I’ve been feeling like a real mensch lately.
As in, “That Bruce, he’s a real mensch!”
For starters, there’s the new airplane. No, I did not discover a 1954 Barndoor rotting in the woods in Sweden, rescue same vehicle with a helicopter, restore it in my driveway, auction it at Barrett-Jackson for an amount that would make a lobbyist blush, and buy myself a P-51 Mustang with the proceeds. I’m talking about my job.
Yes, contrary to all appearances of luxury and leisure, I have one of those, as well as other “adult responsibilities”. There are adult worries, too: I closely monitor my skin for moles that may be changing shape or color. I am concerned about moisture in my crawlspace. I wonder about my legacy.
Dreams have given way to regrets. Opinions have hardened. Grudges are harbored. I must take my victories where I can find them.
So when, after six months of flying the new jet, I am starting to achieve a level of confidence that my peers seem to have had after three simulator sessions, perhaps I can be forgiven for allowing myself a single small serving of satisfaction.
Reservations were cancelled and airline stocks hiccuped the day word got out that I am now trained to fly four different versions of the same airliner, a very common Boeing that is the mainstay of many airlines’ fleet. The newer versions are almost as advanced (but not quite) as my previous jet. The automation level of the airplane to which I was accustomed, and which I’d been flying for fourteen years, was such that I must admit that any real stick-and-rudder flying skills I apparently once had were allowed — encouraged, even — to atrophy to the point where I was little more than a systems monitor, presiding over a bank of flat-panel displays. To be sure, the automation itself was quite complex. But any kid with an iPad could figure out most of that in an afternoon. He too could learn to be a very proficient (efficient?) button-pusher.
The stage was thereby set. To learn anything new — especially since it was not really by choice, and my attitude going in was somewhere short of enthusiastic — would have been tough. But it was the oldest version of the jet (we call it the “Classic”) that really kicked my ass.
I can look back, now, on my first simulator period in the Classic with a laugh. My instructor may have seen the humor in it too.
“Okay, you’re doing fine. Level off at six for me.”
“Huh?” I said. I heard him perfectly, in spite of a thick, lazy Texas drawl. But I was apparently cast into a mesmerized state by all of those needles spinning around in mad, random fashion.
“Six thousand feet.”
“Okay,” I said, searching frantically for the dial that I vaguely remembered as something called an “altimeter”. Finding it I was none the wiser. It didn’t seem to be providing me any useful information. Panic started to set in.
“Easy, now. You’re almost there,” said the voice behind the curtain.
“Um, like,” I stammered, floundering. “Okay, whoa. The needle. Help me out, here. Is that hundreds, or thousands?”
“Sorry. It’s been a while.”
“Needle’s hundreds. Window’s thousands.” He yawned loudly. He’d explained this to others. I wasn’t the only one.
“The ‘odometer’,” he said, following up with a low, gravelly guffaw honed by years of cigarettes and wee-hour simulator sessions.
I caught on just in time, nudged the nose over, and leveled off at exactly six thousand feet. In the real thing, we would have been peeling flight attendants from the ceiling. But in these early simulator sessions, there are few points for style. Thankfully.
I took a deep breath, all aglow with feeling like a real pilot again, when the voice chimed in.
“Watch the speed.”
I did exactly as Tex asked. I watched the speed. I watched it accelerate rapidly from two-fifty to two-sixty, two-seventy, two-eighty. I watched it rocket past three hundred with no end in sight. Soon Chewbacca would grunt and the hyperdrive would kick in, leaving a swarm of dismayed TIE-fighters in our wake. Which would be kind of cool, except this fantasy was doing me no good in complying with the speed limit, which is two-fifty when under ten thousand feet.
I wondered why the autothrottles weren’t doing their job. Were they in the right mode? I looked up at the mode control panel, and was thereupon reminded that the Classic does not have autothrottles.
I reached out, grabbed the two sticks and yanked them back to the stops.
More giggling from the peanut gallery. “Bet you won’t do that again.”
He was right. I didn’t. Of course there were myriad other offenses I committed in re-learning how to fly a “real” airplane again. It simply required a higher state of “situational awareness”, to a degree that I had not practiced in quite some time. It requires one to literally sit up and pay attention, as if your life depends on it. Because it does.
It amazes me how quickly one can learn under those conditions. I think of late-night documentaries: hyper-alert meerkats stand in rows, scanning the savanna for predators; oryx suddenly bolt from the watering hole for reasons unseen and unknown to the observer; a battle-scarred and sickly lion lunges and takes down an impala in a mercifully quick flash of violence, all according to the brutal and unforgiving law of the veld.
The training occupied the bulk of my springtime. I was away for two months. For two months, the Beetle sat untouched. Aside from a handful of small, secondary tasks, all that remained was the engine. The newly machined, yet original VW case halves, heads, and crank sat bagged and boxed, waiting for assembly. A box containing a brand new set of four 83-millimeter pistons and cylinders sat under my workbench, coated in cosmoline, individually wrapped and nested in their respective cardboard compartments. Other boxes contained a new a doghouse-style oil cooler (with the all-important “Hoover bit”), clutch, pressure plate, camshaft, and lifters. An overhauled (by me) Solex 28-PICT carburetor. An overhauled (also by me) Pierburg fuel pump. An overhauled (by a local wizard) original Bosch distributor. A set of original, re-bushed VW connecting rods. Pushrods, pushrod tubes, balanced flywheel, rebuilt generator, oil pump, rocker assemblies, a 40-horse gasket kit, miscellaneous hardware, and many other things I’m probably forgetting. It was all ready for me. Yet when I returned, humbled and nearly defeated, I wasn’t quite ready for it.
I needed some decompression time, some “me time”. I tried to make up for a season’s worth of lost cycling opportunities by riding every chance I got. More weekends than not I was in the mountains, attacking the climbs and bombing the descents like a fresh parolee with faulty frontal lobes and a case of Four Loko. At night I taught myself the art of building a bicycle wheel — a pursuit that is one part physics, one part magic. These things imbued me with their very own flavor of mensch-itude.
I rejoined Facebook. Once more my life was imbued with texture and meaning. At long last, I was a complete man again. A classic Joseph Campbell case. A hero.
Then the weather turned cooler. Rodents infested the attic and crawlspace, chewed through some wiring, and disabled the heating system. We spent Thanksgiving in a cold, rat-infested house. These things were bothersome but the only actual work required of me was cleanup. (A respirator and Tyvec suit, I’m pleased to report, detracts nothing from my mensch-itude.) The rest was handled with a couple of phone calls, and planning my day so I could be around when the HVAC and/or pest control guys felt like showing up. I told them to come around back. I’d be in the garage — which was never heated in the first place, and (thankfully) rat-free.
Marissa, our next-door neighbor, recently adopted a Vietnamese pot-bellied pig. She’s a cute little thing (the pig, I mean) — seems good-natured, intelligent, and is already house-trained. It’s owner walks “Jolene” on a leash. The one thing that seems off, however, is that Marissa is introverted in the extreme. She comes and she goes but I have no idea what her life is about at all. Of course, coming and going is common in the townhouse next door, it being a rental and this being a college town. I generally don’t give it much thought. But it occurs to me that taking your pig for a walk is probably a lot like taking your classic car out for a spin to the dry cleaners, the grocery store, the bank, wherever. Want to be left the hell alone? Forget it!
This is true even with the car stationary in my garage. At first, when the car was obviously a work in progress — basically a shell in primer, with sections being cut out, welded in, or left in a precarious state while I figured out how to rectify what I had just bungled — the most common reaction from visitors would be wonder. What year was it? What color was I going to paint it? When will it be done?
Then I’d get the stories. The heretofore unmet neighbor who had a Beetle in college, until he rolled it. The termite inspector whose uncle had several of them, and kept his favorite one running by harvesting parts from the others. The mail carrier who learned to drive — in Alaska — in a Beetle, recounting the patched floorpans and the reserve lever for the fuel tank.
I still get the stories. Really, if I wasn’t such an unmitigated prick sometimes, I’d stop whatever urgently important task I’m doing and try really listening for a change, practicing some journalistic investigation. Maybe I’d even compile the stories, in greater detail, for posterity. It would make for great reading, if I did it right.
Now that the car appears drivable (from the street at least), the most common reaction I get is praise. “Wow,” the UPS guy said one day recently as he stepped out of his brown van. “I haven’t seen one that nice for a long time.”
I’d never seen this guy before. A new route for him, I supposed. He seemed personable enough though, so I let him gawk while I explained what I was doing. The partially-built engine was on the stand, and I was fussing with my cheap-ass Harbor Freight clamping dial-indicator setup, trying to measure my deck height. I’m not sure if he understood my explanation (it’s all new to me, too), but he seemed impressed. If I’m honest, though, praise from someone on the outside — that is, someone who’s not a raging maniac for air-cooled Volkswagens — is of little value. Nice, and appreciated — but I don’t let it get to my head.
I cannot express how much fun I’m having right now, building this engine. It’s funny, really, the way my mind works: my anxiety level about the whole project increases in proportion to the amount of time I’ve spent away from it. To paraphrase a popular bumpersticker about fishing, a bad day in the garage is indeed better than a good day at work. Even if I’m enjoying other pursuits — say, cycling along a remote river in the Blue Ridge Mountains — there’s a low level of anxiety about the car that vaporizes the second my hands start to get greasy.
Maybe you have noticed I’ve been silent for a while. Maybe you didn’t. I’m not sure that I have a coherent reason why I shut the blog down, and quit writing about the thing. Maybe I just needed a break. But I’m back now. Lucky you.
So, to get us all on the same page: the interior is done. The exterior, though covered in two springtimes’ worth of pine pollen, is done. It has all-new brakes, dual-circuit. A new wiring harness, stem to stern. All-new rubber. Original Sekurit glass, except for the new windshield. Original, “wide five” steelies, blasted, powder-coated, and painted, wearing brand new Firestone F-560’s (including the spare). I de-crudded, sealed, and painted the original gas tank. While that was out, I rebuilt the leaky steering box.
Some things will wait. The last time I drove it, the car rolled buttery smooth and perfectly straight, and steering was spot on. My only immediate concern was the leaky gearbox. Aside from that, I installed new front wheel bearings when I did the brakes, and cleaned up the rest of the steering system from spindle to spindle, injecting grease into the specified fittings. I did notice that the tie-rod boots look a little worn, as do the bumper stops. But since I’ll need to have the car drivable so I can assess, diagnose, adjust, and/or take the car in for professional alignment, these things will wait. It’s on the already-started list of things to do on a rainy weekend.
Not on the list: the transaxle. These are known to be incredibly complex little buggers — almost exclusively the realm of professionals — but are also quite robust. It was functioning nicely when last driven. So I’m taking a bit of a calculated risk here. Worst case, at some point I’ll have to drop the engine, figure out how to get the transaxle out, box it up, and send it to somewhere in California for an overhaul. Not the end of the world.
As of this writing, I’ve about finished the long block. To wit, the case halves are joined around the crank and camshaft. The oil pump is installed. The pistons and cylinders are on (the latter each with .020-inch shims, to set the deck height for a compression ratio of about 7.7:1). The heads are installed and torqued, in the proper sequence, to 23 foot-pounds. The disassembled, cleaned, and lubed rocker assemblies are bolted on. The oil cooler is installed. The fuel pump is installed, as is the distributor and its drive shaft.
And this is where my latest dilemma started.
Having never done this before, I have two main sources of guidance. The first is Wilson’s How to Rebuild Your Volkswagen Air-Cooled Engine, a.k.a., “The Red Book”. Although it was written back in the 1980’s, I find it concise and easy to follow, with clear, helpful photographs. There is enough information to challenge the first-timer without being overwhelming. With the possible exception of Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang, “The Red Book” is the most dog-eared book I own. At this point, it is grease-stained and held together with packing tape.
My other main source is the “Bug Me” video, Volume #3, “Complete Engine Rebuild”. I don’t know how many times I’ve watched this video, but I can now quote from it with the same alacrity that Monty Python fans quote lines from “The Holy Grail”. At idle times I find myself wondering what Chad and Wade are up to these days, and hoping Rick is well. His dog, too.
Sometimes there are differences in sequence or technique between the video and the book; in those cases I cross-reference with other sources in my ever-expanding library (John Muir’s “Idiot” book; the Aircooled VW Engine Interchange Manual by Keith Seume; How to Hot Rod Volkswagen Engines by Bill Fisher (although I’m not “Hot Rod”-ing, this is still a useful source); and, of course, the Bentley manual.
Okay, there’s a third source as well — “Howard”, my machinist. One of the problems, though, is that he’s really not just my machinist. I tend to forget that. I tend to forget Howard has a job (two jobs, actually), a family, and a life. And many other customers. But he’s such a helpful, personable guy that sometimes, regardless of the day or time, if I’m absolutely stuck, it’s very hard not to speed-dial Howard for some answers. I don’t mind doing this so much if my questions are directly related to parts I’ve bought from him, or work he’s done. But for all of those other times, it requires great effort not to cry for Howard to set me straight.
So far, I have not called Howard for marital counseling, legal advice, a medical opinion, fashion suggestions, wine pairing recommendations, hot stock tips, or my daily horoscope. But you never know.
I am proud to say, however, that I solved my latest Volks-calamity sans Howard, in a completely Howard-less state. Unless he’s an avid follower of the forums on http://www.thesamba.com — which, busy as he is, seems unlikely — as far as Howard knows I’m only a minor moron.
Last week I worked on the engine for four days in a row, a virtually unprecedented flurry of activity. To be sure, I didn’t work on the engine all day on each of those days. I can’t do that. My preference is to dedicate a morning, or an afternoon, or a couple of hours here and there. Anything longer than that I risk getting careless, unfocused, or too excited about any apparent progress. Over the years I have developed a pretty good sense of knowing when to say when.
The fourth session was on Saturday morning. Having to head out that afternoon for a three-day work trip, my goal of setting the valve gap and installing the valve covers on before leaving was, I thought, quite reasonable. It would have been a natural place to pause, satisfied to be finished building out, mentally preparing to build down (exhaust, tinware), up (intake manifold, carburetor, generator, fan shroud, more tinware), and forward (flywheel, clutch, pressure plate). But for strange and frustrating reasons, I found myself unable to set the valve gap.
Before I elaborate, hear this: I know how to set the valve gap.
I know how to set the valve gap.
I approached it the way I’d done many times before, both when tuning up the Beetle I had when I was sixteen, and in maintaining the current Beetle (before, that is, I decided to take it apart). Pop the cap off the distributor, pull the engine through to the #1 firing position, verify that the mark on the pulley is at the case split, gap #1 valves, pull counter-clockwise 180 degrees, gap #2 . . . and so on. Before we go any further, I’m using the same crankshaft (professionally inspected and polished) as well as the same pulley (which I’ve left unpainted, not only because of the already-verified timing marks, but also because I decided that I like the patina on it). But for some reason, when I went back to check my work, valves seemed to be inexplicably tightening and loosening on their own. It made no sense.
Remember: I know how to set the valve gap.
I had enough sense to recognize that something was wrong, something I wasn’t going to solve while feeling pressured for time. I put down my tools, slipped the black hefty bag over the engine, hit the shower and drove to work, all the while thinking about it, wondering where I went wrong.
If you have the benefit of engine-building experience, you’ve probably got it figured out by now, or at least can make some educated guesses. I had done enough reading that I had some ideas as well. Some things I could all but rule out. I was 99.9 percent sure that the dots on the cam gears were in sync. I was 99.9 percent sure that I had bolted the cam gear itself to the camshaft in the correct orientation (it’s a very mild — but not quite stock — cam recommended by an experienced friend). And having the whole shebang 180 degrees off? Well, that’s such a common rookie mistake that only a complete moron would do something like that . . . .
Waiting for my plane to arrive I did two things. The first was to text Howard. Not for help, mind, but for parts. Did he have a new set of adjusting screws and jam nuts in stock? Sure, he said. He named his price — cheaper than I could have gotten online, with shipping — and we arranged a time I could swing by and pick them up. I figured the old ones might simply be worn out, and this was a cheap and easy thing to do. I didn’t want to deal with the possible shimming and shaving that the popular swivel-ball adjusters might require, and decided to keep this stock.
The second thing I did was to post a description of my dilemma on http://www.thesamba.com, under the thread title of “Setting valve gap on new engine build” or something like that. This turned out to be an unfortunate choice of words on my part, because:
I know how to set the valve gap.
By the time I landed there were several hits. Most of the suggestions were helpful and relevant; things I had already considered, but thought unlikely. Others seemed to imply nah, don’t worry about it — just press on and hope for the best. One or two took the complete opposite extreme, and were sorry to report that I’d probably have to tear it all down and start over — which, if that’s what it takes, okay fine; but that’s also a pretty drastic solution to casually make without double-checking the simple things first. Still, their intention was to help, so I have no qualms.
There was one, though, that really got me steamed. It began with “In my 41 years as a VW mechanic . . .” and said that anyone who doesn’t know how to set their valve gap has no business rebuilding an engine. The funny thing is, I completely agree, because:
I know how to set the valve gap!!!
But I have to pause here to give myself a pat on the back. I’ve come to believe that, in addition to being able to hide behind an anonymous user name, a large part of the uncivilized behavior associated with online commentary stems from the temptation to fire back immediately with everything you’ve got, no holds barred. Of course I was angry. Of course I was insulted. In one or two sentences, that bitter old geezer had made a number of assumptions that were neither helpful nor considerate. I asked for help and got flamed. I had done nothing wrong. So — at first — I did not respond. Just like I knew when to put down the tools, I recognized a good time to step away from the keyboard.
When I checked it again several hours later, several posters, I’m heartened to say, rose to my defense. I had cooled down a bit by then, too, and felt confident enough that I could respond without a reciprocating ad hominem. I simply stated that I wished I had his experience, but I do not, and that is why I was asking these questions. Perhaps he could offer something constructive?
Next, Mister Grouchy apologized, without really apologizing. To be honest, since I only glanced at his subsequent postings, I don’t recall the exact wording. Basically he rephrased what he’d said in a (slightly) less abrasive way, following up with a detailed explanation of how to set the valve gap, which I didn’t really need because . . .
I KNOW HOW TO SET THE VALVE GAP!!!!!!!!!!!
I feel sorry for him, really. I figure, if he really has forty-one years of Volkswagen wrenching under his belt, he’s probably pushing sixty, at least. If this old man has nothing better to do in his golden years than to troll the Internet and anonymously belittle beginners, that’s just really sad. And to the one or two posters who suggested that we should tolerate cranks like him simply because of their overflowing founts of wisdom, I say bullshit. I’ll settle for a decent human being with only twenty-one years of experience any day, thank you very much.
On my way back into town I picked up the new adjusters from Howard. He runs the business out of his garage, in the evening and on weekends, and does the show circuits as well. Judging from the apparent steady stream of customers, I’ve often thought he could quit his day job and open up an actual store front, California-style. There always seem to be a cluster of Beetles and Buses and Karmann Ghias in his driveway, in widely varying states of repair.
Howard was already busy with a customer when I pulled up, so I waited while the customer read from a list of things he needed and Howard darted around the garage, pulling labeled bins from high shelves, entering part numbers in his laptop, offering installation tips and advice. His own project sat in the middle of the garage: a Ruby Red 1963 sedan. This was the first time I’d seen it in paint, and I was completely aghast.
I happened to know that the price tag for this paint job was about what I paid for mine (it’s been so long, though, that I’m wondering if this needs to be inflation-adjusted). Yet the deep, smooth, mirror-like finish I spied from twenty feet only got more impressive as I moved closer. I couldn’t help but to reach out and touch it. While the color was almost identical to mine, the surface was like glass. It didn’t look like steel that had been painted red; it seemed the metal itself was colored, that if you cut it open it would bleed Ruby.
“I’ll be with you in just a sec,” Howard said over the gleaming dome of the roof. My whimpering must have gotten his attention.
When it was my turn I commented on the paint job. Like every aficionado that I know, he thanked me but then pointed out some minor faults, which I would have never noticed. He retrieved the adjusters from a bin while I pulled some cash out of my wallet. I casually mentioned that I was having some trouble setting the valve gap, and thought the old adjusters might be worn. I didn’t go into any more detail than that. Since he didn’t comment, I figured I was on the right track. I could have pressed him for more advice, and he would have gladly offered it, but I wanted to figure this one out on my own for a change.
The new adjusters and jam nuts took ten minutes to install, and of course they didn’t help.
Options, at that point, as I saw them, were limited. Maybe the cam-gear dots weren’t aligned after all? Maybe I really did bolt the cam-gear on the camshaft in the wrong orientation? Either way, I had all but resigned myself to the fact that it all had to come apart, as more than one poster had suggested.
But then I remembered something one of the other helpful Samba-dudes posted, describing his own method for setting the valve gap. Basically, he went from back to front, or front to back. Doesn’t even matter. Just crank the engine through until the first valve is at full lift, then adjust its opposite valve. Then move to the next one. No need to mess with the pulley marks or worry about where the rotor is pointing. Simple.
I figured what the heck. There was nothing to lose, right? So I did a round of valve adjusting in this way, and when I rotated the engine back around to #1, with the rotor pointing to the mark on the distributor housing, the result was . . . the same damn thing. Which, if I’d assembled everything correctly, would be impossible. Okay, I figured. It’s coming apart.
Then, on a complete lark, and with #1 still on (what I thought was) top dead center, unknown forces compelled me to reach over and have a feel of the #3 rocker arms. They both clicked, both off their valves. Then I grabbed my .006-inch feeler gauge, which slid right in with just a little bit of drag. Both valve gaps were perfectly set.
There was nothing wrong with my valve gapping method, per se, on a perfectly assembled engine. But using this other method, which pretty much guarantees that the gap is correct, no matter where the rotor is pointing, isolated my problem. This was the Aha! moment. I had been attempting to adjust the valves at the top of the exhaust stroke, during the “overlap” period, that short span of time when both valves are partially open. Of course, if I hadn’t been doing one of the few things I’ve actually done before by rote, if I’d just stopped and thought about it, I might have caught this sooner. But the good news was that the engine could stay together. The distributor drive shaft was simply 180-degrees off. The thing that only a moron would do was exactly the thing I did.
In trying to piece this back together, I’m still not sure how I screwed that up. I’m thinking I must have had the crank 180-degrees off from the moment I lowered it into the case half and lined up the dots on the gears. From that point on, I assumed that #1 was at TDC, and set the drive shaft in this position — when, all along, it was #3 at TDC.
Anyhow, of all my screw-ups, this one was relatively easy to remedy. Starting with the engine in at TDC #3 (which I had mistaken for #1) I removed the fuel pump, drive pin, and pedestal. I removed the distributor and tension spring. Having the engine on the stand, I then rotated the whole thing counter-clockwise on its side. Next, using a technique from the Muir book, I jammed an unsharpened pencil into the divot on top of the drive shaft, where the spring normally goes, and gently pulled the shaft out while giving it a little bit of counter-clockwise pressure to allow it to work its way free of the drive gear. The crux move here is to not lose the two shims at the bottom into the case. With a flashlight I could see them, still held in place with the assembly lube I’d used. They were easily retrievable with a telescoping magnet, though I could have just as easily left them there.
Next I cleaned and re-lubed everything, rotated the pulley through 360-degrees, and reinstalled everything. Again, mindful of the shims, I let them ride to the bottom of the drive shaft on my longest screwdriver, making sure with a flashlight that they were indeed seated at the bottom. This whole thing took me maybe an hour, even at my glacial pace of working. And this time, when I went to set the valve gap, I could immediately see the effect. It was just right. Actually, using the new-for-me procedure outlined above, the valves were pretty much already gapped correctly. The difference was that now they were doing what I expected them to do. Which was a good thing.
In retrospect, the extreme opinions could have been discounted (maybe there’s a “life-lesson” here?) Surely, I would have been sorely disappointed if I’d torn the engine back down only to find out it was a complete waste of time. On the other hand, continuing as if nothing were amiss would have been a bad plan, too. The problem would have made itself known on initial startup, and then — assuming I diagnosed the problem correctly — I would have had to re-set the distributor drive shaft anyway, but now with the engine in situ. Which can be done, but is, like most things, more fiddly with the engine installed. As an aside, as one or two posters pointed out, one could simply switch the ignition wires around and set the timing accordingly, and the car will run just fine. But anyone who knows me, knows that this ain’t how I roll. It would be wrong, and it would bug me.
Next up is sorting my tinware, and getting my hands on a decent stock exhaust system. In the meantime, on to the next dilemma!
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.
Somewhere, at the end of a long shift, an overeducated and underemployed barista fished my old token from the very bottom of the jar (“Show Us Your Tips!”), contemplated its message, and sighed: prick.
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. Too often though, in spite of my best intentions, I create a mess.
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 loose? 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, fuel lines, and 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 undisputed 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.
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.
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 the engine that came with the car. It’s been in that same exact spot for about three years now. I never did a compression check or anything like that. At the time, I didn’t have the tools and didn’t know how. I still have not learned the esoteric art of assessing it’s worth from the color of the soot in it’s pipes, the condition of the plugs, or the consistency of the oil that has collected in the filler neck. With time I will learn these things, just as I have learned everything else.
Plans 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. I’ll take back roads only, going at my own pace. Schedules will loosen. I will learn to accept help from others. I’m sure there will be rough spots, but this is something I’ll learn how to handle with aplomb.
And once I’ve worked out the kinks, this motor 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 . . .
I first heard about it 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 the first engine and it will take me to Maine. As for second, I have added it 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 the newly-acquired lump to one-hundred percent original condition). Lucky for me, the winters are long in Maine.
I stand under the buzzing fluorescent lights in front of the dairy case at the back of the convenience store, overwhelmed. Despite the medical urgency of the moment I simply cannot decide.
I glance back at the Pakistani man behind the counter. His eyes are glued to the tiny black and white television that in all likelihood has been on, and in the same exact spot, for thirty years or more. I briefly consider — with mixed feelings — that perhaps it’s a security monitor, but then I hear a tinny burst of canned laughter. Not being a connoisseur of late-night television fare, I wonder what could be so funny at this hour. Judging from the absolutely dead-neutral, glazed-over look on the clerk’s face, not much.
I know he knows I’m here, because we made eye contact when I came through the door. He didn’t move a muscle. He remained slouched on his stool, as he remains now, but his bloodshot eyes followed me as far as they could, until the extra effort of having to shift his entire head seemed to be too much for him just then. I noticed his stained white button-down linen shirt with pearl snaps and breast-pocket stuffed with pens and popsicle sticks. But my own appearance — pajamas, flip-flops, tousled hair, and mouth smeared with blood, as if I’d been feasting on fresh roadkill — did not seem to arouse anything worthy of further attention from him. Perhaps this sort of thing happens all the time, at three in the morning. Just as well.
I turn again to the dairy case. Skim, 2%, whole. Chocolate, strawberry. Pint, quart, gallon. Soy, low-fat soy, vanilla soy. Even chocolate low-fat soy milk, for Chrissakes. At a convenience store. In Georgia.
I raise my bloodied and clenched right hand to my face and, after another glance at the clerk, open it, palm up. Some of the blood has dried already, and the skin on my fingers crinkles and cracks with it as I open my hand. But it’s still there. With my tongue I probe the raw, pulsing gap where the tooth used to live, not particularly savoring the taste of pennies.
I find myself wishing I had paid more attention in chemistry class, or biology class, or whatever class would have provided me with the esoteric yet crucial knowledge that was now required to be an “informed consumer.” I try to remember where I even heard it, that you can preserve a tooth in milk for possible later reinstallation by qualified medical personnel. Maybe it’s a myth. But no harm done in trying, I suppose.
Probably not soy milk, I think. It’s a start.
There is a flash and I turn to see another vehicle pulling in. The driver kills the headlights and now I can see it better. It is a very strange car — part ’59 Caddy, part Hoover. Festooned with LEDs but also with wings. Like some crazy-ass bile green Batmobile, built from the recently-unearthed, sixty-year-old plans of a long-dead fugitive Nazi engineer. With a cold shock I recognize the thing.
“Fuck,” I mutter, in a spray of pink spittle.
In a sudden panic, I swing open the glass door to the cooler and reach for my usual choice by default — 2%, quart size — while formulating a vague plan to make a mad dash out the back door, if there is one. I hear something tiny hit the linoleum floor. It sounds like a tooth, for some odd reason. It is. I bend to pick it up and proceed to kick it under a cardboard display stocked with jerky (assorted animals and flavors). I get down on all fours, set the 2% aside, and reach underneath to locate my tooth. I can’t find it. So I go to slide the display over — easy now, so as not to arouse the clerk’s attention — and proceed to topple it over. I am now awash in a downpour of jerky.
The jerky-rain stops falling and all is silent for a moment, except for the hum of the coolers and another round from the laugh track. I am still on the floor, and I can’t see what the clerk is doing. He had to have heard that.
Suddenly I’m overcome by sleepiness, as if under a spell. I yearn to slumber, deeply, for a long, long time. Nothing else matters. I roll over on my back, surrounded by beef jerky, buffalo jerky, alligator jerky, turkey jerky. I lie on cold tiles under glaring artificial light but it is heavenly. I wonder if it’s possible to bleed to death from a tooth that’s been unceremoniously bashed out of one’s skull; but this wonder, oddly, is no longer connected to care. I am liberated. I start to drift off.
As my consciousness slips away the distant sound of a cowbell reminds me that this is the absolute wrong time to do this. The men (women?) who did this to me are here. But in my utter lassitude I assure myself that they cannot see me, yet. They are probably not interested in dairy anyhow. Or in the dried, cured, spiced, colored, preserved, processed, and packaged byproducts of an amazingly creative variety of animals. I convince myself that they will simply turn and leave, continuing their search elsewhere. Somewhere far away from here, while I rest in peace.
Then the cellphone in my pocket rings — louder, by far, than it has ever rung before. Not only that, but some joker has apparently replaced my usual, bland ringtone with the “Menah-Menah” song from Sesame Street. It is as if a chorus of Muppets are surrounding me, singing to me, taunting me, as I lie there on the cold linoleum. I cannot open my eyes. I want to reach into my pocket and silence the phone, but I can’t. I can barely move. All I can manage is a half-hearted swatting motion with my right arm.
Then I feel something jabbing at my ribs, on the left. It’s annoying but not painful (yet). Somebody prodding, perhaps, with the pointed toe of a leather boot.
“Are you dead?” I think I hear someone say. Then there is a softer, somewhat friendlier, and strangely familiar woman’s voice. “Get up,” she says.
I am trying get the damn Muppets to shut up and to fend off whoever is kicking me. But my brainstem is not cooperating so I am just flailing about, getting more and more frustrated. I want to shout. I want to scream. But all that comes out is a wimpy, effeminate moan. It’s enough to wake myself up, but not in time to avoid one more especially firm and well-placed jab in the ribs.
“Wake up,” she says. It is the voice of my wife. Finally I muster the willpower to open my eyes with a brisk shaking of my head. Cats scatter. Dawn filters through the closed blinds. I see her elbow poised once again.
“Okay,” I whine. “I’m awake already!”
Then I reach over and silence the alarm on my phone, for which I now remember having downloaded the “Menah-Menah” song. I make a mental note to change it back. I do not wish to be further traumatized by the “Menah-Menah.”
Why would I be subjected to such a strange dream? A few of the major themes are so obvious as to not require pointing them out. I will leave those to the psychoanalysts (if there are any left). I will, however, provide a bit of context: the dream occurred in the midst of a week when I was mired in indecision regarding the selection of upholstery for the Beetle. There were just too many choices.
I had never really given it much thought up to then. Having been ass-deep in the project for so long — to the point of wondering, in all seriousness, what I used to do with my time — such matters seemed frivolous and impossibly far into the future. Oh, I guess I might have said, I dunno, some off-white and some tan might look nice for Rubylove, with genuine German square-weave carpet (nothing but the finest!). But when the time finally came to make an actual choice, I was overwhelmed, caught high up in the naked, tangled, windswept branches of the indecision tree.
As with the paint, in the end it wasn’t really a choice at all. I just decided to go with the way the car would have come with from the factory — or something close to it, as far as I could figure. Of course, when I bought the car, there were no traces of the original interior left anywhere. In lieu of an actual headliner, a previous owner had glued strips of off-white vinyl padding, of unknown origin, directly to the roof. The header and roof pillars were painted blue — a different blue than the lower half of the misbegotten two-toning attempt on the exterior, and of a quality that bore the mark of a highly-skilled kindergartener on acid. A little bit of research told me that the stained basket-weave off-white vinyl seat upholstery, while quite similar to the seat covers on the 1975 Beetle I used to have, were not original to this car. Neither (and I didn’t need to research this one) were the pieces of grandma’s old quilt that were tacked to the door panels in place of the genuine articles. Tatters of black carpeting were strewn about the floorboards, pocked with cigarette burns and funky with mold.
In spite of it all, it had one thing going for it — amazingly, somehow, after years of such raw treatment, it still retained that “old Volkswagen” smell. Either you know what I’m talking about, or you don’t. I won’t describe it to you. But that’s the only thing I’m gonna miss. That’s a big thing, though — and I am gonna miss it!
A bit of research was in order — though given some of the P.O.’s offenses, it was at times more like a crime scene investigation (perp was determined to be a color blind, heavy smoker with neither a sense of pride nor respect for his grandmother’s quilting). When tearing it all apart, I found some tiny shreds of off-white, perforated vinyl clinging to the steel grippers that once held the original headliner in place. The “birth certificate” that I got from the Stiftung AutoMuseum Volkswagen in Wolfsburg says “Upholstery leatherette Grille Grey.” And of course the internet was a veritable treasury of helpful information (especially the color charts at www.wolfsburgwest.com).
What I could glean was this: headliner, perforated off-white vinyl. Carpet, gray (I went with premium, pre-cut loop instead of the German square-weave — have you seen the price of that stuff lately?). For the door cards and seat upholstery, the best I could determine was that ’65 was a one-year-only, pattern-wise. I found what I judged to be a very close approximation by TMI, which I thereupon ordered from www.jbugs.com. It is a two-tone dark grey, with a lighter, “mesh grey” on the seating surfaces and in the middle of the door cards. The seat backs are “rollover style,” meaning the solid grey comes up the back, over the top, and stops a few inches later, transitioning to the mesh pattern. They were not custom, exactly, but were “special order” — they make them as needed. This takes some time, and costs a bit more. But I wanted it to be “right.” Also, I ordered the JBugs interior video, as I was aiming to do it all myself.
By the time I mustered up the gumption to have at it (and watched the video almost as many times as I’ve seen The Big Lebowski), everything — including the special order items — were on hand. I decided to start with what many consider one of the toughest jobs in Volkswagen restoration: the headliner. In the hours I spent combing the forums, I came across many enthusiasts who were no doubt far more experienced than I, yet who readily admitted they wouldn’t even attempt it. We’re talking guys who could synchronize dual carbs during half-time with naught but a Leatherman, a glass of water, and a keen sense of smell — but wouldn’t go anywhere near a headliner, citing maddening frustration.
If you’re looking for a “how-to,” you’d be well-served to go elsewhere. My intention is partially to inspire — as in, if an idiot like me can do it, so can you — but mainly to blow my own trumpet. Being a forty-three-year-old slacker with no special skills, achievements, or ability, the chance to sing my own praises so seldom occurs that I’d be a fool to pass it up. So without further ado, dig it!
The most astute observers no doubt have noticed that my new headliner closely approximates, but is not an exact reproduction of, the genuine article for 1965. You would be correct. Instead, I opted to go with the so-called “easy install” version, the most obvious difference being that the roof section is one with the piece around the rear window. I thought long and hard about this; but in the end I decided that doing it myself was of higher priority than meeting somebody else’s standard of “correct”-ness. Even those who are otherwise meticulous about the vintage ethos — and dare to attempt this thing themselves — often make this one of their rare concessions. That said, if I were to do it all over again, I’d be tempted to step it up to the original-style kit, just for the added challenge.
I was so “chuffed” (as the Brits say) about the results that I even risked posting the same pics on http://www.thesamba.com. Those forum-meisters are tough crowd, and a few of them — many of whom, I’m convinced, have never touched an actual Volkswagen, but pride themselves in assumed internet identities as the ultimate arbiters of perfection — can be tactless, ruthless cretins sometimes. Still, the few that bothered to comment were complimentary.
Am I being cocky? Not really. My work is not perfect. There are minor imperfections here and there, things I could point out to you and you would most likely say, “So what?” I’m just feelin‘ good about the way the Volkswagen life is going and want to brag a little. And after all, isn’t bragging what all of the tweeting, Facebooking, and self-absorbed blogging is all about?
Do I have a special talent? No, but I do have a couple of faults that might have helped. For starters, I’ve been maddeningly frustrated my entire life, so that mental state is nothing new for me. Also in my favor is the fact that I’m a very slow worker. By necessity, I’ve become quite comfortable with having a very loose agenda, setting few deadlines, and leaving a sub-task in the lurch while I gather up more gumption.
For this particular work, you really truly have to be “in the moment.” As a matter of fact, that is precisely how I took a rather interesting discovery in stride, without freaking out. I was sitting in the car, on the bare hump, gingerly holding a piece of glue-slathered vinyl that was semi-attached to the right “B” pillar. Things were going along okay. I had already done the left one. There were just a few small wrinkles at the very bottom, but I figured that with the rear seat bottom and the carpet installed, as well as a possible shoulder harness (I’m not decided on that part yet), it wouldn’t be very noticeable. Either way, it was a helluva lot better than the first left pillar attempt, which saw the offending piece in the trash and me in a self-imposed “time out” before I was on the horn ordering another one.
So I’m sitting on the hump waiting for the contact cement to set so I can press it into place. Maybe the fumes were getting to me, but I’m looking around, thinking man, we’ve come so far. Long way to go still, but shit — look at you! Goofy stuff like that. Then my glance settled upon the rear end of the hump (the rump?), above where the transaxle lives. And that’s when I saw the number.
“Hmph,” I said myself. “That looks like a rather short number.”
I mulled this over while the glue set. I finished the piece that I was working on, brushed some mineral spirits on my fingers, dried my hands on my pants, reached over, gave the hood release a yank, and un-shoehorned my way out of the fumey car. Then I raised the hood (not the engine compartment, as if you need reminding about this thing) and consulted the placard.
I saw what I expected to see — a decidedly longer, decidedly different number. Then I checked the hump number again, just to verify that I really wasn’t high, hadn’t been hallucinating. There was no denying it. They did not match.
Why had I not noticed this before? If you would have asked me, just minutes before this discovery, where one can find the chassis number for an old Beetle, I could have told you about two places: the placard behind where the spare tire goes, and on the hump under the rear seat. And what if they don’t match? Well, dumbass, obviously you’ve got a body and pan that began their lives with different pans and bodies. Each had been “previously married,” you might say.
I guess I hadn’t noticed it because right off the bat — the day I first laid eyes on her — I could tell she was a ’65. Slightly larger windows, slanted vent-window posts, so not a ’64; no “1300” logo on the deck lid, nor a center defroster vent in the middle of the dash, so not a ’66. Yes, I did happen to verify this with the number on the front placard — the number I sent off to Wolfsburg for documentation. I suppose it just never occurred to me to cross-reference it with the hump number.
For the purist seeking a virgin concourse queen, this numbers mismatch would have been unforgivable, a deal breaker. For a guy like me, it’s okay (for the most part). It actually helps to clear a few things up. For starters, I had to buy earlier-than-1965 carpet, to accommodate the older, “spigot”-style heater knob. Since my car (the body, at least) was actually made in October of ’64 (as a ’65 model), I had assumed that knob was just a curious leftover from the previous model-year. I also knew from my own research that the serial number stamped on the engine case dated it to some time in 1963. Again, this was easily explained. In its long life, the car has most likely been through numerous engines. A genuine VW case from a ’63, in good condition, would make a great contender for a rebuild. Why not?
Sure enough, after consulting with the ever-growing section of my bookshelf that might someday be endowed to the Volksfool Memorial Library and Hall of Horrors, I determined that while the body is still a 1965, the werks are from the spring of 1963.
What does this really mean in my life? I’m still not entirely sure. Still processing. I’m thinking about interfacing, interchanging, compatibility. That heater knob should work fine if the rest of the lower deck is part of the same shebang. But why did the previous owner have the control valves wired open? The engine will be rebuilt anyway, but why does the existing shroud sport the newer-style cooling flaps (frozen in place, of course, with the control rod dangling free between #1 and #2, and no thermostat to be found anywhere) on a ’63 case? Should I rebuild with an air-control ring instead? Does it matter? What about the brand-new, made-to-order 1965 wiring harness I’ve partially installed?
None of this stuff was depriving me of any sleep (not for the next couple of nights, at any rate). If I’ve gained anything over the past few years, it’s the confidence of knowing that I’ll figure it all out eventually. Somehow. I always do. The answer might not be readily apparent right now, but it will just need some research, and some time. I’ll figure it out, just like I’ve figured everything else out.
As you should know by now, sometimes I’m slow on the uptake. So you shouldn’t be surprised to find out that it took me the better part of a week to notice the cardboard box that I shoved in a corner of my study, between the bookcase and my newly acquired 1970’s-vintage stereo setup. On that box is printed “TMI” in large, red lettering. Inside are the one-year-only, special-order seat covers. Behind that box is another, also from TMI, that contains the matching door cards, also to my specs.
The actual seats are in a storage locker about a mile from my house, where they’ve been collecting dust for a couple of years now. I haven’t been over there in a while, but I think I know what I might find: original seats, in pretty good condition, from a 1963 Beetle. In other words, that beautiful new upholstery ain’t gonna fit. As far as I understand it, that new upholstery would be perfect for actual ’65 seat frames, and would also fit a ’66 or a ’67 (thought the pattern would not be correct, which is a less consequential matter to me). Like for 1965, those years still retained the “low back” seats (no extra charge for the whiplash). But 1964 and earlier seats had more rounded shoulders, and the piping was oriented laterally across the car, versus longitudinally swept back. Check out these photos I lifted off the internet:
When I ordered the stuff, it never occurred to me to dig those seats out from underneath the pile of rejected fenders, deck lids, hoods, doors, and wheels to double-check what I was dealing with. Why would it have? But it’s so obvious to me now it ain’t funny. I could spot the difference a mile away. I could even tell by feel. But like the hump-number, I never questioned it. When I (finally) decided on a pattern, I picked up the phone an ordered away. Yep, that’s right. 1965. Several hundred bucks down the drain.
Ever since paint, the kitty has become precariously low, even without this painful mistake. I’m discovering that taking a car apart, and even much of the body work, costs relatively little if you do it yourself. But putting it all together, after spending several grand for a paint job — well, that’s a whole ‘nother thing. I get a modest monthly allowance earmarked especially for the project, but this latest screw-up would set me back quite a bit. And simply putting the whole thing on hold won’t cut it. I’m still committed to having it on the road by spring. Drastic measures were necessary.
So drastic, in fact that I — wait for it — I picked up some extra time at work! Yes, it’s gotten that desperate. Oh, and by the way — anyone wanna buy brand-new upholstery and matching door cards?
I may be a slow worker, but I’m an even slower writer. Since the first draft of this episode (I do revise, you may be surprised to learn. Like putting lipstick on a pig, I know. But as they say, it’s the journey . . .) I’ve installed the sound insulation, padding, and charcoal carpet. Check it out:
Things are happening — do try to keep up!
The Dude Abides.
I usually assume that the work in the little garage behind my townhouse on the limbic fringe of a stillborn subdivision goes mostly unnoticed. Naturally, it’s hard to ignore the resounding roar of a pneumatic dual-action sander upon a Beetle roof (it sounds like a Messerschmidt in a power dive) but hopefully those days of noise are behind me now. Hopefully, the next motorized sound emanating from my garage will be the gentle, civilized purr of a freshly-rebuilt forty-horse Volkswagen engine.
Life goes on around me. The country-clubbers who had been renting the townhouse next door have moved on. Their lives seemed to be an endless whir of activity. He traveled constantly. She always seemed harried, always running late for something. Her BMW came and went many times on any given day. Sometimes she would stop and chat — mostly about her ten-year-old daughter, to whom she was
immensely dedicated. Once she confided in me about some medical problems she was having, of the female variety. I didn’t know how to take this so I just kept my trap shut and listened. Surgery, she said. Hysterectomy, apparently. She didn’t seem particularly frightened but I bet she was. I know I would be. I wondered why she was telling me all of this — me, of all people, who really didn’t know her very well, and whose understanding of female plumbing is marginal, at best. Maybe it was exactly what she needed just
then — a neutral listener, a neighbor with whom she had merely a passing acquaintance, someone with no personal stake in the matter.
Soon enough things were back to normal over there, the comings and the goings back to their pre-hysterectomy level. Then in the spring he took a transfer, and they moved out at the end of theschool year. In spite of the noise (which I tried to keep to normal business hours, Monday through Friday) and the fact that my garage faces theirs, they showed very little interest in what I was doing over there. Which was more than fine by me. In spite of some early tensions regarding what I perceived as their taking an unfair portion of our shared driveway — which I resolved by simply blocking them in and disappearing for hours on my bicycle — one could do a lot worse in terms of immediate neighbors.
Slightly farther afield, I have other neighbors who seem to be rooting for me. This was clear within days of Rubylove leaving for the paint shop, vacating the spot in the garage where she had been resident for a thousand days. “Where’s the old Vee-Dubya?” Carl wanted to know. Carl is a friendly old guy a who lives two buildings over. I am the only male citizen of Athens, Georgia (or anywhere else in Georgia, I suspect) who knows absolutely nothing about football. But it is said that back in the day, Carl was quite a standout for the Georgia Bulldogs. I’ve changed his name here, but I just now Googled him by his real one — he comes up on the first page. I think he once told me he’s 78. It’s hard to believe, because that dude doesn’t seem to sit still. He spends hours working in his garden — even with the temperatures in the triple digits — and I often see him in the morning, power-walking along a road that’s popular for cyclists and runners like me. He is always smiling.
Another fan is Maribeth. Her interest apparently stems from the fact that she once owned a Jetta (don’t ask me). I might have her name wrong — at least, I think it’s Maribeth. But if it isn’t, she doesn’t seem to mind my mistake. She usually strolls by with a bunch of kids in tow. I’m never sure which are hers, but at least some of them are. There always seems to be another one on the way. “What color are you going to go with?” Maribeth asked. “It’s a secret,” I said, playfully. She seemed to appreciate that, and didn’t press the issue.
Paul often walks by with his older-than-dirt springer spaniel. “Well, where did it go?” he said, peering into my empty garage with a wide-eyed, stunned, and theatrical flourish. I’m not sure what to make of Paul. He’s a character, for sure. A retired high school teacher, he lives in one of the detached houses that front the neighborhood. Paul’s slow and thick Southern accent, in combination with his exaggerated facial expressions, might give the first impression of someone who is a little slow under the lid. With the level of amazement that animates him when I answer his questions about the project, you’d think I was attempting to build my own time machine in there.
As with most people, there’s more to Paul than meets the eye. From the little things he’s said, I’m pretty sure he smokes pot from time to time. He says that back in the 70’s, he actually owned a Westfalia for a time, and made numerous camping trips with his wife and kids. But he’s also a bit paranoid, possibly from
watching too much cable news (read: any cable news). Sometimes he makes oblique references to political
matters, but I know from having spent my entire adult life in Georgia that it’s probably best for me to let such things pass.
Recently there have been a rash of break-ins in the neighborhood. I tend to take such things in stride — I don’t leave valuables in the Subaru (which is parked outside, an indignity for which I suspect it will forever hold a grudge against the Beetle), leave a porch light on at night, and make sure the doors are locked when I go out.
Paul shared with me a story of one recent nocturnal adventure, which saw him creeping around his house in the wee hours with his loaded .357 leading the way. He’d thought he’d “heard something.” Not only
that, but he had seen a “suspicious-looking” car cruising slowly through the neighborhood the previous day. “Kids,” he said, with a glare that was supposed to tell me something. It didn’t. “Black kids,” he added, by way of explanation. Perhaps he had forgotten that yes, the subdivision is overwhelmingly white, but there are one or two African-American families living here too. (And Jews. And lesbians. And even a Jewish lesbian, of all things! Those of us who celebrate such variety call it diversity.) The denouement of Paul’s story was hardly action-packed. In the end (spoiler alert!) our protagonist decided it was nothing after all. He went back to bed.
Was there a hint of disappointment in his voice? Hard to say for sure. But the way I see it, unless I am directly threatened, it just doesn’t seem worth it to me to shoot some kid for trying to steal my television set. But then again, I do not own a gun. Or a television set.
In spite of the fact that he and I differ greatly in our way of seeing things, I seem to be able to tolerate Paul reasonably well. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s the curious affinity I have for anyone who’s slightly off-kilter. Maybe with those yellow-lensed Ray-Ban shooters he always wears, his histrionics, and his less-than-savory worldview, he strikes me as an amusing amalgam of characters consisting of one part Hunter S. Thompson, one part Jack Nicholson, and one part Jim Bob Bunker (Archie’s long-lost Southern brother).
There are certain individuals who, I am certain, are placed in this world for the sole purpose of testing my patience. The retiree who actually owns the townhouse next door was one of them. But he only lived there
for a short time before heading further south, much to my relief.
Another such individual is Darrell. Being a very insecure individual, I’m expert at finding faults in others. If there is a chink in your armor, you can bet your ass I’ll find it, poke around in there, and exploit it for my own personal gratification. Darrell remains a special case. I would be hard-pressed to actually sit down and create a list of the things I can’t stand about Darrell. Off the top of my head, I can think of only two. The first is that I feel sorry for him. Darrell is of indeterminate age — he might be sixty, or he might be eighty. In spite of his age, he seems compact and strong. From a distance one might guess he’s tall, but when he comes up close I always find myself surprised to find that I
have at least four or five inches on him.
Another thing that I find myself thinking at close range is how ugly that guy is. There is no charitable way of putting it. I’m well aware that I’m no Brad Pitt myself, but I can’t help but be struck by it, every single
time. The skin on his face is cratered badly, his nose bulbous, his eyes rheumy and swollen. There are styes, scars, and warts with little gray hairs sprouting out of them. He is missing many teeth. He has an extremely thick accent and whistles when he talks. I have a very hard time understanding him. Like me, in wintertime he has a penchant for plaid flannel. But unlike me, Darrell does not look like some woodsy wanna-be. With his battered face and sturdy frame, he could have come straight from yet another season at the logging camp.
I’m not sure what Darrell’s actual job title is. I do not follow closely the complex management arrangement of my dead subdivision, but the soporific details go something like this: The developer bailed when things went pear-shaped. Undeveloped tracts were sold off or foreclosed on. The remainder is owned by a law firm in which each of the many partners insisted upon being included in said firm’s name. That law firm contracts with a management company (bearing a more reasonable moniker consisting of one last name, followed by “& Associates”) to oversee what needs to be overseen. There is a homeowners’ association (of which my wife is a representative) which was to take over management when the subdivision was built out to a certain percentage. But as that seems likely to never occur, we are left in a state of limbo — for the most part at the mercy of the management company, to which the association serves an “advisory” role. Residents in the detached dwellings are mostly on their own in terms of maintenance. The common areas, as well as the townhouses, are maintained (or not, which would actually be my personal preference) by a landscaping company. Of course, with the coffers nearly empty and nobody exactly eager to see an increase of membership fees (a classic American conundrum in which we expect everything but don’t want to actually pay for it) this is a source of perpetual conflict.
Yet somehow, over the years, the management has found the means to keep a general handyman on retainer, a Jack of all trades, a man to step into the breach between where the homeowners’ responsibilities end and the landscaper’s begins. And that, apparently, is where Darrell fits in.
Darrell’s main occupation seems to be driving around the neighborhood in his rickety little Mitsubishi pickup. Sometimes he might be found spreading pine straw (the purpose of which is to cover up spaces which we didn’t seem inclined to leave well enough alone in the first place). Or he might be seen hauling river rocks for a homeowner building a koi pond. Once an alert neighbor spotted him at the controls of a
Bobcat, randomly thrashing the undergrowth among heretofore undisturbed and mature hardwoods near the entrance to the subdivision. When asked about it, Darrell claimed to be acting under the direction of a resident who had complained that said undergrowth detracted from the otherwise manicured character
of the neighborhood. As an added bonus, said resident wound up with a much better view of the highway.
Even though world history has demonstrated that there is a limit to what can be excused for “just following orders,” I do not grudge Darrell for any of this. He is getting paid (and likely not very well) for doing the menial chores that lie far below what can be expected from citizens of greater socioeconomic consequence. Given his age, the short shrift he gets, and the frustration he undoubtedly must feel at being subjected to the often conflicting whims of the various parties involved, Darrell might be forgiven for being bitter. But he is not. His is friendly, and seldom has a negative word to say.
Like I said, I feel sorry for him. Pity, of course, is antithetical to truly liking someone. Ironically, it is one of his better qualities — his friendliness — that is the root of the second thing, the thing that really bugs me about Darrell: He has a preternatural knack for suddenly appearing in the garage when I’m most frustrated, most overwhelmed, or most pressed for time. Not only that, but often he comes bearing gifts. Sometimes it’s simply the name and number of somebody he knows, who knows somebody who has a nephew who has a few old Beetles laying about his yard, who I might call if I need some parts. Other times
Darrell brings something physical. Once it was a couple of catalogs he’d gotten in the mail (Harbor Freight, JC Whitney) that he thought I’d be interested in, and which went straight to the recycling bin the moment his back was turned. Another time it was a rusty old jack of some sort, that Darrell insisted was from an old Volkswagen. Really, I’m convinced it came from a Model T (or earlier) instead, but that’s besides the point. Because I was no doubt in the middle of welding something (which usually entails me burning holes in it before coming up with a better plan), or discovering (after the fact) that no, the window
regulator needs to be in place before assembling the rest of the Rube Goldberg-engineered door innards,
or realizing that I’ve just spent hours meticulously installing the main wiring harness backwards — because I was so damn preoccupied with whatever all-important hell I was putting myself through, Darrell’s intended kindness was dismissed with a half-assed “thanks” which may as well have been appended with, “Now get lost!”
And therein lies the main reason I can’t stand Darrell. I am convinced he is the Buddha manifest, presenting himself as a golden opportunity to greatly enrich my karma. And I fail miserably, every single time. In his kindness, Darrell is a constant reminder of what a dickhead I can be sometimes.
It dawns on me now that maybe others are not rooting for me after all. Maybe Carl, Maribeth, Paul — all of them, except maybe Darrell — are secretly wishing for me to fail. Perhaps they would all revel in the schadenfreude of seeing their moody, unneighborly neighbor reap his just rewards, of witnessing the billowing, black clouds of smoke rising from the pyre of an abandoned restoration, fueled by the timbers of what had recently been his garage. Or maybe, in showing interest in his progress, they’re just hoping the noise is over, wishing that he would just be done with it already.