Time is a funny thing. It drags or it flies but usually you are not aware of its passing. Then every once in a while you stop and think about it you’re like, whoa, what happened? I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. It’s now been four years since I backed the battered and abused Volkswagen into the garage and started to take it apart.
We never had a kid, but I believe there is an analogy here. Usually, unless there are some serious, long-term intoxicants flowing liberally on a regular basis, you don’t send your kid to bed, then when he walks into the kitchen the next morning for breakfast, jump out of your chair, spill your Frooty-Os, blow hot coffee out your nostrils, and stammer, flummoxed, “Holy sh— what the hey? How’d you get so tall all of a sudden, Mikey?!?” But when you drag your family along for that once-a-decade trek to see Uncle Terry — who nobody likes, who everyone avoids like those persistent souls who, undeterred by the gate in your “gated community,” show up on your doorstep hawking pine straw, firewood, steaks, salvation; but family nuclear and conventional tolerate Uncle Terry because he suffers the misfortune of having enough money to seriously believe that the American Dream is alive and well, thank you very much — you arrive at Uncle Terry’s and he says (completely oblivious to Mikey’s cringing parents), “Well goddam! Look at you! No, really — look at you! Look at you!” Uncle Terry tries several different iterations of the same general idea before stepping back, shaking his head, not believing. Then out of nowhere he gives Mikey a solid, lunging whomp on the shoulder, whereupon Mikey braces himself upon a conveniently-placed potted topiary, without being in the least bit privy to what a topiary is, potted or otherwise. “Shit, I remember when you were knee high to a grasshopper,” Uncle Terry exclaims, which is not a very convincing thing for him to say because the man drinks enough vodka to put an entire Siberian village to shame and has a hard time remembering last Tuesday, let alone Christmas, 1998. “Son of a bitch,” he says, in closing. Sportingly, your wife has chosen not to take this succinct clincher literally.
Like I said, nobody likes Uncle Terry.
There are plenty of reality-based, local examples to remind us of the passage of time. Take this Bus, for example:
I snapped this pic a little more than four years ago. I was lamenting the fact that I rarely seem to make it to any of the shows, so I decided to create my own with my bicycle and a cheap digital camera. Okay, so this one wasn’t quite ready for the concourse, but I do enjoy checking out old VW’s in any condition, especially daily drivers — vehicles being kept alive by sheer necessity (among other things). This one had potential, but let’s just say it needed a little work.
Here it is again, recently, after what must have taken miles of masking tape, several months’ worth of Sunday papers, and a healthy percentage of North American Rustoleum sales for FY2013:
You might or might not be surprised to hear that I like it. If it were mine, of course, it would drive me batshit — not because I’m a perfectionist (neither my budget nor my skill level would allow it) but because I believe that nothing is worth doing unless books must be read, hours must be spent on theSamba.com, stupid questions are asked, sleep is lost, and it’s a general-purpose, industrial-strength royal pain in the ass. But since it’s not my Bus, I like it. It looks better, at least. And it bears testimony to the natural beauty of these things, that you can heap all sorts of questionable practices upon an old VW but they still make me ache with desire. Try rattle-canning a Jaguar or a Corvette and you’ll know what I mean.
This next shot was also taken four years ago:
I told of this place a while back. Word is that in the late ’60’s, this place was hoppin‘ — the place to have your VW worked on. I don’t know when it closed down, but I’ve been here since the late ’80’s, and if it was operating then, I never knew about it. But I no longer had an air-cooled VW at that point, either.
When I took that pic I still had hope. Hope for what, I don’t know. Maybe me, or somebody a lot like me, would grab that Bus and resurrect it. Maybe an enterprising individual or party would buy the old building, renovate it, and open up a shop catering to all your air-cooled Volkswagen needs.
I took the photo below earlier today:
The Bus is gone, the sign is gone, the roof has collapsed. For a while there was the carcass of an early ’70’s Beetle in the yard, but that’s gone now, too. Students living in the adjacent railroad houses seem to park in the yard gratis, oblivious to the site’s former glory. Suffice it to say, I no longer have hope for this scene.
Time corrupts, and just in the past year I have noticed this at the personal level. Sometimes the evidence is undeniable, physical. Growing ever more frustrated with the ridiculously tiny print on the labels of everything from breakfast cereal to carburetor cleaner, I recently acquired my very first pair of reading glasses. A tiny little world opened up, one that I had almost forgotten. And for reasons I can’t readily explain, I’ve switched to an electric shaver — a device I’d always associated with old men trying to combat bushy eyebrows and errant, wiry hairs sprouting from their ears.
I watch my intake of salt, sugar, saturated fats. I ensure that my loved one is properly insured in the event of my death or dismemberment. My hearing continues to deteriorate as the ever-present ringing becomes harder to ignore. Put me on a bike and I’m instantly twenty years younger, but I wake up stiffer and take longer to recover.
I no longer sing in the shower. I no longer make funny noises alone in the car. I still have conversations with myself, out loud, but they usually concern looming decisions, expected justifications, or make-believe interviews in which I’m asked, in front of a studio audience: who is Bruce, exactly?
Sometimes I still dream about some day; more often I pine for what might have been, if I’d had my head screwed on right last week, last year, or when I was twenty.
I seldom laugh anymore.
I am losing faith in the power of mantras.
And I find that I’ve developed a powerful yet vague suspicion of crows.
The ravages of time manifest themselves in subtler ways, too. Recently I visited an old friend whom I had not seen in at least twelve years (we couldn’t remember how long it had been, exactly). I’d say we’re both looking and feeling pretty healthy for our age, but things happen to a man’s body when he goes from thirty-two to forty-four. We crease, we slump, we have wiry hairs sprouting from our ears. Though we laugh, hard, about the same things that were funny when we were seventeen, when we stop laughing the clock picks right back up where it left off. Although I’m by far more physically active than my friend, in many ways he remains the younger. He still takes stairs two at a time, I noticed. He still enjoys loud, raucous concerts, while I tend to shun crowds in any form. He can stay up all night, while I get cranky if I’m not headed bed-wise by nine-thirty.
In traffic recently I got behind a Honda with out-of-state tags, which in this town means probably a student. I noticed that his fuel door was open, so I decided I should let him know. Not so much as a random act of kindness, but mainly because I can rarely pass up the chance make someone else feel like a complete dumbass — in this case, for leaving the thing open in the first place, for not using his rear-view mirrors (which would have immediately clued him in), for being buried in his smart phone and thereby oblivious to the world around him. I pulled up next to him, rolled my window down, and with a cranking motion of my fist suggested that he do the same. But instead of complying, he simply stared at me like he had no idea what I was trying to say. His look was a glassy-eyed whatever, dude.
The light turned green and we went our separate ways.
I imagined the insolent things he might be texting or tweeting about the incident, if anything. Probably nothing. Probably he forgot about the whole thing as soon as the light turned green. Women complain about this especially, but I think it’s somewhat true for men as well: among the younger generations, there is a point at which you find yourself completely irrelevant. Invisible.
So then I wonder whether I’ll be the last person on Earth to remember what a crank-window was, what a dial tone sounded like, what it’s like to be lost, what it’s like to not instantly have an answer for everything. I wonder if I’ll be the very last Bruce.
I’m not supposed to have the mental outlook of an old man while I’m still in my 40’s, but I do. It’s scares me. It makes me wonder if I’ve wasted a sizable proportion of my life-force on negativity, fear, pain. It makes me wonder if this is nature’s way of ushering me off the stage, to make room for others, as if I had my chance and blew it.
But I’m not done yet. There are still things left to do.
Sometimes I fear that I’ll be in Velcro tennis shoes and polyester Sansabelt pants before I’m driving the Beetle again, most likely to the early-bird special at Cracker Barrel, followed by a wild night of bingo at the senior center. But as I take stock, it’s hard to believe I’ve come this far. Did I really install that headliner myself? Did I figure out how to rewire an entire car? Did I actually teach myself, at some point during those four years, how to weld, and use my rudimentary skills to join metal, to uncorrupt what time and the elements so earnestly strove to destroy? Which version of me showed up on those days?
It seems at times that I dreamt the whole thing. But then there’s the photo evidence. It looks like my garage, and an old VW that somehow got from here . . .
. . . to here.
So what’s left, chief?
They say a picture is worth a thousand words. ”What’s left” wouldn’t take that many words, but I’ll show you a picture of what’s left anyway:
Just that. What goes in there. And that’s about it!
For a while I’ve been carrying around a token in my pocket. It’s about the size of a dime. It might have actually been a dime, once, but it is no longer. I bought it up in Portland (Maine, of course — I tend to forget there’s another, somewhere) a few years back, in one of those artsy-fartsy boutiques that also sells things like blown-glass hummingbird feeders, commuter bags constructed from old inner tubes, wallets made from duct tape, and whimsical yard art risen from discarded lawnmower parts. My token cost three dollars (plus tax). I promptly lost it, probably in the tip jar in any number of possible coffee shops in a geographical region bounded, roughly, by a line drawn from Portland to Minneapolis to Denver to Houston to Ft. Lauderdale and back Portland. In lieu of retracing my steps, I bought another one just like it the next time I was in Portland. It was still three dollars (plus tax).
One side displays a peace symbol, just like we used to know. On the other side it says: CREATE PEACE.
Somewhere, at the end of a long shift, an overeducated and underemployed barista fished my old token from the very bottom of a jar (“Show Us Your Tips!”), contemplated its message, and sighed: prick.
Often, I can be exactly that: a prick. And, in a nutshell, that’s why I haven’t been “at large” lately.
Maybe you noticed. Maybe you didn’t. But things had started to take a decidedly acerbic tone — a hard-edged, spiteful tang that had little or nothing to do with the task at hand. A summer and fall of successes — body painted, interior complete, glass installed — gave way to a winter of very little tangible progress, mounting frustrations, and disillusionment with the whole thing. I was not creating peace. I was creating a mess. And instead of following my mother’s age-old advice (the bit about if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all), I had myself a public temper tantrum. Which is no more flattering at forty-four than at four.
I really meant it when I announced grand plans to finish the car in time to make Bug-a-Palüza in April. I really meant it when I said we were moving to Maine and Rubylove was going to get me there. And for a while there it looked like it really might happen.
Keeping my eyes on the prize, I even fought off the ultimate in temptation, the January morning she actually said “yes.”
We’ve been married for almost twenty years, but she never ceases to surprise me from time to time. I’m not a new-ager or anything like that, but usually when I start yammering about anything related to Volkswagens, there is a noticeable shift in the energy in the room. It’s not just her eyes glazing over, or the way she suddenly finds something urgent she needs to do, somewhere else. It’s more like some unseen force lets all the air out of the room, and replaces it with a stale gas, yellowed like old acetate, that filters out anything fresh, anything new. All that remains is: This. Again.
Being otherwise occupied and still imbued with a promising sense of purpose for the Volkswagen I already had, I had turned my eBay alerts back on. Just to keep an eye on things, you understand. Because really, at that moment in time I was not easily distracted. Yet there it was in my e-mail box: a 1972 tin-top Bus, with an unusual (dare I say “rare”?) Safaré conversion. Claimed to be in excellent mechanical condition. Glorious in gleaming, deep-green paint. In the photos the Bus looked perfect, but I’m well aware that photos can be deceiving (even my Beetle looks like a professional job on digital film, at certain angles, in certain light). But there was a video, too: outside, inside, turning the engine over, listening to it purr, up on a lift, underneath, close-up shots. Clearly this was one stunning Bus. No rust anywhere. Sounded great. Interior needed just a few cosmetics, but that only added cred, and told me that the seller couldn’t ask top dollar for it. Plus, it was only two hours away. I could go look at it, then bid.
And did I mention it was green?
Sitting there on the dining table with my coffee and my laptop, I was smitten.
She walked in from the bedroom and caught me moaning pathetically.
“What.” she said. With a period. Like she really didn’t want to know, like she just wanted me to quit moaning like an idiot.
“Nothing,” I sighed. “Porn.” Which, she knew, = sexy Volkswagen (in my language).
She poured herself a cup of coffee and walked over. I don’t know what possessed her. It was a strange thing for her to do. Did she see it in my face, that this was different? Was this a sign? Was this my chance?
“It’s green,” she said over my shoulder, knowing how I feel about that. “A nice green, too.”
I merely pointed to where the town was listed next to the photos.
“Hm. Are you going to go look?”
What? Is she toying with me? Is there a catch? Is this a test?
“Well, I gotta say, it fits. You could go look, right? How much do you think you’d have to pay for it?”
Knowing nothing about the Safarés, it was hard to say. On a lark, I threw what sounded like a ridiculously low number at her, mainly so I wouldn’t scare her off. “Oh, I dunno. I could bid six and see what happens.”
“It’s up to you,” she said, and hustled off to work.
A few days later, that beautiful Bus was gone to the highest bidder, for the sum of $6001.00. My guess was off by a single dollar. But I did not go look. I did not bid. She said yes, but I said no. And somebody got a super-sweet deal on a super-sweet Bus. The bastard.
After that I returned to the regularly scheduled programming, which consisted of fighting tooth and nail for every iota of progress. Given the amount of time I spent on the wiper assembly alone — assessing, researching, disassembling, ordering parts, re-assembling, re-disassembling, re-ordering the correct parts — it was shaping up to be a windshield wiper winter. But lo and and behold, getting that mess all back together — with the correct bushings, pivots, clips, and washers — took only about half of the winter. For the rest of it, and into the spring, I rebuilt the entire brake system, stem to stern: new front wheel bearings, new drums, new shoes, new wheel cylinders, new hardware, new hard and soft lines (the former bent and formed with my own bare hands, because the tools I bought for the purpose were junk), new emergency brake cables, and — the pièce de résistance — a brand-new, dual-circuit master cylinder. This last bit, as you may be aware, was a slight modification on my part; originally, the ’65 would have had a single brake circuit, but having witnessed first-hand the aftermath of a failed single circuit (in the form of a recently-rolled, heretofore gorgeous Single-Cab Splitty), I decided that this low-key mod was justified. The car is still far from moving under its own power, but I’m now 100% confident that if I pushed it out of the garage and jumped in, I’d have a rip-roarin’ 300-yard coast before stopping on a dime right before the retention pond at the bottom of the hill.
But the frustrations I met along the way almost made me give up. For real. I remember one crisp morning in particular: I had just discovered that I had to tear apart the wiper mechanism for the umpteenth time. Recognizing my state of mind, I decided the best course of action would be to set this subtask aside, and move onto something else. It was taking me forever to build up pressure in the newly-assembled brake system, so I figured a few rounds of bleeding might be a great way to blow off some steam. Since my wife was at work and I have no friends, this meant resorting to the “one-man brake bleeding tool” I picked up at the parts store. In the not-so-distant future, I would give up on this contraption, and accept the fact that I needed to (a) be nice to my wife so she might be a willing pedal-pusher for a few minutes of her hard-earned weekend, (b) hire one of the day-laborers that line up every morning down at the Home Depot, and/or (c) make friends with somebody.
But that reality had yet to blossom, and soon I was under the car, connecting cheap plastic fittings to cheap plastic hoses, which in turn fed into a cheap plastic bottle, to which was fastened a quarter-sized chunk of iron serving as a sorry excuse for a magnet. Given how my day was going, I shouldn’t have been surprised when, for reasons that are still not entirely clear, the system pressure seemed to decrease as I went along. Soon, the pedal went all the way to the floor with all of the bleeders closed. Was something lose? Was there a leak? The reservoir was full. I checked the master, the backing plates, under the pedal cluster, the carpet along the tunnel, under the back seat. Nothing. What the hay? By this point I was certain that the new master cylinder was defective (a fairly common thing, apparently, even for a brand-new unit), and was not relishing the idea of replacing it. So I really had nothing to lose by having one more go-around — that is, until my ham-fisted self broke off the right front bleeder in the wheel cylinder housing.
It’s amazing, really, how big of a hole a little seven-millimeter flare-nut wrench can create in half-inch drywall. And I still haven’t found the wrench itself. Possibly it’s still in the wall.
I went in the house in search of something sweet and sugary to stuff down my gullet, because the pleasure centers of my brain were desperate for some stimulation and it wasn’t noon yet, so beer was out of the question. As was a nap on the couch, since I had garage-floor grease on my pants and brake fluid in my hair. So I sat on the floor shoving Fig Newtons into my craw, one after the other, trying not to cry, trying to come up with ways to salvage what was intended to be a productive day in Volkslandia. Sure enough, as soon as the sugar-rush hit, it came to me: grommets!
I mean, how hard could that be?
In various points around the car are spaces where rubber grommets should live, doing what they do to keep water out and to prevent chafing of electric wiring or brake lines. The originals, of course, had long since “perished” (the British term, which I find terribly amusing), and replacing them with fresh new ones seemed like such a simple thing, on paper. Some were already in place. But I had missed a few. For example, the “long” brake line actually needs two grommets where it passes through the front firewall (that section of firewall often referred to as the “Napoleon’s hat,” and is actually comprised of a double-wall). Also, with my new wire harness, they either neglected to include the proper taillight grommets (possible), or I had lost the same (more likely).
I threw the empty Fig Newton package in the trash and headed back out to the garage with new resolve. Choosing to ignore, for now, the wiper assembly parts lying on the workbench, and trying not to think about how I was going to get the broken half of the bleed valve out of the wheel cylinder, I climbed up on the old red stool and began rooting amongst the many boxes stacked willy-nilly upon the slapdash shelving I threw up shortly after I brought the Beetle home for the first time.
I have been careful to label everything, but that doesn’t mean the labels always make sense. I can usually read my own writing. But it’s my shorthand that sometimes confounds me. For example, one box — labelled “UMFBRK” — was suspiciously light, like it might even be empty. Mainly out of curiosity, I climbed back down to earth with it. It was about the size of a small appliance, because that’s what had originally been in there — a very expensive Italian espresso machine that my wife absolutely had to have, and which was used exactly twice before being retired to a hard to reach, dark corner of the pantry to collect dust. I sure am glad my own whimsical urges always make sense.
At first I though the box was indeed empty. I shook it just to be sure, thereby releasing the two tiny items that had been hiding under the inner flaps of the cardboard. Both items were identical: about two centimeters long, mostly spring, with a little black cube of plastic or metal on one end. They looked important, vaguely familiar. But it would have been strange for me to simply toss them in a big box without a quick bag-and-tag. What were they? Parts to an electric motor? Key components for some sort of ratcheting, pawl-type thingy? Spare antennae for an alien homunculus? Where is he now? Is he watching me? Creepy! I put them back in the box, trusting that the answers would be revealed when I was ready to handle the truth.
Behind the box of umfbrk was a coffee can, upon which I had written with military-industrial precision: GROMMETS, rubber, assorted. Prying off the plastic lid released the aroma of fresh rubber. I dumped a pile of grommets into a tray and poked around with my finger, setting aside a few contenders I thought might work. I can’t remember the physical act of purchasing all of those grommets, but there were literally dozens of them. In all sizes.
Well, in almost all sizes. Wouldn’t you know, that although I might be the unsung grommet king of the greater Athens-Clarke County statistical area, not a single one fit in any of the spots that I needed them? I mean, how many damn grommets does a man need to find some satisfaction in life?!?!?!
Is there more than one homunculus following me?
With my expectations for the day at a nadir —
— no, not that Nader! That was a Corvair thing, dig? I said nadir. Anyhow, I figured I may as well continue my losing streak and get on with, I dunno, say, dash trim. I had some of the original pieces, all polished up, as well as some fairly decent repros. It was the clips I was worried about. I was pretty sure that, originally, the dash trim clips would have been metal, a lot like the body trim clips but smaller. But the ones I discovered in the package of miscellaneous parts I had ordered were plastic, dowel-like thingies. They certainly didn’t look like something any self-respecting German engineer would put his name on. Sure enough, after about five minutes of struggling with the trim, I had broken half of the new clips, and scratched the paint to boot.
Now, the army of alien homunculi were positively roaring with glee. These big goofy Earthlings are an endless source of amusement, yay-wot?
Later that afternoon I sat on the couch, after a less-than-spirited bike ride and a long, hot soak. I did not have a beer or play Words With Friends. There was no music and nothing to read. There wasn’t even a cat in my lap. I just sat there quite comfortably, doing something I very rarely do: absolutely nothing.
After a while my viscous thoughts began to settle, arranging themselves into strata according to their own weight. Some, it turns out, were so light that they floated away completely. So, I had a bad day. Big deal! Others revealed themselves in new ways. I can patch the wall before anyone else has to know. I can buy another wrench. But one thought overpowered all the rest: I’m going to sell it.
As more than one generation of therapists have asked of me, “And how did that make you feel?”
I have always had a hard time with that one, because feelings are not one of my strong points. In this case, though, I could immediately put my finger on it, using any variety of adjectives: Liberated. Refreshed. Unchained. Free.
I even had a plan for how I was going to do it. Knowing full well that there is little monetary value in someone else’s abandoned project, and not wanting to haggle over it anyway, I would simply place an ad in the classified section of the local club’s website. Over the course of my struggles I have posted numerous technical questions therein and, acceding to requests, have begrudgingly posted photos and updates from time to time. Presumably, they know who I am and what I’ve been up to. So I could include minimal details in my ad. The less said, I figured, the better.
And the asking price? Whatever your conscious dictates.
Yes, I would have most likely not gotten the best end of that deal, at least when it came to money changing hands. I assume that most of those guys are honest. But it’s not inconceivable that somebody would have crawled out of the woodwork, somebody with absolutely no conscious whatsoever, and offered me three dollars for it. It’s also not inconceivable that, given my state of mind, I would have accepted his lousy three dollars.
It would have made an interesting (if costly) study in human integrity. But just as I did not buy that Bus, I did not sell my Beetle. It was true that I was not having fun at the moment, but I also knew that selling this Beetle would — eventually — lead to that ugly byproduct of bad decisions, the same thing that haunts me whenever I think about the last Beetle I sold: regret. Regret that I would most likely never drive an air-cooled Volkswagen again, especially one that I built myself. Regret for the years wasted figuring out that this really isn’t my thing. Regret that, sugar-coat it as you might, I would be nothing but a quitter.
After a couple of weeks without so much as touching the car, I came to chalk up the whole thing as an exceptionally bad day in the garage. All winter long, as a matter of fact, progress was way, way slower than I would have liked. But eventually I figured it out, as I always do. I finally figured out how to rebuild (properly) the entire wiper mechanism, and now it works wonderfully. I found the proper grommets, the proper dash trim clips, and even touch-up paint that is a perfect match. The brakes appear to be working as well as Beetle brakes can. Plus, there is a small measure of beauty to show for my efforts.
So you see, I was just frustrated. For quite some time. It came to a head that day, but it passed. It will come again, and it will pass again. That’s what passion is all about. But from here on out I’m laying down some rules. For starters, I will not post when I’m in an ugly mood. I can write all I want, but I will not post unless I am in the proper state of mind. And I will try not to digress into social, political, or cultural commentary. There’s enough of that ugliness going around that you don’t need to hear it from me. If it’s even tangentially related to the air-cooled VW scene, then it’s fair game. But if I can’t say something nice, well, Mom’s advice will guide me.
Ironically, at some point this week, after laying down the rough draft of this entry, I lost my token. Pretty sure I left it in a hotel room in Kansas City, but there’s no way to know for sure. I realized it was gone while passing though airport security, when I went to toss my change in the bucket. I was upset about it, but not overly so. The message goes far beyond a trinket. I could live without it, right?
Later that afternoon my first officer and I arrived at our hotel for the night, in Memphis. For three days he had been driving me batshit. He is very large and very loud. Smacks his food to such an extent that I can hear it over the wind noise in the cockpit. Repeatedly tells corny jokes despite the fact that I do not respond at all, not so much as a guffaw, and persists though I remain buried in my newspaper. The more obvious I try to be, the more he persists, which frustrates me even more. Soon I descend in to outright rudeness, which still seems to have no deterrent effect whatsoever.
Earlier, 32,000 feet:
“Grasshopper walks into a bar,” he begins, licking barbecue sauce from his stubby fingers, “with a bowling ball in one hand and a pair of scissors in the other. Bartender says —”
“You smell that?”
I take a big, exaggerated whiff, and knit my brow like I’m concerned about something. “Like, an electrical smell? Like ozone?”
“What, the coffee pots?”
He is exactly correct. It is the coffee pots. Charred spillover on the burners in the galley, just the other side of the cockpit door. The smell is nothing like burning wires, but it’s not at all unusual.
“No,” I say, “Something else.” I cue up the electrical synoptic screen on the multifunction display, check the generator frequencies, battery amperage, transformer rectifiers, bus tie relays. I glance suspiciously at the circuit breaker panel overhead, then strain my neck to check out the panel behind me. Continuing the charade, I turn back to the electrical synoptic, and point at the readouts for the right generator. They are completely normal. “We should keep an eye on that,” I say.
In his Air Force days, he flew tankers. Old tankers, the kind without fancy computers to take care of everything for you. The kind of airplanes that had flight engineers, that actually required a thorough knowledge of electrical theory and application. The kind of knowledge that went far beyond my own limited scope of understanding, which can be best summarized as green = good (continue), red = bad (read checklist).
“Okay,” he says. For a second or two, I might have convinced him that there was something he was missing. Too soon, he shrugged it off.
“So anyway, this grasshopper walks into a bar —”
“I gotta go pee.”
Without going into too much detail, both because it’s mundane and because I’m not at complete liberty to do so, peeing at work is a royal pain in the ass. With the mostly short-haul flying we do in that airplane, only the longest scheduled flights might require a visit to the lav. In our golden years I’m sure we’ll all be rewarded for our usual perseverance with incontinence, in addition to hearing loss, skin cancer, and sciatica. The small prices we pay for living the dream.
“You want me to wear the mask?”
Everybody asks this question, and it irritates me every single time. The oxygen mask is nasty and gross, just like everything else in the flight deck that is never cleaned, ever. Although it just might save your life one day, it’s also restrictive, uncomfortable, and a great deterrent to casual conversation. It’s also required under Title 14 CFR Part 121.333 that, above FL250 (that’s pilot-speak for 25,000 feet, basically), when one guy leaves his station, the other guy has to wear the mask. This same rule, coincidentally, is behind reason #3 why I can’t have a beard. If I ever quit my job, not being permitted to grow a beard would make the short list of primary grievances. So you see, I don’t like the rule either, but it’s not up to me.
“It’s not up to me.”
Although he is normally good-natured, he gives me “the look” — makes no attempt to be sneaky about it — then shrugs and reaches for his mask. It’s supposed to be useable within five seconds or less (and functionally, I suppose it is) but in casual conditions it takes a bit of fumbling. First you realize that you should have taken your sunglasses off first, unless you want an imprint of your Ray-Bans on your face for the rest of the day. Then you have to get the flow selector set properly, to the non-emergency setting, which is difficult because if you’re already wearing the mask, the selector is backwards from the way it is seen when the thing is sitting face-up in its storage box. Next you have to set your external speaker and intercom to that elusive setting that lies somewhere between barely audible and OMIGOD LOUD!
After a minute or two of his fumbling with that unwieldy tangle of cootie-riddled rubber, when I hear the Darth Vader-like, rhythmic hissing of his regulator, when he’s finally looking at me expectantly through the scratched plastic face-shield, and I know I have his undivided attention, I slowly slide my seat back and undo my harness, as if to rise. But before I do, I reach for the range-selector button, the one that expands my navigation display out further. I bring Memphis into the screen. I glance at my watch.
“On second thought,” I say, “we’ll be there soon enough. It can wait.”
He turns his head the other way, facing his side window. We’re in the clouds, so there is absolutely nothing to see out there but vague white nothingness. I do not know what he is thinking, but I can hear that he has stopped breathing. Probably he was counting to ten, because after about ten seconds he yanks his mask off his head and begins to stuff it back into its box. Putting the thing back where it belongs is also a nuisance. You have to fold the inflatable harness a certain way, tuck the wadded-up rubber behind the mask, feed the main oxygen line into the box, stuff the mask into the protective sleeve, and close the compartment doors so that the selector shows through the little port and the microphone in the mask switches off.
“So where was I?” he asks once that’s all done. “Oh yeah. Grasshopper walks into a bar with a bowling ball and a pair of scissors.”
“Whaddya mean, where?”
“Where was the bar?”
He looks at me like, there is really something wrong with you.
“So anyway, he’s standing there with the bowling ball and the pair of scissors, and the bartender looks up and says —”
“You know, I’m having a hard time concentrating,” I interrupt. “I really think I should pee after all.”
So I guess you could say I was being a real prick. On the other hand, he was being pretty dense about what should have been quite obvious — that I just wanted to be left the hell alone. None of this, of course, makes him a bad man. I readily admit that, if I had bothered to step outside of my miserable self for just a few minutes and listen to his corny joke, we might have gotten along a little better. We might not end up as best friends, but it is true that I could have at least tried to be civil.
The hotel in Memphis is part of a nationwide chain of hotels, yet has one exceptional feature: a bellhop. The bellhop is an old black man, very friendly, in a crisp, white uniform and cap that makes my own uniform look shabby (not, I should note, that I have any pride whatsoever regarding my personal grooming at work). He shows undue and overstated deference, the way many older people do, to those of rank in uniform. In general, I cringe when anyone calls me “Captain” (especially an elder) but when the bellhop greets us at the door, I let it slide.
“Hello, Captain! How was your flight, sir?”
“Great, thank you, sir.”
Then he turns to my first officer. “Hello, First Officer, sir. How are you today?”
“Excellent, thanks! And you?”
A sly look spreads across the bellhop’s face. He speaks again to my first officer: “Say, lemme ask you something, sir.” Pointing at me, he continues, “How’s he treating you?”
My first officer just smiles. The bellhop laughs.
I respond: “I think a diplomatic smile is the best that I could hope for.”
It occurs to me then that I’d better plan another trip to Portland.
I was in first grade the first time I heard that something was going wrong with gravity. This was in 1975. Disco had not yet ruined everything and there were still some hippies around. And I don’t mean former hippies, or old hippies. They were still in their twenties, maybe, still doing their hippie things. They were strange to me at the time, but that was probably because I was raised by non-hippies, in an un-hippie fashion. In that insular suburban utopia, authority was not to be questioned, corporations always had our best interests in mind, and my country was right or wrong. Everything was just fine here, thank you very much.
But our bus driver was definitely a hippie. As a matter of fact, we called him John, the Happy Hippie. He loved us. He was great with kids. He had a lush, red beard and a braided ponytail that went half way down his back. John, the Happy Hippie, drove Mid-Hudson Transit Bus #137. I know this might be hard to believe in today’s day and age, but in his bus, John, the Happy Hippie, had installed an eight-track tape deck with stereo speakers mounted high up in the corners. We rode to and from school listening to the Grateful Dead. I don’t know how he got away with it.
I also don’t know how he got away with the time he suddenly decided to treat an entire busload of children to ice cream. I remember it like it was yesterday: it was the first warm day of spring and we had just left school, rolling through downtown Middletown, New York, outbound to the suburbs. I don’t know if John, the Happy Hippie, was hit with a bad case of the munchies or what, but suddenly he turned down the music.
“Hey, guys? Listen up!” he said. We instantly hushed because we liked John, the Happy Hippie. We respected him. All eyes were on John, the Happy Hippie, beaming in that big horizontal overhead mirror. “Anyone want some ice cream?”
Of course we did, and man, we let him know it. I’ve only been back to Middletown once in the last twenty-five years, but I remember a five-point intersection where the state road came in from God-knows-where, past the “miracle mile” of car dealerships and strip malls, and terminated downtown, in a bustling tangle of four other streets. Even on a good day it was complete mayhem. Yet somehow, John, the Happy Hippie, managed to maneuver Bus #137 into the tiny, wedge-shaped parking lot in front of the Carvel that sat on one of those five busy corners. We waited while he made several trips inside, each time bringing a cardboard box loaded with tasty treats. He walked down the aisle like an especially hairy flight attendant.
“Who wants a strawberry swirl? Who wants a chocolate sundae? Vanilla with [examines sample closely, suspiciously] some sorta multi-colored sprinkle thingies? I’ve got nuts! I’ve got no nuts! Something for everyone! All my friends!” This was before everyone had their own designer allergies, when we could just eat whatever we wanted and not worry about hives, shock, seizures, gastric trauma, or asthma attacks.
Maybe John, the Happy Hippie, didn’t get away with it after all. One morning shortly after our impromptu visit to Carvel, some sour retired guy named Oscar appeared in the driver’s seat. The eight-track tape deck, we noticed, was gone. Oscar did not seem happy to be there. But after a while we came to realize we were stuck with him. In warmer weather he cranked the heat up to the point where vomiting became a daily diversion. When he spoke, it was in a mostly futile attempt to restore order. Otherwise Oscar never said a word. We would greatly miss John, the Happy Hippie.
It was at some point during those days of John, the Happy Hippie, that I first learned of the gravity problem. But I didn’t hear it from him. It came from one of his kind, though — one of his fellow travelers in that Age of Aquarius. My first-grade teacher, Miss Brown, was also pretty much a hippie. She wore beaded bracelets and fringy things and a colorful braided band in her long, black hair. In my recollection, she reminds me a little bit of Cher, before Botox and Auto-Tune. She even played a guitar for us from time to time. This land is your land, this land is my land kind of stuff. She was no Janis or Jimi, but she kept us entertained.
It wasn’t Miss Brown who broke the bad news on us either. One day we had a visitor. I can’t remember if she was a friend of Miss Brown’s, or an activist with an environmental group, or both. I can’t even remember her name. She was basically a blonde version of Miss Brown, also with guitar.
It was from this woman (whoever she was) that I first heard of a thing called “recycling.” Again, this was 1975. If you are old enough, think about what you were up to in 1975. Yeah. That was a long time ago. Recycling was a radical concept. In many places in the US, it still is. I also remember first hearing the word “landfill”. Although I sincerely doubt it was the impression she was trying to create in our budding brains, I remember thinking that burying your trash really didn’t sound like such a bad idea. You know, gone. End of story. Out of sight, out of mind. Then again, I was looking at the problem with all the analytical skills of a six-year-old. Mainly because I was a six-year-old.
I don’t know if I was the only one confused, but there was a definite, tangible shift in the mood of the children sitting Indian-style in a semicircle upon the orange, flame-resistant, industrial carpet when she informed us that one day we were all going to simply float away. Even for kids accustomed to the prospect of a nuclear apocalypse at any time without notice flash-bright-blind and gone forever, this was quite alarming. What the hay? Some were afraid of heights. Others were worried about how they would breathe up there. Andrea Brinkman wanted to know if she could bring her new puppy. Colleen Morgan was concerned that the wax on her wings would melt from being too close to the sun. Jeff Moskowitz reminded her that she didn’t have any wings. Colleen said she’d make some. Miss Brown would teach us how.
In retrospect, I think the message was lost on minds as young as ours. If she elaborated upon her assertions I, for one, can’t remember it. Those of us in attendance that day wouldn’t hear another word about the gravity problem for decades. It only took a day or two for the urgent panic to fade, for us to return to being normal, happy-go-lucky children of the 1970s, living for summer break, the swimming pool, the ice cream man, and the ever-present possibility of instant nuclear annihilation.
Even today you don’t hear much about it. But I sometimes wonder whether things are slowly starting to wind down, like a top that can go for a really, really long time but finally starts to wobble, before it falls over and stops.
I have no idea how gravity actually works. I mean, I know what it does but as to how it does what it does I have no clue. I don’t feel so bad for not paying attention in school because I heard that the scientists don’t know how it works either. You might think they know everything, but they don’t. Not yet. So God will be around just a little while longer.
Am I worried about everything suddenly floating away? Pretty much. But I guess it really wouldn’t be all at once, like one day you step outside to get the paper and you start to rise up and just keep going. If it was the paper you were after, I guess that wouldn’t be such a problem because it would have floated away too. Also, by the time this actually happens I don’t think we’ll have papers anymore. So maybe that’s a bad example, but you see where I’m going with this.
No, I imagine it would be more gradual. Like say you throw a frisbee for the dog. Not only does the frisbee go further, and you’re like, dang! but also the dog runs faster (maybe) and jumps higher (definitely). You might not notice it at first. But when your dog seems to be able to jump even higher as he gets older — maybe one day he jumps over the fence, which of course would be on trash day — it makes you stop and think. Eventually, the turds he leaves in the yard never hit the ground, but sort of hover there for a while. You could just wave the turds into your neighbor’s yard if they weren’t cool.
Come to think of it, we would have to learn to be careful otherwise there would be all kinds of junk floating around. Haircuts would leave a god-awful mess. Larger items like gas grills, yard furniture, and even livestock would have to be tethered to something otherwise you’d lose it and it might get sucked up into a jet engine, and how would you feel about having that much blood on your hands? I know airplanes would probably be different, too, like maybe they would hire immigrants on work visas to simply row them along, but you can’t expect me to have this all figured out. I’m a man of ideas, not an engineer dammit. And don’t forget and throw that beer can out the window, because it’s just going to hang there until bonk the next driver hits it. Probably wouldn’t kill him, but it might scratch his paint or chip his windshield, so he’s going to be pissed about that. Plus, you really shouldn’t be littering anyhow, so this might be a good opportunity for some self-reflection. See how you are?
All kinds of sports records would be broken. Seventy-yard field goals would be like, so? Even pitchers (National League) might hit home runs sometimes, unless they move the outfield wall further out, which would make those cheap-ass seats back there even worse, which would mean they’d have to lower the price of those seats to, like, free, which would mean lower revenue, which means they’d probably leave the wall right where it is, because otherwise, the people back there couldn’t see the game, and the people in the good seats couldn’t read the advertisements on the wall. You’d have to stand up and cheer more — because hey, a home run’s a home run — but you’d have to be careful that your beer didn’t rise up out of the cup from all the commotion. But then if it did, I guess it would just be like a carbonated yellow blob until you catch it back in your cup or go ahead and slurp it up right where it is. Come to think of it, maybe beer would come in a leak-proof plastic pack and you’d suck it through a straw. Hey, I don’t like the sound of that either, but this thing’s coming and we’re going to have to start facing our problems like grownups.
In New York City, they’d have to make the subway turnstiles like eight feet tall, at least, because even your grandma would suddenly be a high-jumper. Which would mean higher ceilings in some cases, or deeper subways, but you know? You can say what you want about New Yorkers, but you have to admit they always figure everything out. Around here people just whine and eat and go to Walmart for more ammo.
Apparently I’m not the only one worried about all this gravity business. I mostly kept it to myself until I read about a thing called a meta-analysis, where scientists look at all the studies and articles and research that have been done on something and sort of average them all out. Why they have to say, like, “we conducted a meta-analysis” versus “we averaged it all out” is because, well, they like to keep people on their toes, like they still have some secrets that they aren’t going to share, for now. Like we couldn’t handle the full truth. Which is probably true. Anyhow, what they found out was that 99.99997% of astrophysicists agree on two things: one, that while gravity has indeed varied slightly over the eons, the prevailing trend is that we are on the cusp of a “hockey stick,” meaning that the whole thing is about to get a lot worse real fast. And two, that it’s mostly our fault.
The idea that each of us is conducting little everyday acts that are messing with something as big as gravity is hard to picture. So try harder. Like I said, I don’t know how it all fits together, but apparently it’s all got to do with people moving around. Back in the old days, sure, the men would go out hunting, and the women would, say, go down to the creek to do a load of colors, but for the most part everyone stayed put. Even my own grandmother never left the state of New York until she was like 84, when they shipped her off to assisted living near my uncle’s place in North Carolina. But now everyone’s from somewhere else. We’re a world on the run. Like the other day, I met somebody (a white dude) who said he’s from Atlanta. I mean, really from Atlanta — born and raised! I said huh, don’t see that every day.
Kid running through the sprinkler in the yard on a hot summer’s day? He’s messing with gravity. Grandma driving to church on Sunday? Same thing. Taking your crusty old Yamaha for a spin around the block for the umpteenth time, trying to get that carburetor adjusted to where it quits conking out every time you stop? You got it. Picture a basketball spinning on a finger, then picture six billion other fingers pushing on it from all different directions. Okay, so maybe the scale is a little different but you get my point. Like I said, I don’t know how it works, exactly. But if it were just the kid in the sprinkler, or just Grandma driving to church, it wouldn’t be such a big deal. But when you think of mass transit, a sprawling network of highways, swarms of airliners, oil tankers, eighteen-wheelers, freight trains, it starts to add up.
Some causes are a bit of a surprise. Take artillery, for example. Again, shooting empties with your Daisy is no big deal. But it’s a little known fact that one reason people were lighter in the immediate aftermath of World War Two was because of the unprecedented use of industrial-strength firepower. Granted, they weren’t all firing in the same direction. But apparently the planet gets confused. Like when you get to a four-way that wasn’t on Google Maps and your smartphone’s locked up. You don’t know which direction to go, so you stop and people start honking and yelling but I say screw ‘em, let ‘em wait.
In most wealthy, forward-thinking, civilized nations there is general consensus among the powers that be that one, this thing is indeed happening, and two, we need to do something about it. Of course there is widespread and often heated debate among them as to what, exactly, the proper course of action is. But they do agree that, yeah, we gotta do something. Not so here in the good ole US of A. No sir. Here in ‘Merica (land of the free, home the brave) sizable portions of the population refuse to accept this harsh reality. Some say it’s a big hoax. As if all of those astrophysicists are finally, one day, going to simultaneously release their barely contained laughter, and scream, with tears running down their faces, “HAHAHA — you were so scared! Y’all were just freaking out! HAHAHA!” and the rest of us would just look sorry for ourselves and say man, that wasn’t very funny. Don’t do that again.
Others think all of this silliness about the loss of gravity is nothing less than a great government conspiracy, although it is never made clear what the benefit to said government would be to pull such a stunt. Taking a more economic tack, some say that India and China aren’t helping any. I’d agree with them on that, but is that to say we should simply sit on our duffs and wait for India and China to get their collective shit together? They counter that any action large enough to meet the massive scale of the problem would necessarily wreak havoc with the economy. Okay, well, yes, I suppose you have a point. Except it sounds to me like you have an economic problem there, bud. The way I see it, any system that requires cancerous growth to thrive is inherently flawed from the get-go. But then again, I’m no sour, chain-smoking, Russian émigré flapper with an overactive imagination who renamed herself after her typewriter.
Then there are the survivalists. All I can say about them is that I do not want to survive in a world where you have to be a survivalist in order to survive.
Still others smile beatifically and say it’s all part of God’s plan. I can’t argue with that. Nobody can argue with that. That would be like trying to nail jelly to the wall. I’m quoting science and you’re quoting fairy tales. Is the fact that you sound like a complete moron also part of God’s plan? By the way, if you are going to tell me that God’s plan is all right there, right in your Bible, I would say that God needs to get with the times. Nobody reads anymore, for Chrissakes. Especially books. Especially big books with language that, if you talked like that in everyday conversation, you be institutionalized for life. God needs a blog. God needs a Twitter feed, so He can share His Holy Plan with those of us who are younger than, say, eighty.
Yes this is all part of my plan. U r screwed lol
Maybe the deniers are onto something after all. I suspect that secretly — most of them at any rate — they, too, know this thing’s coming. Maybe they comfort themselves to know that the first to go would be the lightest, the unencumbered. Like starving orphans in refugee camps on the dark side of the planet. Those of little consequence here. Collateral losses in these early stages might also include a few fair-skinned jockeys, and some supermodels, but collateral losses were never of much concern either. At least football players would be around a while. There would be something to do, something to distract us while we wait things out.
In the first world, students — who tend to be, by simple virtue of their youth, lighter — would succumb early. But who needs an educated populace anyway? Next would be the poor, those for whom we say there but for the grace of God go I but who are otherwise invisible. Then the old, the infirm, those down on their luck, the “takers” who are inconveniencing the rest of us by no longer producing anything, who have the gall to expect others to have just the slightest bit of compassion. Then would go the pedestrians, citizens on bicycles, or those driving small, sensible cars, living in small, sensible dwellings.
Chances are I will be long gone on the day it finally happens, when gravity gives up on the last of them. The earthly things to which they were tethered will no longer be of any use. It will be a glorious day. It will be like the first conception in reverse: hundreds, thousands, millions of bloated figures bristling with their firearms, rising in unison, red-faced, pointing, blaming, arguing, slinging spittle and vitriol at one another. Forgetting that soon they’ll be closer to their God, for the final judgement they warned us about, on this day when neither their bellies nor their guns will hold them down, on this day when the pigs will fly.
Already I feel better for having gotten that off my chest. I feel bad about unloading everything on you like this. But nobody likes it when people assume things about them. Nobody wants to be told they’re just like everyone else. Thank you for being such a good listener.
Just a few more things while I’m at it, and then I’ll leave you alone. Some of these things have nothing to do with anything. Like that fact that I’m the only male citizen of Athens, Georgia who knows absolutely nothing about football. Do you have any idea how hard that can be, when a total stranger assumes I’m a couch sitting/Domino’s eating/Miller Lite guzzling/remote control hoarding football fanatic just like he is, and assumes I know what the hell he’s talking about? When all it does is remind me what a misfit I am? Should I just nod and pretend I saw the game, pretend I get it, pretend I’m with him? How would you feel?
So stop. Please. And add “football” to the list that should also include politics and religion. Consider me “polite company.” There is no common ground. You are wasting your time. So just stop. It’s just a little elevator ride. You’re a big boy now. You can handle it.
Here’s another one: please do not assume that I am an Angry White Male. Strictly speaking, I suppose you are correct: I am angry, I am white, and I am a male. But the thing is, nine times out of ten, those I am angry with are Angry White Males. So again, please stop. Your jokes are not funny. Save them for your friends. I’m sure you have quite a few friends, around here. And I’ll leave. I’m working on it. We’ll both be happier. Just give me a little more time.
And, for the record, any TV-related question will always get the same exact answer, a little reward for your assumptions:
“Did you watch —”
“Have you ever seen —”
“Well, you know that guy on that show —”
“You know, that song from the Mazda commercial —”
I have previously stated — probably more than once — that I do not own a television set. In the strict legal sense, I’m not sure if that’s true. My wife has a TV tucked into a corner of her study, upstairs. I almost never go in there; as a matter of fact, I sometimes forget that we even have an upstairs. But I have noticed several remote controls in a ceramic tray on the coffee table up there. Apparently, in addition to the television, there’s a satellite box, a DVD player, and a small black box for downloading movies on Netflix. Each device seems to have its own remote. I’m sure there is a procedure for starting up the television, but without a checklist of some kind, I’d be lost. I’ve never felt compelled to try.
The last television I can rightly call my own was stolen in 1991, when I was still in college. I lived in a rickety old railroad house in a sketchy part of town. There had been previous break-ins. The first time it happened, the thief or thieves made a general mess but inexplicably bypassed almost everything: the television, my stereo rack system, my roommate’s drum set, a fancy-schmanzy IBM personal computer with a blazing 486 processor and an Epson dot-matrix printer. Even my beautiful Kurzweil electric piano — the one I’d sold my old Datsun to buy — remained untouched. As a matter of fact, it took my roommate and I about two months to realize that the only thing missing was a my mother’s old Hoover upright.
Eventually they got most of the other stuff too, including the television. Being a broke and irresponsible college student, of course nothing was insured. I couldn’t be without my tunes, so I gradually built up a new rack system, piece by piece. If both of us were leaving town for the weekend, I would henceforth bring the stereo with me. But given the evidently ceremonial ritual of locking the doors when we left, I never bothered to replace the television.
The way I see it, to say that by some facet of nuptial law my wife’s television set is also mine is just plain silly. Like saying that I own a Burberry scarf, a Prada handbag, or a pair of lacy black panties. It would be just as absurd for my wife to say that she owns a MIG welder, a tap and die set, or that box of crusty old Solex carburetors shoved under her husband’s desk. That’s why I say I do not own a television.
Why am I so adamant about making this point? Why so self-righteous? What’s up with the holier-than-thou attitude?
Does the fact that I do not own a television make me better than you?
In short, yes. In this thing it does. This one thing. More than likely, you are a better man than I. A better husband, a better father, a better son. A better friend. A better worker. A better citizen. And if you’ve ever even touched an air-cooled VW, you’re surely better at that, too. I know these things and they hurt.
So can’t you just give me this one little victory? Could you please stop assuming that I park myself in front of a glowing box for hours on end, soaking in puerile entertainment and insulting commercials? Please?
Thank you. And now on to the assumption du jour.
I already told you about the e-reader I had for a very short time before I figured out that it just wasn’t my thing. Partly it was a moral issue, since I like to support my local bookstore (and I don’t mean the local chain with the pretentious name). Partly it was tactile: I like having the actual thing — to have and to hold, to smell and to leaf through, to spill coffee on, to write notes in the margin, to feel how the spine loosens up the deeper I get into it. To loan out and never get back, or to place on my shelf as I move on to the next one. To rediscover one or five or twenty years later, to pull back off the shelf, to dust off, and to remember where I was, what I was up to, or what songs were rattling around in my head when I read it the first time around. Sure, you can always download a digital file a second time. But you’ll never wonder what exactly it was about one certain word, one among thousands, that made you circle it three times. You’ll never discover a long-since-forgotten photograph shoved in the crease, from a long-since-forgotten day you shared with the person you love. You’ll never find a folded up receipt on page 303, and try fruitlessly to remember what it was that made you part with $8.99 (plus tax) of your hard-earned money on at 2:15pm on January 23, 1989.
Thank You and Come Again!
An added benefit of an actual book over its electronic version is that the former is is far easier to hind behind. Of course, nothing says “fuck off” like a big ol’ newspaper spread shoulder to shoulder, crotch to crown. But a real book will do the trick too. Just pretend you’re severely nearsighted. Bring it to within inches of your face if necessary. Usually, they’ll get it. Or at least they won’t realize you’re only pretending not to hear them.
But sometimes, people don’t get it, no matter how hard you try.
“So, you’re a car guy?” asked a coworker on a recent day, an exceptionally obnoxious specimen for whom subtle (or not-so-subtle) clues were, as I was finding out, a complete waste of time.
One of the few things that keeps me going at work is that very little actual work is required. We do more sitting around than the Maytag repairman. Some do crosswords. Some play games on their smartphones. Some read such stimulating, thought-provoking offerings as People, Guns & Ammo, or Maxim. Others go for dangerously soporific fare, like Forbes or Money.
I prefer the newspapers, not only for the aforementioned tactical benefits but also because I like to keep up on current events (which reminds me of yet another common assumption, that because I do not watch television, I must be uninformed). On this day, however, I had already proofread the The New York Times cover-to-cover, so I pulled a random issue from my mobile magazine collection. Usually in my flight case I carry several magazines: one about cycling, one about running, and a national (but definitely not mainstream) weekly that would immediately tag me as the progressive liberal that I am — if only people around here had even heard of said publication. You can’t find it in the sorry-ass bookshop at the airport.
To my great joy, on this occasion the random sample I withdrew was the latest issue of the British magazine VolksWorld. There is a very popular US-based classic Volkswagen magazine, but quite frankly, I find it annoying. I won’t say which major national classic Volkswagen magazine it is, but since it’s the only one, you can figure it out. Maybe I’m expecting too much, but even articles written by the editor are appalling. I’m sure he knows his subject, but conveying that knowledge — as any college freshman suffering the endless meanderings of a tenured and otherwise respected professor can tell you — is a whole ‘nother thing. And while I can ill afford to nominate myself as a grammar Nazi, I’ve come to believe that the feature writers in that magazine have simply given up in that regard. Sentences such as, “While Jones welded-up it’s pan, Smith built-up it’s engine” are all too common. At least the guys at over at VolksWorld are irreverent enough — and the photos compelling enough — that really, I couldn’t care less about their grammar. Maybe hyphens and apostrophes are more expensive in the UK.
And then there are the flames. Please no flames on the Volkswagen, thank you very much. You may be the best custom paint guy on the entire planet, but the nexus of exquisite skill and abysmally poor taste is a dangerous place to be. A Volkswagen with flames also presents a somewhat common paradox: no person fancying such a vehicle could possibly be mature enough to hold a driver’s license. Same thing for Hummers and Corvettes. You know it’s true because I said so. So grow up. Because I’m so mature and all.
“No,” I said, breathing deep, exhaling dour toxic smoke. “I am not a car guy. I, uh, found it in the library.”
The library is the little bin in the cockpit, underneath the side windows, where miscellaneous junk tends wind up. You may be surprised to learn that the cockpit of a commercial airliner is an especially grungy place. Grody, even. No one cleans in there — ever. You simply pick up your rubbish when you leave. Or not. If I have to pick up after the last guy — a half-finished cup of coffee with a single potato chip floating in it, crumpled up tissues, another styrofoam cup with paper wadding in the bottom, stained with something that looks suspiciously like tobacco juice — I’m am known to collect said items and deposit them in the offender’s vertical file in the crew room. Ask me if I give a shit. If this whole thing were a popularity contest, I’d be running dead last anyhow.
The library is the last refuge for the quasi-literate. After you’ve finished drooling over the pictures in your Guns & Ammo, gotten stuck on that same level of Angry Birds, and given up on the daily crossword puzzle (final stumper: CA_. (common pet)), there just might be a little treat in the library for you. Hopefully, said compartment won’t be filled with several inches of water, which tends to seep through the window seals if the aircraft sits, unpressurized, all night in the rain. Among the previous crew’s castoffs, you might find a weeks-old USA Today, the previous month’s Guns & Ammo, or a bag of Cajun-style trail mix that we haven’t served aboard our airplanes since, like, 2003. Or a screw, light bulb, or other unidentified piece of the airplane that, for one reason or another, has never been returned to its proper location — wherever that may be.
“Can I see it when you’re done?” he wants to know.
“Sure,” I say. Shortly thereafter I conveniently “lose” it and hope he forgets all about it. Which he probably will.
But now I’m thinking about his assumption. Am I a “car guy”? Me? Certainly not! Sure, I think about Volkswagens morning, noon, and night. I go to Volkswagen shows from time to time, critically assessing the merits and demerits of the offerings on display. And one of my favorite work overnights is the one everyone else seems to hate: the musty old hotel in downtown Canton, Ohio. Once part of a major hotel chain, it’s one of those joints that must have lost its franchise agreement. Now it gets to maintain its own standards. Or not. But in the basement of said hotel is an antique auto museum / showroom. Everything in there is for sale, so the stock usually rotates. You never know what you’ll find. I’ve seen everything from Model T’s to MG’s, Plymouths to Packards, Corvettes to Chevettes (really!). Every now and then, I’m giddy to find a Volkswagen down there. Once they had an orange Thing; another time — in the lobby even — they had a Fontana gray 1965 Beetle. It was beautifully restored, but at $14,000, I thought they were a little proud of it. Unfortunately, the photographs I took that day did not survive the mercy killing that my cell phone was shortly thereafter subjected to. But here are some of my favorites from other visits:
I even think about new cars from time to time, weighing the pros and cons (mostly cons) of modern designs, considering which I would be interested in if I were car shopping, if I were not planning on driving the Subaru until it dies (i.e., a very long time). Very few of the new ones pass muster with me. I like the new Impreza, the one with the smaller, more fuel-efficient 2.0-liter boxer, because in today’s day and age, it’s a ballsy move to put a smaller engine in a model, and you gotta respect that show of defiance — but most of the other Subies have gotten so freakin’ huge. I’d probably check out one of the Volkswagen TDIs, like the Golf or the Jetta SportWagen, but I know from experience with my wife’s current Eos and previous Jetta that both could be a little quirky. Not that there’s anything wrong with quirky, per se. Those models’ air-cooled ancestors were well-known for their quirkiness, and we love them anyway. You just gotta be ready for it. Truth is, there’s not much tempting me into a showroom right now. I’d probably just go the slightly used route. If I were shopping for a new car. Which I’m not.
Because see, I’m not a car guy. But being tagged as one was so traumatic that I’m actually reconsidering an e-reader. An iPad, actually. I would not read books on it, but being a traveling man, it would be quite a convenience to be able download my favorite newspaper or magazine wherever I like. Most of the periodicals to which I subscribe are now available in the proper format (except the aforementioned American VW magazine, the subscription to which I intend to drop anyhow). Also, without an actual cover, “Co” might be more inclined to mind his own damn business over there.
An iPad would indeed be difficult to hide behind; but if he says, “So, you’re a gadget guy?” I can always just crack him with it.
To date, the hardest part about the rebuilding of this Volkswagen was not the famously frustrating task of installing the windshield.
The hardest part was asking for help with the same.
Once I fell out of an airplane. This was back when I was a “ramper” (baggage handler) for a small commuter airline. It had been raining and my boots were wet. One moment I was standing on the smooth aluminum floor in the rear cargo compartment of a De Havilland “Dash Eight” turboprop, handing overstuffed bags to a coworker, and the next minute I was flat on my back on the tarmac. When I came to, there were a handful of other rampers looking down upon my prostrate and confused person, gape-mouthed and wide-eyed.
“Man,” somebody said. The ramp was a noisy place so I was lip reading. “Are you okay?” Hands were extended. I was only out for a second or two, I think. But I was suddenly aware of two things: one, I had a massive headache; and two, I didn’t want anyone’s help. I just wanted to be left the hell alone.
“Fine,” I mouthed. “Go away.”
Of course they were having none of it. With good intentions they helped me to my feet. I was a little dizzy, but reasonably confident that I was not going to die in the next few minutes. They led me into the break room. Some said I should go get checked out by a doctor. Others said I should file a report, and that there might be some “worker’s comp” in my future. Someone said he would go tell Maria, our easily-excited, over-caffeinated, oft-hysterical supervisor.
“Do not,” I said, “tell Maria.”
After a few days my headache went away. Looking back, I was foolish. I most definitely should have had someone take me to the emergency room (someone, it would be hoped, other than Maria). Instead I was back to work in less than an hour. I finished my shift, drove home, and slept for fourteen hours straight.
I was lucky. But this illustrates the lengths I’d go through to avoid the nagging feeling of being beholden to others for my own well-being. It is rooted, I believe, in learning early on that others are a threat and “safety in numbers” is a myth. My formative years were rife with experiences that only served to reinforce this sour view: By the time I was sixteen, I’d been kicked out of Cub Scouts (fighting); bullied in Little League; humiliated in football; rejected for basketball; beaten up in wrestling; ejected from marching band (shitty attitude); and kicked off the track team — the sole athletic pursuit in which I showed just a hint of promise — for the same shitty attitude. I was cast out, ridiculed, rejected, and chased home from school more times than I could count. With a mentally unstable mother and a workaholic father, sometimes I’m amazed I turned out as well as I did. Thankfully, there were no guns in the house.
With the benefit of years, and a little bit of wisdom, I understand these things now. My antisocial behavior was both self-defeating and self-fulfilling. I see my mother’s problems with sympathy now — no, not sympathy. Empathy. And my father busted ass, for years, so that nobody else (especially his rudderless and ungrateful eldest son) would have to. As a spoiled upper middle class white kid, I could simply skate on by, without being exceptional in any way, and come out okay in the end.
At least on paper. But still there is this: One is not a lonely number. One is a safe number.
Decades on, not a single member of the local classic Volkswagen club had seen my project in person. I’d posted some photos online, asked plenty of questions, and gotten plenty of helpful responses. But online is online and in person is in person, and if you can’t tell the difference then you must be too young to remember hand-cranked windows and dial tones. I’d also gotten tons of help from TheSamba.com, but again, that’s different. There are hundreds of forum members on there, all waiting to show everyone how smart they are. They don’t have to stop what they’re doing, clear an evening or a Saturday afternoon to come over and lend a hand. And I don’t have to buy anyone pizza and beer.
But now I was completely stuck, unless I wanted bugs in my teeth and a stiff breeze in all weather. I simply could not get the windshield in.
Installing a windshield in a Beetle — especially if, like me, you insist upon the proper chrome trim — is one of those jobs that, like headliners, many highly-experienced VW guys won’t even attempt. There’s a guy in the local club who is literally world-renowned for intricately-engineered, high-tech, high-performance custom engines. I’ve been to his shop (a complex of shops, actually) and I felt like a dog watching television. But even he won’t touch a windshield.
Although I’ve heard some unsubstantiated rumors, by most accounts it’s a two-man job. I say “man” because, usually, this sort of work is a man thing. I also say “man” because I can tell you from experience that getting your wife to lend a hand will easily strain the limits of even the strongest marriage.
(Note: I will not go on a rant here but I can’t resist ‘splaining some things that need to be ‘splained. One, I have absolutely no qualms about women doing this sort of work. I mean damn, they built our bombers, flew them to Europe, and handed over the keys to the men — who usually went and got themselves killed in said bombers, but that’s besides the point. All I’m saying is that you have to admit that the car thing is, usually, a guy thing. How many custom car magazines have a scantily-clad man gracing the cover?
Two, since I’m talking about men and marriage, I’m wondering if two men in a gay marriage would have better luck installing a windshield together. Perhaps there is not yet enough empirical evidence. It is my hope that we’ll know something soon. And then we’ll wonder what all the fuss was about.)
In preparation, I watched I dunno how many videos. I spent I dunno how much time online, studying the procedure. I took pages and pages of notes. In spite of this, and in spite of my wife’s willingness to give it a try (for which, truly, I’m grateful) we failed. On the plus side, we didn’t break anything. But try as we might, we just couldn’t get the windshield in. As a matter of fact, we couldn’t even get the rear window in — which is, by all accounts, much easier to install and a lot less likely to break. I had the über-cool original pop-outs in, as well as the door glass, with all new German seals. But like I said, unless I wanted a completely new experience in air conditioning, I would need help finishing the job.
Actually, it wasn’t really help that I was seeking, per se. What I had in mind when I posted on the forum of the local club was a recommendation for a professional glass guy (hopefully with some classic VW experience) who could come out to my house and do the installation. I’d read accounts of even the pros breaking these windshields from time to time, but at least that would be his problem then, not mine. I’d had enough. Plus, in my mind, paying somebody to do something isn’t help. It’s employment.
I didn’t have to wait long. The first response was from, ironically, famous-engine man, who gave me the name and number of the glass guy he uses. Perfect, I thought. I jotted down the number. There were two other responses, but since I already had what I thought I needed, I read them just out of curiosity. One was from another club member, who I hadn’t even met, offering to come over and lend me a hand. Just like that. His only requirement was that either my garage be heated (it’s not) or that we do it on a warm day.
This is getting out of hand, I thought — by which I suppose I meant that if a complete stranger is offering to help, gratis, then I’m giving up a huge element of control and self-determination. Far from grateful, or being imbued with a newfound sense of bonhomie, I thought shit. This isn’t what I meant. What if he’s an obnoxious redneck? What if he eats lots of cabbage? Or worse, what if he invites me to his church? I found myself listing the ways I could, tactfully or not, decline. Luckily, there weren’t any particularly warm days in the forecast, so I simply said thanks, and told him that I was considering multiple offers of generosity and would get back to him.
The other offer was from none other than “Howard.” I’m not up to date on the management structure of the local club, but I’m certain that Howard sits firmly in the upper echelon — a vice president at least, or secretary general or assistant Grand Poobah or Minister of Mechanized Mayhem. He is a machinist by trade and also deals in Volkswagen parts, both from his well-stocked shop/garage and at the various shows and swap-meets. His focus is on the mechanical side of things, so until recently my contact with Howard has been somewhat limited. Back when I still had the car on the road, he did some machine work on my carburetor, and sold me some brake shoes and rear drums. I’d seen him a couple of times at the early meetings I attended, and once at a show down in Florida. I knew that Howard is a walking encyclopedia of Volkswagen mechanics. I also knew that he’s down to earth, friendly without being pushy, and humble. I like Howard.
Accepting help from Howard was all the more palatable because, after all, I did buy things from him from time to time. With the old forty-horse to rebuild, I’ll surely be buying a lot more over the next couple of months. It wasn’t like he owed me anything, exactly. I chose to think of it as allowing him to spend an hour or two in the customer appreciation department.
He said he could do it Thursday night, after work, and I was game. He wanted to start with the back window first. So as not to waste any of his time, Thursday afternoon I fed a big loop of plastic-coated 16-gauge wire into the inner lip of the seal, overlapping it on bottom, just like I’d read about and seen numerous times on the internet. I left the whole thing inside so it would be warm and pliable. I had rags and silicone spray standing by.
Howard showed up with naught but a homemade tool consisting of a length of strong, thin, nylon rope (or thick string, whichever) with a cylindrical hand-hold on either side. Learning that I already fed the wire into the rubber, he shrugged his shoulders and said fine, let’s give that a try. I got the impression that silicone wasn’t his lubricant of choice for the task, but he seemed game for that too. He worked from the inside, pulling the lip over the rim with the wire, while I applied strategic pressure on the outside, when and where directed. So far, this looked quite familiar. Even when the wire broke.
Howard unfolded himself from the back seat and said okay, we need some warm, soapy water. In my research I’d come across a few who use no lube, some who lube in strategic places only, and some who lube the living shit out of that bad boy. I’d read about folks using silicone, WD-40, Windex, Dawn, olive oil, and — yes, it’s true — sex lube. But if the man wants warm, soapy water, the man’s gonna get warm, soapy water. This is part of what accepting help is all about — surrendering preconceived notions, and being open the idea that you might learn something here.
By the time I returned from the kitchen trailing suds from a steaming plastic berry bucket filled with warm water and a big ol’ squirt of Dr. Bronner’s, Howard was done feeding the thin rope from the tool he brought into the channel, ready for another go. He dipped his hand in the bucket and lubed everything, copiously. We set the glass into place, and I held it there while Howard crawled inside. Lo and behold, we had that window in so fast I couldn’t believe it.
Even Howard seemed surprised. He looked at his watch. “You got some time?” he wanted to know.
“I’ve got all the time in the world.”
“You say you’ve got the rubber and trim already installed in the windshield?”
“It’s in the house, right?”
“Go get it.”
Excited by this new glimmer of hope, it’s a minor miracle that I didn’t drop the windshield, bang it on something, or trip over one of those cats (especially Sandbag) rushing through the house and back out to the garage. We chatted while I watched him feed the rope into the channel. When that was done we soaped up and got into position.
OMG WHOA! that didn’t come out like I meant!
Like I was saying, we applied liberal amounts of warm, soapy water and placed the windshield in its future home, shifting it around a bit; and when it looked about right, Howard got in the front seat and started pulling. He’d point, I’d press. He’d wave to the other side of the windshield, and reach through and hold the near side while I went around the nose. He’d pull some more, bit by bit. Around the bottom corners, first one, then the other. Now towards the top, and around the top corners. Getting a little tight in there. Mere inches to go. I leaned into it a little harder and thought I heard something that sounded like someone breaking an ice cube between his teeth.
“Oh, gosh darn,” came a midwestern accent from inside the car. (Howard is a pious man.)
I had been leaning in so close that I was actually looking over the car at the time, admiring the gentle curves of that ruby red dome. Having been back from the paint shop since July, it’s starting to get quite dusty. But I kind of like it. It gives it that fetching “barn find” look. It took a second to register what all the gosh darning was about. “Did it break?”
“Yeah,” Howard sighed, “it broke.”
I guess I’d expected such an event to be far more explosive. But sure enough, when I let go and backed away, I saw one big crack, along with several smaller, parallel ones, running across the windshield, top to bottom, a few inches off center. Game over.
I climbed in next to him and we discussed what to do next while we pried the now-garbage windshield out. He had a few at his house, he said, and added that he would sell me one wholesale since he helped to break the first one. I said that obviously I’d need another, but that it was ridiculous for him to accept less than his normal price for it, seeing as how he was kind enough to help me with this in the first place. After some friendly bickering we agreed to split the difference. Beetle windshields are surprisingly cheap anyhow — I paid about $50. Some suggest buying more than one, due to the high chance of breakage. So figure that into your cost.
When we got the broken windshield out, Howard looked again at his watch. I live on the north-western fringe of town; Howard lives just south of town. It would take the better part of an hour to drive over and return with a new windshield. Adding to that the time to fit the rubber seal, insert the chrome trim, and feed the rope-tool into place, it would start to get late. And one must always consider the Cherokee poltergeist that haunts the ground upon which my garage sits (against all covenants, I may add). Still, for a while Howard seemed anxious to press on. But I got the suspicion that this might be due to some misplaced sense of contrition, in addition to the fact that it was probably driving him nuts to get so close, only to meet with failure at the last second (or, in this case, the last inch).
“I say we call it a night,” I finally said.
Howard had a thought. “I could come by Saturday morning.”
Again, I was having a hard time reading him. Did he really want to schlep all the way over here a second time, on his Saturday morning, to help some clueless almost-a-stranger moron complete a task that few people sincerely enjoy? Or was it now a personal mission, to see this thing through? As far as I was concerned, I had seen enough. In spite of our failure — or because of it — I was certain I knew what I needed to know. He had taught me more than he suspected.
“I’ll tell you what . . .” I began. My plan was to follow him over to his house, buy another windshield, and return home. The next morning I would try to find a friend — it didn’t have to be a VW person now, with me and my newfound knowledge leading the way — to come by at some point and lend me a hand. Howard lent me the rope-tool, and I said I’d let him know how it went.
A very close friend of mine is a mechanical genius. He’s one of those guys who somehow knows how everything works. A lot of people casually say, “Oh, we’re building a house” but what they really mean is that they’re having a house built. But this friend literally built his own house. He runs a growing manufacturing concern in town, and often maintains the machinery himself — making parts, if he has to, with an antique mill press and lathe. I cycle with him quite frequently. We can spend hours talking about motor oil. He can school me on jet engines. He can identify birds. He knows which roadside berries are safe to eat. He plays a mean game of poker. One time, over the course of a seventy-mile bicycle ride in the country, I received an in-depth (and surprisingly interesting) discourse on chicken houses — how to tell the older ones from the new, how they are oriented to minimize extremes in temperature, how the lighting is controlled and how the fans circulate the air. He does not eat chicken.
Aside from the fact that once, many years ago, he took a cross-country trip in a Karmann-Ghia, and his older brother used to own a split-window Bus, this friend has little interest in old Volkswagens. As a matter of fact, I suspect he’s about up to here with my yammering about them. Luckily for him, by his own admission he has attention span issues and probably just lets my voice get drowned out by the white noise in his own headspace. Last week I flew with a guy who is obsessed with antique Russian carbines, so I can relate.
Good man that he is, after bribing my friend with the promise of beer and food he agreed to swing by after work. As it turned out, we weren’t even through with the first round when the windshield was in, unbroken, and looking smart! I had already fed the rope tool into place; but the rest of the process took exactly seven minutes. It was almost too easy!
How did we do it? Well, if you are looking for a “how to,” you would be well-served to do what I did — research the hell out of it. Especially helpful was Chris Vallone’s video at www.youtube.com/watch?v=tGMd0CrEQig. I also had the California Pacific / JBugs video on hand, and spent hours on www.thesamba.com. So check all of these things out, and whatever else you might find. Take it all in, then come back here. I can wait.
There are very, very few things of which I can speak authoritatively. Unfortunately, Volkswagen restoration is not one of them. But marathon running and distance cycling are another thing. I’ve been at it long enough to recognize that no matter what anyone else says, in the end you gotta do what works for you. For example, before a big event which I know will have me pushing the limit for hours — well past the point at which I would otherwise shove my carbon fiber bicycle into the weeds, curl up on the cold asphalt in the fetal position, and wait patiently for the next logging truck — I eat a bagel, a bucket-sized bowl of granola, and two strong coffees. Before an event whose caloric expenditure will be measured in the many-thousands, it is quite necessary to fuel the machine. I know this combination works — for me. I have friends who opt instead for bacon and eggs, or a burrito the size of a baby. But I don’t know how they do it. If I ate that much protein before riding off into the dawn, I’d be yakking by side of the road before I crossed the county line. Yet those same friends are just as strong (alas, all too often stronger) than I. My point is that we’re all different, see? So I’ve learned to cringe when someone flatly says, all unequivocal-like, “Here’s what works.”
The same thing applies in the Volkswagen Wissenschaft. There were a few things about Howard’s technique that I found peculiar at first — indeed, a couple of things he did seemed to break all of the “rules.” The first what was that his starting point with the rope-thingy was at the sides, instead of the bottom. In all of my research, everyone started at the bottom. This was revolutionary! But now that I think about it, starting at the sides better addressed one of the main problems my wife and I were having (about the windshield, at any rate), that it would “ride up” by the time we got to the top, making it impossible to get the top lip to settle into place. When you start at the sides (that is, the “overlap” of the string/rope/wire extends all the way back up the sides), you establish anchor points early on that seem to keep the whole thing from moving.
I could try to describe the sequence that my friend and I used, but I think a drawing will do a better job at this:
The second thing that was different about his technique is that Howard is not a slapper. Everything I’d seen showed or described the outside helper applying downward, open-handed pressure in the form of a firm (but not violent) slapping motion. But Howard panicked when I started to do this. “Don’t do that,” he said. I think his alarm was perhaps unwarranted — indeed, I’d heard somewhere that at the factory, they used rubber mallets for the operation — but hey, it was his trip at that point so I went with it. I’m here to say that strategic, steady pressure worked just fine. So no slapping for me from now on. This is what works for me.
Now get out there and find your own way. If you have a notion to try cod liver oil, industrial-strength suction cups, and a come-along, go for it! Let us know if it works. Post it on YouTube. If it doesn’t work, post it on YouTube anyway — we’d much rather watch you make a stupid mistake than make the same stupid mistake ourselves. And if you get flustered and need some help, you know where to find me. For in this, we are really not strangers after all.
One Lump or Two?
On the left is Bonnie. She’s been in that same exact spot for about three years now. I never did a compression check on her. At the time, I didn’t have the tools and didn’t know how. I still have not learned the esoteric art of assessing her worth from the color of the soot in her pipes, the condition of her plugs, or the consistency of the oil that has collected in her filler neck. With time I will learn these things, just as I have learned everything else. All I know is that she is a non-smoker, and the last time she sang for me she sang steady and true.
Plans for Bonnie include a total overhaul. I will do this in the winter, so as to have her fresh and ready for spring. It is still my intention, in April, to drive the Beetle over the mountains to Bug-a-Palüza 15, up in Tennessee. Maybe then we’ll head down to Savannah, to visit family. We’ll have a grand time, Bonnie and I, learning about one another. We’ll take back roads only, so we can go at our own pace. Schedules will loosen. I will learn to accept help from others. I’m sure we’ll have our moments, but this is something we’ll learn how to handle with aplomb.
And once we’ve worked the kinks out, and gotten to know one another really well, Bonnie will take me to Maine. One way.
(I did mention that we’re moving to Maine this summer, yes?)
As for the engine on the right, well — meet Clyde!
I first heard about him a few weeks ago, while browsing the classifieds on the local VW club’s website. To avoid temptation I have had my eBay and TheSamba alerts shut off for quite some time. Well, most of my alerts. Every now and then I get a hit for “1975 Beetle,” hoping for the one-in-a-million chance that my old love will miraculously reappear in the same exact condition as I last saw her, for the same price I got for her those twenty-some-odd years ago. (I do not like to think too much of her far more likely fate.) And of course, I get an alert any time a Bus, of any variety or vintage, is listed anywhere in world. Just to keep an eye on things. Just browsing, you know.
I can’t remember exactly what I was doing in the classifieds on this occasion. Maybe I was looking for knickknacks or knobs. Or perhaps it was a last-ditch effort to find original 1965 seat frames, without resorting to buying them sight-unseen from California — only to have them arrive, disappoint, and get tossed in the storage locker along with the rejected doors, fenders, deck lids, and hoods that were acquired in the same fashion. But one listing caught my eye, as you might imagine. It said: “Parting out 1965 Beetle.” It described a “barn find” that was rolled in 1971 and subsequently parked at the far end of one of those football-field-long chicken houses that dot the rural Georgia landscape. The seller discovered it, along with a 1963 model, just previous to posting the ad.
The accompanying photographs depicted a Bahama Blue Bug that seemed surprisingly intact and complete, except for the pinched roof, dented hood, and misaligned doors. All of the glass except the windshield had survived. The interior was still done in the original, beautiful Windsor blue, and the under-the-hood area was especially clean — including the original spare tire and tool kit. As I perused the photographs, making a mental list of all the goodies I could snag from this special find, I was suddenly struck with something akin to buyer’s remorse, even though I hadn’t even reached for the wallet yet. Being in what I hoped to call the final stretch of my own project, I really didn’t need to part with yet another wad of cash. I was thankful, at least, that I already had most of the major necessities.
I was also relieved when I noticed that the ad had been posted two months prior. Surely, I thought, most of it was gone by now anyhow. It wouldn’t do any harm just to call and ask about it then, would it? Besides, I knew the guy — sort of. I’d seen his posts on the local forum. I’d even met him once or twice, in the beginning, when I was still naive enough to believe I could carry on a normal conversation with the guys at the monthly club meeting without revealing myself to be the complete newbie that I was. He seemed nice enough, like an honest guy. So I found myself dialing.
Almost everything, he told me, was indeed gone. Although I had recently come to terms with the incorrect (by two years) seat frames that I already had — and had already ordered the appropriate upholstery kit from TMI — this was the first item I asked him about. Already sold, he said. He still had the back seats, though, but I didn’t need them. I was surprised to learn that the first thing that went was the body shell. From the photographs, the car looked as though a Volkswagen-hating giant had squeezed the car from the sides, like a pimple, until the middle of the roof folded to create a peak. I couldn’t begin to imagine how one would go about repairing that. Yet, he told me, it was already done. He’d heard that the guy who bought the body cut the roof at the pillars, stretched the body back to its normal proportions, and grafted in a donor roof. Simple as that (gulp!).
Headlight assemblies? Turn signals? Bendix radio?
Gone, gone, and gone.
Most everything, he said, except the engine.
After the seat frames, that was next on my list. But I was afraid to ask. I really didn’t need another engine. Unless there are dirty secrets that reveal themselves when I start the teardown, I already have an engine that, I figure, is a good candidate for an overhaul. Most of the ancillaries have long since been replaced, but it is built around a genuine Volkswagen case (1963 vintage, by the stamped number), sports an original Solex 28 PICT-1 carburetor, and a pair of VW square-boss single-port heads. Of course the fan shroud flaps have been disabled by a previous owner. And that carb was still a little finicky last time I ran it, despite (or because of?) my rebuilding it. And for reasons I can’t quite explain, in my rewiring of the car, I’m tempted to bring it back to its original, 6-volt setup. So I’ll need a new generator anyhow.
From the photographs, I suspected that the guy wasn’t kidding when he said it was all original — carburetor, generator, distributor, coil, fuel pump. Only the muffler was, for unknown reasons, missing. Also, while I had him on the phone, he checked for the thermostat when I asked him about it. It too was gone, but he reported that he could move the shroud flaps by hand. The rest, he said, was complete. I told him thanks, but I’d have to think about it for a few days. His asking price was fair, I thought, but $500 is still $500.
The following Saturday was a “one-and-done” kind of day, the early morning flight from Philadelphia back home. I was in the parking lot by 9:30. I gave him a call. Could I come by and see it?
Sure, he said. C’mon by. Like most VW guys I’ve met, “William” is friendly and enthusiastic — not just about VW’s, but about life in general. He likes to talk, too. Before he gave me directions to his house, he regaled my about having spent much of the previous day — Black Friday — at Walmart. Didn’t buy anything, he said. No, he and his family simply sat on a bench with their ice cream cones, people-watching. Had I ever done that? Ever gone to Walmart to simply people-watch?
No, I confessed, I hadn’t. Never occurred to me. Especially on Black Friday. Usually, the only time I’d even consider patronizing that giant, gaping, cancerous hole of consumption is under extreme duress, usually of the type that involves the furtherance of the Beetle project. Like when I absolutely have to have that can of satin black Krylon and that box of 100-count latex gloves at two o’clock on a Sunday morning.
During normal business hours, usually I get that kind of stuff at Strange Hardware (I’ve changed the name here, but the actual name is about as “strange”). It’s a quaint Mom-and-Pop sort of place about three miles down the road that has miraculously managed to survive the onslaught of one Home Depot, two Lowe’s, two Walmarts, a Harbor Freight, and a Tractor Supply Company within a ten mile radius.
That whole part of town is called Normaltown. It got its name from the state normal school that originally occupied the campus across the street. For most of my time in this town, that campus was home of the Navy Supply Corps School. It took them the better part of fifty years but eventually the Navy discovered, to their great dismay, that Athens, Georgia is nowhere near the sea. So they left, headed for the coast. Now the space has been re-purposed once again as a new medical campus for the ever-expanding behemoth which is simply referred to by locals as The University.
A few doors down from Strange Hardware used to be Allen’s Bar and Grill — immortalized in song by the B-52’s, who got their start here in Athens — but that was torn down a some years ago. The “Love Shack” was also a real place (not in Normaltown, but out in the country, and less than two miles from my house), but it too is gone — burned to the ground, the story goes, under “suspicious circumstances.” The whole shack shimmies no longer. All that remains is the chimney. And the tin roof, still rusted.
In lieu of an actual Mom and a real-life Pop in Strange Hardware, there is a tiny, twitchy white guy and a big, burly black guy, both of whom are always there if the lights are on. Twitchy is usually the first to ask if I need any help when he hears the cowbell jangle and my boots on the creaky planks. Burly seems the more pensive type, usually speaking only when he has something to say. You can get a wide variety of goods there — spray paint, hand tools, plumbing supplies, a rake, a wheelbarrow, a gas drill, nuts, bolts, and washers. They can make keys.
Once I stopped by three times in the same day, each time buying the same exact thing: contact cement. By the third visit I was, admittedly, a little rattled. After taking the very last quart-sized can of DAP Weldwood off the shelf and placing it on the counter, Twitchy and I must have had the same exact thought.
My thought: I wonder if he thinks I’m huffing that shit.
His thought: I think he’s huffing that shit.
Of course, it just wouldn’t do to ask me that directly, so Twitchy came at me sideways. “Man, that stuff adds up, don’t it?” he said, eyeing me suspiciously as I forked over the cash. “Whatchya workin’ on?”
“Carpet,” I said, without further explanation. It was true, but I just didn’t feel like talking about it. I mean, the stuff does add up, and I hated having to stop what I was doing to drive town to Strange three times in the same afternoon. (A note to future Beetle carpet installers: I discovered after the fact that the DAP Weldwood “Gel” works much better than the “Original.”) Burly said nothing. Twitchy shrugged, apparently satisfied by my curt explanation. He handed me my change and gave me the usual, hearty, and very Southern, “Thanks — come back!”
We’ve had our laughs, too. Once I tossed a bag of disposable blue latex gloves on the counter. All they had was the 25-count pack. It would have to do. But I was confused about something.
“Why do you suppose they package these in odd quantities like that?”
Twitchy was a little slow on the uptake. “Huh?”
“I mean, what would I want with twenty-five?” I said, waving both hands in the air like this was a stick-em-up in reverse.
“Well,” Burly began in his slow baritone. For a moment there was nothing but silence and anticipation, Twitchy and I both waiting for Burly to continue. It’s amazing how much attention one can command when one is very choosey about one’s words. “I suppose if you was a proctologist —”
They say that comedy is all about the delivery. I wouldn’t know about that, but I do know that I laughed hard, for a long time. I still think it’s pretty damn funny. Corny as all get-out. But funny.
Something tells me you can’t get that kind of entertainment at Walmart. But maybe that’s like the difference between dry, British humor and American-style slapstick. I wondered if William was a Monty Python fan like me. Probably not. It did occur to me, however, that the main reason I’m not a Walmart people-watcher may very well be because I’m one of the ones being watched.
Daddy — look at that strange man! Why is he covered in black paint? Does he know he’s wearing two different shoes? Who is he talking to? What happened to his eyebrows?
We may not share the same sense of humor, but definitely we share the same passion. As is often the case with air-cooled VW freaks like me, I found William’s house easily. All you have to do is keep an eye out for one of those distinctive shapes, like that of a ladybug (in the case of a Beetle) or a loaf of bread (a bay-window Bus). William’s gorgeous, bone-stock, gulf blue 1963 Deluxe Sedan (which I had the chance to swoon over at one of those club meetings) was at someone’s shop, he explained, getting a front-end alignment. But I knew I had found the place when I saw his late Westfalia parked in his driveway.
On the day of my visit I was in the midst of one of my insomnia marathons, and had not slept a wink for about eighty hours, and counting. This by itself was not unusual. I’m used to it. During those times I try to give myself a little slack, and constantly remind myself that I’m not one-hundred percent. I try to keep to a somewhat-normal (albeit scaled down) exercise regimen, and I try to defer any big “life decisions” until I’ve finally gotten some sleep. I make an effort to pay attention, and to be patient, with varying degrees of success. After a while I slip into a hazy, spacey groove where the desiccated husk of my body might seem to be animated with at least the semblance of a life-force, but the brain may or may not be participating.
Also, I drink coffee. Lots of it. When I’m sleeping well, I cut off my caffeine intake somewhere around lunch time, knowing that I’d otherwise jeopardize my chances for continuing that blissful, rejuvenating trend. Eventually, though — every few weeks or so — things get completely out of whack and I simply stop sleeping. Nothing I do makes any difference. During those times I switch to survival mode, and I reach for the hot, black bean juice with a vicious craving, attempting to wring every ounce of remaining energy from my slowly withering frame.
These two things alone — the chronic lack of sleep, coupled with a severely over-caffeinated state — would make anyone a blathering idiot. To make matters worse, when I arrived at William’s house, I had to pee — badly. I mean like right now. This seems to happen regularly enough that I’m beginning to wonder if it’s some manifestation of a deep-seated social anxiety, and a possible explanation as to why I have a hard time making new friends (as if my general surliness has nothing to do with it). It never happens, say, when I’m going to the dentist, or the bank, or the hardware store. It only (and always) seems to happen when I recognize — subconsciously, at least — that I might actually enjoy, for a change, an easy conversation with a like-minded individual. Somebody who might be a friend.
What to do? To leap out of the car and waddle up to the door like my legs are zip tied at the knees, to pound on the door and greet whichever man, woman, or child that answers with heyI’mBruceheretolookattheenginebutfirstomigodwhere’sthebathroom?!?!?!? — well, that simply wouldn’t do, would it? What is the standard protocol here? Can I Google it? Am I over-analyzing this thing? Because really, I want to know! I need to know!
As it was, the overhead door to the garage was open. The engine in question sat on a dolly in the middle of the spotless floor. Notwithstanding the urinometer being pegged, I noted with envy the well-appointed and orderly space. A large, modern tool chest likely chock full of anything one would need to maintain an air-cooled Volkswagen. A well-lighted bench with a broad work surface. An wheeled cart containing a MIG welder, gas cylinder, regulator, and a space for accessories underneath. In the other corner, and actual desk, complete with a computer terminal, a collection of manuals, and a file cabinet.
Well, I thought with smug satisfaction upon noticing the itsy-bitsy, teeny-tiny, decidedly unmanly pancake compressor nestled under the workbench. At least my compressor is bigger!
Still, there was no denying it. This was no newbie duffer’s garage. This was a shop. I never had the chance to even think about setting up a “shop” before I found myself suddenly ass-deep in the unplanned, complete rebuilding of the Beetle. At some point I threw up a most ungraceful assemblage of two-by-fours and plywood. Perhaps it is instructive to reflect that the first thing I attached to said assemblage was a pub-style bottle opener.
Above the cramped and cluttered alcove that serves as a work surface, I installed a single fluorescent fixture — that I have to unplug if I want to plug something else in there, unless I drag the extension cord over from the other half of the garage. Nuts, bolts, washers, and unidentified/unidentifiable small parts reside in coffee cans, empty yogurt containers, pickle jars, baggies. My only actual tool chest — a small, wheeled Craftsman unit — was already insufficient for my bicycle tools. Now the drawers won’t even close. The pegboard I hung is festooned with the most motley collection of crap imaginable: body hammers, screwdrivers, wire brushes, hog ring pliers, scissors, snips, wrenches, rubber bands, punches, calipers, clamps, drifts, scrapers, chisels — and a standby bottle opener (just in case). Every new tool I bring home requires my finding a bare patch of real estate along one of the two-by-fours, so I can hammer some nails and hang it there. I regularly inscribe part numbers, phone numbers, lists, mantras, and reminders into the soft pine.
My compressor isn’t really that big — thirty gallons, if I remember correctly — but it suffices for my purposes. It has a hard time keeping up with the air tools, but since I’m a very slow worker I don’t really mind. But I should have sprung for one of those fancy rubbery air hoses, since on a cold day, the plastic one that I use is so stiff that it’s all but impossible to work with. And any time I need to weld something I have to unload a pile of labeled boxes from the shelf, risk back injury dragging out the MIG setup and placing it somewhere nearby, hook up the gas cylinder, try to remember all the settings, then remember where in that heaping mess my welding helmet might be — only to find it and get all pissy because it’s a cheap-ass model, not one of the auto-darkening ones I find myself drooling over whilst sitting on the john with a tool catalog.
I knocked on the door and was met by William. In all honesty, given my sorry state, I would have been perfectly content to pee, pay, and leave. But with William’s outgoing and friendly nature, it wouldn’t be so easy. First we talked about life in general — family, work, the weather. I commented on William’s nice shop space. He thanked me, but casually mentioned the complete redesign that was in the works. Then he showed me the back seat from the rolled Beetle — the original, one-year-only upholstery was indeed beautiful — for which he was planning to build a wooden frame, to enable its use as a cool couch for the kids. As for the muffler that had been on the engine, he said it was too far gone to be of much use — as a muffler, at least. Inspired by its design — including the über-cool, prominent “VW” logo stamped right between the exhaust pipes — he cut off the back half length-wise, blasted the front, painted it, mounted it on a wooden slab, attached two new cheap-o chrome pea shooters, and voilà! — a super-groovy tie rack! If Martha Stewart were a male, thirty-something Volkswagen freak with a much better personality and a strong Southern accent, that would be William.
When there was a very slight pause in the conversation and I sensed that the time was right for a commercial break, I finally asked for and used the bathroom. When I returned to the garage (wondering vaguely how much eight gallons of coffee-infused urine weighs) one of the kids was in there with his dad.
“Mister Bruce is a pilot,” William explained to his young’un.
Here was go again.
Being childless, I have no idea what impresses kids nowadays. But judging solely from the boy’s response, pilots aren’t one of them. Much to my relief, he really didn’t give a shit. I could have been an accountant for all he cared. Children like that give me hope for the future.
The boy ran off and I approached the engine. As I got down on my knees to have a closer look, William told the story of its history, as he knew it, in more detail than he had over the phone. The threat of having my bladder bursting was no longer there, but I was still jittery and exhausted. It was a warm day, and the hoodie I had slipped over my head to hide all of the garbage festooning my uniform shirt was making me sweat. I was as mimsy as a borogove, and having a very hard time paying attention. But the gist of the story was this: the engine had not run since 1971. That was when So-And-So’s nephew rolled the car, and it was parked in the chicken house. So-And-So (or was it So-And-So’s brother?) had, apparently, been a serial Volkswagen buyer back in the day. He bought one new in ’61, drove it for a couple of years, then traded it in for a ’63. And so forth. But the ’65 he’d kept for his nephew who, in his gratitude, proceeded to drive like a maniac, and rolled it.
End of story — until William and a friend came across it while photographing old barns. It had taken a while to figure out who, exactly, the barn belonged to, and a little while longer to figure out who, exactly, owned the cars therein. But through dint of persistence and an undisclosed outlay of bread, they dragged off both the ’63 (which was forthwith sold whole) and the ’65, whose engine I now beheld.
I might be giving away a potential money-making business concept here, but I’m thinking about creating a product called Bruce’s Barn Dust. It would be available in both aerosol and brush-on varieties. I might even go the route of POR-15, and convince everyone that they need to buy the whole system of products. One would start with Barn Dust Quick Fade, which creates a dull, milky, translucent base. Then comes Barn Dust Honey — which actually is honey, especially formulated to provide the optimal adhesive surface for the next layer. Next (after the proper curing time, under very specific temperature and humidity conditions which are not known to actually exist in any locale on this planet except in one county in eastern Utah, in late autumn, between the hours of three and five in the afternoon) comes the actual Barn Dust. For this step there would be several varieties to choose from, of several different colors and textures. For example, you wouldn’t want to use the “Georgia Red Clay” variety to convince someone of your “barn find” in Vermont (maybe “Dairy Cow Dung Dust”?). Technique could be varied depending upon the type of barn (chicken, cow, hog, hay, tobacco, etc.), as well as the purported time the car spent in said barn. Finally, one would apply Barn Dust Mr. Murky, which would encapsulate the dust particles in a dull resin that would render the removal of all previous layers virtually impossible.
Bruce’s Barn Dust could be used on components, too. This engine would serve as an excellent example of what the genuine article looks like. Yes, the muffler/tie rack was gone, as well as the rearmost piece of tinware. I verified that the thermostat was indeed gone, too. You might say I’m fixated on this last item, mainly because I’ve never actually seen one. It’s the elusive, mythical thermostat, a key component in the simple yet effective system a team of German engineers came up with to ensure that, after starting, the engine would quickly rise to operating temperature, and only start to cool itself when the thermostat-controlled flaps in the shroud opened up. The same system that, by the looks of things, was summarily disabled by millions of shade-tree rednecks, whose engineering expertise went no deeper than:
Cool Air = Good.
Cool Air Always = Gooder.
I pulled the dipstick out. I don’t know why it should have surprised me to find oil in the case, but it did. It was dark brown and thick, but looked pretty much like I’d expect to find in my Subaru when it’s about due for a change. I grabbed the crank pulley and jiggled it, emulating the actions of people who actually know what they’re doing. Finding no play, I went around to the clutch side of the engine, got down on my knees, grasped the flywheel, and started to turn. I could feel the easy rolling of inner works, interspersed with the hard resistance as each piston approached top dead center and the valves closed. I do not have nearly enough experience for such an exercise to provide me with a quantitative assessment of the health of the engine. But I can say that it felt pretty much like my other engine does — the engine which, as I said, ran fine right up until I pulled it.
“Nice,” I said, looking up at William. “Square-boss heads?”
Then something amazing happened: William had no clue what I was talking about. He had no idea, and I’m almost positive it’s not because of any newbie error, misconception, or strange phraseology on my part. For the first time — ever — I seemed to know something that another VW guy did not.
“Mind if we pull of the valve covers?” I asked.
He fetched a rag and a screwdriver and we had the covers off within seconds. I got down real low, pointed to the square bosses, and read the part number stamped on the rocker floor: 113 101 373. Same on both sides. The good ones.
I didn’t explain much beyond that, mainly because I can’t. But William’s a bright, analytical, technically-oriented guy — does computer systems for a living. I’m willing to bet he did some research that night, and probably understands it all a lot better than I do by now. I can also hazard a guess as to the first thing he did once he got his ’63 back from the alignment shop. But it occurred to me then — exhausted as I was — that maybe I did have something to share after all. Maybe I’m ready to start thinking about showing up for the monthly club meetings, without worrying about making a complete ass of myself.
Fortunately, I had already made the decision to buy that engine before I even saw it in person— days previously, after a good night’s sleep. All that remained was to satisfy myself that it was as advertised. I paid him what he was asking, we tossed it in back of the Subaru, and I went home and took a good long nap. The engine rode around in the back of Subaru for a few days, until I could solicit the help of a friend. The two of us easily lowered it onto the waiting dolly. Though this particular friend is far more mechanically inclined than I (indeed, he owns, operates, and maintains several CNC machines for his futon manufacturing business), his eyes usually glaze over when I start rambling on about Volkswagens. But even he had to admit this was a cool find.
I will rebuild Bonnie and she will take me to Maine. As for Clyde, I have added him to “the list.” Not the “To Do” list, but another list. In the very back of the notebook I’ve been keeping (currently 125 pages and counting) I have several lists — parts to order, things to remember to do, things that are muy importante but that I can easily see myself forgetting (like putting gear oil in transaxle). As I contemplated what to actually do with this engine I absolutely had to have, a vision began to coalesce: what would it take to restore that engine to the exact condition it was in when it left the factory? Right now, that sounds like something far beyond my experience. Heck, I haven’t even rebuilt the first one yet. But at least I have enough sense to recognize something special, and to not mess with it until I’m better prepared to do so.
So I created a new list, entitled “Projects for a Maine Winter.” These are things that can wait. Things for which I currently haven’t the time (like painting the steering column the correct color), the money (finding original or very nice reproduction bumpers), or the know-how (rebuilding Clyde to one-hundred percent original condition). Lucky for me, the winters are long in Maine.
I am notoriously cagey about my job, in person at least. Even within these pages I was slow to approach the subject, and then I did so gradually, tangentially. The main reason for my reticence is that my job does not define me, and I find it quite irritating and shallow when one of the first questions from a stranger’s mouth is, “So — what do you do?” Sometimes I’m simply too weary to make something up in response to this trite bit of ass-sniffing. On those rare occasions I tell the truth, and almost always regret it. Instantly.
The counter-responses come in one of several forms. My sincere preference is that my answer is ignored, that all the inquisitor was really looking for was an opening to talk about him- or herself for the remainder of our overlong exchange. But too often that’s not the case. Tell someone you work for an airline, and they’ll invariably regale you with decades-old tales of woe about snowstorms, cancellations, nights spent sleeping in boarding lounges, lost bags, rude “stewardesses,” or physically, aerodynamically, and/or mechanically impossible escapes from certain doom. They’ll ask me how and where to find cheap tickets. They’ll ask me how a backscatter X-ray works. They’ll want to know if cellphones really do wreak havoc with the instruments. They’ll wax indignant that a seven-course meal was not served aboard their recent flight to Albuquerque. I’ll claim ignorance on this matter, mainly because my airline doesn’t fly to Albuquerque. They’ll forthwith insist that it does. “Flew you guys to Albuquerque just last week,” they’ll say.
Telling someone you’re an airline pilot opens yourself up for whole host of silliness. I gotta hear about “Sully” for the umpteenth time. Or the guy whose first officer (wisely) locked him out of the cockpit for being a loony. Or the morons on their laptops who overflew Minneapolis by a few hundred miles. Or the latest “Pilot Shows Up Drunk” episode. The worst is when I’m asked to second-guess what “the pilot” did, or what a certain noise was, on a given flight my interlocutor was on at some point in the distant past.
Recently, I was riding as a passenger on a flight, in street clothes, “talking shop” with one of the flight attendants as we taxied to the gate. When the seat belt sign was turned off, and everyone leapt up to claim their bags from the overhead bins, a young man who had been sitting in front of me (and who was apparently privy to our conversation) turned to me.
“You’re a pilot?” he wanted to know.
I figured that since he was asking me this he must have already known the answer. He was looking for an opening of some kind. I knew I was cornered.
“Yes,” I said, apprehensively.
“My step-dad wanted to be a pilot,” he said. Of course there was more, and he was itching for me to take the bait, but I wouldn’t. An awkward silence ensued. But little did he know that awkward silences are my specialty. I could see him thinking, struggling, his headspace playing host to a grudge match of Neurotransmitters vs. Pharmaceuticals. One of them was on the ropes.
Suddenly his face brightened into a mischievous grin. “Have you ever seen kerosene burn?”
I was thinking ninety seconds. During the aircraft certification testing, that’s the maximum amount of time they’ve got to demonstrate a simulated emergency evacuation of a fully-loaded airplane. Everyone must be out in ninety seconds or less. Like most FAA regulations, the ninety second rule is as old as dirt and has little bearing in reality. Next time you’re at the gate, un-shoehorning yourself from that middle seat in the last row, waiting to finally get out of that stale tube, yearning to breathe something other than the exhaled breath of others, look around you. See all of those Americans, in their full, encumbered glory, and think: ninety seconds.
Was I worried? Concerned? Of course not. This was just more bait. I was simply trying to estimate how much longer I’d have to tolerate this goofball without the benefit of the emergency egress system, without going for a ride on the slide. A broken ankle or an acute case of road rash seemed, just then, a small price to pay.
“Sure,” I said, as if an open kerosene fire were a regular feature of my employment. Thankfully the funnel of passengers heading for the exit had reached our respective rows, and we filed out without further ado. I decided that really, I needed to be more careful in the future.
What can I say?
My wife has made it clear in no uncertain terms that my previous practice of responding to the So, what do you do? question with a dismissive shrug, an unintelligible mumble, and a non sequitur obviously intended to change the subject was downright rude. As usual, she was right. So lately I’ve put my creative energies to work in the effort to find a more amenable, subtle — or, failing that, more amusing — solution.
The absolute most effective, conversation-stopping answer is to state flatly that I’m “currently unemployed.” This is my running standby, for use if I’m caught off guard, tired, or uninspired. I call it “the nuclear option.” Given the current state of things, it is neither fun nor funny. But it works. Every single time.
More often I say I’m a technical writer. I mean, sheesh — does that sound boring, or what? Hopefully that will end the subject right then and there. But even if it doesn’t, and they want to know more, I’m ready. When asked what kind of technical writing I do, I state that I edit regulatory manuals for various airlines, under contract. Then I launch into a droning soliloquy, expounding upon the rules for the carriage of hazardous materials, the visibility requirements for certain instrument approach procedures, the standards for medical certification, or the subtle yet endlessly fascinating technical differences between fog and mist, drizzle and light rain, wet snow and dry. I thereby effect a tangible shift in our stillborn relationship, and secretly titter with glee as my inquisitor squirms uncomfortably, mentally kicking himself for being so damn nosy and unoriginal.
Sometimes my responses take a more playful tack. I’ve been a lava lamp repairman, a motivational speaker, and a bouncer at an oxygen bar. A hospital laundry consultant, a social critic, and a produce inspector (specialty: avocados). Telling people you’re a fundraiser will reliably send them running for the exits. Sometimes I just say “sales” and hope it dies right there (it usually does). “Corn syrup,” I say, if they press the issue.
“How interesting,” he might mumble into his icy lowball. “The high fructose variety?”
“Generally, whatever the customer wants. So yeah, lots of high. Medium to high, mainly.”
Once I was an inventor, holding patents for vertical pizza, a WiFi-enabled toaster, and a line of self-watering, plug-in houseplants. Another time I drained the rest of the pint I was drinking, licked the foam from my upper lip, and said that I was an artist. “Mixed media, mostly,” I said, when pressed. “Particle board, paper mache, popcorn. Film, too,” I added, as an afterthought. “I specialize in scenes depicting gratuitous chastity. Post-post-post-modern. Part documentary, part film noir. Cinematic stuff, really, if I may say so myself.”
Why do I do it? I’d say the answer lies mainly in the fact that I like to fuck with peoples’ heads. Over the years I’ve been honing my aptitude in this. If the current state of politics tells us anything, it’s that the more outlandish your claim, the more likely it is that they’ll believe you. Nobody cares if, say, you’ve run the Boston Marathon. You’ve go to go bigger than that. But if you claim to be the first and only man (over forty) to have run the Boston Marathon in six-inch stilettos, just hours after an emergency appendectomy and an all-night Jello-eating binge — well, that can make an impact! Your name is henceforth guaranteed to circulate in the highest social circles.
Another reason is that, until very recently, my relationship with my job has been a difficult one. In my mid-forties, I now know that if I could start all over, I would choose something else. I don’t know what that would be. Perhaps, if money were no object, I’d look into graduate school, to build upon my all-but-useless bachelor’s in psychology. Creative writing sounds like a blast to me, although I fear that such a course of study would rapidly disabuse me of any delusions of potential greatness. Journalism might be a contender, though the field is becoming harder and harder to define. Any hack can start a blog and call himself a “journalist.”
I know for a fact that I couldn’t do this flying thing all over again — which, in my current line of work, is pretty much what’s in store for you if you find yourself on the street. I’ve been very fortunate, I must admit, in that I’ve never been fired, furloughed, or otherwise hindered in my career path. I upgraded to captain very quickly — not through any exceptional skill, mind you, since anything and everything in this business is based upon seniority. Sure, when the opportunities were there I took them. But mainly it’s all the result of taking my chances on a small, less-than-optimal employer which, over the years, has grown exponentially and is now being subsumed into a behemoth of an airline — which, they assure us, will be a “good thing” once the dust settles, and the “synergies” are fully realized. But I know for certain that I no longer have the moxie to dust off my logbooks, compile a résumé, study theory, regulations, and procedures for hours on end, “network” (in the verb form), get a haircut, buy a suit, shine my shoes, attend job fairs, shake hands, be nice to people, and bullshit my way through interviews, simulator screenings, medical exams, and “psych-evals” only to sit as a reserve first officer in some concrete commuter hellhole in the middle of winter for a mere fraction of what I’m currently compensated for my precious time. I no longer have the fire in my belly for any of that.
Realistically, if I were fired, let go, dismissed, shit-canned, or otherwise involuntarily severed from my current place of employment, I would give “the trades” some serious consideration. Yes, I’m probably a little older than the average trade school student, but as soon as you start throwing up walls like that your search for alternatives becomes self-limiting. Why the trades? For starters, the work on the Beetle has given me a newfound respect for those who can fix, fabricate, troubleshoot, or otherwise raise to the level of an art form what many would think of as drudgery. I’m talking about welders, painters, machinists, upholsterers, electricians. Not that I show any innate promise in such endeavors; but I would imagine that such studies would be more useful, more marketable, and at least as rewarding — but just as challenging, if not more so — than pursuing a famously useless MFA in creative writing. In short, having received the proper training in one of these trades, I could actually do stuff.
In coming almost — but not quite — full circle, it has even occurred to me that I might enjoy aviation maintenance. The airline environment, though, would be of no interest to me, for many of the same reasons that have taken the gusto out of my piloting career. It’s simply too rigid, too formal, too documented, too scripted, too procedural, and too corporate for me. All of that is probably for the best, safety-wise, and while I’m at my job I recognize this and act accordingly. But none of this, I’ve come to learn, is me. Instead of having an eight-digit employee number, I can picture myself as the sole mechanic on some lonely, out-of-the-way airstrip, never knowing what sort of new challenge could literally drop out of the sky on any given day. I would have my price, and they would pay it. My personal take would likely be far less than I’d make in airline “line maintenance,” with far fewer benefits; but my agency in getting whatever broken bird that came my way airborne again would be one hundred percent. Sure, there would still be some paperwork. And I’d have to tolerate the FAA inspector coming round every once in a blue moon. But mainly I’d just work on air-cooled flat-fours all day. There would be no employee manual, no dress code. No unions, no management. I would work alone. Grow my hair long if I wanted to, and wear the same exact flannel shirt nine days in a row. I would turn out the lights and lock up when I left, or sleep on the ratty old rump-sprung couch if I felt like it. I could have a dog. We could suddenly decide to take the day off and go ice skating instead.
On second thought, forget that last sentence. You could knock until your knuckles bled. “Moxie” and I wouldn’t have to explain anything to anyone. If your airplane’s in my hangar, well, you’re not going anywhere with that bad magneto anyhow. More than likely, we’ll have to wait for parts. And you don’t want me working on your Bonanza with my mind elsewhere, do you? I will do good work. But if you were looking for fast work, you should have put down somewhere else, Doctor (guffaw!).
Despite the obsessive thinking I’ve done on the subject over the years, I have no intention of following through with any of this voluntarily. Yet there were times when I gave serious consideration to simply quitting, and becoming, say, a bicycle mechanic, or a barista. Or I could be the tool guy at Home Depot. You wouldn’t expect it, but even I seem to stump the current tool guy with alarming regularity.
Very, very few pilots simply quit like that. They’ve got far too much invested in their careers, and have jumped through far too many hoops to “throw it all away.” So the scenario in which I casually drop my two-weeks’ notice on the chief pilot’s desk and walk away from his (for once) speechless person was, I now know, no more than fantasy. Not to put too fine a point upon it, practical matters aside, I simply didn’t have the balls.
There were even times when I thought that losing my job would be the greatest thing that ever happened to me. The economy ebbed and flowed. Nine-eleven happened. Other airlines came and went. The Great Recession happened. More bankruptcies, buy-outs, mergers, and consolidations. Yet I remained, ungrateful as always. I came to realize, cognitively at least, that I was what the vast majority of career airline pilots would call “extremely lucky.” But I just wasn’t feeling it.
Instead, I had a little sit-down with my wife.
“I can’t go on like this,” I began. In the conversation that followed, we agreed that I would keep my job, so long as I could cut my hours way back, to somewhere near the low end of what is considered normal, pay-wise. We travel a bit, and have a nice — but not extravagant — home, but with dual careers and no kids, we have the luxury of doing this thing. Unlike some of my coworkers, there will be no sprawling McMansion on the golf course, no fleet of boats, no personal airplanes, no Porsche collections. (These are actual examples. Granted, many of these guys/gals likely have other sources of income, but sometimes, you gotta wonder.) Our retirement years might be a little more modest than many of my peers, but still quite livable. The upside for both of us would be that I’m less agitated, less grumpy, more at peace with myself. I’m easier to live with. And if I need more money for a new bicycle, say, or Volkswagen parts, I can work a little extra.
So what is it that’s so intolerable about my job?
In a word, I’ve come to admit that, with few exceptions (and if you’re reading this, you’re likely one of them), I can’t stand airline pilots. I fully realize that, to the outsider, this might seem ridiculous. It would have to me, before I took this flying thing up as a career. Following the “if you can’t say anything nice” advice my mother always gave me (the same advice that made me an eerily silent child), I will spare you the details as to why, exactly, the average pilot makes me retch. Let’s just say that I recognize, now, what my therapist means when she talks about being amongst one’s own “tribe.” I’ve taken this recognition, I know, a little further than she might find healthy, in that I’ve completely lost respect for the profession at large.
Don’t like pilots? Well, that’s your problem, Bud.
Well don’t I know it. But in the words of that popular bromide that serves as a philosophical proxy for actually having to think too deeply about something, it is what it is.
And what’s this got to do with the Volkswagen thing?
Not much, to be honest. I’ve just been aware of a trend within these pages, in which for some reason I seem more inclined to discuss this subject than usual. Maybe forming it into words and seeing it in black and white helps give it some “perspective.” And it just so happens that John Muir had something to say about this very subject. For you naturalists, I mean the other John Muir (though they were somehow related). And for you VW freaks, I mean his other book, The Velvet Monkey Wrench. Now, before you go thinking I’m throwing another book review at you on the sly, I’m not. As a matter of fact, I haven’t even finished reading the thing yet. And don’t go running down to your local chain bookstore abomination hoping to snag one off the shelf, eager for more folksy, step-by-step wisdom on how to keep your Volkswagen alive. Because they won’t have it; and so far, I’ve found only one or two oblique references to the subject we all know and love.
No, The Velvet Monkey Wrench, first published in 1973, was Muir’s treatise describing, in great detail, a model for a more promising future, a total social, cultural, and political overhaul based on the mantra (repeated throughout the book, always capitalized) that HUMANKIND MUST LEARN TO PROGRESS WITHOUT CONTENTION. The United States, as it currently exists, would be no more. In its place would be the much larger Republic of North America (RNA), which would sprawl from the North Pole to Colombia, from Iceland to Hawaii. And lest you should think that something this size would be completely unmanageable (seeing as how we’re barely managing what we’ve already got), the role of the central government would be vastly reduced, with all laws written, voted upon, and enforced at the local level. If you don’t like the laws within your defined Neighborhood (the smallest division, comprising about 1,000 persons) you can either work to change it, or move. One Neighborhood could be a haven for Christian fundamentalists, and the next one like a hippie commune. It’s all about minding one’s own business, “live and let live” style. But this ain’t no prototypical Tea Party, no Federalist dream: one of the few remaining tasks of the federal government would be the redistribution of wealth.
Still, politically, the ideas presented are all across the board. Handguns would be banned (long guns still permitted), but the borders of the RNA would be heavily guarded and fortified. There would be a progressive national sales tax (in a cashless system in which one’s income would be electronically available, and the appropriate tax rate automatically applied, at the point of purchase), but businesses and corporations would pay no taxes at all. There would be universal welfare. Nobody would starve or lack basic housing and health care (of course, in 1973 there was no way to predict the skyrocketing cost of the latter, and the subject is given scant mention).
When I was a kid, my favorite way kill time in the back of the class was to doodle. Sometimes I would draw helicopters, sometimes cars, sometimes many-headed monsters tearing terrified citizens to shreds. Normal kid stuff. Sometimes I drew self-portraits with my fists raised in anger, fanged teeth bared, and gaping black holes where the eyes should have been (a little something to keep the child psychologists busy). And sometimes I would create imaginary, self-contained cities. Everything needed was under a giant plexiglass dome. My map — always in pencil, since this was an evolving plan — depicted all of the things you might find in the average city: government buildings, commercial buildings, warehouses, housing developments, transportation nodes, power plants, landfills, roads, sports complexes, parks (I said “parks” last because, as a child, I didn’t see what is now known as “greenspace” as important. It was, as the order of the list implies, an afterthought. I grew out of it, unlike most urban planners). It was great fun imagining all of these things, and it would continue sometimes for days, in stages, until I grew bored, or got busted.
Sometimes The Velvet Monkey Wrench comes across as a similarly innocent, childlike pipe dream. But in the extremely intricate details Muir includes (describing, for example, mailing labels, the furniture in certain offices, public bus routes, financial computer systems, and the thermostat setting in the Central Government dome) I was reminded of his background — before he dropped into the countercultural scene, and published the book which made him famous — in engineering. I can’t decide whether Muir was a great visionary or a mad (but peace-loving) genius. Probably a bit of both. Either way, forty years later his call seems to have been lost to history (so far). I couldn’t find sale figures for the book, but I’m guessing it was pretty low, especially when compared to the millions-selling VW book.
I bought the book for a few different reasons. It’s illustrated by Peter Aschwanden, the same guy who did the VW book. His artwork is simply hilarious, and as painstakingly detailed as the text it accompanies. The drawings alone are, to me, worth the price of admission (though I wish some of them were larger, in my copy). I was going to show you some examples, but my team of attorneys advises me that it’s probably not a good idea without permission. Which would be hard obtain now since Mr. Aschwanden has, unfortunately, shed his earthly container, and I don’t know how to get a dead person’s permission. I’m sure there’s a way, but that sounds like a shit-ton of effort and since I’m not getting paid for any of this, check it out for “your own-self” (that’s Southern for “yourself”) at www.peteraschwanden.com. As a matter of fact, in test-driving this link just now, I discovered the “fine art” section for the first time (click “Gallery” first). The dude was more diverse than I thought!
Also, I like the way Muir writes. Not enough to emulate him, though — he’s a little too conversational for my taste, and I sometimes have a hard time following him. Maybe it’s the German in me, but I prefer things presented in a more linear, systematic order. Muir jumps around a lot. (For that reason, while my own copy of the VW book is much loved, dogeared, and grease-stained, it is not always the one I reach for first when presented with a Beetle-sized mechanical conundrum.) But I find his unpretentious, humorous style enjoyable to read.
The relevant thing for my current purpose is what he had to say about work, and the differences between work and a formal job. “A job can be a drag or your destiny — work and play are one!” In the context this is written — within a system of government where holding down a job is decoupled with the need to eat and have a basic roof over one’s head — work is indeed is something one looks forward to, something for which one has a passion. And this is why many, if not most, citizens of this new “Establishment” would pine for something a little more fulfilling than a bare-bones existence in some bleak government-supplied apartment block.
Without getting too deep into the political side of things, let’s just agree that our current system is a bit different from the one Muir envisioned. The salient point I came away with was the same conclusion to which I’ve recently arrived on my own, one in which my life had become — through my own conscious efforts — compartmentalized. There is now a job-Me, and a not-job-Me. I was aware that such a transformation might result in a loss of authenticity, a sacrifice of wholeness for the sake of convenience. But I tried to make that shoe fit for years. It didn’t. It would be ideal if I enjoyed my job. But I don’t. It is, most of the time, “a drag.” But work is another story. Of course, I love to work on the Beetle, something which would come to a screeching halt if I did not have a job. I love the work of writing, the work of training for a marathon, the work of going for a long bicycle ride in the mountains with friends — even though I’ll never be renown for any of these things. These things are play. And that’s how I came to see that work and play are indeed one.
Next time I’m at that “cocktail party,” I’ll have to pay closer attention to what they’re asking me — the actual words they use. And when that manicured and coiffed dandy takes a sip from his lowball and asks, “Where do you work?” I’ll casually examine my grime-encrusted fingernails, take a swig from my bottle of beer, belch, adjust my nuts, and tell him I work in a garage.
“Wherever being is easier for you is where you belong.” — John Muir.
“The mountains are calling and I must go.” — the other John Muir.