Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Debt Free Vacation Story

As many of you know, Jen and I are big fans of Dave Ramsey. Earlier this Spring, the folks who run his web site were asking for Debt-Free Vacation stories. Here's ours ...

I wanted to visit my mom in Michigan this summer. Of course, we planned to "pay as we go." We budgeted some money for the trip and opted to drive since it would have been way too pricey to fly all three of us to fly there.

All went well as we departed in my pre-owned 2005 Ford Taurus (which, by coincidence I paid cash for just like Dave talks about in his Financial Peace University class). Jen and I and #3 son headed northeast on our 1106 mile trek.
Jen and I At Financial Peace Plaza
We spent the night in Nashville on the way. On the second day of the trip, we stopped at Financial Peace Plaza to take our picture in front of the sign. We'd have stopped in, but it was Sunday and the place was closed. No problem, we'll come back another time and visit.

Our first problem came in Sidney, Ohio. As we zipped along, I reading a book aloud and Jen driving and listening to her MP3 player, we realized we had a flat. "A mere inconvenience," we reassured ourselves as we pulled off the highway and into a gas station parking lot. We unloaded the trunk, pulled out the spare and realized we were in more trouble than we thought.

I was smart enough to have the car serviced before we left. I had my mechanic give it the once-over and make sure it was as ready as it could be. I also checked the tires, to include making sure the spare was fully inflated. What I failed to check was whether there were also a jack and lug wrench under that spare tire. It's hard to change a tire without both of those items.

Important life lesson: If you buy a used car, make sure it comes with a jack and lug wrench or negotiate a lower price accordingly.

Ah, but we have roadside assistance coverage as part of our auto policy. A quick call to the insurance company and help was on the way. I was slightly embarrassed to admit I didn't have the right tools to take care of the problem at hand, but it was better to swallow my pride a little and ask for help so we could get back on the road.

We also realized that we'd have to cover the last 200 miles or so of our journey at 50 miles per hour on that donut spare. That wasn't going to work out well. What to do to get a new tire on a Sunday afternoon in small-town Ohio? Go to Walmart! We called the local Walmart, which was only a couple miles away, and made arrangements to get a new tire. (You can read the details of that part of the trip on my other blog.)

We made it to mom's just a couple hours later than expected. No problem, since we really weren't on a schedule.

We had a great week visiting folks, eating all the Detroit delicacies not available in Texas like Coney Island hot dogs, White Castle hamburgers, breakfast at Tim Horton's and dinner at our favorite Polish restaurant. For everything we paid cash. This vacation was not going to follow us home.

After a week we left to head back to Texas. We stopped in Battle Creek to have brunch with an old friend from my Army days. We also tried to meet up with another friend in Indianapolis; but, unfortunately he had to work. Our only plan for the trip home (other than to get there safely) was to stop at Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee. Jen and I try to make a pilgrimage at least every other year because she's a big fan.

After spending the night in Arkansas (and having dinner at quite possibly the worst Wendy's restaurant I've ever been to), we got up early and headed to Graceland. We parked, took some pictures at the gate, went through some of the gift shops and got our free poster from checking in on Foursquare. No time for tours, though, we needed to get home.

As we passed into Texas we were in the home stretch (or, at least as much a home stretch as you get driving across Texas. For those of you who've never been here, it's a BIG state). About 60 miles west of Texarkana we ran into another snag. Again, I was reading aloud and Jen was listening to her MP3 player when she noticed some white smoke coming out of the rear area of the car. Since it is an older car, it could have been anything. I suggested we stop at the next gas station to to investigate the cause.

We didn't make it.

At the very next exit, almost literally in the middle of nowhere we lost all power. We coasted off a handy exit and stopped dead. The engine was running, but there was no power to the wheels. A quick check of the dip stick confirmed my suspicions: the transmission was dead. There wasn't a drop of fluid in the thing - it was all over the road and the back of the car.

Another dilemma was at hand. A dilemma which lead to another call to our insurance company for assistance. At least this time it wasn't due to my lack of foresight in making sure we had the right tools. Given my lack of prowess with tools, I certainly wasn't going to MacGyver a solution to this problem.

A state trooper stopped to check on us and was kind enough to tell us where we were. I mean, there were no signs at all, no town, no nothing. All I was able so surmise was that we were on the westbound service road of I-30 somewhere between Texarkana and Dallas - not too exact a measurement. The insurance company was also able to get my location off my phone. Ain't technology grand?

Then we heard the peals of thunder. It hadn't rained in Texas since March and there we were in a thunderstorm. Water pelted down as the tow truck arrived. I mean, this wasn't some Spring drizzle; huge drops were falling from the sky. The driver offered us shelter in his truck as he expertly hitched up our stricken vehicle.

It was quite a sight, I'm sure. There were three adults sitting across the bench seat of the F-250 tow truck. The two who weren't driving had an adult-sized teenager sitting on their knees, his head resting in his hands with his forehead pressed against the windshield and elbows propped up on the dashboard.

We made the 15 or 20 miles to the Ford dealer in Mount Pleasant, Texas in short order. The driver dropped the car at the service department's night dropoff and then took us to an Applebee's where we could wait for Jen's sister to rescue us. Since she lives hear Austin we had to wait 5 hours for her to get there. We're very grateful she was willing to take 10 hours out of her day (and night) off to come fetch us.

The people at the Applebee's were very nice. They referred to us as "That Stranded Family" and made sure we were kept well lubricated with Cokes and Arnold Palmers and that we had enough to eat. #3 son and I played Monopoly on the iPad to pass the time while Jen read and watch some countdown program on the NFL Channel. It was a wonderful family time.

Jen's sister arrived around 10 PM. We finally got home around 3 AM. Thankfully, the next day was Independence Day so we didn't have to go to work.

When I talked to the people at the Ford dealer's service department, they told me the torque converter blew out after the main seal failed and all the transmission fluid leaked out. This pretty much confirmed what I suspected. We opted to have the entire transmission replaced with a factory rebuilt one. This made sense as we are planning to keep the car for a while.

For the cost of the transmission, I could have flown us all up to Michigan first class. Thankfully, Jen and I were in the process of saving our 4-6 months emergency fund and were able to pay cash for the transmission. The vacation was not going to follow us home! Still, it was hard to part with the money we worked hard to save. But, that's what an emergency fund is for.

All in all, though, it was still a great trip. We had fun, visited with lots of friends and family, went to see things you don't get to see here in Texas. Best of all, we won't be losing any sleep worrying about paying the bill for it.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Tribute To Mark

My cousin, Mark Wheeler, passed away yesterday  at age 48 after a long fight with cancer. He is the latest victim in a line of those taken from my family by cancer. His mom passed just a month ago.

Mark was a police officer for many years with the Livonia Police Department in suburban Detroit. I think that's what he was born to do. As a kid he was always interested in law enforcement. I remember listening to his mom and my mom talking around the kitchen table once when I was quite young (maybe in junior high). She remarked how he was never much interested in sports. She related an incident to my mom where some kids from the neighborhood came to the door to see if Mark wanted to get in on a game of pickup baseball.

"No, he's watching T.V. and doesn't want to play."

"Oh, yeah, the Tigers are playing today. Is he watching the game?"

"No, he's watching 'Emergency.'"

That was Mark. When we were kids, his sister Cheryl and I sometimes would get angry at him because he was often bossy and (to us as kids) rather overbearing. Looking back on that now, I can see it's just the way he was wired. That part of his personality is what helped make him a good cop. He was a police officer, not by career but because that was what he just was. It's a kind of a zen thing which my brother-in-law Chad used to say was why he was a firefighter. Perhaps this is a common trait amongst those who aspire to public service.

Don't get me wrong, he wasn't mean or hateful. He was, however, tough and didn't tolerate nonsense very well. He was certainly a "take charge" kind of guy.

And he was good at what he did. Although we didn't keep in close touch, I did follow his career through letters and conversations with my mom and others. Although we didn't serve in the same way, I respected him greatly for being a part of a uniformed service. Police and military are somewhat similar in many ways.

Although he may not have been interested in team sports, he was an avid sportsman. He was always out hunting and fishing. I remember as a kid he and his dad used to go elk hunting in Canada. He always had a good retriever dog, too. Shadow was the one I remember most.

Once when I was home on leave while stationed in Germany with the Army, Mark and I made arrangements to have lunch with our Uncle Dennis in Downtown Detroit. Since Mark knew where we were going, he agreed to drive. I remember we were blasting down I-96 toward Detroit at a high rate of speed, Mark expertly weaving in and out of traffic. "Mark, we're going to be early, you can slow down a bit." "Hey, this is just the way I drive. Force of habit." I still chuckle at that.

Mark, you will be remembered by those who love you. Rest in peace.