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By Martin Bunn

From the March, 1953 issue of
Popular Science

This story was donated by
Mike Hammerberg

Gus Answers an Ambulance Call

After one little session as Doc Tandy’s helper,
Gus was very glad indeed that automobiles
never suffer from acute appendicitis.

Gus Wilson watched the smoke from his pipe drift indolently toward the ceiling while Doc Tandy poured another round of coffee.

"You know, Gus," the Doc was saying, "I’m glad you came over. I haven’t sat down for a good bull session like this for a long time. A man gets tired of talking and thinking with 60-buck words and medical terms. I couldn’t have prescribed a better medicine for this old carcass of mine."

"Well, heck, Doc, I’m tickled pink to see you standing still for a change," Gus savored the hot coffee. "When was your last vacation?"

"Long ago," Doc shrugged. "There aren’t enough doctors in town as it is. But I’m used to it. I should think you have pretty much the same problem, Gus."

"At least I usually get away for a week or two each year."

The phone rang softly on Doc Tandy’s desk.

"See what I mean? Even on Sunday." The snow-haired man smiled and went to answer it.

Gus stirred his coffee slowly and stared through the window at the budding leaves on the trees outside.

"Looks like I’ll have to interrupt this enjoyable session to soothe a pet hypochondriac of mine. Bill Williams, up on Waltham Road. Claims he’s dying of appendicitis, and between you and me, he’s been dying of it off and on for several years. Bill’s a bachelor, and I’ll lay odds he’s just got a dose of his own cooking again! Want to go along? It’ll be a pleasant drive if nothing else."

"Sure, Doc. Why not?"

"Let me get my bag. I’ve got some bellyache medicine in it that makes castor oil taste like maple syrup in comparison! Bill is one of those people who thinks medicine has to taste horrible to be any good."

They went out to the driveway and climbed into a battered 1940 sedan. As Doc backed her out, he said, "Glad to have you along, Gus. I don’t trust this old heap, but my wife’s gone visiting in the new car, the one I usually drive on calls."

After three-quarters of an hour of peaceful driving, Doc eased on the brakes and turned off onto Williams’ road. He stopped in front of a porch cluttered with hounds.

"This is it. I’ll be out in a minute, Gus."

Doc Tandy fixed a serious expression on his face, straightened his coat, picked up his bag, and winked at Gus before walking up the front steps.

Five minutes passed, and then 10 before Doc came out again. When he did, his stern expression wasn’t for the benefit of his patient. It was white and real in his face.

"Gus, can you help me move him to the car? It’s not his imagination this time—it’s acute appendicitis. Another hour and it’ll burst."

Gus scrambled out of the car and followed Doc Tandy inside to a dimly lit bedroom. Bill Williams lay doubled up on an old brass-headed bed.

"Ease him into this chair, Gus. It’ll be less rough on him than for us to try to carry him stretched out. Move slowly and gently. Okay, easy now . . .easy . . .don’t try to straighten him out."

Step by step, they carried the sick man to the car, and Doc made him as comfortable as possible in the back seat.

"You drive, Gus. I’ll stay back here and keep an eye on him."

Gus turned the car around, and began the nerve-racking business of avoiding every bump in the road without losing time.

"You say we’ve got only an hour, Doc?"

"That’s just a guess. It could last another day without breaking. But I have a feeling it won’t take that long. Hope I’m wrong."

"What happens if it does break?"

"Peritonitis, Gus." Doc leaned close from the back seat. "Poison spreads through his whole system. Have to act fast or . . . well, it can be fatal."

Gus concentrated on his driving and tried not to think about it.

They came to a steep hill a short time later, and halfway up, a cow began crossing the road.

"Probably been standing there all day, waiting for a car to come along," Gus said wryly, and slowed down. "Never have seen it to fail."

When the ambling animal reached the other side, Gus stepped on the gas, but the surge of power wasn’t there. The car faltered and stalled. Gus pulled on the brake, and hit the starter button. The starter failed to work.

"Oh no!" Doc groaned. "Not again! Not at a time like this."

"Had starter trouble before?"
"Yes, once, a couple of weeks ago. Then it went away. I should have known better than to trust it! What are we going to do?"

Gus climbed out and lifted the hood with nervous fingers. It was a bad time for this to happen, with a sick man in the car.

Gus knew why the car had stalled. He had felt flat spots even in slow acceleration since they left the farm. The carburetor was set far too lean. But that had nothing to do with the starter. The battery was good and strong, and yet, when the starter button was pressed, nothing happened.

"Doc, your carburetor was set too lean. But I can’t adjust it until I find out what’s wrong with the starter and get the engine going."

Doc shook his head helplessly. He was busy keeping Wiliams calmed down. Gus started looking for trouble.

He examined the starter motor first. No loose connections; no bare wires. Without tool, he couldn’t take the motor apart, but from what he could see, and from what he remembered of its sound back in Doc’s garage and in the farmyard, there was nothing wrong with it. Starter motors were a pretty durable commodity.

He traced the wires to the battery, and still found nothing. From there he went along the maze of wires to the starter button on the dash.

"Gus, we can’t wait much longer. I was too optimistic. This man’s condition is getting worse."

"One second more, Doc." He leaned under the dash and looked at the switch. Nothing.

His mind flashed rapidly back over the situation. Press the starter button and nothing happened except the clicking of the solenoid. The starter motor itself had seemed all right before. A bad one always sounds or feels different—a looseness, a hesitation, a certain sloppy, grinding edge in the way it turns the engine over. The wiring was in good condition. He had spent possibly five minutes checking it over and there was nothing to be found.

"I’m stumped, Doc. Maybe another car will come along soon."

"Forget about getting to the hospital. We’ll have to take him back to the farm. No phone within walking distance, and no time to wait for an ambulance anyway. We’ve got to get back some way."

"The farm . . ."

"I’ll have to operate there. There’s no other choice."

"Okay. I’ll see if I can’t push us around and start down the hill. Maybe we can get her going that way."

Gus put a shoulder to the car, turned the wheel and began pushing. It was hard, working against the pull of the hill, but the car began to move slowly, to turn, and then to roll.

Gus hopped in and pointed her down the road. He put the car in gear, heard a loud click and then the beautiful sound of the engine catching hold.

"Okay, Doc. I think we’re all right now!"

"Thank heaven! Now get us to that farm as quickly as you can. We’ve only got a few minutes at most."

If Gus had ever experienced a nightmare in broad daylight, this was it. He gripped the wheel hard, trying to make time and yet avoid every bump in the road—and prayed that they would make it.

When they came at last to Williams’ place, Gus swung the car gently off the road into the farmyard full of barking hounds. This one was truly a stumper. Gus had no idea what was causing the trouble.

After he checked out the trouble, he found that the car only needed a little work. He heard the click when the car started rolling down the hill. He used that as a reference. He checked it out and found that one part of the engine was in contact with the starter gear when the car was on level road or going up a hill. When the car was going down the hill, the car would start because that part of the engine was not in contact with the starter.

"Did you hear a click when you started rolling down the hill?" he asked the Doc.

"Yes I did; I didn’t know what it was. It was like the clicks I hear all the time," Doc said.

"Well, that click should have given me a clue right away. I didn’t have much time to figure it out until I checked over the motor and starter. Know what it was?" Gus asked the Doc.

Doc shook his head. "I know nothing about a car—I only work on humans, Gus."

"Well, your car is playing Russian Roulette. You need some work done on your starter. It’s like a worn tooth. If the car part that needs work done on it gets in touch with your starter gear when the car is in idle, you need to turn the motor off to get it to start again. You see, it jams up. Your solenoid is what causes the clicking. Usually a little push or bouncing it back and forth will start your car again."

"I’m confused, but I’ll take your word for it."

"Well, the car won’t give you anymore trouble tonight, but there’s no point risking another stall. I’ll pickup a new flywheel for you in the morning."

After Doc started the engine and gave gas to the motor, ran it for a few minutes until he was satisfied that it was all right, he turned and gave a wave to Gus as Gus stoked up his pipe.

"I’d better go and have a look at my patient. He’ll be in dreamland pretty soon. Why don’t you take up my offer?"

"What offer, Doc?"

"You could join me in the medical profession. You pack a pretty mean ether bottle!"

"Next time you decide to pay a visit to one of your so-called hypochondriacs, go yourself. I’ve had enough. Give me a garage full of broken-down cars any time. I’d rather have the smell of good old gasoline than ether when you do an emergency surgery!"