“Where are those Showalters?” God must have asked. “They’ve had such smooth sailing lately, let’s shake things up for them.”


In San Jose del Cabo

After a whole week of sunshine and sightseeing in Los Cabos, the Baja, Mexico, and four long flights without any delays, we were ready for the last leg of our journey home—a car ride from the Hampton Inn in Sterling, Va., where we had parked our car for flights from and to Dulles International Airport–to our new home in Harrisonburg. Normally this trip takes nearly two hours in light traffic. We looked forward to gliding into home base at a reasonable hour, given that we were coming from the Rocky Mountain time zone.

Our trip ended up taking three hours, and there were times along the way when we weren’t sure it would ever end.

As we toted our bags to the car, fresh from the airport, Stuart hit the electronic key—with no result. After opening the driver’s side door the old-fashioned way and attempting to start the car, we discovered problemo numero uno—a totally dead battery.

We immediately ran through our options—an AAA card from Michigan led to a just-expired membership. We remembered that our new car insurance offered 24-hour roadside assistance, but we had to search to find the toll-free number. The best bet was the van driver and his jumper cables. Presto bingo – we had juice!

Stuart thanked and tipped the driver, but when he opened the driver’s side door, the security alarm horn started to blare. Hitting the panic button on the key had no positive effect. So what did we do next? We just drove out of the lighted parking area into the night with all our bells and whistles sounding.

The beeping horn finally shut off. The car purred along the highway nicely. But there were two red flashing lights on the dashboard, and the GPS unit kept asking for a secret code which we could not find.  According to the manuals I frantically perused, none of these lights indicated engine problems. Everything seemed to be linked to the security system. I could not unlock the passenger side door, but  the windows were operational.

We were grateful to be making steady progress toward home, but we were also puzzled. What had caused the dead battery and why would the security alarm not shut off?

Our car is a recent model Honda Civic Hybrid. So we tried to take a second battery into consideration, but that was far too much engineering for my feeble brain. We reconstructed the last trip to the car—at night, a week ago. Stuart had placed the laptop in the car trunk because we didn’t want the hassle of taking it through the airport security four times and the weight of carrying it around. We were, after all, on vacation!

I made the mistake of using my iPhone to Google “lap top in car trunk.” And, wouldn’t you know, the first thing that popped up was related to “thieves”! Can they detect laptops in car trunks? Some sites even showed pictures of electronic devices said to be able to detect wireless computers even when the laptop is turned off! Oh no.

Now my late-night imagination was revving. I don’t have back-up for the laptop! I know. I know. Terrible. I promise, God, I will back it up as soon as I get home if you only will keep it safe in the trunk in the meantime.

Of course, this theft scenario didn’t make sense because there was no sign of forced entry into the trunk. No windows had been broken. Can thieves not only detect unplugged wireless but also extract laptops via teleportation? We didn’t want to stop the car to check on the trunk to see if the laptop was there. We didn’t want to risk another round of a blaring horn, this time on Interstate 81. We kept going.

Except that men of a certain age really can’t keep going when they have to go in another way. Problemo numero dos. We were about 20 miles north of a rest stop in Virginia, so that was an option. But then, what about the blasted blasts from our screwed-up security system? What about all those truckers sleeping in their cabs? We know how precious their few hours of sleep are. Would they use their Second Amendment rights to blast the source of the blast?

What to do? Ever the ingenious one, Stuart decided to take an exit in a rural location and stopped the car. Sure enough, the horn started to go off as soon as he opened the door, but we were the only trees in the forest to hear it. He took the time to open the trunk and found the laptop was where he had put it a week earlier. Yay! Thank you, God. And yes, I will back up everything on it. Soon.

During Stuart’s night-time walk outside the car, he had also discovered that the small animal he had tried to straddle a few miles before was not a possum after all. It was a skunk, and he had not avoided it. The odor coming from under the car was unmistakable.


image of skunk from Animal Planet website

So now we had an additional scenario to imagine. Brand-new tenants had just moved into our apartment that very day. They had a half dozen family members spending the night with them. Other nearby neighbors would also hear the blasted horn alarm go off the minute the driver’s side door was opened again. We could just see a collection of neighbors all in their robes jumping to the window or door to see about the clatter, when what to their wondering eyes should appear but a miniature car and two not-so-tiny deer with eyes like headlights and a smell like a skunk.

What could James Thurber do with a story like this one, I wondered. But then I stopped being a writer and put on my practical hat. “The windows work,” I said. “Let me slide out of an open one on my side.”

“Yes,” said Stuart. “You get out that way, and I’ll take the car to the Food Lion parking lot where it won’t matter if the horn blasts away. Furthermore, we can let the car air out in the parking lot.”

After contorting my body and getting an assist from Stuart, I made my exit from the car and grabbed the computer and suitcases from the trunk. Then Stuart headed to the parking lot, found an isolated space, and exited the car. The horn blasted again, but this time he punched the buttons on the key in a random sequence.  Voila – one of these moves succeeded in shutting off the horn and restoring the security system to normal. He drove the car back to the house, but parked it on the street for further airing out. For several days.

By 3:30 a.m. we were having exhausted dreams in our own bed. God was smiling. All was right with the world.

The next day, a Google search revealed that the secret GPS code was likely in a document in the glove box. Stuart found the magic numbers inside the cover of the GPS manual.  Now we’re all set for our next on-the-road adventure.

Are we the only ones with an adventure like this one? Please help us feel better by telling us yours. If this story made you want to read “The Night the Bed Fell,” in its original The New Yorker form, here is the link: http://www.newyorker.com/archive/1933/07/08/1933_07_08_011_TNY_CARDS_000228579

Shirley Showalter


  1. clifh on February 17, 2011 at 8:41 pm

    What you’ve written here can be a chapter in your yet to be published memoir!

    Back in the 70s my wife and I ran out of gas, late at night, during a record snow storm, while driving home from the airport. We were returning from a trip to Venezuela so we weren’t dressed for the weather. Cell phones and/or On-Star didn’t exist in those days. I’ll spare you the rest of the story.

    The skunk part of your story reminded me of an experience from my childhood. Our family car hit a skunk on the way to a Sunday evening church service one hot summer evening. As we walked into the worship service that had already started, the odor from our car came lofting in through the open church windows (no air conditioning in those days). The simultaneous arrival of both the odor and ourselves made it clear who had brought the odor. My mother said that it appeared that everyone turned around and looked as we walked in. I was too young to be embarrassed.

    • shirleyhs on February 17, 2011 at 8:56 pm

      Clif, you read this one hot off the press!! Thanks for your story. It made me laugh. I hope it jump starts many more. And I am curious about what you did to prevent frostbite in that first trip. Amazing our ingenious we can be when our lives depend upon it.

      And thanks for the encouragement to keep on writing. I am about ready to make my own memoir a priority. So I need a community of readers to support that effort. So glad to have you as one of them. What a faithful reader you are! As I read your reviews on Good Reads I imagine the pile of books next to your bed. They must form a tower.

  2. Stuart Showalter on February 17, 2011 at 11:16 pm

    The likely culprit for draining the battery of its energy was an interior dome light. When I took the computer to the car, I also had planned to put a credit card into the glove box and lock the glove box door. Alas, Honda Civics do not have locks on the glove boxes. To make sure this was true, I probably turned on the dome light to check for a lock. And, given short-term memory lapses, promptly forgot to turn the light off. C’est la vie!

    • shirleyhs on February 17, 2011 at 11:30 pm

      So glad you are willing to show readers of this blog that you do exist, dear Stuart. And thanks for answering the question most readers will still have after they read this post! But your attribution of blame to short term memory loss (and the implied attribution of blame to aging) brings up one of our running debates. I still think your memory is as good as ever! As I sprightly 45 year-old, I ran the battery down in our blue Accord twice. Once because of the dome light being on and another after driving in the fog with headlights on. Just failure to check, that’s all. Easy to do at any age. 🙂

  3. Sanna on February 18, 2011 at 1:48 pm

    Oh, Shirley and Stuart. I LOVE imagining you clearing hurdle after hurdle of dead batteries, beeping cars, urgent biology and dead skunks. What is it about nightmarish experiences making the best stories? Hearing about you lying on the beach wouldn’t be nearly as interesting. So glad you got home safely.

    • shirleyhs on February 20, 2011 at 12:42 pm

      Sanna, there were many points along the way when we felt we were in an episode of “I Love Lucy” or a Marx Brothers comedy. I don’t know what the elements are in nightmarish experiences that make them good stories. All I know is that I read this to my family yesterday at an extended family birthday party, and my young grand nieces came over to the computer immediately to hear and see the story. The suspense of what happens next? What caused all these woes? And putting yourself into the story–what would I do?–all contribute.

  4. Richard Gilbert on February 18, 2011 at 10:09 pm

    Shirley, this is so funny.

    As a side note, I am old enough to feel really vulnerable with electronic-only keys. What happens during a blizzard when you drop the thing in snow drift and short it out? I guess you die, clawing at the icy car . . .

    Next week I plan to post an excerpt on my blog about when we took our firstborn away to college and everything in the world went wrong. So don’t feel like the Lone Ranger!

    • shirleyhs on February 20, 2011 at 5:53 pm


      I look forward to reading about your adventures. When my parents drove me and my possessions to college here in Virginia, back in 1966, we also had another wild and crazy night of driving that involved paying cash for a new (used) car. Eager to read your story.

      Thanks for the feedback on the humor. I love reading great descriptions of other people’s calamities. Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction! Humor doesn’t come naturally to me in writing, but I love it when I read it in others, and if I sit with my own work for a while, humor often emerges–especially when the subject matter itself is inherently funny. After the fact, of course!

  5. GutsyWriter on February 19, 2011 at 5:01 am

    I do hope you had a great vacation. Getting home at 3:30 a.m was no fun, but as you mentioned, makes a great story. Welcome back!

    • shirleyhs on February 20, 2011 at 5:56 pm

      Thanks, Sonia. We enjoyed being south of Orange County. The story above has a slideshow embedded in it of our vacation, if you are interested in what we saw in Los Cabos. Loved it.

  6. doradueck on February 22, 2011 at 4:01 pm

    I don’t why it is that the misery of others is sometimes so funny, but I found myself enjoying — and laughing — as I read this story. I guess I figured since you were telling the tale, all was well in the end and you wouldn’t mind if we laughed along in retrospect — So thanks for that, this morning! — It also reminds me how particularly self-conscious we feel when we’re stuck in the middle of a noise or smell!

    • shirleyhs on February 23, 2011 at 1:11 pm

      Thanks, Dora. What is a tortured night for, if not to regale your friends later? These crazy events have all the element of drama built right into them. Your laughter is a gift. Thanks.

  7. DazyDayWriter on February 22, 2011 at 6:57 pm

    Sounds like all the ingredients for a great short story, Shirley! Isn’t life just like this, in sum? We’ve got it all figured out, things are looking up, and then we’re gasping for air. Must be a law of the universe. I’m glad you’re safe and sound, of course, and this was a great read. Thanks for sharing! In friendship, Daisy

  8. shirleyhs on February 23, 2011 at 1:14 pm

    There does seem to be a pattern here. That’s why I blamed God, disobeying my own theology. 🙂 If we can learn to go with the flow when nothing goes right, just imagine what we can do when the tide is high! Thanks for your continuing support. You are a faithful friend indeed.

Leave a Comment