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Those daring CIA wives tread into new territory

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CENTREVILLE, Va. - Julie Sussman and Stephanie Glakas-Tenet shake their heads in a way that makes a car owner nervous.

"Well, you need new tires, for one thing," Sussman says.

"And you have no windshield washer fluid," Glakas-Tenet says. "Ninety percent of drivability is visibility, and that's why it's critical you get that filled."

The two are finishing up a safety check on a 1993 Nissan Maxima, long ago dubbed "Minima" by its owners.

The prognosis for the car, which was offered up for inspection by USA TODAY, isn't good. Among other things, there are a couple of years' worth of leaves in the engine, the coolant is low, the gas cap is loose, and the 12-year-old air bag is most likely no longer functional.

After an hour-long inspection, they send the driver off with another helpful suggestion - "Be careful!" - plus a copy of their new book: Dare to Repair Your Car! A Do-It-Herself Guide to Maintenance, Safety, Minor Fix-Its and Talking Shop (Collins, $14.95). It's in bookstores today.

Their first book, 2002's Dare to Repair: A Do-It-Herself Guide to Fixing (Almost) Anything in the Home, included everything from plumbing to peepholes. It was a hit, selling more than 300,000 copies.

The two CIA wives - Tenet's husband is former CIA director George Tenet - came to their new vocation out of necessity. Their husbands were often away. They needed someplace to turn when something didn't work. They couldn't find it, so they decided to write a book themselves.

"We hope to inspire women, but we don't exclude men," says Glakas-Tenet, 49.

The guides are written with DIY (do-it-yourself) and DIFM (do-it-for-me) sections.

They also make sure the books don't look like manuals. "We wanted them to look like cookbooks," says Sussman, 45. "To have a friendly feel."

But the two readily concede they are not Click and Clack, NPR's Car Talk brothers.

"Far from it!" says Sussman, who confesses she "doesn't know how to do anything." Even write.

"I knew I was with a winner from the start," Glakas-Tenet says with a laugh.

They speak to those who don't have a clue about what's under the hood, such as the 250 Navy wives they met this month in Norfolk, Va. They've been holding Dare to Repair clinics with the Pentagon "family" since 2002. After clinics at Fort Hood, Texas, and Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., they'll go to an Alaska base.

"We're just trying to help the families left behind," Glakas-Tenet says.

With help from mechanics, government agencies and manufacturers, they put together everything a novice needs to know about an automobile, vetting each chapter with the experts, making sure what they said was not only helpful but accurate. "There's so much misinformation out there, it's phenomenal," Sussman says.

The question they're asked most often: What to do with a flat tire? Answer: pages 132-144. "The most important thing is to never, ever, ever pull off to the side of the road," Glakas-Tenet says. "It's dangerous. Even if you have to drive on your rim, do until you get to a safe place."

The two have other tips, too:

-Always check the air pressure when the car is "cold" - not recently driven - and buy new tires if Lincoln's face doesn't disappear entirely when a penny is inserted into the tread.

-Never get in the car while refueling. That creates static electricity, which combined with vapors can spark a flash fire.

-Check the oil regularly, but never add oil when the engine is running.

Speaking of that, Sussman asks whether the Nissan's oil has been checked lately. It hasn't.

She frowns and pulls out the dipstick, which reads half-full. "It's a little low, but the oil is clean," she says.

Is that good or bad? she's asked.

"That's good," she says, happy to be able to give a bit of good news for a change.

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© Copyright 2004 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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