Sunday, October 23, 2016

A Pale Imitation of Home

At this point in our story, our hero (that would be me; I'm the hero) finds himself in Denver for six weeks, performing a geophysical survey for his former employer to detect unexploded ordnance on an old bombing range. Why? Because his (note the continued thinly veiled use of the third person here; our hero is, after all, a professional writer, and knows all the tricks) writing job became unstable, and, knowing that the ax was going to fall, he preemptively sought out this survey.

But that, as they say, is another story.

First, it's actually not a solid six weeks. I'll (our hero has found the use of the thinly veiled third person tiresome and has dropped it like his writing job dropped him) be flying back to Boston twice, first for the November 6th Michael Troy tribute show at The Narrows (, and then again over Thanksgiving. But still, it's a longer stint on the road than I've done since The Dry Prong Chronicles four years ago, and is all the more surprising considering that I had left my goddamned geophysics job to become a professional goddamned automotive writer!

(Sorry. Our hero appears to be having a meltdown, probably spurred by the absence of his lovely wife and his garage. He has regained his composure and is attempting to continue. He may need to buy a Z3 while he's out here in order to get the Xanax effect of top-down driving. Hey, it's Colorado. There's legal reefer. Our hero is certain he can find some new-age leech dispenser to dash him off a script for something topless.)

The work involves using a survey system that has a small side-by-site utility vehicle that tows a carbon fiber platform equipped with very accurate GPS and two kinds of metal detectors. To answer the question that constantly comes up, yes it's very safe because a) the site has already been swept of any surface unexploded ordnance (UXO), b) any UXO that's in the ground is only there because it's a dud that didn't blow up when it smacked in, which was probably nearly 70 years ago that this point, and c) ordnance items aren't land mines -- they're not sensitively fused, they're not designed to blow up if you step on them. It is very interesting work, and there is emotional and professional satisfaction using this equipment that was largely my baby and that I thought was going to be scrapped after it was mothballed for four years.

When traveling on a government contract, in addition to your salary and hotel room, you are paid a per diem for meals and incidentals. Here in Denver, that's $69/day. That sounds like a lot, and it is if you treat it carefully. Nearly every hotel you stay at has a buffet breakfast of some sort, so there's no out-of-pocket cost for breakfast. And you're in the field all day so you're not eating lunch out; typically you either take an English muffin and a banana from the breakfast buffet, or buy a loaf of bread and peanut butter and jelly and make sandwiches, but either way, lunch, like breakfast is at low to no cost. So it all comes down to what you spend on dinner.

Many of the explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) guys who are in the field for much longer than I am regard the per diem as pay and try to bank as much of it as possible. However, when I used to do a lot of field work with a tightly-knit crew, we enjoyed going out to nice restaurants every night either to celebrate our success or drown our sorrows, and when you do that -- eat well and drink -- it's actually pretty easy to burn through most or all of the per diem.

On this trip, since I'm basically out here by myself (I'm working with two other people from another company, and I like them, but we're not best buddies sharing meals, at least not yet), and since my employment has had an, ahem, interruption, it seemed an easy decision to try and bank as much of the per diem as possible. Plus, the extended stay hotel at which we're staying not only has a little kitchenette in each room, but also has a "social" in the lobby Mondays through Wednesdays, at which there is hot food that is passable as dinner. There is also, incredibly, free beer at the "social," but I have data processing to do in the evenings, and follow as strict a no alcohol on weeknights policy as I can. And I never have alcohol in my room. That way lies madness. The line in my song "The Extended Stay Motel" ( about the vodka bottle being empty? Pure fiction. (The rest of the song? Absolutely true. That was an odd occurrence at Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville NC that my field partner Ric Macneil and I could not figure out.)

That having been said, I did splurge Friday night at a sushi place with an all you can eat special that I washed down with two bottles of hot sake, and on Saturday night at a bar watching the Cubs clinch the pennant and drinking too much Left Hand Brewing's Nitro Milk Stout on tap. I'm not a freaking monk.

Once things were proceeding sufficiently smoothly in the field, the next order of business seemed to be dealing with the phone. I'd been using an antiquated iPhone 4S for years, and a combination of factors (the slow 3G speed, the diminished battery life, some cable and connector issues, and horrible performance since I made the fatal mistake of updating the operating system) was driving me crazy. I am an inveterate bargain hunter, and nearly bought a used iPhone SE on Swappa, but I hemmed and hawed long enough that the one I was looking at got sold, and I had enough questions about guarantees and SIM cards and transferring contacts that I simply went into a local Costco out here in Aurora. When I found that $20/month got me a new SE 64gig phone, plus an external lithium battery pack, plus a $50 Costco rebate card, plus they'd transfer my contacts then and there (I didn't have a laptop with me with iTunes on it), I caved. The new phone is making life a bit less frustrating.

(As an aside, the guy at the Verizon booth at Costco literally laughed when he pulled up my plan. "Five iPhone 4Ss? I haven't seen that on a plan in a couple of years!" And he didn't have the cable to hook the phone; I had to hand him the one I had in my backpack.)

While at Costco, I attempted to stock up on food for the hotel room, but the big box nature of Costco makes that a bit difficult. I don't need 30 lbs of ground beef, a case of apples, or an entire cooked ham. Even the packages of tortellini were large enough to feed the Celtics. In the end, I opted for a big package of floutas and a box of 20 individual servings of guacamole, each costing about $8.50, and fled the premises.

The next few evenings, on the way home from the survey site, I tried using my new iPhone to have Siri direct me to the nearest grocery store or supermarket, but for some reason it didn't seem to understand the concept and kept sending me to industrial produce supply houses. Finally, by chance, I drove by a Sprouts, which appears to be the Western equivalent of Whole Foods. I overpaid for a nice selection of what I often eat at home (tortillas, tomatoes, salsa, cheese, sliced turkey, canned tuna fish, and rolls), and called the hotel room stocked, at least for now.

As per my Facebook post, I use any travel an an excuse to search for vintage BMWs (the logistics of driving one home for Thanksgiving notwithstanding). I am here with a trailer that transports our survey equipment, and while I couldn't fit a whole car in it, things like spare Getrag 245 5-speed transmissions, Recaro seats, and original 2002 FPS alloys would be a slam dunk (and such things have ridden home in the trailer from prior trips). I haven't found any automotive treasures yet, but I did find an ad for an astonishingly well-priced Westerly-built Guild D25M guitar. I drove down to Colorado Springs yesterday and bought it on the spot. I had packed a cheap travel guitar in the trailer, but this one is much nicer and I'm much more likely to play it and actually write something on the trip. Plus, it made me happy.

And yes, the fact that I have now spent the "saved" per diem money twice -- first on the phone, and then on the guitar -- is not lost on me.

The actual survey site is pretty remote, about 30 minutes in by pickup truck on rutted paths, but once there it's very peaceful. We arrive before sunrise, and sometimes it's spectacular. Once the sun is up, there's a lightness and subtlety to the coloration that is very soothing on the nerves, like Van Gogh on one of his better days. The smell of sage is intoxicating. The cows find the geophysical equipment interesting. The Rockies are visible off to the west. So far the weather has been absolutely spectacular. This is not hardship.

But even with these attempts to normalize my surroundings with familiar food and musical instruments, it's all still a pale imitation of home.

But hey, give me Maire Anne, a round tail light 2002, and a place to work on it, and I'd bed right in.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

The One Where the Car Fell On Me

[The Hack Mechanic / September 2016, BMW CCA Roundel Magazine, all rights reserved]

It is said you’re not a real musician until you’ve had an instrument stolen, a real software engineer until you’ve lost three days of code, or a real mechanic until you’ve bled on machinery. 

I know. I’m the one who said it. And I’m all three.

Getting hurt while working on cars seems to be the price of admission to the ride. Cuts and scraped knuckles are annoying, but the real risk is working underneath cars.

Readers of my first book know the stories of a) the physics professor (I repeat: physics professor!) I had in college who died when a car fell on him in his driveway, and b) the time I had a car topple off a floor jack when the jack sank into soft asphalt on a hot day. Because of these events, I am assiduously careful when I jack up a car. I always “double-jack” it (jack it up, set it on jack stands, then leave the floor jack in place as backup). And, after the asphalt incident, I never play the dangerous “I’m just changing a wheel I’m not actually under the car so I don’t need the jack stands” game.

In my garage, I have a mid-rise scissors lift. A stand-mounted electric pump drives fluid into two large pistons that force the lift upward. You push a button to energize the pump. The lift has four mechanical lock-stops at one foot intervals. When you hear the lift click past the stop you want, you flip a small lever to engage the lock, then push a large lever on the pump to release the fluid pressure and set the lift down on the stop. I’ve always regarded it as very safe. And it is. If you don’t have a brain fart.

So here’s what happened. I’d just installed braided stainless lines on Otto, the ’74 2002tii, and was bleeding the brakes. The car was up on the lift with all four wheels off. No fluid came out the left rear bleed valve, so I began to scooch under the car’s left rear corner to undo the line I’d just installed and see if fluid came out. I had my entire upper body under there when I heard the hydraulics release pressure and saw the lift slowly drop. I scrambled to get out from underneath but wasn’t fast enough. 

My life did not flash before my eyes. I didn’t think “this way? I go this way?” I didn’t think, as I’ve often joked, “if I die under a car, Maire Anne will kill me.” Oddly, what ran through my mind in the roughly two seconds it took for the car to drop was whether my rib cage would get punctured, or whether, as was the case with a local garage proprietor I know, my head would get pinned (he survived).

And then the car stopped. It came to a gentle rest on the hubs and discs. And, incredibly, I was fine, because my body was behind the rear hub, and there’s about 10” between the bottom of the hub and the underside of the rear fender. My sole injury appeared to be a scratch about an inch and a half long on my left shoulder blade. The next morning, the scratch blossomed into more of a contusion because the car actually hit me before it stopped.

How did it happen? I’d taken the left rear wheel off and leaned it against the wall of the garage, but before I crawled under the back of the car, I’d carelessly moved the wheel, and it was leaning directly against the release lever on the pump. When I scooched under the car, I apparently nudged the wheel with my leg, which depressed the pump’s release lever.

But that shouldn’t have mattered if the lift was sitting on a lock-stop. Why in God’s name wasn’t it? The scary part is that I have no explanation for this. I never put the lift up without locking it. There’s no reason to. It takes just a few seconds. The only thing I can think of is that perhaps I’d moved it up for just a moment to grab a dropped wrench, then was interrupted, and when I came back, I just assumed the lift was sitting on a lock-stop.

After the event, my brain said “finish the repair; you’ll process all this later.” So I did. I raised the lift back up, made certain it was locked, and finished bleeding the brakes.

In the ensuing days, I thought a lot about what happened. Some injuries result from dancing in risk’s cross-hairs for too long, but I don’t think this was one of them. I think it was just a rogue event. I wondered whether the car’s controlled descent (it floated down on depressurizing hydraulics; it didn’t topple off a stand) would’ve crushed me or merely pinned me. Throw in a pig carcass and it would’ve made a good episode of Mythbusters. I opted for “pinned,” as the other possibility was unfathomable. My main concern was that I’d dream about being crushed by a car, but I haven’t yet. I’ve instituted a new three-part procedure: 1) Make sure the lift is on a lock-stop. 2) Make sure nothing is near the release lever. 3) If you’re going to actually work under the lift, roll two wheels beneath it as fail-safe blockades. “Brain fart” makes it sound funny. It wasn’t. This can not happen again.

They say that, when people have near-death experiences, their life often comes into clearer focus. They tell their family they love them more often, quit their jobs, do bucket list stuff, take the big trip they’ve always wanted, buy the XKE, that sort of thing. I am already very happy with my life, am pretty gratuitous with spreading the love, and have more cool cars than I know what to do with. And I’d already begun re-prioritizing things to bring my singer-songwriter self back into the fold several months ago, gigging again and recording my 3rd album. And, really, I’m just not a bucket list guy. I’m shaken, but not stirred.

Oh all right. An M1 and a trip to Fiji with Maire Anne. And maybe another guitar. I did actually have one stolen. Because I may be a hack mechanic, but I am a real musician.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Crusty Goes West by the Late Great Dan Erwin

Crusty Goes West

Any trip can be challenging, but when you start with a 2002 that should never leave home, survival becomes your destination.

By the late great Dan Ewrin
Roundel Magazine, October 2002, All Rights Reserved

“Always do sober what you said you'd do drunk. It will teach you to keep your mouth shut.” -Ernest Hemingway

Papa was right: It is a universal truth that, whether you're flying high on a dozen Tequila Fanny jaBangers or riding the crest of passion for a Great Idea, opening your big mouth will surely lead to fear, loathing, trepidation, remorse, and grievous physical injury—maybe simultaneously. Substitute manic enthusiasm for the elevating qualities of single malt in that quotation, and you have the story of a life—but I have yet to learn to keep my damn mouth shut. So when the editor says, "You're going to drive an 02 to Oktoberfest, eh? Good! Give us a mad-trip story!", the fateful phrase "No problem!" pops out before I properly analyze my chances of getting to Keystone, Colorado, in my only running 02. A quick trip out to the garage, wherein resides Crusty, the nastiest 2002 this side of a hydraulic car crusher, provides the answer: None. Zero, zip, nada. Not a chance in hell.

Or maybe—well, Crusty is a car I had dragged out of the weeds in a fit of misguided redemption, a neglected, rusty orphan. True, I did have big plans for this car... so why not just drive this wreck to Colorado? I mean, July was months away. Surely I'd have time to get this sucker jam up by then.


You know how much hard work transpired by July. Lots, actually–but not on old Crusty. No, he just squatted in the garage, hunkered down on one side with a couple of incipient flats, growling at me whenever I passed. It was sort of a mutual admiration society: I was afraid of him, he was afraid of me. But finally, a month from Zero Hour, I drew myself up to full height, took a deep breath, and dived into the garage. Crusty got a rebuilt head, a new water pump, an actual 320i radiator, and a Pinto carburetor. (Don't ask; it was what I had in the basement.)

The next requirement for such a monumental undertaking was a co-driver. You know, someone to share the pain of a driveshaft clattering to the pavement at 3:00 a.m. in Des Moines. The obvious choice is tech editor Mike Miller. "Call Mikey," I thought. "He's young and stupid. He'll do anything."

But apparently the word was out on Crusty. "Gosh, I'd love to," said Miller, "but it's this damn Galloping Leprosy. Just contracted it day before yesterday. Body parts falling off right and left. Painful, too. Horrible, really. And the smell: deadly. Sorry, bud, I'd really love to spend a week in the parking lot of the Salina Cracker Barrel trying to fix your wreck, but I just can't."

Photographer Jon van Woerden was next. After all, he was committed to Oktoberfest; wouldn't he like a ride? "Gee, I've got this airplane ticket, see, and I just couldn't let that go to waste now, could I? Besides, Erwin, your taste in music sucks." That does it: My moderate enthusiasm hardens into bulldog determination. I will make this trip no matter what–and I will have loads of fun. I'll show 'em. Boy, will they be sorry.

So, with me doing my own creative wrenching, Zero Hour comes... and goes. I am still completing the hold-it-in-with-safety- wire installation of Crusty's radiator when I glance at my watch and exclaim, "Oy. No it's a jillion miles of driving we gotta do." By my calculations, Keystone, Colorado, scene of the Big Party, is roughly sixteen hundred miles away. At this point I do not know if Crusty will run sixteen consecutive miles–at sea level, much less at 14,000 feet. But he does crank over, fire up, and run, after a fashion, so I throw the contents of my basement in the trunk, pitch all my moderately clean underwear in a duffel, and I'm out the door and down the street. I like this kind of planning. It suits my need for chaos.

Actually, I do have a few checkpoints in mind. If Crusty makes it to Chattanooga, I'll be good to go on the next leg to Nashville, and so on. I find that if you break a long journey down into manageable segments, it–well, actually, it prolongs the agony, making a long trip seem a hell of a lot longer. The real key to a long distance journey in an 02 is to straight-line the old encephalogram as much as possible, allow your eyes to glaze over, get into the proper Zone of Zombience, and let the miles slide by. Ignore, if you can, the fact that the hot, noisy, rough mode of transport currently beating you to death is better suited for tooling around the home burg than for transcontinental epics.

But by Chattanooga, Crusty is still humming along quite nicely, and I begin to have good thoughts about the Grand Adventure. "Crusty's a good ol' hoss," I mutter in a sort of stupefied cross-country karaoke. "Crusty's a sturdy ol' skate. Yessir, good ol' Crusty's... on fire. What? Fire! Crusty's on fire! All hands on deck! Abandon ship!"

Fortunately, I have an extensive background in dealing with disaster, so with smoke billowing from the dash pod and conditions quickly going south my first thought is, "We're doing 70 miles an hour in heavy traffic on I75... do not do anything to surprise your fellow travelers." This translates to not cramming the brake pedal through the floor, instead steering gently onto the shoulder–and then cramming the brake pedal through the floor. After that, it's simply a matter of ripping the instrument pod out of the dash, pitching it into the rear seat, and locating the offending hot wire in the wiring harness. There it is: The smoking, bubbling insulation gives it away immediately. I yank it off the ground it has welded itself to and rip it out of the harness. A similar action in the engine bay stops the conflagration. Then I have time to sit, let my pulse rate come down from 200, and think about the whole venture.

"Idiot," I say to myself. "What made you think you could nurse this piece of... of automotive history all the way to Colorado? Idiot!" But then the rational lobe–or the tiny remaining rational corner of a lobe takes over: "Well, nothing major has fallen off, and the motor still runs, so let's do a damage assessment." When I determine that the only electrical casualty seems to be the tach–which didn't work anyway– I decide to continue. Idiot.

Call me stubborn (or other things), but one motivating factor at this point is the vision of my self-righteous Roundel colleagues nodding their heads at the news that I'd bombed out less than a hundred miles from home. "I knew it," they'd say. “Lucky for us we bailed on that lunatic." Well, no way: Failure has become an unacceptable option. And Crusty seems filled with new determination as well; on into the early twilight hours, he doesn't miss a beat, and I begin to relax. Calm, cool, collected, that's me–except for the fact that every nerve is on edge, waiting for the next hint of trauma. It takes a while to really relax when you know that hideous, smoking immolation is a mere hot-wire-to-ground away.

North of Nashville I stop for gas. At the next pump is a refrigerated van; painted on its side is a graphic representation of juicy steaks grilling on the barbecue. A character not unlike myself, slightly disheveled and bearing the marks of extended travel, saunters up and says in a low voice, "Hey, buddy, you want to buy some really nice steaks? I got to sell 'em quick or they're gonna go bad." I picture my friend chasing a herd of Mad Cows with his cleaver, in search of product for his van, and I hesitate. And yet, in my present advanced stage of hunger, an exhaust manifold-grilled filet mignon would be heaven—also, given my state of mind and mode of transport, it would be so right. But in the end I decline, as ptomaine would adversely affect my ability to effect roadside repairs on Crusty. Yes, I retain a sneaking suspicion that there might be more patchwork activity involved in this particular road trip, even though I call home and report, "No problems. [I somehow fail to mention the fire.] Nope, trip's going smooth as a double-chocolate gelato so far." To myself I say, "Problems? That's when Crusty's on the roof or in the ditch."

Twilight descends as I soar up I57 into the agricultural environs of Carbondale, Illinois. Good name for a coal-mining town, eh? At this point I've almost relaxed again, and when a couple of local kids in their kitted-up Japanoboxes zoom up, laugh at my 02, and give me a high sign, I do a quick study of their rides; the body kits are not obtrusive, and one has vinyl graphics that aren't way out of line. These guys are having fun running the highway on a Friday night–maintaining the speed limit, in fact–and I find no fault whatsoever in their passion or behavior. But when one smiling shotgun rider circles his index finger in the air, I shake my head and respectfully decline the invitation. Crusty, at 26 flywheel horsepower on a good day, is not yet ready to take on the dual-overhead-cammed sixteen-valved turbocharged denizens of the genre. We ride like this for quite a while, until the boys drop back, suddenly. I wonder why they've reduced speed so radically, since Br'er Valentine, ensconced on my windshield, don't say nothin'.

A bridge transition answers my question. It seems that the Illinois DOT doesn't really do transitions, those gradual ramps onto bridge surfaces. Instead they do steps. Really big steps. As in, "Wham!" and four wheels off the ground. But what would have broken one of the Hondas in half merely rattles Crusty's fillings, and I resume my progress after cutting speed substantially. All appears well, as Crusty seems to be answering the helm nicely, but what's the deal with my temperature gauge? It has begun a series of slow, spastic lurches toward the red end of the dial. It's a VDO aftermarket gauge, and I've verified the accuracy. (See, you thought I was a complete moron, didn't you? Now you can take it all back.) Something is definitely wrong.

I pull into a grungy all-night gas station south of Mount Vernon, Illinois, to survey the situation. As I raise Crusty's bonnet and study the cooling system, I see a thumb-sized gusher of water pouring from the very bottom of the aluminum 320i radiator... and the fan has that chewed-on look. Is it possible that the jolt of that nasty bridge non-transition has flexed my lovely radiator into the fan, or vice-versa? It is, and it has. Damn. And I used really good safety wire when I installed the radiator, too, one of those temporary lash-ups that never got done right because I didn't have the time. Well, I have time now. Weeks and weeks of it–months, even–at an all-night gas station south of Mount Vernon, Illinois. Contemplation of my fate leads me to an inescapable conclusion: This place, the whole state of Illinois—nay, the world and its environs, indeed, the Entire Known Universe–just sucks. Anybody contemplating the location, purchase, and installation of a replacement BMW 320i radiator at midnight in rural Illinois may be forgiven for thinking the same.

After a few off-the-negative-scale thoughts about the Illinois DOT, I take a more rational approach to the situation. After all, I am standing outside a Mini- Mart; who knows what manner of powerful healing devices they might have in there? I stroll in, and the bemused teen with a scraggly blond goatee points me toward a rack of various Insta-Weld products. He lives with us refugees nightly, has seen our countless pitiful attempts to patch traumatic failures and get just a few more miles down the road. Like John Steinbeck's Okies in The Grapes of Wrath, we have grit and determination, but little else to ease the pain of our journey. I eye the blister-packed miscellany, and–"Wait a minute!" I cry. "We got Silicone Seal here! Friends and neighbors, salvation is at hand! Hallelujah!"

Popping the radiator out of the car is a snap, since the safety wire formerly holding it in wasn't all that secure in the first place. Now I debrade and clean the wound, which consists of one severed down-tube and one with a nasty reverse-aneurysm, and apply the treatment. For those unfamiliar with silicone seal in its various forms, know that it's a vinegar-smelling, sticky snot-like substance touted as a permanent moisture-excluding caulk for bonding any sort of similar or dissimilar materials. In my experience, however, if you are not bonding surgically-clean pieces of specially-prepared material, silicone seal is worse than useless: It makes a big mess and sticks to nothing. But it's better than actual snot–at least I think so–so although my radiator is something less than operating-table clean, I squeeze half a tube of the stuff into the cut, cross my fingers, and let it set. This involves reclining Crusty's shredded driver's seat, lying back, and taking a nap.

Hey, it's what us Okies do in the middle of the night when we're all broke down.

After twenty minutes of Safe and Restful Sleep, I arise, gently lower the radiator into position, fasten it tenuously with what's left of my safety wire, and borrow a bucket from my goateed friend to demonstrate the non-permanent properties of my ugly patch. I carefully gurgle the first gallon of water into the radiator, holding my breath, averting my eyes to the preordained sight of gouts of water spouting out my jack-leg fix...

And it holds. Gracious Mother of Roadside Repairs, it's holding! It leaks nary a drop. It's time for a gentle twelve-mile dash up the road to Mount Vernon proper, where, my friend alleges, they have such things as motels. There I shall regroup, assess my fate, and rest–and after a partial night's sleep at a Motel 6 in The Coldest Room in the World, I arise to a lovely sight. No, not the sun: I hate the sun, which makes Crusty run hot. The sight I'm talking about is water–or rather the absence of it, on the asphalt beneath Crusty's radiator. It is a beautiful, spirit-buoying sight indeed, especially so since the only auto-parts store in Mount Vernon is some sort of Mr. Auto Parts blister-pack city, not the sort of place to find a BMW 320i radiator, new or used.

The only salvage yard, probably a veritable treasure trove of clapped-out '76 Buick LeSabres, is closed on Saturday, which it is, alas; so no help there. But Walmart we got, so–electing to purchase some insurance– I cruise on over to Sam Walton's Better Idea. I drift to the automotive department; I know what I'm looking for, and I know it's here. It has to be. A friendly blue-vested helper directs me to the proper row of shelving, and there, prominently displayed, is the Ultimate Salvation: JB Weld. If silicone seal is the world of corporate crime, broken promises, and global warming, JB Weld is the space program, John McCain, and the stuff holding together the earth's core–and now we have JB Kwik, which sets in four minutes. Better than a belt, suspenders, and a Prudential policy against the possibility of an inadvertent wedgie. I'm beginning to get my confidence back. I also purchase about a pound of black plastic tie wraps; when the earth's core begins to come apart, we'll use these to tie it back together.

In the parking lot, a Midwesterner roughly my age is attending his hard-bit S-I0 pickup. "How old is it?" he says, gesturing at Crusty. Everyone wants to know how old Crusty is, but, like any hard-workin' cowboy, Crusty's outdoor life belies his age. Crusty looks 130, but he's a mere sylph of a Bimmer at 34. I explain that he's a 1968–the oldest sunroof 02, to my knowledge, imported into the U.S. That bit of information never fails not to impress, but this is a nice guy. "At first I thought it was a Corvair," he says. He sees me tying Crusty's radiator in place with tie wraps. "Need any help?" he offers. I laugh, tell him I'm only going as far as Denver, and politely decline. He looks hard at me and shakes his head. "Denver, huh? Okay... well, good luck," he says. And he means it. I love the Midwest.

Crusty, meanwhile, is ready to hit the rowdy road. He's humming like a good fake Rolex (Taiwanese). I check the water (full!) and launch down the moonscape Illinois DOT on-ramp toward St. Louis. The morning is cool, Crusty is happy, and I just know that this is the beginning of The Easy Part Of The trip as we do a splendid early morning run into St. Louis. I approach a sign that says "Exceeding Speed Limit When Flashing"–and it's blinking like mad at Crusty's approach. Yes! High five! Take that, you local revenue generators; I'm exceeding your stinkin' speed limit! Then I glance nervously at Br' er Valentine. He don't say nothin'. I relax, and cruise through the Gateway to the West.

Are we there yet?

The answer, of course, is no–hell, no. There's Kansas. There's always Kansas. Kansas: Voted state most likely to be given to Canada for free, provided they'll cart the place off. Kansas: the state that makes Illinois seem lush as Maui. Kansas: the state with a motto that says, "Twice as long as Texas, with half the interesting bits." Why am I bashing Kansas, all you Kansasians are asking? It's your sadistic DOT, friends. When you roll into Kansas from the east, there are signs posted at the border, big signs, that say Limon: 555 miles. Limon is at the very border of Kansas and Colorado. And it's half the earth's circumference away, or so I'm told by this malevolent DOT signmaker's idea of a joke. No telling how many people have just turned around at the very thought of 555 more miles of Kansas and driven back to Philadelphia because they couldn't face the pain, or just driven into an abutment because death seemed preferable to the endless monotony of further travel.

Other than that I like your state just fine.

In fact, I'm doing so well in Kansas that, at a gas station outside of Salina, I get just a little cocky and tighten my radiator cap. This puts pressure on the system, makes it a little more resistant to temperature rise, and provides a nice test of the sealing qualities of my nasty little patch. Is this a good thing? I have my answer within 30 miles as the temp gauge needle begins its now familiar tap, dance up the dial. Why do I do these things? Intellectual curiosity, friends, spelled a-b-j-e-c-t s-t-u-p-i-d-i-t-y. So with the gauge telling me that stopping any time in the next 30 seconds might save what's left of Crusty's motor, I wheel off I70, up the ramp, and hang a right into–


For a million miles–or at least thirty in any direction–there's every bit as much vibrant life as one might see on the surface of Mars. I proceed down a nominally-paved, narrow two-lane road until it turns to gravel. This coincides with pained exclamations from the tortured two-liter, so it's time to shut down and consider my situation. I spot a weathered sign in the distance: probably the Bates Motel advertising a nice vacancy, but no, the sign says "Easy Jack's." And it's a salvage yard! I pull Crusty off the beaten path out of the blazing early-afternoon sun and into a small patch of shade. I have my JB Weld, I have my tie wraps, and I'm at a junkyard: Things could be worse. But there's still no sign of life. The dust from my recent arrival hangs in the air like a bad memory. With Crusty shut down, there are no sounds, not even birds singing. It's spooky. Even spookier is the fact that I don't have enough water to fill my radiator once I repair it; I need water to clean, water to test, then water to fill the thing. I have one gallon. It's time to call on Mr. Easy Jack.

As I trudge, gallon containers in hand, toward the outbuildings that pass for storage and repair space at Easy Jack's, I take note of the junked hulks lining Jack's fences, and I'm startled to see that they aren't hulks after all. In fact, they're in damn good shape considering that they date from the '20s to the '60s. It's all American iron, from Model Ts to DeSotos and classic ' 50s Chevies and Fords. Most of them have surface rust, but little else. And they haven't been stripped, cut up, or left to molder away. The windows are closed, the cars are neatly aligned, and they're mostly complete. Where the hell am I, anyway, a museum? At this point I expect Rod Serling to step out from behind a tree and intone, "Yes, a Chevy man's heaven is a Bimmerhead's hell in... The Twilight Zone!" But I still need water, and I don't see Rod anywhere, so I approach the only house in the group of buildings.

People have been shot for trespassing, but I'm a desperate man and I need water. I find that knocking on a door in the middle of nowhere is easy if a horrible, lingering sun-parched death is the alternative. As I knock again, more insistently, I detect faint movement in the bowels of the dwelling. Then a curtain is pushed aside. Finally, footsteps approach the door. I'm hot, tired, and semi-delirious; and now either I'm going to get shot dead or I'm going to get some water. At this point it's a no-lose situation.

A rumpled figure opens the door. He's maybe in his late 50s, wearing a uniform shirt that says "Jack" above the left pocket "Hello, I'll bet you're Jack," I opine, thereby preserving my reputation as a master of Ie bon mot.

He nods, not impressed with my humor. "What can I do for you?" he says.

I gesture up the road toward Crusty and say, "Well, I'm broke down right up your road there... radiator problem... but all I really need is some water... unless you happen to have a BMW 320i radiator lying around." He lets a half-smile slide off his face, shakes his head.

"Man, this is the best salvage y-" I say, cutting myself off before I complete the phrase. "Well, it's more like a museum, isn't it?" I recover. "It's the best collection I've seen in a long time."

"Thanks. I've been at it awhile," he says, this time with a genuine smile. "There's a water spigot over in the side yard," he adds, gesturing to his left, "if that's all you need."

I nod my head and thank Jack for his kindness. If I have to break down once on a 1,600- mile trip, at least I've found the perfect place to do it. I could wander around this yard for a week in complete bliss. But I have miles to go before I sleep... and miles... and miles. When was I due in Keystone? Yesterday? Probably–today at the latest. But what day is it now anyway, Saturday? Hell, I don't know. I fill my gallon jugs and shuffle up the gravel road to Crusty–who, alas, looks worse than anything in Easy Jack's yard.

I've got one shot at the brass ring, so I'd better make sure it's a good grab. I have two tiny tubes of JB Weld components, a roll of paper towels, and a pair of needlenose pliers for yanking the failed silicone seal from between the fins of my precious radiator. I spend maybe 30 minutes pulling and scraping at the silicone seal and cleaning the damaged fins, but finally there comes a point of diminishing returns where the dirt migrates into position at the same rate I'm getting rid of it, so it's time to roll the dice, all or nothing.

JB Kwik has a very limited set-up time, so I have to work fast, and with surgical precision. My glasses are so fogged up and sweaty that I can't even see the car, much less the holes in my radiator. One last swipe at the glasses and it's show time: Squeeze out half the contents of both tubes, mix quickly, and bloop-blop the resulting gray pancake batter into the radiator fins. I use only half the JB Kwik because I'm going to apply two layers of the stuff; the first will take care of the major trauma, and the second should seal the pinholes. In place 30 minutes later, the patch looks good–a hell of a lot better than my silicone seal mess–and I'm good to go, at least in theory. In practice, well, it's me doing this, after all. I ease the radiator into place, double tie-wrap it, gently droozle the water into its dark confines, and offer up a small prayer: Holy Matriarch of Twice-Patched Radiators, please guide your addled son along the torturous path of righteousness to his Ultimate Destination. Amen. Oh, and could you do it without a whole lot more of this crap? Thanks. Amen.

I resume my journey. In a spot of honor on the seat beside me is the damn radiator cap. No way is that Instrument of the Devil going to get near my radiator.

The good news is that I only have half of Kansas left to traverse; of course, that's the bad news, too. The rest of the drive west will be an exercise in eye-foot coordination. I have one eye always on the temperature gauge. If it stays steady, I gently increase pressure on the throttle until it moves up ... just a little. When it stabilizes at half a needle below an indicated 200 degrees, I've discovered just the right throttle position for this gradient, elevation, and outside air temperature. This stasis lasts about ten seconds before I have to repeat the procedure. It's a Zen exercise in the art of controlling every muscle in your body toward a given end with an infinite number of constantly-changing variables. The likely outcome of this sort of exercise is institutionalization in some maximum security hospital for the hopelessly insane not a bad option at this juncture.

Finally, in the darkening evening, the lights of Limon appear on the horizon. Kansas no mo! Free at last! Tears of joy erode clean tracks down my grime-smeared face. I think about gas, but I've got a quarter tank. Enough for 40 miles, at least. However, forty miles later, way west of Limon, there's not a damn thing for... well, another 40 miles. The gas gauge needle bounces into the gutter; I'm about to turn into a pumpkin in a really lonesome place. Panic! But then what seems to be the only Colorado road east of Denver, Deer Trail Road, saves me from running slap out of gas. It's the middle of the night in the middle of Real Nowhere, but an unattended Phillips station, the only one for miles and miles, is a hot spot. As I gas up, two truckloads of early-twenties cowboys in 4WD Fords do the same. Their women are youthful, pretty, and blonde. The first two descriptors aren't likely to last in this outback, I reflect. Then the world's rustiest Datsun 510 creaks in for a fill-up. Crusty, sensing the competition, growls. It is midnight.

Chasing on through Denver, tank full, engine cool, I begin to have celebratory thoughts... between naps. Whoops! No napping! No, not even a cat-nap! At this point, pain is good, the more the better. Where's that ball-peen hammer? But the fresh mountain air soon banishes the flying monkeys, and I find that shifting becomes a constant diversion. As I gain altitude, I lose gears, going from fifth (yeah, you, purists, it's a five-speed) to fourth, and finally to third on some of the steeper grades. I spot the ultra-modem Front Range house that Woody Allen cavorted through in Sleeper and I know that its glowing rounded contours are showing me the way home. I'm going to make it. C'mon, Crusty, one more big effort and we're there!

The Eisenhower Tunnel is our Last Great Obstacle. Crusty climbs the grade easily in the cool air. Hell, this afternoon I was heat-prostrated, and now I'm freezing, thinking about the heater! (Yes, it works, too). We zoom through the brightly-lit confines of the tube, out the other side, and I know that from here on in, I can coast if necessary. There's not much traffic on the final approach to my destination, the Arapahoe Motel; I guess 2:00 a.m. on Sunday morning is not party time in Keystone. I ghost into the Arapahoe parking lot so as not to disturb the legitimate guests, claim a parking space, and with my last shred of energy, pack-mule it to the front desk, where the manager has left a room key. I stagger up the hall, insert the electronic card, and I'm home at last. I glance in the mirror and the red-rimmed goblin staring back at me flashes a victorious rictus. "We made it, pardner," I tell him. "But no offense intended, you look like pure distilled hell." He laughs back at me as I tum and stumble toward the neo-westem bit of heaven that is my bed, collapsing face down as the world goes black and I hear the fading tinkling pings and snaps out in the parking lot as Crusty, too, settles in for the night. Dreaming, no doubt, of the upcoming Oktoberfest Concours.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

I Passed on a $6000 E39 M5

[The Hack Mechanic / March 2012, BMW CCA Roundel Magazine, all rights reserved]

One of my favorite Star Trek episodes is the one where the Organians prevent a war, then dissolve into energy. The rest of us, however, need to live in the corporeal universe, battered about by our needs and wants, and occasionally screaming at ourselves “what the hell are you doing?” That’s the proper context for the 2002 BMW M5 with 290,000 miles.

The ad, with an eye-poppingly-low asking price of $7000, said that the owner had bought the car at auction with 78,000 miles in 2005, but that it had been well cared-for, with many new parts including a timing chain and VANOS components. As for the high mileage, the ad said, “if you care for these high-performance German race cars as I have, then the miles are not an issue.” Sure, I thought, easy for you to say. You’re selling it. He added “if you want to drive this car, you must bring cash when you see it.”

Despite its “beast” reputation, I had no particular lust for an E39 M5. My E39 528iT sportwagon was, by a country mile, the most troublesome, highest-maintenance BMW I’ve ever owned, and I had no desire to magnify that flamethrower through the M lens. However, there is some degree of academic lure in a 150 mph M car that sold for over 100 grand new.

So I did my due diligence. I had the seller text me the VIN. The CarFax came up clean, and jived with his story of buying the car in 2005. (You never know unless you check. I’ve caught car flippers telling bald-faced lies.) A web search for the VIN unearthed a post on from someone who had seen the car and reported that, actually, it wasn’t all that bad. I submitted the VIN to a decoder site, and it showed that the car was loaded with everything from parking assist to a suede anthracite headliner (if anything has ever so not impressed Maire Anne, it was me saying “but… it’s got a suede anthracite headliner”).

I posted a link to the CL ad for the car on Facebook, with the straw man argument “why not buy it, drive the living snot out of it until something expensive breaks, and then part it out?” The Hack Mechanic faithful sounded like guys egging a frat brother on to chug.

Right about this time, my son Ethan, not knowing any of this, gave me a pair of cufflinks with a six-speed gearshift pattern on them. A sign! Saints be praised! Then the seller texted me and offered me the car for six grand. Curiosity turned into obsession. Maire Anne said “Just go see it. Get it out of your system. It’ll be like that Bavaria in Belchertown you kept going on and on about until you were done with it.” Ah, she knows me too well.

So I made the call. I pulled six grand out of the bank. But if the seller was clear about wanting cash, I was equally adamant about wanting to see the receipts for the engine work.

He met me early one Sunday morning in the parking lot of a nearby hotel, opening the M5’s door and saying “get in.” I did. He then pulled onto Rt 95 and proceeded to weave through light traffic at 100 mph. I asked him to slow down. “Oh, you don’t like to drive fast?” he asked. “Why would you buy a car like this if you don’t like to drive fast?”

Actually, an excellent question.

Even as a passenger, I could feel the car’s bent wheels. Though he drove the car quite fast, he shifted in a very slow and deliberate manner, as if he was babying the transmission. He also said “on a car like this, you don’t use the brakes much, because the engine’s so powerful, it slows the car down really quickly.” This is not a statement that inspires confidence in the seller. Or the brakes.

We returned to the parking lot where I could look at the car. The body seemed intact, save dents in the front fenders the seller said were due to deer collisions. It wasn’t dripping copious volumes of fluid. There was a snotty metallic rattle almost certainly due to an idler pulley on the serpentine belt – trivial to fix. But… what’s that low pumping/knocking sound alternating from both sides of the V8? I asked to see the receipts for the engine work.

“Oh, sorry,” he said, “I forgot those.”

That was enough. What the hell am I doing? I’m losing access to the storage in the warehouse where I’ve worked for years. I need fewer cars, not more. The four-mile-each-way commute I’ve had since 1984 is about to increase to 20. I need something dependable and fuel-efficient, not a four hundred horsepower beast with nearly 300,000 miles on it that sucks gas like two Suburbans. Other than the bragging rights of buying an E39 M5 for six grand, other than having limitless material for endless Hack Mechanic columns, what would I buy this car for, really? I don’t want to find the pain threshold where I part it out when it breaks. When I bought my 1999 Z3 M Coupe, my lust was so strong that my left brain had to gag my right brain with a sock. This was the opposite. I admit it. I had no lust for this car. I thought, I should spend the time and money putting my tii back together. I’d get more enjoyment out of it than this car. Hell, I’d get more enjoyment out of a ’63 Ramber Classic than this car.

We’re done here.

“Do you want to drive it?” he asked. “No thanks,” I smiled. “I’m good.”

“I don’t think this car is for you,” he said. Amazingly, I agreed.

But, as Klingon Commander Kor said to Kirk after the Organians stopped the war, “it would’ve been glorious.”