helped me replace a light. That helped me not blow up my golf cart. That now shone down, glowing faintly above the Earth for all to see.

“Hello, sweetie,” I whispered. “Hello.”

3 thoughts on “Zen and the art of golf-cart maintenance (with a little ghostly help from a friend)

  1. As long as we remember ,they are always with us ! Knowing when to call it a day ,comes with experience and a gentle nudge ?


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