Into the Black Hole

I prefer to do my heavy work during the week, so as not to disturb my neighbors (whoever they are).  One of the fringe benefits of living on the edge of a terminally unfinished subdivision is that there is an amazing amount of peace and quiet.  It is almost like the home of my dreams — a single-wide trailer at the end of a long dirt road.  In reality we’re not far from it, second-to-last in a long row of townhouses.  Behind the garage is a narrow lane.  And beyond that, according to the master plan, was to be another row of townhouses, followed by the clubhouse, tennis courts, swimming pool, and playground.  Spreading out further would have been more detached homes, two or three apartment buildings, a second pool/tennis/playground complex, retirement condominiums, “green space,” and — in a future vision of what is now a street populated by those of decidedly lesser means (and consequently lesser standing in the community at large) — the commercial development, with a major grocery chain orbited by “upscale” retail, restaurants, shops, and offices.

The developers got as far as building the first clubhouse, pool, and tennis courts before the market crashed, investors dried up, prospective buyers pulled out, and they went bankrupt.  Now the view out the back is of overgrown weeds and a stand of trees leading down to the creek.  There is evidence of an old beaver dam down there.  There are also deer, rabbits, screech-owls, chuck-wills-widow, and who knows what else.  We’ve seen foxes.  And once, late at night, a coyote.  Pretty sure.  But we told no-one.

The place next door — the one on the very end — has been sitting empty now for almost two years.  “Life circumstances” changed for the owners and they moved on to another state.  The “For Sale” sign out front has all but toppled over.  Seasons have come and gone.  Last spring’s pollen still lies in a thin, sticky blanket on the front porch.  On the back porch, mud daubers have made their little tunnels in various places on the screening.  The back gate swings freely in the breeze.  Sometimes I go over to close it.  I have to wedge it in place since the green pine has warped and the latch no longer works.

That’s when I notice how overgrown the garden is.  They enjoyed working it and had it looking really lush and colorful — tidy, without being over-manicured.  I’m no good at giving the proper names to the miscellaneous weeds that pop up in unattended spaces.  But I’m certain the various types are well-represented now, in that garden.  At least the owners would be pleased to know that most of the daffodils they planted still come up as scheduled.

I like it better this way.  Sometimes in the summer I can hear kids at the pool; or, if the wind is right, the popping of a tennis ball being hit back and forth.  In the winter night, if I stand on the screen-porch and roll my neck side-to-side, I can even see a lone floodlight through the spindly pines, bare white oaks, and naked sycamores — a symbolic attempt to keep vandalism at bay.

On a recent Friday morning I was sitting Indian-style on the garage floor, staring at the following, trying to figure out what to do next:

Just to be sure we’re on the same sheet of wind, what we’re looking at here is the bottom rear of the right front wheelhouse, which is in turn one contiguous piece of sheet metal with quarter panel.  Last winter I made a cursory pass of the area, in the process of stripping and rust-protecting the wheelhouses all around.  I had noticed some rough spots, some pitting, and just a few pinholes.  Not wanting to get bogged down on what seemed like a minor thing, I spread on some long-strand fiberglass filler, smoothed it, primed it, and tried not to think too much about it.  With the running board and the front fender attached, I reasoned, very little of that area will be seen if/when the car is reassembled anyhow.

About a month ago, I was finally satisfied after the seemingly endless task of bringing two front fenders and a hood to a state that I would call “finished.”  In a fit of veritable giddiness at being free to pursue something (anything!) else, I turned my attention to the inside of the luggage compartment.  I had already pulled out all the dash components: speedometer, fuel gauge, switches, relays, wiper motor, fuse box, and all the wiring that went with it.  The fuel tank and its related parts were also previously removed.  Now came the scut-work, work that I’d been punting on in the vain hope that the Volks-Fairies would descend from the heavens one night while I slept.  With a wave of their wands they would make all of the old rubberized undercoating on the front firewall disappear.  With a wiggle of their noses they would vaporize all of the mysterious, nasty, yellow foam that some previous owner, for unknown reasons, had seen fit to liberally deposit in seemingly random places under there.  With the sweet, harmonious utterance of an ancient spell they would de-crud and rust-treat the inside of the hinge pillars.

Alas, it was not to be.  Now I don’t want to get too political — and one could argue that any political is too political — but I for one believe that we shouldn’t be so categorically opposed to taxes of any sort whatsoever.  You get what you pay for.  For me, a small, progressive levy in the form of a fairy tax would be an entirely reasonable requisite for living in a modern, democratic, civilized society.  But here in Georgia I’m pushing my luck with talk of both fairies and taxes (in the same sentence, and on a Sunday, no less!), so I’ll just have to let yet another brilliant idea die on the vine.

Accessing the inside of the hinge pillars is a real pain in the ass.  There is no more succinct way to put it.  The goal was to vacuum out each space as best I could, squirt some rust encapsulator down there, and be done with it.  I had already pulled the old flexible defroster hoses free, and in the process tore the bottom inch of each off at the junction — which is, naturally, the most inaccessible point.  Still, by way of a shop-vac, a telescoping magnet, a narrow chisel duct-taped to a stick, wire coat hangers, and various other implements fashioned especially for the occasion, I managed pull a surprising amount of crap out of there.  Nothing exciting, mind — no unused Grateful Dead tickets, no bottle caps from long-defunct breweries, no racy photographs of some previous owner’s girlfriend, nobody’s diamond ring.  Just the short end of each defroster hose, a few nuts and washers, some acorns, more hardened globules of that foamy shit, the stub of a number two pencil (no eraser).  A plastic sandwich bag filled with what appear to be human teeth.  A rolled up portrait of some spindly, neurotic-looking character with red hair and a beard, rendered in thick, odd-colored pigments, and signed by some guy calling himself “Vincent.”  The only known duplicate of the ignition key for the Titanic.  A deposit slip from a bank in Oregon for $199,976.39, cash, dated November 30, 1971, signed by one “D. B. Cooper.”  And a cassette tape containing an 18½-minute monologue by some foul-mouthed grouch complaining that they’re all out to get him.

My best direct view of the area, believe it or not, was by way of hanging a light on the respective hood hinge (the hood itself was removed, swathed in eider down, and booked into its own room at a local spa for the duration of this operation) and peering through the tiny trim-hole just forward of the pillar, from the outside. I could also shove my digital camera down there for a decent image, but obviously not as I worked.  Basically, I could work, or I could see — but not both at the same time.

This inside of the pillar looks like this:

After cleaning, the driver’s side pillar looked pretty good — surprisingly intact, actually, with just a little bit of surface rust.  But something was up with the other one.  For starters, the little drain hole at the bottom was rusted away.  I had kinda sorta noticed this before, but for some odd reason was not overly bothered by the concept of a missing hole.  It was certain that I had no spare holes lying around.  I suppose if I were so inclined I could have Googled “original German holes,” looked on holes.com, or even posted an online want ad:

WANTED TO BUY

One drain hole.  Hole must be intact (small dings okay).  Would prefer original German hole, but aftermarket hole of similar quality acceptable.  Will pay top price for mint hole.

But such silliness seemed hardly worth the effort.  After all, when a hole goes missing, there remains in its place — what?  A hole!  Right where the other hole used to be!

Leaving such metaphysical questions to the academics behind the arches down the road (iron, not golden), I was more concerned with what appeared to be some crustiness on the surface, way down near the bottom.  It was no coincidence that the area in question was on the other side of the same piece of metal I’d breezed over last winter.  Working from the outside now, I wire-wheeled all of the primer and fiberglass filler back off (pleased to note, in so doing, how grippy that stuff was).  Using the scouring pad on my die grinder, I gave the area a shine and then poked around with a screwdriver.  Sure enough, the metal there was very, very thin.  And yeah, there were quite a few pinholes there, too.  More than I remembered (or wanted to admit) from last winter.

In the first photo I’ve already cut away the bad stuff — just enough to get to good, thick, rust-free metal that I could weld something to without burning holes in it.  You might suppose that, as I sat there on the garage floor thinking the whole mess through, I was paralyzed by fear or outright panic.  Not too long ago this would have been true.  But I dare say I’m finally at a point where I can lay claim to a nascent sense of confidence.  I have the time.  I have the tools.  Sheet metal is cheap.  And although I’m not the world’s greatest welder, I have made welded repairs before, and was actually grateful that I would have the opportunity to hone my newfound skills (such as they are) on a relatively hidden corner of the car.

I poked and prodded, examined the area from different angles, considered possible solutions, ruled some things out, and allowed other ideas to blossom.  For quite a while — ten minutes, twenty minutes, I really don’t know — I sat deep in thought.  It was quite peaceful, really.  I felt like a Buddhist monk contemplating a lotus, a clear lake, the palm of his hand, a hummingbird, or that last piece of rice in the bottom of his alms bowl.  I was imbued with a newfound sense of calm in the face of adversity.

I can do this thing!

And that’s when a certain neighbor appeared in my garage, and here’s where I have to pause and explain the deal I made with the Lord.

What you are currently reading is the cream that floats to the top.  As natural and skilled as my writing may appear, you should know that what I finally presume (with great liberties) to consider worthy of your time is actually the culmination of hours and hours of hard work.  I probably spend as much time writing about working on the Volkswagen as I do actually working on the car.  What I’m trying to establish here is that I’ve gone to great lengths to present you with the finest in modern literature.  Nothing less would suffice for your discriminating palate.

Just now I deleted about two pages of backstory concerning this particular neighbor — his life, his family, his circumstances, his mannerisms, and why he drives me completely batshit.  In spite of his recent misfortunes, I was merciless and pulled no punches in beating a man who is already down.  I changed names, but anyone who knows me would have known to whom I was referring.  It was cowardly and yellow.  And it was the greatest writing I’ve ever done.  But you’ll never see it — all because of a deal I made with God.  I’ll get to that in a minute, but I just dropped two pages of finely crafted material, and there is no other way to gracefully go from this to that.  So read on and be patient.

After some research I ordered a repair panel from Wolfsburg West.  It was not expensive — $17.95, to be exact, with shipping.  While waiting for the piece to arrive I searched the forums on theSamba.com for clues.  As usual, most of the advice seemed sage.  But one posting gave me pause.  Something to the effect of, “Don’t waste your time and money.  None of the repair panels you can buy fit right.  You’ll just end up fabbing one yourself anyway.”

Three days later the part arrived.  Inexplicably, the pressing did not include the little horizontal tab at the bottom — the part where the drain hole is!  After cutting it to size and considering welding the little tab in place, I decided that the guy on the forum was correct.  For all the trouble, I figured, I may as well fabricate (that’s a fancy word for “make”) my own piece from scratch.

The way repair panels come, they are typically way bigger than the section you actually need.  So I had plenty of extra sheet metal.  Very carefully I measured and traced, cut a pattern out of a cereal box, laid it against some spare metal, got out the tin snips and cutoff wheel, and made some noise.  Once I had it cut out — slightly oversized, to allow for mistakes — I began the task of forming it to shape.  This was very tricky since there are compound curves and a couple of folds along those curves.  I do not have a shrinker, stretcher, English wheel, metal brake, or any other of those tools with which “metal-men” can work wonders.  Instead I made use of hammers, dollies, pliers, clamps, and my bare hands.

The result was like this:

After letting the weld-through zinc primer dry, I tack-welded this sculpture into place.  So far so good.  The overall shape was such that, with a little bit of post-op filler, it would look fine.  But when I went back to fill the gaps and connect the dots, I seemed to be burning holes instead of closing the joints.  Like maybe I’d fired up the plasma-cutter by mistake.  Even though I was using the lowest amperage and a creeping wire speed, things were getting very ugly very quickly.  Frustration and welding do not mix well.  I put down the gun, flung my helmet into the car, flipped the switch, and shut the gas off.  Time to take a break.

After lunch I was still so dejected that I almost didn’t go back out there.  I thought maybe I’d put the finishing touches on this posting — angry, vitriolic, mean-spirited screed against my neighbor included — click “publish,” go for a bike ride, and call it a day.  But something was eating at me, and it wasn’t just the fiasco unfolding in the garage.  Maybe you could call it contrition.  I’m not the overly spiritual type, but I do believe in karma — if not in the next life, then in the here-and-now.  Things do tend to come back around.  Any fool can see that.

Feet dragging and shoulders sagging, I clomped down the back stairs on my way back out to the over-hot chamber of horrors that was beginning — in the relentless, oppressive Georgia summertime — to resemble my own private version of hell.  But passing through the garden it hit me.  Time to make a deal.

I do not pray because I’m not a beggar.  I do not expect something for nothing.  But, unlike certain members of Congress, I’m not beyond compromise.  I’m not opposed to making a deal for the sake of expediency.  So right then and there I put it to Him like this:

Okay, here’s the deal.  I’m not going to ask you to magically make it all better, or to suddenly endow me with welding super-powers.  I’m not even going to pester you for a split-window Westfalia Bus on this particular occasion (but feel free if, you know, you are suddenly inspired to perform random acts of charity) — we’ll work on that later.  All I’m asking is that you give me the fortitude to see this thing through, to trust the process, to handle these things with equanimity and poise.

(But wait!  There’s more!)

You expect certain things from me.  That is reasonable, and I am a reasonable man.  So what I’m offering you is this: if you help me see this through, I will omit all of the nasty, spiteful things I said about [a certain neighbor] from my latest blog.  It is some of the most lyrical, lofty prose I’ve created to date — it was, after all, a true labor of hateful love — but this is what I’m prepared to sacrifice for you.

You know what I’m talking about.  I know you know what I’m talking about.  You know that I know that you know what I’m talking about.  Since you’re God, we could literally play this train of thought for eternity.  Just so we understand one another. 

Plus, there’s all those holy web-cams you’ve got set up all over the place.  I put a Band-Aid over the camera on my laptop, but I’m no fool.  You’re watching me!  Always!  (You pervert!)

Anyway, think it over.  You know where to find me.

Best wishes,

Me.

PS.  A Vanagon would be okay too.  I would prefer air-cooled, but even a Vanagon with one of those goddam radiator thingies would be acceptable.  As a minimum.  Any color would suit.  Thanks.

I don’t know what delivery service the Lord utilizes, but it sure as hell wasn’t next-day air.  I worked on getting those welds solid for the next three days.  But slowly, little by little, it started to come together.  I think I just needed to get some more metal in there.  On the bottom section — along the side, where the heater channel merges into the very bottom of the quarter panel — I simply drilled holes in the repair panel, and plug-welded it in place.  I went a little lower than where the factory spot-welds would be, so as to allow easy access with my MIG gun.  But it won’t be apparent with the fender and running board in place.  The rest of it was butt-welding — notoriously difficult with thin sheet metal.  I’ve learned that butt means butt.  You must have the panels right up against each other, because you can’t weld air.  You have to be able to complete the arc solidly.

It will never be known whether I got assistance from higher powers or not.  From the beginning, I should have trusted the process.  My welding process, it seems, is different from most.  There seems to be a recurring sequence:

  1. Tack-weld piece in place.  Looks okay.
  2. Try to run short beads, alternating areas, mindful of warping.  Smell the burning steel.  See the flaming slag.  Rise and reset the circuit breaker.
  3. Wonder why all forces malignant and evil have converged on my person, in my garage.
  4. Spend the next several sessions plugging holes.
  5. Grind away excess build-up; weld, grind, repeat.
  6. Have a (German) coldie, and admire how I’ve once again saved from the scrap-heap a marvel of German engineering that will be, some day, the Coolest Machine on the Planet.

Anyway, I want to show you this pic before I dress it up with filler and glazing; to show you that, as raw as it is, I somehow managed to pull it off:

It is shiny because clean metal is a must for welding.  It does not photograph well.  But I am pleased with the results.  Not bad for a soulless atheist, eh?

I had not seen him in a while.  But there he was, suddenly, in my garage.  I was so focused, so single-minded, so complete, that I didn’t even notice him until he spoke.

“Well, well.  If it isn’t Mr. Bruce.  We meet again!”

Shit, I said.  Or thought really loud.  He likes to bitch, so I knew he wasn’t there bearing the latest Sunshine and Rainbow Report.  I just wasn’t in the mood for it.  Plus, I don’t like that distinctly Southern habit of combining “Mister” with one’s first name.  Call me a paranoid Yankee, but it just sounds to me like a smart-ass way of showing disrespect as respectfully as possible.

“Long time no see!” he crowed.

Not long enough.  Jackass.

After some obligatory small-talk, I had had about enough.

“Well, it was nice talking to you,” I said, glancing at my watch.  Or, more accurately, where my watch would have been if I were wearing one.  “But I’m about to wrap it up for the day.”  It was about a quarter past nine in the morning.

I stood there for another half an hour stoically enduring whatever it was he had to rant about that day.  It never ceases to amaze me that he can’t see it in my eyes.  That I’m not listening at all.  That I want him to leave.

I think I need to stop here before I get myself in too deep.  I have named no names.  I have situated no situations.  I have located no locales.  I like to think I’ve upheld my end of the grand bargain.  Am I pushing my luck?

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