For a while I’ve been carrying around a token in my pocket. It’s about the size of a dime. It might have actually been a dime, once, but it is no longer. I bought it up in Portland (Maine, of course — I tend to forget there’s another, somewhere) a few years back, in one of those artsy-fartsy boutiques that also sells things like blown-glass hummingbird feeders, commuter bags constructed from old inner tubes, wallets made from duct tape, and whimsical yard art risen from discarded lawnmower parts. My token cost three dollars (plus tax). I promptly lost it, probably in the tip jar in any number of possible coffee shops in a geographical region bounded, roughly, by a line drawn from Portland to Minneapolis to Denver to Houston to Ft. Lauderdale and back Portland.
Somewhere, at the end of a long shift, an overeducated and underemployed barista fished my old token from the very bottom of the jar (“Show Us Your Tips!”), contemplated its message, and sighed: prick.
In lieu of retracing my steps, I bought another one just like it the next time I was in Portland. It was still three dollars (plus tax).
One side displays a peace symbol, just like we used to know. On the other side it says: CREATE PEACE. Too often though, in spite of my best intentions, I create a mess.
I really meant it when I announced grand plans to finish the car in time to make Bug-a-Palüza in April. I really meant it when I said we were moving to Maine and Rubylove was going to get me there. And for a while there it looked like it really might happen.
Keeping my eyes on the prize, I even fought off the ultimate in temptation, the January morning she actually said “yes.”
We’ve been married for almost twenty years, but she never ceases to surprise me from time to time. I’m not a new-ager or anything like that, but usually when I start yammering about anything related to Volkswagens, there is a noticeable shift in the energy in the room. It’s not just her eyes glazing over, or the way she suddenly finds something urgent she needs to do, somewhere else. It’s more like some unseen force lets all the air out of the room, and replaces it with a stale gas, yellowed like old acetate, that filters out anything fresh, anything new. All that remains is: This. Again.
Being otherwise occupied and still imbued with a promising sense of purpose for the Volkswagen I already had, I had turned my eBay alerts back on. Just to keep an eye on things, you understand. Because really, at that moment in time I was not easily distracted. Yet there it was in my e-mail box: a 1972 tin-top Bus, with an unusual (dare I say “rare”?) Safaré conversion. Claimed to be in excellent mechanical condition. Glorious in gleaming, deep-green paint. In the photos the Bus looked perfect, but I’m well aware that photos can be deceiving (even my Beetle looks like a professional job on digital film, at certain angles, in certain light). But there was a video, too: outside, inside, turning the engine over, listening to it purr, up on a lift, underneath, close-up shots. Clearly this was one stunning Bus. No rust anywhere. Sounded great. Interior needed just a few cosmetics, but that only added cred, and told me that the seller couldn’t ask top dollar for it. Plus, it was only two hours away. I could go look at it, then bid.
And did I mention it was green?
Sitting there on the dining table with my coffee and my laptop, I was smitten.
She walked in from the bedroom and caught me moaning pathetically.
“What.” she said. With a period. Like she really didn’t want to know, like she just wanted me to quit moaning like an idiot.
“Nothing,” I sighed. “Porn.” Which, she knew, = sexy Volkswagen (in my language).
She poured herself a cup of coffee and walked over. I don’t know what possessed her. It was a strange thing for her to do. Did she see it in my face, that this was different? Was this a sign? Was this my chance?
“It’s green,” she said over my shoulder, knowing how I feel about that. “A nice green, too.”
I merely pointed to where the town was listed next to the photos.
“Hm. Are you going to go look?”
What? Is she toying with me? Is there a catch? Is this a test?
“Well, I gotta say, it fits. You could go look, right? How much do you think you’d have to pay for it?”
Knowing nothing about the Safarés, it was hard to say. On a lark, I threw what sounded like a ridiculously low number at her, mainly so I wouldn’t scare her off. “Oh, I dunno. I could bid six and see what happens.”
“It’s up to you,” she said, and hustled off to work.
A few days later, that beautiful Bus was gone to the highest bidder, for the sum of $6001.00. My guess was off by a single dollar. But I did not go look. I did not bid. She said yes, but I said no. And somebody got a super-sweet deal on a super-sweet Bus. The bastard.
After that I returned to the regularly scheduled programming, which consisted of fighting tooth and nail for every iota of progress. Given the amount of time I spent on the wiper assembly alone — assessing, researching, disassembling, ordering parts, re-assembling, re-disassembling, re-ordering the correct parts — it was shaping up to be a windshield wiper winter. But lo and and behold, getting that mess all back together — with the correct bushings, pivots, clips, and washers — took only about half of the winter. For the rest of it, and into the spring, I rebuilt the entire brake system, stem to stern: new front wheel bearings, new drums, new shoes, new wheel cylinders, new hardware, new hard and soft lines (the former bent and formed with my own bare hands, because the tools I bought for the purpose were junk), new emergency brake cables, and — the pièce de résistance — a brand-new, dual-circuit master cylinder. This last bit, as you may be aware, was a slight modification on my part; originally, the ’65 would have had a single brake circuit, but having witnessed first-hand the aftermath of a failed single circuit (in the form of a recently-rolled, heretofore gorgeous Single-Cab Splitty), I decided that this low-key mod was justified. The car is still far from moving under its own power, but I’m now 100% confident that if I pushed it out of the garage and jumped in, I’d have a rip-roarin’ 300-yard coast before stopping on a dime right before the retention pond at the bottom of the hill.
But the frustrations I met along the way almost made me give up. For real. I remember one crisp morning in particular: I had just discovered that I had to tear apart the wiper mechanism for the umpteenth time. Recognizing my state of mind, I decided the best course of action would be to set this subtask aside, and move onto something else. It was taking me forever to build up pressure in the newly-assembled brake system, so I figured a few rounds of bleeding might be a great way to blow off some steam. Since my wife was at work and I have no friends, this meant resorting to the “one-man brake bleeding tool” I picked up at the parts store. In the not-so-distant future, I would give up on this contraption, and accept the fact that I needed to (a) be nice to my wife so she might be a willing pedal-pusher for a few minutes of her hard-earned weekend, (b) hire one of the day-laborers that line up every morning down at the Home Depot, and/or (c) make friends with somebody.
But that reality had yet to blossom, and soon I was under the car, connecting cheap plastic fittings to cheap plastic hoses, which in turn fed into a cheap plastic bottle, to which was fastened a quarter-sized chunk of iron serving as a sorry excuse for a magnet. Given how my day was going, I shouldn’t have been surprised when, for reasons that are still not entirely clear, the system pressure seemed to decrease as I went along. Soon, the pedal went all the way to the floor with all of the bleeders closed. Was something loose? Was there a leak? The reservoir was full. I checked the master, the backing plates, under the pedal cluster, the carpet along the tunnel, under the back seat. Nothing. What the hay? By this point I was certain that the new master cylinder was defective (a fairly common thing, apparently, even for a brand-new unit), and was not relishing the idea of replacing it. So I really had nothing to lose by having one more go-around — that is, until my ham-fisted self broke off the right front bleeder in the wheel cylinder housing.
It’s amazing, really, how big of a hole a little seven-millimeter flare-nut wrench can create in half-inch drywall. And I still haven’t found the wrench itself. Possibly it’s still in the wall.
I went in the house in search of something sweet and sugary to stuff down my gullet, because the pleasure centers of my brain were desperate for some stimulation and it wasn’t noon yet, so beer was out of the question. As was a nap on the couch, since I had garage-floor grease on my pants and brake fluid in my hair. So I sat on the floor shoving Fig Newtons into my craw, one after the other, trying not to cry, trying to come up with ways to salvage what was intended to be a productive day in Volkslandia. Sure enough, as soon as the sugar-rush hit, it came to me: grommets!
I mean, how hard could that be?
In various points around the car are spaces where rubber grommets should live, doing what they do to keep water out and to prevent chafing of electric wiring, fuel lines, and brake lines. The originals, of course, had long since “perished” (the British term, which I find terribly amusing), and replacing them with fresh new ones seemed like such a simple thing, on paper. Some were already in place. But I had missed a few. For example, the “long” brake line actually needs two grommets where it passes through the front firewall (that section of firewall often referred to as the “Napoleon’s hat,” and is actually comprised of a double-wall). Also, with my new wire harness, they either neglected to include the proper taillight grommets (possible), or I had lost the same (more likely).
I threw the empty Fig Newton package in the trash and headed back out to the garage with new resolve. Choosing to ignore, for now, the wiper assembly parts lying on the workbench, and trying not to think about how I was going to get the broken half of the bleed valve out of the wheel cylinder, I climbed up on the old red stool and began rooting amongst the many boxes stacked willy-nilly upon the slapdash shelving I threw up shortly after I brought the Beetle home for the first time.
I have been careful to label everything, but that doesn’t mean the labels always make sense. I can usually read my own writing. But it’s my shorthand that sometimes confounds me. For example, one box — labelled “UMFBRK” — was suspiciously light, like it might even be empty. Mainly out of curiosity, I climbed back down to earth with it. It was about the size of a small appliance, because that’s what had originally been in there — a very expensive Italian espresso machine that my wife absolutely had to have, and which was used exactly twice before being retired to a hard to reach, dark corner of the pantry to collect dust. I sure am glad my own whimsical urges always make sense.
At first I though the box was indeed empty. I shook it just to be sure, thereby releasing the two tiny items that had been hiding under the inner flaps of the cardboard. Both items were identical: about two centimeters long, mostly spring, with a little black cube of plastic or metal on one end. They looked important, vaguely familiar. But it would have been strange for me to simply toss them in a big box without a quick bag-and-tag. What were they? Parts to an electric motor? Key components for some sort of ratcheting, pawl-type thingy? Spare antennae for an alien homunculus? Where is he now? Is he watching me? Creepy! I put them back in the box, trusting that the answers would be revealed when I was ready to handle the truth.
Behind the box of umfbrk was a coffee can, upon which I had written with military-industrial precision: GROMMETS, rubber, assorted. Prying off the plastic lid released the aroma of fresh rubber. I dumped a pile of grommets into a tray and poked around with my finger, setting aside a few contenders I thought might work. I can’t remember the physical act of purchasing all of those grommets, but there were literally dozens of them. In all sizes.
Well, in almost all sizes. Wouldn’t you know, that although I might be the undisputed grommet king of the greater Athens-Clarke County statistical area, not a single one fit in any of the spots that I needed them? I mean, how many damn grommets does a man need to find some satisfaction in life?!?!?!
Is there more than one homunculus following me?
With my expectations for the day at a nadir —
— no, not that Nader! That was a Corvair thing, dig? I said nadir. Anyhow, I figured I may as well continue my losing streak and get on with, I dunno, say, dash trim. I had some of the original pieces, all polished up, as well as some fairly decent repros. It was the clips I was worried about. I was pretty sure that, originally, the dash trim clips would have been metal, a lot like the body trim clips but smaller. But the ones I discovered in the package of miscellaneous parts I had ordered were plastic, dowel-like thingies. They certainly didn’t look like something any self-respecting German engineer would put his name on. Sure enough, after about five minutes of struggling with the trim, I had broken half of the new clips, and scratched the paint to boot.
Now, the army of alien homunculi were positively roaring with glee. These big goofy Earthlings are an endless source of amusement, yay-wot?
Later that afternoon I sat on the couch, after a less-than-spirited bike ride and a long, hot soak. I did not have a beer or play Words With Friends. There was no music and nothing to read. There wasn’t even a cat in my lap. I just sat there quite comfortably, doing something I very rarely do: absolutely nothing.
After a while my viscous thoughts began to settle, arranging themselves into strata according to their own weight. Some, it turns out, were so light that they floated away completely. So, I had a bad day. Big deal! Others revealed themselves in new ways. I can patch the wall before anyone else has to know. I can buy another wrench. But one thought overpowered all the rest: I’m going to sell it.
As more than one generation of therapists have asked of me, “And how did that make you feel?”
I have always had a hard time with that one, because feelings are not one of my strong points. In this case, though, I could immediately put my finger on it, using any variety of adjectives: Liberated. Refreshed. Unchained. Free.
I even had a plan for how I was going to do it. Knowing full well that there is little monetary value in someone else’s abandoned project, and not wanting to haggle over it anyway, I would simply place an ad in the classified section of the local club’s website. Over the course of my struggles I have posted numerous technical questions therein and, acceding to requests, have begrudgingly posted photos and updates from time to time. Presumably, they know who I am and what I’ve been up to. So I could include minimal details in my ad. The less said, I figured, the better.
And the asking price? Whatever your conscious dictates.
Yes, I would have most likely not gotten the best end of that deal, at least when it came to money changing hands. I assume that most of those guys are honest. But it’s not inconceivable that somebody would have crawled out of the woodwork, somebody with absolutely no conscious whatsoever, and offered me three dollars for it. It’s also not inconceivable that, given my state of mind, I would have accepted his lousy three dollars.
It would have made an interesting (if costly) study in human integrity. But just as I did not buy that Bus, I did not sell my Beetle. It was true that I was not having fun at the moment, but I also knew that selling this Beetle would — eventually — lead to that ugly byproduct of bad decisions, the same thing that haunts me whenever I think about the last Beetle I sold: regret. Regret that I would most likely never drive an air-cooled Volkswagen again, especially one that I built myself. Regret for the years wasted figuring out that this really isn’t my thing. Regret that, sugar-coat it as you might, I would be nothing but a quitter.
After a couple of weeks without so much as touching the car, I came to chalk up the whole thing as an exceptionally bad day in the garage. All winter long, as a matter of fact, progress was way, way slower than I would have liked. But eventually I figured it out, as I always do. I finally figured out how to rebuild (properly) the entire wiper mechanism, and now it works wonderfully. I found the proper grommets, the proper dash trim clips, and even touch-up paint that is a perfect match. The brakes appear to be working as well as Beetle brakes can. Plus, there is a small measure of beauty to show for my efforts.
So you see, I was just frustrated. For quite some time. It came to a head that day, but it passed. It will come again, and it will pass again. That’s what passion is all about.
Ironically, at some point this week, after laying down the rough draft of this entry, I lost my token. Pretty sure I left it in a hotel room in Kansas City, but there’s no way to know for sure. I realized it was gone while passing though airport security, when I went to toss my change in the bucket. I was upset about it, but not overly so. The message goes far beyond a trinket. I could live without it, right?
Later that afternoon my first officer and I arrived at our hotel for the night, in Memphis. For three days he had been driving me batshit. He is very large and very loud. Smacks his food to such an extent that I can hear it over the wind noise in the cockpit. Repeatedly tells corny jokes despite the fact that I do not respond at all, not so much as a guffaw, and persists though I remain buried in my newspaper. The more obvious I try to be, the more he persists, which frustrates me even more. Soon I descend in to outright rudeness, which still seems to have no deterrent effect whatsoever.
Earlier, 32,000 feet:
“Grasshopper walks into a bar,” he begins, licking barbecue sauce from his stubby fingers, “with a bowling ball in one hand and a pair of scissors in the other. Bartender says —”
“You smell that?”
I take a big, exaggerated whiff, and knit my brow like I’m concerned about something. “Like, an electrical smell? Like ozone?”
“What, the coffee pots?”
He is exactly correct. It is the coffee pots. Charred spillover on the burners in the galley, just the other side of the cockpit door. The smell is nothing like burning wires, but it’s not at all unusual.
“No,” I say, “Something else.” I cue up the electrical synoptic screen on the multifunction display, check the generator frequencies, battery amperage, transformer rectifiers, bus tie relays. I glance suspiciously at the circuit breaker panel overhead, then strain my neck to check out the panel behind me. Continuing the charade, I turn back to the electrical synoptic, and point at the readouts for the right generator. They are completely normal. “We should keep an eye on that,” I say.
In his Air Force days, he flew tankers. Old tankers, the kind without fancy computers to take care of everything for you. The kind of airplanes that had flight engineers, that actually required a thorough knowledge of electrical theory and application. The kind of knowledge that went far beyond my own limited scope of understanding, which can be best summarized as green = good (continue), red = bad (read checklist).
“Okay,” he says. For a second or two, I might have convinced him that there was something he was missing. Too soon, he shrugged it off.
“So anyway, this grasshopper walks into a bar —”
“I gotta go pee.”
Without going into too much detail, both because it’s mundane and because I’m not at complete liberty to do so, peeing at work is a royal pain in the ass. With the mostly short-haul flying we do in that airplane, only the longest scheduled flights might require a visit to the lav. In our golden years I’m sure we’ll all be rewarded for our usual perseverance with incontinence, in addition to hearing loss, skin cancer, and sciatica. The small prices we pay for living the dream.
“You want me to wear the mask?”
Everybody asks this question, and it irritates me every single time. The oxygen mask is nasty and gross, just like everything else in the flight deck that is never cleaned, ever. Although it just might save your life one day, it’s also restrictive, uncomfortable, and a great deterrent to casual conversation. It’s also required under Title 14 CFR Part 121.333 that, above FL250 (that’s pilot-speak for 25,000 feet, basically), when one guy leaves his station, the other guy has to wear the mask. This same rule, coincidentally, is behind reason #3 why I can’t have a beard. If I ever quit my job, not being permitted to grow a beard would make the short list of primary grievances. So you see, I don’t like the rule either, but it’s not up to me.
“It’s not up to me.”
Although he is normally good-natured, he gives me “the look” — makes no attempt to be sneaky about it — then shrugs and reaches for his mask. It’s supposed to be useable within five seconds or less (and functionally, I suppose it is) but in casual conditions it takes a bit of fumbling. First you realize that you should have taken your sunglasses off first, unless you want an imprint of your Ray-Bans on your face for the rest of the day. Then you have to get the flow selector set properly, to the non-emergency setting, which is difficult because if you’re already wearing the mask, the selector is backwards from the way it is seen when the thing is sitting face-up in its storage box. Next you have to set your external speaker and intercom to that elusive setting that lies somewhere between barely audible and OMIGOD LOUD!
After a minute or two of his fumbling with that unwieldy tangle of cootie-riddled rubber, when I hear the Darth Vader-like, rhythmic hissing of his regulator, when he’s finally looking at me expectantly through the scratched plastic face-shield, and I know I have his undivided attention, I slowly slide my seat back and undo my harness, as if to rise. But before I do, I reach for the range-selector button, the one that expands my navigation display out further. I bring Memphis into the screen. I glance at my watch.
“On second thought,” I say, “we’ll be there soon enough. It can wait.”
He turns his head the other way, facing his side window. We’re in the clouds, so there is absolutely nothing to see out there but vague white nothingness. I do not know what he is thinking, but I can hear that he has stopped breathing. Probably he was counting to ten, because after about ten seconds he yanks his mask off his head and begins to stuff it back into its box. Putting the thing back where it belongs is also a nuisance. You have to fold the inflatable harness a certain way, tuck the wadded-up rubber behind the mask, feed the main oxygen line into the box, stuff the mask into the protective sleeve, and close the compartment doors so that the selector shows through the little port and the microphone in the mask switches off.
“So where was I?” he asks once that’s all done. “Oh yeah. Grasshopper walks into a bar with a bowling ball and a pair of scissors.”
“Whaddya mean, where?”
“Where was the bar?”
He looks at me like, there is really something wrong with you.
“So anyway, he’s standing there with the bowling ball and the pair of scissors, and the bartender looks up and says —”
“You know, I’m having a hard time concentrating,” I interrupt. “I really think I should pee after all.”
So I guess you could say I was being a real prick. On the other hand, he was being pretty dense about what should have been quite obvious — that I just wanted to be left the hell alone. None of this, of course, makes him a bad man. I readily admit that, if I had bothered to step outside of my miserable self for just a few minutes and listen to his corny joke, we might have gotten along a little better. We might not end up as best friends, but it is true that I could have at least tried to be civil.
The hotel in Memphis is part of a nationwide chain of hotels, yet has one exceptional feature: a bellhop. The bellhop is an old black man, very friendly, in a crisp, white uniform and cap that makes my own uniform look shabby (not, I should note, that I have any pride whatsoever regarding my personal grooming at work). He shows undue and overstated deference, the way many older people do, to those of rank in uniform. In general, I cringe when anyone calls me “Captain” (especially an elder) but when the bellhop greets us at the door, I let it slide.
“Hello, Captain! How was your flight, sir?”
“Great, thank you, sir.”
Then he turns to my first officer. “Hello, First Officer, sir. How are you today?”
“Excellent, thanks! And you?”
A sly look spreads across the bellhop’s face. He speaks again to my first officer: “Say, lemme ask you something, sir.” Pointing at me, he continues, “How’s he treating you?”
My first officer just smiles. The bellhop laughs.
I respond: “I think a diplomatic smile is the best that I could hope for.”
It occurs to me then that I’d better plan another trip to Portland.