Friday, March 29th, 2013

Many many moons ago I drove my lemon yellow Volkswagen bus from Colorado to California to visit my brother. I drove south from Denver to Albuquerque and then, in spite of every lesson I learned from Bugs Bunny about taking a left turn there,* I turned right, drove all the way across Arizona on old Route 66, entered California through the Mojave Desert and kept on going until I got to the Pacific coast. The drive north up Highway One to Carmel remains one of the greatest behind-the-wheel trips of my life.

While I was waiting at a stoplight in Carmel, a kid who looked to be about fourteen or fifteen years old stepped up to the curb, looked up the street, then looked at me. I don’t know if you’ve ever been privileged to ride in the cab of a Volkswagen bus. If you have, then you know that you are not far away from whatever is going on just outside the car. You are, in fact, sitting in front of the front wheels. Your feet are inches from the front bumper. All this to say, when someone is standing just outside the window looking at you, you can’t pretend that you’re invisible because you’re in a car. You are so close to one another that it would be rude.

So when this kid looked at me, I figured he was waiting for me to give him some kind of sign that it was okay to cross in front of me, even though I was waiting for the light. California was like that. When I drove up Highway One, I must’ve passed dozens of Volkswagens going the other way. The driver of every single one of those Volkswagens waved at me as I went past. It was like finding out I was in a club that I didn’t even know about until I got there.

There I was, waiting at a corner in Carmel, California, for a green light, the kid on the corner looking at me expectantly, and me thinking that I ought to give him some kind of sign … or something. So I extended my right hand and swept it across the dashboard in a gesture that, from my point of view, meant, Go ahead, or Safe to cross, or maybe even, I won’t run over you until you get to the middle of the street. From where he stood, though, the gesture apparently meant, Going my way? because he stepped off the curb, opened the passenger door and jumped in.

I was so stunned that the only thing I could think to say was, “Where you going?”

“Just three or four blocks up,” he answered.

Green light.

“Well, okay then,” I said, put the bus in gear and drove on.

I don’t remember whether or not we talked about anything. If we did, it couldn’t have been much. He really didn’t want to go that far. About four blocks up the road he pointed at the corner, said, “Right here’s fine.” I pulled up at the curb, he said thanks and jumped out.

And that was the first time I gave a ride to a stranger.

*When I started to write the part about driving south to Albuquerque, the first thing that popped into my head was a quote from Bugs Bunny: “I knew I shoulda taken a left toin at Albakoikee!” It wasn’t until after I finished the story that I opened Google and typed “Bugs Bunny should have.” It autofilled “turned left.” bliss!

hop in | 6:03 am CST
Category: daily drivel, O'Folks, play, story time, The O-Mobile, travel | Tags:
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Saturday, April 16th, 2011

I drove a little Datsun coupe while I was stationed in the United Kingdom. I didn’t intend to get a car but, when I got the chance to move out of the dorms after living there a year I took it, and I would have to buy a car to commute. Riding the bus wasn’t an option; the base was way out in the countryside and the bus ran by it infrequently. So I found my little Datsun at a garage just down the road and paid about $750 for it.

They say you get what you pay for, but that little Datsun was worth way more than $750. I drove it all over England, and the guy I sold it to drove it even more. It never gave me any trouble at all, except for one night on the commute either to or from work, I’m not sure. It was late at night, that I can remember for sure. I was tooling down the road at fifty or sixty miles per, and even with loud music coming out of the cassette player I heard a bang! under the hood. That, and the fact that every warning light on the dashboard lit up made me quickly take the car out of gear and coast to a stop alongside the road. I even managed to make it as far as the intersection with a side road so I could pull off the main road a bit.

When the car came to a stop, smoke came billowing out from under the hood and around the fenders, not a good sign at all. I jumped out and waited a minute or two for the car to burst into flame, but when it didn’t I walked slowly around the front and popped the hood. The smoke turned out to be steam hissing from gashes slashed into the back of the radiator when the fan blades cut into it. When I had more light in the morning I could see that a bearing in the water pump had failed spectacularly, giving the fan enough of a wobble that the ends of the blades could chomp pieces out of the radiator big enough to spray coolant all over the engine block.

I couldn’t drive it without any coolant in the engine, so I had to either call a tow truck to have it taken back to a garage, or try to fix it myself by the side of the road. It seems outrageous to me now that I decided to fix it myself. I had a simple tool kit in the car and a bare minimum of experience fixing cars. At one point, after unbolting the water pump from the engine, I resorted to whacking it with a brick I found by the side of the road when it wouldn’t come unstuck any other way. My tool kit didn’t include a hammer, for some reason. I guess I didn’t think I’d be needing a hammer to work on a car. Why would I, right? Well, here’s why.

I bought a new water pump in town because I had to, but I found a garage that would patch up the radiator on the cheap, a stroke of luck except when I went back to pick it up it no longer had a radiator cap. Jumping off the bus at the edge of town, I walked through the front door of the auto parts store with a radiator under one arm. When the guy behind the counter looked up at me and asked, “How can I help you?” I couldn’t stop myself from holding up the radiator and asking, “Have you got a Datsun that would fit this radiator?” He didn’t think that was funny at all. I think I had to apologize to him before asking help to find a cap.

Back out on the B-road now with a patched radiator and a new water pump, I set to work with only the fuzziest idea how to fix this thing. The mechanic at the garage helped me out a bit: He made sure I had a clean gasket for the pump and a tube of sealant for the gasket, and gave me a big plastic jug full of water to pour into the radiator in the somewhat unlikely event that I should be able to patch the thing together and get it going again.

But you know what? I did it. the water pump was bolted to the engine in just three places. I was very careful to clean off all the gunk, slather lots of sealant on the gasket and turn the bolts tight but not too tight. The radiator was easy to mount and even easier to connect to the hoses. The fan blades were nicked up but still in good shape. After it was all put back together and the radiator was filled up, I took a deep breath and started the engine, ready to shut it town the minute it didn’t sound right or I saw smoke or steam or anything go wrong.

Nothing went wrong. It purred like a kitten and kept on purring. I drove back, stopping off at the garage to drop off the water jug and have the mechanic look over my handiwork, but he found nothing to fault me on, and that little Datsun and I traveled all over England in the year ahead without another hitch. Well, except for one, but that was pretty minor, an oil cap that popped off in the middle of a long trip to York and let the engine burp oil up all over itself. Makes lots of smoke, does no real damage. Not to the car, anyway. Sure frazzled my nerves, though.

Wait, two. Yeah. Just two. But that’s another story.

My Little Datsun | 5:33 pm CST
Category: My Glorious Air Force Career, O'Folks, story time, The O-Mobile, travel, work | Tags:
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Wednesday, March 23rd, 2011

Every so often I like to reach for a volume of the printed-out version of this drivel that I keep on a bookshelf over my desk and flip back to see what I was doing on today’s date five, ten, fifteen years ago. Sometimes it’s worth a laugh, sometimes I gain a little perspective, sometimes it’s just drivel and I don’t get anything out of it at all.

Come along with me, why don’t you, on today’s journey into my past:

Five years ago I was babbling about the virtues of my Volkswagen bug, so that hasn’t changed:

“I would definitely call my battleship the Crushasaurus,” T informed me the other day. He wants a battleship of his very own, at least as much as he wants a car and probably more so, and he’s monumentally bummed nobody makes them any more. It’s sort of the same way I feel about the Volkswagen Beetle, except that his desires work on a much grander scale; money’s no object.

Those new ones are cute, but they’re not the same as the trusty old cans that Volkswagen used to be most well-known for. I was the owner of three different vans, myself, but I bought a bug to drive to work when we returned to the States from Germany, married just three years and so poor we only had one ‘o’ to spell it with. The front fenders were rusting off and the engine hatch was stove-in from when the car had been rear-ended, so the owner let me have it for four hundred bucks.

The gate guard at Buckley air base shook his head when he saw it and told me, “I thought I had the junkiest vee-double-you in the state, but yours beats mine, hands-down!”

It may have been a rolling junk heap, but that bug made it through the worst snow storms Colorado could throw at me. One morning after work, after the snow plows had done their darndest to block all the side roads, I gunned the engine and the beetle nosed up and over every single drift; it was so short from front to back that it never hung up on a snowbank, just tipped right over and kept on going, easily sailing over the deep snow on the unplowed back streets like a skiff over the surface of a calm lake. It was almost magical.

Tim still remembers it as “the blue bug.” He was all of two or three years old and used to ride in a second-hand child seat in the back, but he can easily describe all the goofy rubber monster heads a previous owner had installed over the knobs on the dashboard, and the fossil I found tucked behind an armrest, so he must have been at least as taken with it as I was. Kids love go-karts, and a bug is like the best go-cart ever made. Too bad our roads are just too fast and our cars too big for them any more.

Ten years ago I didn’t have a blog. Instead, I sent an e-mail to a list of about two-dozen people. On this day in 2001 I used it to inform everyone I knew that we would be leaving Digby, England to transfer to Misawa, Japan:

To all relatives and ships at sea:

I’ve been assigned to the 301st Intel Squadron at Misawa, Japan, to report no later than October. Just thought you’d want to know. This finally unties the knot that got all tangled up last October when I tried to start the assignment process by volunteering for a slot at a station in Yorkshire. That got yanked from me almost immediately and I’ve been traveling down one blind alley after another ever since. I was about to start this week a poke and a jab at another sleeping giant, asking for help, when my commander called me to tell me that my rip had just come in. It’s not chisled in stone, but it’s closer than I’ve been in a while. Now we get to start the fun of sorting through all our stuff to find out what we keep, what we sell, and what we just plain trash, working toward the day that it all goes into great big boxes so the movers can bash it into little pieces. Moving is so much fun.

And fifteen years ago I was so wound up about some car trouble that I went on and on forever about it. The car was a Dodge Colt. I remember that, when we took it for a test drive, B didn’t like it. I did and bought it anyway. This was before I knew she was usually right and I should always listen to her:

I’m in a mood, so let’s cut to the chase: car problems suck. They don’t get better, they get worse. You can throw piles & piles of money at your car, but if the car sucks, it only continues to suck, and if your car’s pretty good, it still sucks, but it doesn’t suck as much as a car that sucks a lot. Sucking sucky suck-suck cars. Christ, I hate car problems.

So I already ran down what sucked about the last problem: it wouldn’t run because of a busted wire and a bad sensor in the fuel injection system, but of course it waited until I was two friggin blocks from the shop to stop working altogether, so not only did the shop charge me a pound of flesh, but I had to tow it two friggin sucky blocks and friggin pay the sucking tow friggin truck. Then, to add insult to injury to another injury, or something like that, the mech who got the car running again found a leak in the transmission casing – the “nosecone,” he called it. My transmission has a “nosecone.” It was the mech’s opinion that, when the guys at the other garage installed the rebuilt engine, they shoved the transmission’s nosecone about an inch forward so that it rubbed against the chassis hard enough and long enough to drill a hole or crack it or do something that leaked transmission fluid all over the garage floor. Now my car needs a new nosecone.

In other news, I took my tech test this morning, so that’s over with. I can’t reveal the actual test questions to you, because it’s punishable by having your toes cut off, but a question that could’ve been on the test might’ve sounded like this: “How many total steps are there on the north side of the headquarters building on Randolph AFB, Texas?” The questions were about that trivial. I’m so glad my career hangs on questions like that.

Well, there you go. A reminiscence, a major life change, and a lot of bitching about car trouble. It’s a pretty mixed bag and I’m not sure it showed me anything except tempus fugit with a vengeance.

Time Flies Like An Arrow | 5:30 am CST
Category: My Glorious Air Force Career, O'Folks, story time, T-Dawg, The O-Mobile, work | Tags: ,
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Wednesday, February 16th, 2011

A story about patience and civility:

While I was living in Bedford, England, about a million years ago, I used to take the train to London just about every chance I got and wander around because, you know, cool! Why wouldn’t I, right? I mean, when was I ever going to get the chance to go to London again? So that’s what I did. And it was dead simple because a major train line ran through Bedford, and the train station was about a fifteen-minute walk from my apartment.

But one day I took the train from Hitchin instead. I don’t remember why. Maybe I missed the last train of the morning commuter rush and I didn’t want to wait for the next one. In any case, I hopped into my little Datsun coupe and drove down to Hitchin, parked in the lot, rode the train down and spent all day wandering in and out of record stores, second-hand clothing shops, probably watched a movie, I don’t know what all. I didn’t come back until very late in the evening, well after dark.

One of the tricks my Datsun coupe could do that made me very proud was get into parking spots so tight that watching me do it would make your eyes cross. The parking lot at the Hitchin train station was full of cars but I’d managed to find one little sliver of space left in a corner and very smugly wedged my Datsun into it. As I was walking back to my car late that evening I noticed what appeared to be a young lady in a business suit sitting on the hood of my car, and I was going to be very cross with her until I got close enough to realize that she was sitting on the hood to her car, which was parked into the corner by my car.

She didn’t tear into me, didn’t scream about how long she’d been waiting, didn’t say a single word until I unlocked the door of my car, whereupon she slid down off the hood of her car and, before turning away, asked me ever so politely, “In future, would you mind not parking so close?”

“Sure,” I answered her, “sorry about that.”

“’S all right,” she said, got into her car, and waited for me to back out of her way. I waited until she was well down the road before I put my car in drive.

In Future | 7:09 pm CST
Category: My Glorious Air Force Career, O'Folks, story time, The O-Mobile, work | Tags:
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Tuesday, December 21st, 2010

My first car was a ’69 Volkswagen microbus nicknamed “Warbaby.” I bought it for five hundred bucks from a hippy who threw in his battered copy of John Muir’s book, “How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive: A Manual of Step by Step Procedures for the Compleat Idiot.” The pages were already dog-eared and smeared with grease, and over the two years I drove the Warbaby I added plenty more greasy fingerprints to them to keep her on the road.

I loved her because she was my first car, but there was no denying she was a dog. Not just sorry-looking, although her looks were pretty sad. She wore an overall dark shade of green, the paint fried by the relentless Texas sun to a dull matte finish. Weirdly, the white paint on the roof was in better shape than the rest of the body. There was very little rust so she must have been a native of the Southwest, but she had plenty of dings and dents, and I added a big one to the left rear quarter almost right after I bought her. The Warbaby wasn’t only my first car, she was my first traffic accident, too.

Like most veedubs I’ve owned over the years, the Warbaby was a four speed. It could make sixty miles an hour on a good day in third gear, then hold that speed in fourth, but it wouldn’t go any faster, and if I could see I was headed for a hill, I would have to downshift to third to gain mechanical advantage. Driving this veedub took a lot of strategic planning, and if I didn’t stay on top of it, I’d end up losing a lot of speed and instantly creating a tailback of a half a dozen angry motorists.

I was still a new used-car owner when I got cut off heading for an exit off the Loop 410 on the south side of San Antonio. The off ramp was uphill and I was still learning the trick of downshifting, so I didn’t pull it off very well. To the drivers around me, it must have looked like I’d decided this wasn’t my exit and hit the brakes to get back on the Loop. At least, that’s what the guy beside me thought, because he gunned his engine, cut in front of me and nearly ran me off the road.

That’s when I hit the brakes and realized I wasn’t going to be able to make the exit. I had to swerve back onto the Loop, floor the gas pedal and hope the little engine would have enough kick to catch me up to the traffic stream. I was crossing over the shoulder to get back to the Loop when suddenly I went from struggling to gain a little speed to being a turbo-charged formula one race car. Whoa! That couldn’t have been my veedub’s engine!

Fighting the wheel for control, I grabbed a quick glance over my shoulder to check traffic and caught a glimpse of a big old Chevy skidding across three lanes of traffic, headed for the ditch. Holy shit, did that guy just hit me?

I managed to straighten out the Warbaby and pull over to the shoulder, but I don’t remember doing it. When I jumped down out of the driver’s seat and turned to run back down the road I fully expected to be greeted by the sight of a flaming wreck piled up against the concrete barrier. Instead, the car I saw squealing out of control just a moment before was pulling up to a stop on the shoulder behind me. When the guy got out, he was obviously shaken up and more than a little mad but otherwise just fine.

I can’t remember what I said to him, probably just gibbered something stupid like “I am soooo sorry,” but I remember the first thing he said to me. Standing at arm’s length from the rear bumper of my bus, he pointed at the caved-in left quarter and bellowed at me, “Do you care about that piece of junk?”

It took me a moment to realize he was settling up. “Um, no?” I answered.

“Well, there’s no damage to my car, so I guess we’re all right,” he said, then got in his car and left me there, hyperventilating. I didn’t even wonder why, I was just glad neither one of us was hurt, and just a little more glad he didn’t try to hurt me. Taking a deep breath, then another and maybe even another, I got back into the bus and drove away.

A ding on the loop | 9:02 am CST
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Wednesday, August 25th, 2010

image of Volkswagen microbus

There’s a Volkswagen microbus parked along the curb on Midvale Avenue, the street we drive every morning when I take My Darling B to work. It’s got a fresh coat of toothpaste-green paint and For Sale a sign in the back window and each time I passed by I became even more powerfully convinced that it was a ‘69 model. Then, day before yesterday, the bus wasn’t there, and it was missing again yesterday morning. I figured the owner had finally found a buyer, but when I drove B to work this morning it was back.

I stopped to have a look after dropping her off, peeking in all the windows. The owner had done some work inside, putting new liners in the doors and overhead, and cutting some foam to fit across the rear platform, presumably so he could stretch out back there in a sleeping bag. Squatting next to the passenger-side tire, I found the plate fixed to the side of the bus by Westfalia: it was stamped with the date 1969.

My very first car was a ‘69 Volkswagen microbus. Nicknamed “Warbaby” by my friends because it was in pretty sad shape, I bought it for five hundred bucks from a guy who threw in a vintage copy of John Muir’s book, “How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive: A manual of Step by Step Procedures for the Compleat Idiot.” When it came to auto mechanics, I was definately a “compleat” idiot; I added lots of grease to the pages of that book.

Here’s my favorite Volkswagen fix-it story: I stopped for gas near Kingman, Arizona, on a cross-country trip to California in my second Volkswagen, a lemon-yellow 69 bus named Maria. It’s been my experience that all old Volkswagens have names. The previous owner will usually tell you what it is when they’re sure you’re the one who will take good care of their baby.

I have no idea what Kingman, Arizona, is like. It may be a lovely place, but the gas station I stopped at was out on the interstate, surrounded by desert. I’d been driving across the desert for more than twenty-four hours without a break and still had a long haul across the Mojave Desert to look forward to, so after gassing up you can imagine how far my heart sank when I climbed into the bus, turned the ignition key and all I could get from the engine in response was a click.

I stared in disbelief at the dashboard dials, as if that would tell me anything, then did what everybody does after they turn the key to their car and the engine doesn’t turn over: I turned the key again. Why do we even do that? It’s like we’re thinking, Maybe it just wasn’t paying attention the first time. Now that it knows I’m back it’ll turn right over. But I got the same response the second time that I got the first time: Click.

I was too tired to panic, and I had lots of time on my hands, so I dug out my “Compleat Idiot” book out from under the back seat, I opened it to Chapter VII, Engine Stops or Won’t Start and began to flip through the pages, considering each possibility. The dashboard warning lights came on when I turned the key, so the battery was connected and the electrical system seemed to be short-free and in good working order. “Step 5. Check the Solenoid, Starter and Switch” seemed to hold some promise, so I read it a bit more carefully:

Slide under the right side of the car so your head is forward of the axle. Coming out of the engine will be a round thing that looks like an electric motor and the smaller round thing attached to it is the solenoid. At the end of the solenoid there’s a contact that connects the battery to the starter. Check all three connections on the solenoid and tighten them if they’re loose. Take a screwdriver and hold it across the two big connections. The motor should whirr into action but not turn over the engine. If it doesn’t, then your starter is shot.

I spent a lot of time on my back underneath this particular car, flashlight in one hand, screwdriver in the other. So much time that I kept a heavy denim coverall rolled up in a ball next to my tool chest under the back seat. I pulled on the coveralls and skootched under the back of the car with a screwdriver. No need for a flashlight, there was plenty of daylight left.

I easily found the starter. The Volkswagen is not a complicated machine. I’m pretty sure I could keep one running even now that so many of my brain cells have died that I have trouble remembering my age. After experimentally touching the bare metal shaft of a screwdriver across the contacts of the starter, it did indeed whirr into action. Breathing a great big sigh of relief, I scooted out from under the car to see what the book recommended I do to fix the problem:

If the starter whirrs satisfactorily, without untoward noises, then you can assume the starter motor is OK, so check the solenoid. Make sure the car’s out of gear and the key’s off. Connect your screwdriver across from the battery terminal to the small terminal and see what happens. If the engine gaily starts to turn over, then you have either a dirty solenoid or trouble with the ignition switch in the car. Take a small hammer and tap the solenoid with it wherever you can reach, except where the wire connections are.

Seriously? “Hit it with a hammer?” That’s how to fix this?

I had my doubts, but I was, as I said, going nowhere fast with plenty of time on my hands, so I wormed my way underneath the car once again to try it out. Touching the screwdriver to the connections did make the engine turn over. And, I have to add, causing a Volkswagen engine just inches from my face to jump to life while I was lying on my back underneath it is an experience that damned near made me shit my pants, even though I was expecting it.

Since the solenoid seemed to be the problem, I tapped it three or four times, front and back, with the round end of the ball peen hammer I kept in my tool box, just as the book suggested. Then I crawled out from under the car, climbed into the driver’s seat, took a deep breath, let it out again, and turned the key. Fired right up.

Huh. “Hit it with a hammer” works. How about that?

John Muir explains:

You have a dirty, rusty solenoid that doesn’t want to operate all the time. I had one in the old Bus and it’s a drag but when it didn’t want to work, I just rolled under the Bus with the screwdriver and hammer, made it work a few times and bounded it around a little. It’ll work for a long time before you need to do it again.

As it turned out, I had to crawl under the bus to hit the solenoid with a hammer again after pulling over to nap at a rest stop in Paso Robles, California. By the time I got to Pacific Grove, though, I learned that I could skip the step where I hit it and go straight to the part where I danced the screwdriver across the contacts. From there I figured out that, if all I had to do was give the solenoid an electrical jolt, I could connected a length of wire from the positive contact, run it to the engine compartment where I could easily get at it, and when the problem recurred I could just touch the end of the wire to an exposed bolt. Worked like a charm. I eventually replaced the solenoid, but in the meantime I didn’t have to crawl under the bus.

Every time I see a bus I want one again, in spite of all the work, and they do require a lot of tinkering and patience. The one for sale on Midvale gave me the itch to own one again, but I just don’t see it happening, given the way things are now. Also, we don’t have any place to park it. But it was nice to peek in the windows and remember again.

Veedub tale | 6:12 am CST
Category: daily drivel, O'Folks, story time, The O-Mobile | Tags: ,
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