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Mysterious Fluid

I had a dream about elevators going down or something, and woke up to the sensation of being stuck to the bottom of the truck bed

By Novella Carpenter

THERE'S something I haven't told you. I've been keeping it secret, hiding it from you because I want you to respect me. But now the guilt of non-full-disclosure is beginning to weigh heavily on me at night before I go to sleep. In the morning, when I awake, I feel that twinge in the back of my mind that all is not right--and then I remember: I haven't told you everything.

Remember the time I went down to Los Angeles, picked up an engine and drove around La-La land? Well, there was more to the story. On the way back up to the Bay Area, where I live, our truck broke down. Our proudly bumper-stickered Biodiesel Now truck. It started to lose power around San Luis Obispo and finally died in Chular, a lovely town of three convenience stores and one bar. It was 9pm, and we were 120 miles from home.

I looked at Bill, the auto mechanic, and he told me the part that broke was probably the fuel injector pump, which would not be an easy repair. Especially at night, in Chular, with a cold wind blowing. So we did what anyone would do: we called our best friend in the world, Lana, and begged her to come pick us up. She agreed, but it was going to take awhile.

Exhausted, I climbed in the back of the truck, which Bill uses as his work truck, and attempted to take a nap, snuggled into my sleeping bag next to the engine, tires, a battery, a transmission. I had a dream about elevators going down or something, and woke up to the sensation of being stuck to the bottom of the truck bed. Weird smells floated around. I realized it was my sleeping bag; it had somehow glued itself to the floor of the truck. When I peeled up the bag, it had melted down to the white puffy stuffing in a rough outline of my body. People, this is a sad place to find yourself: in Chular, melted to the bottom of a pickup truck that doesn't run, tired and probably exposed to carcinogenic fluids.

Three hours later, we were finally rescued, and I gave a Buddhist monk a pumpkin to boost my karma, but I continued to wonder: what the hell melted that sleeping bag? Of course, it had to do with the engine, my messed-up mechanical teddy bear, that I had been sleeping next to (hi, Mom!). Bill assured me it was some diesel additive or another that had spilled out of the engine. I began to tease out what, in the back of that truck, could have corroded and melted fabric. Parts from cars all contain special fluids, including brake fluid, transmission fluid, differential fluid, battery acid, steering fluid, engine oil, antifreeze and, yes, the mighty windshield wiper fluid; and most of these things you don't really want to have contact with.

Transmission fluid, for example. Its material safety data sheet (MSDS) explains that contact will cause dry and cracked skin. Nothing about melting stuff, so check that off the list of culprits. The MSDS on antifreeze defines it as ethylene glycol, and it may contain heavy metals and organic contaminants such as benzene. But the data sheet goes on to say that it is just "mildly irritating to the skin upon prolonged and repeated skin contact."

So, what was it? Maybe brake fluid, which is a mix of tri- and tetraethylene glycol mono alkyl ethers and their borate esters and corrosion inhibitors. In addition to respiratory irritation, dizziness, nausea and loss of consciousness, repeated skin contact with brake fluid may "defat the skin resulting in irritation and dermatitis."

Defat? Maybe the culprit. But then I found suspect No. 1: battery acid, which may lead to scarring of the cornea and chronic bronchitis as well as erosion of tooth enamel in mouth breathers in repeated exposures. If battery acid in the air erodes tooth enamel, I'll bet its liquid form can melt my hand off. The MSDS instructs you to remove and discard any clothing item that comes in contact with the stuff immediately.

Which is exactly what we did with that sleeping bag. Whew, I feel so much better now that I've confessed.

Send your confessions to [email protected]

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From the November 3-10, 2004 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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