From Away

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Spring has come but there are still piles of snow around and freezing temperatures at night. The roads are still lousy with sand and salt. In the garage is a humped gray ghost that smells slightly of peppermint, from the several jars of strategically-placed essential oils that I distributed to ward off mice. Every now and then I lift up her skirt to reveal a Ruby Red fender or the polished dome of a hub cap. The time is coming. But not just yet.

In another garage, twenty miles away, sits another gray ghost, this one in the shape of a loaf of bread. We made it here just fine, in the end of September, after 1,251 miles of driving. Unsure what sort of weather autumn would bring — or more precisely, when the weather would come — I saw no point in registering and insuring Stella in her new home state, only to put her into winter hibernation shortly thereafter. So I proceeded to fix the things we broke, changed the oil, tuned up the engine, did a thorough wash and wax, filled the tank, poured in a few ounces of stabilizer, and drove her down the turnpike to the rented garage space I’d found. There, I pulled the battery, threw a cover over her, and I haven’t seen her since.

The time is coming for her too. Last week I set up the insurance, and registered her with a vanity tag. “STELLA” was taken; “STELLA 72” was one too many digits. But I did get “72 WESTY”, which is pretty darn cool. So, soon. But not yet.

On the last Friday of October I left for a work trip, and would not return home until late Tuesday night. Since May we had been working with a real estate agent to find a place. We had toured several. All had their faults. In the one case in which we had made an offer, we were summarily outbid. Ours was an offer a bit higher than I was comfortable with but it was still a crushing defeat. It was a really cool old house — to say nothing of the large, detached, two-car garage shop, with a wood stove. Quickly we learned that we would have to pay a lot more for a lot less. Quickly we learned that we would have to move quickly. We were buyers in a sellers market.

The voicemail was waiting when the wheels touched down in Baltimore. There was a new listing, my wife said. It looked promising. I could check it out on my app. There was to be an open house on Sunday, she said, and offers would be accepted until Tuesday at five. We had discussed the possibility — or probability, as the Big Things usually seem to occur when I’m elsewhere — that she might have to make the decision alone. While not ideal, I said that it would be better this way than the other way around. I was interested in a Garage Mahal with a somewhat functional house; she was interested in a nice house in a nice neighborhood.

When I returned to Maine we were under contract.

The 1,251 miles were distributed over five days of driving. Heading north out of Asheville and into the Blue Ridge Mountains, I downshifted into third as we climbed, holding our breath — she, embarrassed by the nuisance we were making of ourselves in the slow lane; me, with one eyeball glued to the oil light, worrying about the air-cooled flat-four overheating. There were some grades, deep in the Alleghenies, which called for second gear, both for enough torque to pull the overloaded Westy, but also to take the hairpin curves in a somewhat upright fashion. All the while I could picture the little engine back there, in its cramped compartment, working furiously to propel our Wonderbread-shaped antique upwards, glowing, steaming, slinging hot oil, working itself into an angry red glow until, until . . .. But it never overheated. Not even close.

We learned what it’s like to camp in a VW Bus. We have been married for twenty-four years, and sometimes when stressed we snip at each other, bitterly, like an elderly couple. Yet we found ourselves, for the most part, comfortable in camp.

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Over the course of 1,251 miles the list of mechanical issues was, thankfully, short and minor: One broken interior sliding door handle. One fussy lock, passenger door. One loose turn signal stalk. And once, at a noisy rest area on I-81 somewhere in Pennsylvania, I turned the key, the appropriate dash lights came on but nothing happened.

I checked to make sure my hearing aids were on.

(Yes, at 48, there’s that now to deal with. Get over it.)

“Uh, is the engine running?” I said.

“No,” she said.

I tried again. Still nothing.

Long before we set out, I had spent hours on http://www.thesamba.com, attempting to put together a manageable, sensible list of tools and spares to carry on board. The opinions, as you might imagine, are widely varied. Some carry a spare, well, everything, short of an engine block; others suggest naught but a smile, a cell phone, and a AAA card. Knowing that my S.O. would draw the line somewhere short of a roadside clutch job (though a clutch cable made the cut), I planned accordingly. A smile is a tall order, but aside from the cell phone (and, I admit, my AAA card), I did manage to assemble a reasonable collection of tools and spares. But the most valuable asset, then and forevermore, was my newfound sense of aplomb.

I muttered to myself for a moment or two, thinking. Then I put the gear shift in third (or at least, in the vicinity where I estimated third might live), released the parking brake, got out of the car, and tried to push the Bus backwards. I could see her through the windshield. After all these years I still wonder what she’s thinking sometimes. She is not a poker player. But she should be. The look was somewhere between benevolent tolerance and mild amusement. Her look did not change when I climbed back in, turned the key, and old Stella roared (or the VW equivalent thereof) back to life.

“That is all,” I said.

It never did that again, but I suspect it will, someday. And I’ll be ready.

And there was always, after the first few miles of driving each day, the rented bowling shoe/rancid French-fry smell, due to the bad oil leak that I had fixed, but which left the exhaust soaked with it. I guess I had hoped the stink would burn off by the time we were half-way through Virginia. It didn’t. I have assured her that the otherwise perfectly functional exhaust system, heater boxes and all, will be replaced before she agrees to camp in it again. To be fair, although the days of the cabin filling with a smoky, oily haze are thankfully in the past, the residual smell was making me slightly ill, too.

This was not our only shared complaint. Routes that the smartphone claimed would be five hours ended up being more like nine. While I enjoy driving the old Bus — pleased with how well I (finally) got it to run, appreciating the experience of doing this thing in the twenty-first century, seeing that really, it is about the journey — I can see how, from a non-aficionado passenger’s perspective, the long hours in the original (!) seats can be tedious.

And man, they do call that compartment hung on the ceiling a “head banger” for good reason!

Still, I would take it about anywhere, for any length of time. I’m not sure my S.O. feels quite as enthusiastic about it. Long weekends may be the rule, at least when it’s the two of us. But I may be able to entice with Vermont or the Adirondacks. I may be able to tempt with Nova Scotia, or Prince Edward Island. We have a new reach here in Maine. A recalibrated sense of striking distance.

My sigh of relief after the closing was not due to the fact that there were no hitches or that we finally had our own home in Maine. It was because the roads were dry and still salt-free. I went back to the apartment, pulled the cover off of Rubylove, reconnected the battery, checked the oil and, with the turn of the key, took her for one last drive before winter really hit. And that is how that car became the first personal belonging I took to the house I will probably die in.

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Our house is as ugly as sin. The front faces defiantly north, and therefore never sees direct daylight. The high school sports fields across the street give no quarter from frigid Canadian air masses. During our first bonafide “nor’easter” I glanced out the living room window to behold the awesome power of my first Maine blizzard; I noticed flakes of lead paint, faded and blue, lying in the fresh snow.

We owned the house for several weeks before moving in. We were to have the pros move the furnishings, but for everything else me and my Subaru shuttled endlessly between the apartment and the house, which were fortunately only a mile apart. I brought my old turntable over and spun vinyl while I spent days painting trim, doing minor electrical work, hanging shelving in closets. We had an electrician come in for some other things. We got estimates on redoing the bathroom. There were several snow events; the driveway is only slightly larger than a pool table but the berm that the city plows deposit at the end of it makes for a good hour’s worth of labor, at least. That the boiler, which seems to be original to the 80–year-old house, still works is a challenge to my atheist ways, but we got estimates for that too.

Two weeks before moving in we had a two-day thaw which melted most of the snowpack, followed by a hard and steady overnight rain. On the morning of the third day I went to the house and discovered an inch or so of water in one corner of our unfinished basement. It appeared to be seeping in behind the oil tank. Amongst our piles of belongings I located the wet-vac, and proceeded to clean up the mess.
Meanwhile, upstairs, a painter we had hired was re-finishing the kitchen cabinets.

“Does the fact that I have water in my basement make me a Mainer?” I asked.

“No,” she said, “but you get credit for the wet-vac.”

Bean boots, check. Subaru, check. Wet-vac, check. What else?

The week before moving in we stopped by to admire the cabinets, with the painter just finishing up.

“Wow!” we both said, in stereo. “Looks great!” And it did. I have to pause to give my wife credit here, With everything else the long-neglected house needed, refinishing the almost-new cabinets would have been on my list of, well, never. But she assured me that exchanging the dark cherry finish with white would add much needed light. With the house facing north, the kitchen in back, and the house behind us taller than ours and close enough to hit with a paper airplane, I guess she had a point. I shrugged and said “whatever”. But now, seeing the results, I am convinced that my wife is a visionary. She was right.

For a moment I just stood there and admired both her judgement and the painter’s good work. It was late afternoon, dark already, and even with all the lights on there were unfamiliar shadows. So it took me a moment to comprehend something I saw, or thought I saw, on the ceiling, just above the dishwasher. As it came into focus, for a fleeting second I let myself believe that it was there already, or that it was a game the dim light and shadows were playing. But that wishful delusion soon passed. What it looked like, not to put too fine a point upon it, was a single, swollen, milky boob, growing right out of the plaster ceiling. And, I noticed, it was leaking.

“What’s that?” I said.

I was the first to notice it. The painter, in spite of having been in that exact room for hours, only now seemed to notice it. Either she had somehow caused the pasty white expanding boob in question, and was now knowing nothing, or it had just started.

Upstairs, above the kitchen, there is an odd little room. Even the neighbors I’ve met, the ones who have been in the neighborhood for a while, know about this room. In this room there is a window, a small built-in cabinet, and a claw-foot tub. That’s it. There is no radiator in there, nor an electrical outlet. From all appearances, it is original to the house. We call it “the bath tub room”, when we call it anything at all. It might see use at some point in the future but right now it’s just a weird little room with an identity crisis. And a leaky fixture. A fixture which, according to Those Who Know, was hooked up wrong in the very beginning, sometime during the later days of the Hoover administration. And for which parts are no longer available. Fortunately, though, the shut-off valves that rise from the floor behind the tub function as intended, so I managed to arrest any further damage on the spot.

Filed under: Later.

The first night in the house, it came as no surprise that the hot water in the shower lasted about as long as it took to get my hair lathered up. After that it was one hundred percent January-in-Maine water, straight from Sebago Lake. Even then I did not freak. I rinsed (quickly), dried off, and headed down to the basement.

I really like having an actual basement. It gets some heat from the boiler, so it’s even warm when it’s in the single digits outside. I plan on setting up some shop space down there. It’s like having an engine room for the house. I think any VW nut could relate.

I’m also fascinated with the steam heating system. I’ve already read books on the subject. This does not make me an expert. But I do appreciate the fact that somebody, almost one hundred years ago, built and installed a system that still functions to this day. Granted, no matter how much asbestos they sheathed it in, it’s still an inefficient dinosaur. I thought about asking the fuel oil company how much it would cost to simply park one of their trucks in my driveway until, like, April. We plan on keeping the steam radiators but swapping the old boiler for a gas-fired unit. But until then, I get to play with this olden thing and hope it doesn’t die in a dramatic fashion.

The hot water coil is piped to this system. We’re having a new hybrid-electric hot water tank installed soon, as a prelude to the boiler replacement. But fancying our showers warm in the interim, I searched for something meaningful. There is a low-water cutoff, an auto-feed unit, a little box with a dial (a pressuretrol, I presume), a few air vents here and there, some unreadable gauges and fragile-looking valves that I could not identify, and a whole tangle of copper and steel pipes. Some of the pipes lead to a dead-end, a second room off the basement that must have had, at one time, a separate hot water circuit for whatever reason. Others lead up into the house.

I traced one pipe to the hot water tap in the utility sink, just a few feet from the boiler. I turned the tap on full and let it run. In the meantime I felt the pipes in various places. It was very hot leaving the coil, but after one tiny little valve where a cold pipe joins in, the line to the sink was lukewarm, at best. The valve looked (to me) too small to be an aquastat; given its location, I wondered if it was a mix valve of some kind. Crouching, with my reading glasses and a headlamp, I could read the faded label on the valve: “Colder”, and “Warmer”, with arrows. “120F” one way, “160F” the other. Sure enough, a slight twist of the valve and all is well, the water is hot. And I mean HOT!

Which should work well until we get the new water tank in a couple of weeks. Or old rubber washers disintegrate, soldered joints break lose, the dishwasher feed line melts, and one of us ends up in the burn unit at Maine Med. Whichever comes first.

I bring all of this up because it occurs to me that wrenching on old Volkswagens has made me a better person. Or, at least, I’m still a moody, selfish, insecure, solipsistic a-hole. But now, I’m a better informed, more self-assured, more capable moody, selfish, insecure, solipsistic a-hole. I generally don’t freak anymore. I generally don’t lie awake nights. I realize — not just on a mental level, but at an emotional, existential one — that old shit breaks. And it can be fixed.

In this way, the first few nights in the house reminded me of those first experiences with my newly-rebuilt Beetle. It was hardly relaxing, those first days behind the wheel. Instead, I was white-knuckled, holding my breath, just waiting for something to go wrong. Every noise, whether real or imagined, was an impending disaster. It took some trust — both in the machine, as well as in my newfound skills — for that on-the-edge feeling to dissipate. Now, driving the Beetle is almost always fun.

I went through this with the Bus, too, but the time frame was compressed. I don’t know if it was the elevation, the oil reek, or the fact that I was holding my breath, but in the hour or two after leaving Asheville I was feeling a little light headed. But by the time we made New England and had hundreds of miles behind us, I was far more at ease.

Our house is in the city, on a postage-stamp lot, with an attached, one-car garage. While there physically might be room to expand the garage outward, my precursory assessment of the zoning laws leads me to suspect that I might be encroaching on the sidewalk (it’s a corner lot). A parking pad might be permitted, depending on how loosely one interprets the word “structure”. But I’m not sure. For this season, at least, I’ll be renting a lock-up only a mile away and resort to rotating my stock, much like I did before — drive/work on one VW, park the other off-site. In the wintertime, I’ll have to pick which one to have close at hand. It is not a question of love. I know already that next winter, if I have the choice, it will be the Bus, since there are projects I have in mind (dual carb upgrade and window rubber replacement, to name two things). But sometimes it will be the Beetle.

These are good choices to have to make, but they’re still choices.

In the meantime, pipes clang, valves hiss, floorboards creak.

What’s that noise?!?!

What will it take, really, to be a Mainer? What will it take to no longer be considered “from away”? What will it take to earn my Maine Man Card?  Do I need to ice fish for smelt? Lose a lobster boat in a gale? Curate a convincing story of youthful summers spent picking potatoes in a township with a number instead of a name? Lose teeth in a drunken brawl on a wharf? Kill a moose with my car? With my grandfather’s Winchester? With a crow bar?

“Thirty-five years,” a fellow Mainer (demographically speaking) recently told me.
I’m not sure if he was serious, if this was some definitive answer, but I don’t plan to live that long. So the answer is: I will never be a real Mainer. I will always be from away. But at least I’ll pass from a place of my choosing.

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In Defense of Muir

I handle things with aplomb now. I can make a focused, autonomous assessment of a given situation, with a half-degree of cool detachment. I’m 48 and do not expect to live much past 60; no amount of wrenching during my time remaining will ever make me an old hand. Others will never turn to me for answers. Others will never say ask Bruce. He’d know.

But a little bit of experience does make the air-cooled lifestyle a bit more enjoyable. Plus, I get to use words like aplomb.

Zum Beispiel: A while back I did an impromptu tune-up on the Beetle in the parking lot of my parents’ condo, in a light drizzle. In general, the Beetle has been so reliable as to be (almost) boring. It just took a while to get the kinks out. But in the two years since I’ve been driving it again, it’s been my trusty, sunny-day driver. One weekend I took it up to the mountains, to Asheville; another weekend found us at a VW show near Chattanooga. Sure, there were little things — a sticky throttle, a broken speedometer cable — but this is the stuff that makes the whole thing fun. Otherwise, you may as well be driving a new Honda.

Spring came and I was due for a visit to Savannah, where my folks live. I’ve done the trip too many times to count. Drive time is just shy of five hours. You can cut the time in half with a borrowed Cessna, but if you include flight planning, checking the weather, preflight duties, rental fees, landing fees, parking fees, and fuel, in addition to the fact that I haven’t flown anything with a propellor in like twenty years, well, that wasn’t a real option anyway. Once I even did the trip on my bicycle. It took three days each way via back roads and several wrong turns that added hours in the saddle. Just for comparison. Any way you do it, as you head south from Athens the land just gets hotter and flatter and gnat-ier. And, forgive me for saying so, but there’s only so many thousands of acres of corporate pine forest a man can take before he transmogrifies into the tormented antagonist of some surreal James Dickey/Joseph Conrad mashup.

Big changes were afoot (I’ll get to that in a minute). In all likelihood, this would be my last time making the trip — from Athens, at least. May as well, I figured, go in style. May as well make it fun.

We got off to an unpromising start. Though the overall weather forecast was for improving conditions, the 52-year-old Beetle and I blasted out of Athens in a thundering downpour, lights on, wipers on high. Five minutes down the the road the left wiper blade suddenly came un-synced with the right one, making one or two more feeble, flopping, floundering sweeps before parking itself against the bottom of the windshield.

Shit.
Shit shit shit.

I pressed my face to the glass, and could see that the spindle was still turning. So that was a good sign. But no amount of Rain-X could keep up with the sheets of hard rain scouring the car. I signaled and pulled over at the next subdivision. Quickly, so as to prevent getting completely soaked, I determined that this was simply a case of a loose grub screw. I tightened it down, thankful that I didn’t loose the entire wiper blade. Searching among the trash on the side of the road for missing parts in a thunderstorm is neither stylish nor fun.

Onward. . .

Soon enough the rain stopped and the landscape began to dry out. The rest of the drive was, for the most part, a pleasure. Definitely the most fun way to make the trip. I rolled down the windows and popped out the pop-outs. I did a steady 55 or 60 mph, about what I do in the Subaru.

I contemplated the fact that, when I first moved to Georgia thirty years ago, there were no armadillos until you got down below the Gnat Line. Now there are armadillos everywhere in the state, and they continue their intrepid march northward. As do, it seems, the gnats.

Near Madison I had to swerve to avoid hitting a river otter. That was a new one on me.

I have no radio in that car, don’t even want one. Usually the wonderful sound of the motor is all the music I need. But this was a long drive in a boring place; mindlessness began to settle in. I started to make up funny names, saying them aloud to see how they sounded, examining how they felt as they left my mouth. Horatius Croom. Oswald van Bonquers. Hmova Langrid. Lorna McNevers. Ahmed Atari. Aloysius Krunkelman.

Soon bored, I moved on to practicing my accents. A made-up-on-the-spot exchange between a mid-level New York mobster and his overeager Russian hit man went something like this:

HIT MAN: Why not just shoot him?
MOBSTER: Don’t worry about it.
HIT MAN: He knows too much.
MOBSTER: Aaaaay — don’t worry about it! Louie will take care of it. Louie takes care of everything!
HIT MAN: We should just shoot him.
(. . . and so on. . .)

I stopped several times to let the motor cool just a bit, for snacks, for a potty break. And although I’m probably the only aircooled VW owner who has a gas gauge that is actually somewhat accurate, I filled up in Sandersville (“Kaolin Capital of the World”) just to be on the safe side.

I noticed a small thing, though. Okay, wait. I’m brushing over the fact that the clunking I could hear, could feel, whenever I was a little careless with the clutch, probably meant that my front transmission mount was toast, which would be a big job, one that I should have done while I had the engine out. But that wasn’t urgent (yet), and it was something I was getting used to. The small thing was that, after each break, the engine was a little harder to start than normal. It would turn and fire, but it was taking a few tries to keep it lit. Wasn’t I about due for a tuneup?

My last stop was at the Parker’s Market in Metter (“Everything’s Better in Metter!”). I bought a cold bottle of water and a bag of peanut M&Ms. This time, the car started fine, but just as I was about to turn back onto the I-16 ramp eastbound, the motor simply died. I rolled to the shoulder and shut off the key. I got out, went around back, and opened the lid. Nothing obvious. There were no apparent leaks, no loose wires, no strange smells, and nothing seemed especially hot. As a matter of fact, if the position of the copper wire on the “Save My Bug” hot oil warning dipstick contraption was any indication, I was nowhere near running too hot — my reward, I choose to believe, for being a stickler with tinware, seals, and sensible speeds, in addition to the doghouse oil cooler conversion. I went back and turned the key. It cranked fine, but this time wouldn’t even catch.

(This is the part where I got some of my aplomb on.)

Without further ado, I took the plastic bottle of cold water, walked around back, and gently, carefully, poured a thin stream of the water onto the fuel pump, as well as the hose that runs up to the carburetor. Mindful of the distributor and everything else in there, I didn’t go crazy with it. Just enough to make it wet.

This time, it fired right away, and ran just fine all the way to Savannah.

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The easy culprit was bad gas. I usually run ethanol-free, but that’s not always possible to find. The last two gas-ups had been the corn likker mix. I don’t like that. Nor, do I believe, does Rubylove. Hadn’t I read somewhere that E10 could be more susceptible to vapor lock? It was an easy culprit.

No sooner had I said my hellos to my parents then my brother showed up with a couple of his kids in tow. Getting to see my brother anymore is like getting an audience with the Pope. So I was glad to see him. But I winced inwardly when he wanted me to show him the car. He had not seen it since it was in pieces in my garage, another one of those things his slightly-off-kilter big brother was obsessing about lately. He had seen the pics and heard me talk about it on the phone, ad nauseum. And he had seen it there just now, in the parking lot. He and the kids were eager to see the inside, to hear it run, maybe go for a spin. But I was hesitant. Both Rubylove and myself needed a break.

Sure enough, it wouldn’t start. Failing to live up to expectations is a crushing thing for an older brother. I thought about going into the house and getting a cold glass of water — or, for style, a bottle of beer. My folks don’t drink beer, but for the sake of hospitality there is always a six-pack in the fridge, just for me. (Always, I suspect, the same six-pack, but it’s the thought that counts.) I usually decline, at least while sitting around their place. But I just didn’t want to push my luck. To my brother I could only offer excuses, justifications, rationalizations. “Bad gas,” I grumbled, mindful of my language in the presence of the young ‘uns. “Prolly needs a tuneup.”

After lunch my brother left. Then I asked my parents if I may be excused for a few minutes. I went outside, pulled my toolset out of the luggage compartment, and went to work. I was underneath, checking the valves, when my mom came out with her dachshund. We chatted idly while I worked. I usually don’t like small dogs, but I’ve always had a thing for dachshunds.  My parents have had several of them over the years. Dachshunds are small and comical, but they don’t know it. On the inside they are stout and mighty. Remind you of something?

The valves looked fine, so I snapped the covers back into place and went topside. I popped the distributor cap and checked the points with a feeler gauge while pulling the engine through by hand. Okay there, too. As for the timing, in my garage I usually use a strobe, but I don’t carry that in my onboard toolkit. No worries, though: since I know how much advance my particular distributor gives, I can check it statically with a simple test light. Here, I found that the timing was slightly retarded. Was this the problem? I brought it up a degree or two, tightened the clamp down, climbed in, and turned the key. It started right up with a light puff of smoke. And hundreds of miles later, it hasn’t missed a beat. Result!

I fully realize that, to the average lifelong car guy, this is no big deal. So you fixed your freakin’ Bug. Big damn deal. But this about self-worth here. Most similarly-situated men of my age and demographic go for the Standard Male Insecurity Package: One large American pickup, one loud Harley, a tastefully curated selection of personal firearms, and a ready supply of Viagra. (Tangentially, I firmly believe that 90% of our issues with North Korea could be resolved if we simply sent Little-Big Man Kim the Package, with our complements. Might be worth a try, eh?)

But I digress. The number of pursuits in life in which I excel are exactly zero. So forgive me, please, for claiming my meager victories wherever I can find them. Forgive me if building and fixing my own little VW is seems like the world to me, because it is.

The following week, I drove Stella up to Asheville.

Oh, I almost forgot. You didn’t know about Stella, did you? Okay then:

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Meet Stella! She’s a 1972 model, with 114,000 original miles. I’m the third owner, having bought it from an elderly couple who had owned it since 1974. It’s mostly original paint, has very little rust, and virtually all of the camping gear is there — privacy screen, rear mosquito net, child’s cot, toilet. I have a receipt for a professional engine rebuild about 15,000 miles ago, back in 2001. Suffice it to say, in recent years Stella had been spending less and less time on the road, and she needed a little work.

But more about that another time. That’s still not the big change I alluded to earlier. The big change is that we have finally done it. The big change is that we have finally moved to Maine!

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People — in particular, people who have never been here — want to know why. Why Maine? “It gets cold there,” they say, as if we had never considered that. Our reasons are longstanding and numerous. We’ve wanted to do this thing for fifteen years, give or take. Finally, after my wife retired (at age 50) the time was right. That, in a nutshell, is my standard answer. I do not elaborate unless pressed. I do not try to dispel their notions of Maine as a frozen wasteland punctuated by lighthouses and lobster buoys. Ayuh! We’re up to our knees in blueberries and constantly having to scrape moose shit off our Bean Boots.

If you have to ask, you wouldn’t understand anyway. Maine is not a heavily populated state. And I am just fine with that. You’re right. It is a nice place to visit. But you wouldn’t want to live here.

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So here were are in Portland (the Original Portland!). The real estate scene here is tight and pricey so for now we’re cooling our jets in a rented apartment in a big ole house from 1892. I share a teeny tiny garage with the downstairs tenants. They keep surfboards in their half; the Beetle fits in my side, but barely.

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I have no idea where I’m gonna park the Bus, when I get it here. I’ll figure something out. Right?

The second week here I took the Beetle to a small show at a campground near Brunswick. A couple of weeks later I drove to an ice cream shop/driving range in Auburn for the monthly club meeting, and got to meet some of the local cast of characters.

That reminds me. Here in New England, one thing you might notice is the way they repurpose old houses into businesses. I’m no fan of the big chains, but if you gotta have it, this is the way to go, versus razing whatever was at that intersection before and throwing up the standard-formula Anywhere, USA structure. So, what’s somebody’s living room today could be the Dunkin’ Donuts half of a gas station tomorrow.

Also, I’m not sure why but efforts to combine two totally unrelated businesses are quite common, with amusing results. Chip’s Bait & Auto Parts. Howie’s Fresh Clams & Firing Range. Moody’s Title Pawn & Bariatric Surgery. Like that. Maybe they’re just keeping their options open, keeping the portfolio diverse. Probably not a bad idea. As for me, there’s only one thing I can fake well enough to get paid for, and it’s certainly not working on old VWs.

Still, with aplomb a’plenty, I finally got around to changing out that kippered front transmission mount with a fresh one. With the help of a floor jack, a bottle jack, and the jack from the Subaru, I managed slide the entire engine and transmission back about two inches and do the swap without losing a single finger. What a difference! Turns out, it wasn’t the rubber itself that was bad, but the fact that the rubber had completely separated from the metal plate to which it had once been bonded. No wonder all the herky-jerky ill behavior. The thing was clapping and clunking back there, with all the effectiveness of an ice cream sandwich.

Then, on the first Sunday in August, I headed up to place called Acton, near the New Hampshire border, for the state’s biggest show of the year. And I gotta say, I was quite impressed!

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Meanwhile, down in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Stella lies dormant, awaiting her time to shine, our mid-September road trip to take her north. I’ve been down there a few times since we left Athens. Once, regretting that I never had the time to do the ball joints — in spite of the fact that they were looking gritty and dry, with torn boots — I dropped her off a shop that was recommended. Judging by the what the mechanic found (he showed me the remains of the old joints) this was one job that was probably best done by a pro anyway. The work was by far the biggest expense I’ve had in my short ownership of the Bus, but now she is about as ready as can be. Soon, we go!

I’ve already loaded down the Bus with much of what we will need for the big trip. One of the last things was a basic onboard library, in the drawer underneath the sink. (But I’m sure my better-organized half will reorganize things to suit.) The hand-picked selection includes a binder containing my personal notes, an exploded diagram of a Weber DFEV progressive carburetor (the previous owner’s deal, don’t blame me), a hand-drawn schematic explaining to a future version of myself how I wired the controller for the electric fuel pump (my deal, will explain another time), the obligatory Bentley book, and a Haynes manual (for cross-reference).

Last, but certainly not least, I included a copy of the classic, John Muir’s How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive: A Manual of Step by Step Procedures for the Compleat Idiot, aka, “The Idiot Book”.

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There was a time when that book was all I had. In 1985, when I was 16 and bought a 1975 Beetle, my mechanical knowledge was limited, pretty much, to Legos. And even then I never followed the directions. Sometimes I took things apart, just for the heck of it (a transistor radio, my Huffy 10-speed) but never could figure out how to put them back together again. As for this cool little car I had just bought (for $600, a bit battered but with 56,000 original miles!), I was in way, way over my head. Nobody in my family worked on cars, ever. Nor did any of my friends have any particular experience to offer. Sure, there were plenty of “car guys” in my class, but they all drove Chevelles and GTO’s and lived out in the onion fields. These were the guys who had beards in tenth grade. Volkswagens were for pussies.

There were no local VW clubs that I knew of, no “how-to” tapes I could borrow from the local library (VHS or Betamax). There were TRS-80’s and Commodore 64’s but certainly no http://www.thesamba.com. There weren’t even any local mechanics who specialized in aircooled Volkswagens — outside of the dealer, possibly, though this would have been too pricey for me anyhow. This was Orange County, New York, not Orange County, California. Even as early as the mid-1980’s, untold numbers of old Volksies had already been worn out and rust-eaten, deemed too cheap to even bother with anymore. Nobody cared about old Volkswagens.

Yet, somehow — and can’t remember how — I discovered this quirky little book for my quirky little car and used it to keep my Volkswagen alive.

Well, that and a JC Whitney catalog.

What could possibly go wrong?

Thirty-two years later, I sat at the fold-out dinette in the back of my Bus and casually turned the pages. No, it’s not the same exact copy. The one I had back in the 1980’s had a beige-colored cover. I kept it for a long time, but must of thrown it away at some point during the in-between years, when the battle between wistful and pragmatic was still too close to call, and time and money were in short supply. The copy I keep in the Beetle now is green (pictured) and the one in the Bus is blue. Probably there is a forum thread somewhere with a chart that correlates the color of the cover with the edition, but I don’t care. I mean, when a VW is the same age as its driver, how up-to-date does either need to be?

In 1985, hours that should have been spent studying for the SAT were spent instead with my nose The Idiot Book. (Only with age and wisdom do I realize that my 16-year-old self did, in fact, have his priorities straight.  I mean that!) In 2009, when I bought that sad and battered specimen that would become my current Beetle, the joy of becoming reacquainted with The Idiot Book, after twenty years of wandering the desert in practical, reliable, Japanese econoboxes, was almost as great as breathing deep that intoxicating musk of horsehair and carburetion. But lately I’d been consulting other sources. Maybe it’s because of my metamorphosis from Complete Noob to Somewhat-Adept Novice. I’m more focused now. Generally, I know what needs to be done. And, referencing a specific page in Bentley, or a specific bookmark online, I can find all I need to know. Yet now, in 2017, I sat there, once again leafing through one of my favorite books of all time, of any genre.

For starters, the illustrations alone are worth the price of admission. Not only do they clarify what’s in the text, they are clever and funny too. Some of the drawings are subtle, too; in a few cases, I find them even funnier now than when I was a teenager. Peter Aschwanden — whose artistic oeuvre extends far beyond the works contained therein — was clearly the man for the job.

My personal faves: The impossibly four-handed “Valve Adjustment Method”. The three characters who lift up the rear end of “Ol’ Blew”, by the bumper, to remove the engine; one of them is so short that he simply holds his hands in the air while his two taller buddies do all the work. “Frontispiece”, a nocturnal scene in which the woman snores, fast asleep, while the man is stricken with night-terrors, visions of engine parts dancing in his head, ashtray on the night stand overfilled with butts. Then there’s “Bird’s Eye View” — a tweed-wearing man drives the Volkswagen and smokes his pipe, his wife sits comfortably next to him, while the cat in her lap looks aghast, right at the viewer (the bird?), up through where the roof of the car would have been.

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As for John Muir himself, his folksy way of putting things puts the reader at ease (or, at least, as “at ease” as one could be whilst stranded on the side of the freeway with a sick Volkswagen) and sometimes outright hilarious. Missing deck lid springs must have already been an issue back then, as he reminds the reader to prop the lid up with a stick so it doesn’t “bust you one”. He describes how to remove the front beam and “. . . just throw it over your shoulder and truck on down to Volkswagen” to let them do the further repair work. (I can just picture some grease-smeared, bewildered hippie on the city bus with an entire front beam standing between his knees, as other riders eye him suspiciously.  I can also picture strutting into my local VW dealer, in the year 2017, with a big, greasy beam over my own shoulder.) Muir adds a personal touch by describing how he likes to start the motor, roll a cigarette, and have it drawing good before he drives off, to ensure a proper warm up. And then there’s the bit about “balling it” in the back of the Bus. Period terminology, the meaning of which is a little hazy to me, but I’ll just let it rest there.

The best advice in the book is decidedly non-technical, but all-encompassing: “You must do this work with love or you fail.” Mighty hard to remember when you’ve busted your knuckles for the third time on the same stubborn bolt and you’ve lost yet another 10mm socket God-knows-where and you’ve got transmission fluid in your hair. Probably even harder to remember if you’re short on cash and this is your only set of wheels. I read a lot about Buddhist philosophy and this is about as succinct as it gets.

The book has gone through I don’t know how many editions and has been available for almost fifty years. Some say it served as the inspiration for later “For Dummies” and “For Idiots”-type books. It’s hard to imagine a time when you couldn’t learn how to line dance or perform dental work on yourself without the hassle of leaving the comfort of your own home. Of course, now we have YouTube to turn to but whatever the actual format, this is People Power we’re talking about here.

USA Today, “Snapshots”, 8/29/17: “58% of Americans say they learn more from technology than from people.”

The Idiot Book is, of course, not without its detractors.

But shit. Nowadays, free donuts and beer aren’t without their distractors.

People take umbrage. They take exception. They take offense. They take take take and never miss an opportunity to show how smart they are, to argue with a aerospace engineer-cum-hippie mechanic who’s been gone for forty years, God rest his soul.

They say no, you don’t really have to warm it up — the owner’s manual, they point out, says you can drive off right away. Which is true, if you haven’t disarmed the choke, as per another of Muir’s controversial positions. And they wax furious over his “Rap on Distributors”, in which Muir extols the virtues of a “009”-type mechanical distributor, versus the stock type. (“. . . so when you get bread ahead, buy one for your jewel.”)

Their points are not entirely without merits. But I am firmly in the warm-up camp (even though my choke is connected and functioning as it should) simply because my Volkswagen is an olden thing. (Much to my wife’s chagrin, I warm up my new Subaru too — which, I do understand, is for the most part pointless. My excuse here is, because that Subie is loaded up (or down?) with all kinds of gizmos, it takes its operator a minute or two for his gimbals to unlock after the half-century technological leap.) And while I understand the benefits of an SVDA distributor, I — along with bazillions of other aircooled VW owners, from the looks of it — am currently running a “009” in my Beetle, because that’s what I had on hand and it just works fine, thank you very much.

But here’s a key point most of the critics miss: It’s 2017. If you drive an aircooled VW in 2017, more than likely (and I know there are exceptions!) it is a hobby, and you have access to a boring modern car or truck that can get you to the sales meeting, to the shindig, to the beach, to the emergency room, wherever, when the weather is bad or the Volksie’s not running right or you want to relax in air-conditioned comfort instead of being a real man about it. Also, if you’re into this thing, here in 2017, you more than likely have discretionary income. You might not be ready to admit this, but you do. You’re are not generally forced to chose between tuition, food, gallbladder surgery, or fixing your car. Count yourself lucky that you can love your Volksie (or Volksies!) on your own time, at your own leisure.

Flash back, if you will, to 1969. Maybe you are a student, or maybe just the average Shmoe trying to get by. You got your hands on, say, a 1961 Beetle you found in the classifieds, or parked in somebody’s yard — not because you think VWs are especially cool, or because this one is an early square-window with the small tail lights or has pop-outs or a three-fold sunroof, but because it was cheap and it seemed to run okay and waiting at the bus stop was getting to be a real drag. It still hurt to shovel forth all that bread you made down at the record shop or the deli counter but now this Volkswagen is yours and you no sooner get it home than it seems to have developed the most inconvenient quirk of, well, not running.

What to do?

In class you’re learning about these computer things. There are giant mainframes and tape reels and punch cards and all kinds of high tech stuff but you’re reasonably intelligent and motivated. You’ll figure it out. But you don’t know the difference between a tie rod and a push rod. And you couldn’t care less about what actually makes the Volkswagen go (or not go), right up until the point that the going or not going is starting to be almost as much of a drag as riding the bus.

See where I’m going with this?

The biggest weakness in the critics’ arguments is that they are judging the book from the perspective of a hobbyist, fifty years in the future.

The biggest strength in Muir’s book was that, more important than his intimacy with Volkswagens, he was intimate with his readers. Knowing your audience is a cardinal rule in writing. (Note: I know my audience fairly well as it is, for the most part, me). Muir was not preaching to the choir. No, brothers and sisters, he was singing the gospel to an eager and receptive congregation, a flock desperately seeking salvation!

Can I get an amen?

Yet, I seldom refer to that book anymore. Even for my first (and, to date, only) engine build, my main source was Wilson’s How to Rebuild Your Volkswagen Aircooled Engine (aka, “The Red Book”), supplemented by the popular “Bug Me” video (Volume #3), as well as having my ever-tolerant local machinist/VW guru on speed dial. Perhaps I flatter myself that I am no longer in that congregation, no longer a part of Muir’s target audience. But that book is still one of my all-time favorites.

And I am assured to know that when something does go wrong on that road trip — something, more than likely, I’ve never had happen before — help is never far away.

 

Show Buzz: VW’s In the Valley 2015

It was a crisp, clear, late-summer morning in the mountains. I left Asheville around 9am and pulled into the festival grounds about 45 minutes later. During the drive the pop-outs were open but otherwise everything else was closed up. I wore a shorts, a t-shirt, and a hoodie my wife got me a couple years back — one of those items I didn’t even know I needed, that I love so much I’m afraid to wash, lest it should shrink or its color should fade.

I came to a gate staffed by smiling volunteers in day-glo event t-shirts. I stopped and rolled my window down.

“Just spectating today,” I said, dismissively, pointing to the parking lot to my left, before the gate. That lot was already filling with Civics and Camrys and F-150s.

“Well, okay then,” said a friendly woman as she took my crumpled tenner. “But that’s a nice car, and we have special parking for you! These gentlemen will show you the way.”

I guess I’d expected to come and go unnoticed — as I prefer — and simply spend some time lingering on the fringes, playing the role of a flaneur with a digital camera and a Volkswagen fetish. I’m still not used to getting this kind of attention.

And I suppose you’ve figured it out by now. I haven’t posted in quite some time, but yes — I’m driving it! I first turned the key on July 10th and, despite a few minor electrical gremlins and a month of Thursdays spent tracking down an elusive misfire, I’ve been enjoying aircooled bliss in my 1965 Beetle! It only took me six years . . . .

The 3rd annual VWs In the Valley, taking place on this last weekend of summer in Maggie Valley, North Carolina, was not, in fact, on my long-range radar. At the rate things usually go, I can’t even have a long-range radar. But the stars simply began to line up: The misfire was identified and remedied (it was the distributor), a gorgeous weekend weather outlook beckoned, a space on my calendar appeared, and my love for the mountains convinced me it was a go. As a matter of fact, I had long envisioned my first official road-trip to be to my favorite home-away-from-home, Asheville.

Stage One — the drive up from Athens on Friday — was without incident. I’d prepared a list, packed essential (and unessential) tools, threw in the collection of spare parts I accumulated whilst troubleshooting the misfire, charged up my cellphone and headed for the hills, with forty fresh horses at my back.

The drive reminded me of learning to fly, all those years ago, and my first venture outside the local traffic pattern, my first foray into the unknown with ought but a map, a compass, and a finicky old analog nav radio. Everything on me. Then, as now, my awareness was honed and narrowed to the level of some nocturnal wild thing, predator or prey. Every sound was a potential threat. What was that? Was that my car, or something outside? And what’s that smell? Is that a friendly honk, or am I about to lose a part of the car?

Eventually, though, I settled in and started to enjoy myself. There are some steep grades between here and there, but I’d already come up with a plan for that — stay right, downshift into third, keep the revs (and fan speed) up, and try to relax. Yes, it does climb like you would an expect a fifty-year-old VW to climb. But it also handled it with aplomb. I even passed a tanker truck once or twice!

The morning of Stage Two began on a sour note, the big news in my morning paper being that Volkswagen had doctored the computers in their US-spec TDI models to sense when the vehicle was being emissions-tested, bringing the wrath of the EPA as well as hundreds of thousands of consumers who thought they were making a “green” choice by buying a fuel-saving car. As of this writing this is still a developing story. But for now my on-again, off-again consideration of a new TDI Sportwagen for my daily driver is on indefinite hold.

But there once was a time when things were different . . .

She opened the gate and I followed the guy in the golf cart. I saw people waving and giving thumbs up as we rolled slowly along. I turned and looked around, trying to see just who it was they were greeting. All I saw behind me was the closed gate. Only then it occurred to me that really, I needed to wipe that apprehensive scowl off my face pronto. As directed, I turned onto the grass, backed diagonally into the allotted space, and cut the motor. And just like that, I was officially part of the scene.

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I’ve been to larger shows, but there was certainly a wide variety of cars to gawk at here. Where to start? Well, I’m always dreaming about having a Bus someday (not, I should note, instead of but in addition to my Beetle, which of course makes it part of a complex equation involving money, space, time, and domestic happiness, an equation I’m still working on, as every VW man can attest). Right across from my allotted parkplatz I found this:

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The body on this early Bay was quite straight and you know that green is my favorite color (especially this particular shade!). The Type 1 motor seemed clean (although some tin and seals were missing). The interior was clean and bare; in back there was nothing but carpet and a spare tire — the perfect clean slate! The sign said $12,000 — but on this and day and this day only for $9,500.

I’m just not there yet, on any of the variables of that equation. But a man’s gotta have a dream . . . .

What else did I spy?

Well, some were slammed . . .

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. . . some were sign-written . . .

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. . . some were dropped on Fuchs . . .

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. . . and one was the same exact color as my wok:

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While some of these may not have been my own groove, I found them all worth gawking over. I did hold in reserve, however, some personal favorites — some that you might expect, some otherwise. One was actually an early Vanagon Westfalia that caught my eye, simply because it had that “lived-in” look. I don’t mean this sarcastically; I mean it in the same pleasing way things get better with age. Think stone cathedral steps worn smooth from centuries of passing feet. Think old leather bomber jackets.

In a whole ‘nother category, feast your eyes on this gem:

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I’ve never seen one of these for real. This is a 1957 Rometsch Lawrence — or at least, I think that’s what it was, but the condition that my psychologist/wife calls “over-stim” was setting in, and I couldn’t pay attention to the detailed placard long enough to verify this. I mean, who wants to read at a time like this? Of course, now I realize that if this was indeed one of those rarer breeds of VW-based coachwork, it will likely be a long time before I see another.

Of course the split Buses got plenty of lovin’ from me. Three examples:

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While I’m on the subject of Splitties, check out the interior woodwork on this one:

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There was an old guy sitting in a lawn chair under the awning. I pried him for details but he was soft-spoken, and with a very strong Southern drawl. I’ve been in the South for 28 years (my entire adult life, basically) but my Yankee ears still have a hard time every now and then. Of course, it doesn’t help that I’m half deaf. Nonetheless, I confess that I did covet this man’s Bus. May I rot in hell.

I’ve been to bigger shows, but there were enough cars present that I was still surprised by an apparent Type III shortage. With apologies to Dr. Seuss:

Not sloped, not notched, not squared.
For the lack of Type Threes
I was ill-prepared.

But there were Ghia’s aplenty . . .

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. . . Ovals . . .

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. . . and a well-appointed Split-window Beetle:

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But if there were one that I could bring home with me — no, scratch that. If I brought home somebody else’s dream, it wouldn’t really be mine, would it? Still, my Gawkometer was pegged at this sleeper of a ’62:

Turquoise '62. Owner, seated with cap, under tent. My own Ruby '65 just beyond.
Turquoise ’62. Owner (seated) under tent. My own Ruby ’65 just beyond.

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Turquoise was never one of my favorite colors — until now, that is. For some reason, this one was simply a stunner! Maybe it was the attention to detail — the correct color rims, fender beading, and running board rubber. Maybe it was just the overall package. Or maybe — just maybe — it was the genuine-vintage Judson supercharger lurking underneath the deck:

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Now, you know me — I’m no speed freak. I truly believe that one of the joys of aircooled Volkswagens is simply taking your time to get someplace, or no place in particular. Steeping out of the aggravated rat-race modern American life has become. But I have to admit there’s something about the “vintage speed” scene that I find appealing. Of course “speed”, in the vintage style, is relative. You’re probably not going to scrape your pipes out the gate with this setup. But — according to the owner, who gladly shared the story of this car with me and another malingerer — you’ll definitely add more oomph to your get-along. Best of all, close the lid and it looks (and sounds — he even started it up for us) like your average, fweeming, forty-horse wonder. Well done, Sir!

In closing, I’m pleased to report that Rubylove’s inaugural road trip was a complete success. Over three days we clocked 417 miles, some of which was over steep grades and twisty switchbacks that are challenging even in a modern vehicle. As amazing as it is, there were absolutely no issues. It took it all with gusto and style!

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Menschitude

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?”

“What?”

“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.

“Window?”

“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.

 

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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.

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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.

Okay?

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!

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Time Goes By

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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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 . . .

"Shabby-chic" interior option

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Needs a washing!
Needs a washing!

. . . 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:

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Just that.  What goes in there.  And that’s about it!

I Still Have No Idea What I’m Doing

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?

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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?

“Huh?”

“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?

Answer: Plenty.

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 —

ralph_nader

— 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?

IMG_0033

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.

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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?”

“Huh?”

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.”

“Where?”

“Where?”

“Where.”

“Whaddya mean, where?”

“Where was the bar?”

He looks at me like, there is really something wrong with you.

“Kansas.”

“Okay.”

“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.

A Touch of Glass

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.

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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?”

“Yep.”

“It’s in the house, right?”

“Uh-huh.”

“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!

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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:

Windshield sequence

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.

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