Tuesday, September 8, 2020

The Slide Show: In Search Of A Family Portrait

When my mother passed away last summer at age 89, it took a while for my sister Amy and me to deal with her possessions. There was no real rush; she and Amy shared a house, it was paid off, and Amy still lives there. But one of the things I was most interested in was the collection of the family’s slides.

My parents died 52 years apart, my father having passed away in 1968 of metathesized thyroid cancer. There were several operations, even an early treatment with radioactive iodine. It was the kind of thing they could cure now, but as I understand it, my parents were told in 1965 that he had about three years, and that turned out to be about right.

Nonetheless, my sister and I had a wonderful textbook middle-class upbringing in Old Bethpage Long Island. My father was an electrical engineer at an aerospace company, not Grumman but one of the smaller firms who supplied Grumman with electronics for the Lunar Excursion Module (LEM) it was building for the Apollo program. My mother had not yet blossomed into the queen of wisdom and kindness she eventually became; she was a 1960s Long Island wife and mother, and enjoyed both roles.

It's such a cliché to say your parent died young and you’ve spent your life chasing him or her in some way, but there’s some truth to it. I was ten when he passed, so I certainly remember him, and can sometimes even still hear the sound of his voice in my head, but I can’t say I knew him terribly well. By all accounts, he was a really nice, sharp, interesting, funny guy with a somewhat Zen-like way of looking at the world, at least according to my mother. They did an incredible job of maintaining the appearance of normality during the highly abnormal situation of his illness, but there’s not much question that, particularly in the later years, I felt there was a distance, a separation, with my dad. My mother left a big trail in terms of writing, which is natural considering her extra 52 years, but in going through the things she saved, Amy and I didn’t find a single thing my father had written. I guess this isn’t surprising, but I really kind of craved finding something that had his voice.

So all there is left are the photos. And thus, my interest in the slides.

My father was always the one with the camera. It was a Minolta. I don’t recall an armada of lenses, but he was a serviceably good photographer. And he always shot with slide film. I vividly recall watching the slides afterward. The screen set up in the living room. The smell of the heat from the bulb. The ger-CHUNK-gsh-WHACK of the feed and pull-back of the loading tray of the projector. All that big color on the screen, with images nearly an order of magnitude larger than the television. It was an event for the senses.

In 1966, after my father had been diagnosed and had recovered from a round of surgery, he took a leave of absence from his job and the family took a big western road trip vacation. We flew into Denver, rented a car, and saw Bryce Canyon, The Grand Canyon, Yosemite, and other sites. I still remember much of it. Of course I didn’t understand the poignancy of this memory-building at the time, but we watched the slides many times, both before and after his passing.

The other thing driving me toward the slides was the question of the existence of a family portrait, even an informal one. About ten years ago, my mother wrote a book for Amy and me. She titled it “Your Father and Me, and You and You (by me).” It was hand-built, with text and photos pasted onto the pages, and contained a detailed and bittersweet recitation of their individual histories, how they’d met, their marriage and relationship, and his passing. I’d never seen many of the pictures in it before. I didn’t think to ask my mother at the time where the photos came from, but I assumed that they were prints of scanned slides, as I didn’t think there really were many other family photos except slides. In one of the photos, my sister and I are probably two and three years old, and we’re standing with my parents at the foot of the driveway of the house in Old Bethpage, placated with lollipops. Over time, it occurred to me that this sixty-year-old picture was the only photo I’d ever seen of the four of us together, which seemed too incredible to even be possible. Plus, it's not a great photo. It’s nothing I’d consider to be a portrait, even an informal one. It’s way too pulled back, and only my dad is looking at the camera. If it wasn’t the only photo of the four of us I was aware of, I wouldn’t have given it a second thought. It’s not that I needed reassurance that, with all that pain, we really were a happy family. It was more an odd factoid whose truth I questioned. There really had to be another better family photograph.

The only photo I’d seen of all four of us prior to the slide scanning project (1960)

All of this is ironic, because years back, when our own kids were young, Maire Anne wanted a formal portrait of our family. She mentioned it to my mother, who bought me a gift certificate to get one shot by a local photographer whose work she thought I’d like. I never had it done. Worse, I think I actively scoffed at the idea. In my defense, I was wicked busy in those years at my engineering job, and the idea of any kind of formal portrait struck me as stuffy artificial. To satisfy Maire Anne, I twisted our neighbor Kimberly’s arm and got her to meet us in the park behind our house. I told everyone in the family “wear something white.” Kim shot some black and white pics. They’re great. I can’t say they’re the only pics of the five of us together—I’m sure they’re not—but they’re the only ones that comprise anything resembling a portrait. The people we love are precious to us, and photos of them with a certain expression or vibe are treasured. All the family, together, with great expressions, a collective vibe, and well shot, be it by amateur or pro, by framing or by happenstance? Why wouldn’t you love a photo like that? Maire Anne, of course, was right: Such a thing is precious.

Our defacto family portrait.

In going through my mother’s things, Amy and I found the trove of family slides. I was thrilled. My vague recollection was that, when we’d watched the slides from the big western road trip decades back, we disgorged them, 24 or 36 at a time, from their individual little cardboard slide containers into the feed of the projector, then repacked that little box and opened up the next one, so I assumed that what I’d find was shoeboxes filled with these little boxes. Instead, there were four boxes—one dedicated metal slide case, two metal boxes with labeled dividers, and one traditional shoebox with cardboard boxes of slides inside.


The metal slide case was remarkable. It had slots that each held pairs of two slides, and on the underside of the lid was a piece of oaktag that contained individual notes on many of the slides. It clearly was purpose-built for this application. I could see, reading the notes, most of which were clearly in my father’s handwriting, that it dated back to when he was in Okinawa in 1952, continued through to Amy’s birth in 1957, and stopped shortly before I was born in 1958. I had no recollection of ever seeing it. In addition to the images it contains, this is a precious family artifact.

The insanely well-documented slide case.

Next were the two metal cookie-tin-like boxes that each contained a high density of slides packed in three rows, with hand-written descriptions on blue oaktag dividers that separated them into numbered groups (e.g., “37 summer 1965 Montauk vacation”).

One of the two well-documented "cookie boxes."

Lastly, there was one shoebox containing traditional little fresh-from-the-developer individual cardboard slide boxes. Most of these held much later slides—late ‘70s and early ‘80s—and some of them were labeled, but a quick hold-up-to-the-light revealed that one of the unlabeled boxes appeared to hold the slides of the family that my mother had scanned and used in the book she’d written for Amy and me. Jackpot.

I talked with Amy about us digging out the projector and the screen—both of which we still actually have—and having a slide show with our (now adult) children, but due to the both the pandemic and people’s schedules, it made more sense to have the slides scanned.

I’d originally assumed that I’d send all of the slides to a scanning service, but seeing the use of paper tabs to document the slides in the three metal boxes, the idea of someone removing them to scan them, possibly not putting them back in the same place, and losing the meta data seemed risky, so I resolved to scan them myself. I looked into buying a slide scanner, quickly learned that the Canon CanoScan 9000F has an extremely good reputation, found one on Craigslist 20 miles from me for eighty bucks complete in the original box and used for one family photo project just like mine, and drove right over and bought it.

The Canon CanoScan 9000F with four slides in the template.

The scanner was not what I expected. I had this image of an automated slide-specific scanner, something like a slide projector into which you load a few dozen slides at a time and it ger-CHUNK-gsh-WHACKs its way through them like a projector does. Instead, what it is is a high-quality flatbed scanner that comes with a plastic template that you place on the glass scanning bed. The template holds four manually-placed slides at a time. The scanner gives you a quick low-res preview of all four, then scans them individually at up to 4800 dpi, though it’s really slow at that resolution; 1200 dpi is much faster and adequate for most applications. Once you get in the rhythm, you can clock through a stack of slides pretty efficiently, maybe 30 seconds each in total, but add in organizing the slides into folders, and correcting them for over/underexposure (I don’t have Photoshop, but the scanner came with some pretty effective software), and it’s slow going. I was vexed by the fact that, no matter how well I cleaned the glass on the scanner, dust and hair kept showing up in the images. I eventually realized it was on the slides themselves, and just let it be part of the visual patina. If I ever need to get a publication-quality image, I’ll clean the slide and increase the scan resolution.

I first scanned the stand-alone little cardboard box of “hallowed slides” my mother had used in the book, and was surprised that it did not contain the slide of the four of us standing at the bottom of the driveway. I then bungie-jumped in, thumbed through the boxes, found the “45 1967 Maine vacation” slide group, and scanned it, as Maine was the subject of my song “The Kittery Bridge,” and I was thrilled to see photos of my aunt Flo and uncle Bernie’s little house in Bridgton and the dock that literally had a barber pole on the end (he was in the barber supply business). But after that, I started at the beginning, and methodically went through the first metal slide case.

It was astonishing. Early photos of my dad when he was stationed in Okinawa. Pre-wedding photos of my parents, looking so young and relaxed. My mother and father in a rowboat, with his tongue-in-cheek hand-written notes “Kenneth and his chest” and “Bim laying sexually.” It’s just my mother in a bathing suit, but these two comments would be as close as I'd get to finding something my dad had written in which I could hear his voice. A trip to DC. Then, oh my god, photos taken on their ski trip honeymoon (funny, since neither of them skied, nudge nudge). Trips to the beach. Visits with my father’s parents in Brooklyn. The first photos of Amy. Photos of my dad with a big goofy smile on his face instead of the more reserved expression he’s photographed with later in life. All in beautiful saturated Kodachrome slide color. My sister and I were stunned. We had never seen any of them.

Kenneth Siegel in Okinawa, 1952. No idea who took the picture. 

Bim Siegel rowing in the Berkshires, 1955.

The not-yet-married couple in DC, 1955.

My dad looking in credibly relaxed before Amy was born, 1956.

It wasn’t only the great photos that were compelling. Some were so underexposed that you had no idea what you were looking at. As I said, I don’t have Photoshop, but playing with the histogram equalization in the scanner software brought some of them back into the light. This one turned to be my mother, wearing a nice dress, laying on the bed of what must be a hotel room. For a nice Jewish couple in the 1950s, this was probably perilously close to shooting porn.


Ooooh la la, right? 

In scanning the photos, though, it was soon apparent that they were out of order, jumping around a good bit. I made a brief attempt at trying to correlate them with their descriptions on the underside of the lid, and also to re-home some of the slides my mother had pulled to make the book (I assumed that her going through them to find slides for the book was probably the source of their getting out of order), but it was very time-consuming, and I had three other boxes to go through, so I gave up.

As I started scanning the second box, which began approximately with my birth, I was hoping to find a better photo of the four of us, or at least find the original slide from which that only existing photo was taken. I found so much more.

Of course, once Amy and I were born, the photos our parents took were mostly of us. And, of course, now, I wanted to see photos of them. However, scanning the photos in order, it was oddly compelling to watch Amy and me grow up in a sort of a time lapse.

Now, I’ve spent much of my life distancing myself from Long Island. It’s not that I hated it or felt like it was just filled with bad memories or anything, but we moved up to Amherst in 1969, the year after my dad passed, and I instantly loved Amherst. I came to increasingly regard it as where I was from. It was natural that, 50 years later, with no family on Long Island, I’d lose ties with it. But the combination of my mother being buried there last year next to my dad, and seeing all these photos of the little house at 15 Adrienne Drive Old Bethpage NY 11804, was highly effective in reminding me where my roots really are.

There were photos of the house my parents paid $19,500 for in 1958 being built, transforming in eight slides from a bulldozed lot to a framed structure to a complete unit. There were goof-around photos inside and around the house. There were many photos with my always elegantly-attired grandparents, who were just over in Brooklyn. There was a photo of my father’s entire family, their names and my connections to them now gone (he was an only child, but in one of my conversations with my mother in her final month, she enumerated all of my grandparents’ siblings and their children, but I was so in the moment with her that I didn’t write any of it down). There were birthday parties with neighborhood kids I instantly recognized. There were vacations on Montauk, on Cape Cod, on Sandy Island, in Maine. There was evidence of a few hilarious lapses in attention from my wonderful parents. I’d scan the photo groups, put them in a folder named with the always-informative notation on the blue cardboard divider transcribed exactly, then upload it to Google Photos and share it with Amy, and we’d swap OMG emails and texts over them. It was time-consuming but enormously satisfying, even addictive. Neither Amy nor I wanted it to end.

 

Old Bethpage house under construction, 1958


Who wouldn't love to find the first photo of them and their mother smiling at each other? 1958. 

What, they didn't keep a can of Raid a foot from your head while they let your one-year-old sister with an extension cord wrapped around her play with your feet with you in a cradle barely secured to a chair? Must just be a Long Island thing. (1958)


What, they didn’t let you play with a fifth of Canadian Club, Jubilee floor wax, and an egg beater? Must just be a Long Island thing. (1960)

What, they didn’t let you eat raw potatoes under the kitchen table? Must just be a Long Island thing. (1960)


My dad, the fierce mower, 1964.


One of many photos of Amy and me with our loving elegant grandparents, 1965.

But end it soon did. The third box began in 1965, but I could see that it was about half full of much later slides. I was delighted when I found the hundred-ish 1966 photos of our big western road trip, by far the largest single slide group. It’s unclear to me whether these 2nd and 3rd boxes—the “cookie tins” with dividers—had been started by my father and then added to and maintained by my mother, or whether she had emptied all of the little cardboard boxes into them—but the “CAL” (California) slides, as they were labeled, were in disarray. They had the original stamped slide numbers on them, but they were from four or five separate rolls, so they couldn’t simply be ordered from these numbers. They also had what appeared to be penciled-in sequential slide numbers, but those didn’t always make sense. I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to get the order right, eventually putting all the numbers, images of the slides, and short descriptions in an Excel file so I could play with order there, and then manually putting the slides in an order that best fit both the numbers and my memory. The slides themselves weren’t as dramatic as I remembered, and most of the photos of vistas that three of us at a time are in are marred by poor framing and contrast issues, but the time spent on them was a labor of love.

That's my mother, Amy, and me center foreground. That's obvious, right? (1966)

Dad, Amy and me in front of a sequoia in Yosemite, 1966. At least we’re facing the right way. 

After the big western road trip, the density of the slides dropped off dramatically, and it was hard looking at them without being palpably aware of my dad’s impending passing in July ’68. There was a slide group of trips my parents apparently took to the Bahamas and then to Virginia in spring 1967. I had no memory of them taking these trips, but thought good for them for getting away alone.

Then I found a very short slide group labeled “spring 1968 Florida trip.” The first slide shows Amy and me under a sign saying “Parrot Jungle Miami Florida” with parrots placed on our arms and shoulders. I vaguely recall both the event and the photo. The next six pics are of other animals. But more to the point, what the hell were we doing in Florida just months before my father passed away? My grandparents had started spending winters there. Were all four of us visiting them? Or were they up in NY staying with my dad while my mother, Amy, and I took a vacation? It didn’t make any sense. This was one of any number of things where Amy and I messaged each other saying rhetorically "Ma would know," but it was the biggest.

It was the last photo in this group, a photo of my mother, Amy, and me, that unexpectedly blew me away. I don’t know who took it. My mother is wearing a winter coat I remember well. It’s brown with a beaver collar and cuffs. I remember loving the way the fur felt, and in the pic, my fingers are dug into one of the cuffs. I remember her saying that it was her present to herself because during the last years of my dad’s life there wasn’t a lot of money. She no longer looks like the young woman in the earlier photographs. She looks like the mother I knew for the rest of my life—kind, yes, wise, yes, but at this time, fierce, focused, and decisive. And the three of us have a certain weariness on our faces, as if we all know what’s coming (my mother certainly did).


This 1968 photo breaks my heart, but it's totally us.

And then I realized. Like it or not, it’s this photo, this pic of my mother, my sister, and me, that’s the definitive Siegel family portrait. It wasn't what I was looking for, and it certainly wasn't what I wanted, but there's no denying it. It made me so sad, both because I knew there wouldn’t be any more fresh photos of those early years, and because I knew what came just months after this, that I nearly cried. But if my father is the one standing out of the frame holding the camera (and the more I think about it, the more that makes sense, as I cannot imagine my mother leaving him), what could be a more perfect metaphor for him fading out of the picture?

When the man who usually held the camera was gone, so was the source of most of the photographs. Although we had another eight years as a family of three before both Amy and I were both off at college, there are only a few dozen slides of those years, they’re scattershot and generally of poor quality, and only one of them shows the three of us.

Fast-forward 42 years. On my mother’s 80th birthday ten years ago, Amy and I took her to New York to see a show. Before we drove home, we stopped at my father’s and grandparents’ old apartment building at 2201 Troy Ave, Brooklyn, corner of Troy and Flatbush. I had a small non-phone camera with me. I asked a stranger to take our photo with it, and something went wrong. It wouldn’t snap a picture, and we couldn’t figure out why. We were disappointed that we couldn’t get the family portrait our grandparents would’ve been so pleased that we took. When I got home, I realized that the camera had been set to video, and what it recorded was us trying to pose and then talk with the guy about why it wasn’t working. It was adorable. I pulled a still photo from the video, had a couple of hardcopies printed, and late in life it became our quasi-official family portrait.

The family in front of my father’s and grandparents’ old apartment in Brooklyn in 2010.

So, after scanning 1,034 slides, I did not find what I was looking for. Not only hadn’t I found another photo of the four of us together, I didn’t even find the original slide of the hardcopy of the only existing one of us at the end of the driveway. But at the risk of sounding after school special, I found so much more. And I learned something. Unless your family is in front of it, no one wants to see another photo of the Empire State Building. But all those people snapping selfies in front of spectacular places like The Grand Canyon and Half Dome? They’ve actually got the right idea. Whether you’re going through your parents’ pics, or your kids are going through yours, we want to see the same thing. We want to see the smiling faces of the people we love. Because that's downright precious.

And if you find one with all of you in it, all looking at the camera with joy in your eyes, maybe you frame it and put it on your nightstand. Maybe you just like knowing that it exists. But treasure it, because, as I learned, even in a happy family and a thousand slides, its existence is far from guaranteed.


Tuesday, August 4, 2020

The Roberts Passes

It's gone. The Roberts. The bike I built in 1975-1976 to ride cross-country, then never did because my mother bribed me out of the trip with a car. That car was the 1970 Triumph GT6+ that was the birth of me the car guy, and the death knell of me the bike guy. The longer story of the bike and what it represented to me can be found at http://thehackmechanic.blogspot.com/2020/06/the-seatpost-and-damage-done.html. It's ironic that, although the bike was little-used, I moved it with me from Lexington to Amherst to Cambridge to Austin to Brighton to Newton. I wouldn't call it my picture of Dorian Gray, though, because even with its lack of use, it certainly aged; the seat post seized from 40+ years of sitting.

As part of a general awareness that I need to be better about letting things go so I can move forward, last year I began taking steps to sell the bike. I got one surprisingly high offer from a former employee of The Bicycle Exchange in Cambridge where I'd bought the frame 45 years ago, but the offer fell through. I got feedback that, with the seized seat post, the bike's value was capped, so I put the time into extracting the seat post, replaced it with a trim-correct and period-correct Campagnolo Nuovo Super Record fluted post bought on eBay from a guy in Ukraine, replaced a missing Campy dust cap on one of the pedals (no longer made, $22, thrilled to find one), cleaned it up a bit, and tried again, putting it on Craigslist and FB Marketplace. I got some advice that those aren't great places for a vintage boutique bike like this, and that the "Steel is Real" FB group and bikeforums.net are better choices. I posted it there, and someone said I needed to be even more specific, that the Classic and Vintage For Sale page on bikeforums was where it belonged. Once there, it started to get traction, or at least comments. (One guy said "I'm just in Brookline, but I have eighteen bikes, so, well, you understand." I replied "Your excuse is lame. LAME I SAY!!" Someone said "After you sell it, please buy another vintage bike so you can keep posting here." That made my day.)


Finally I put it on eBay, even though that almost certainly meant dealing with shipping. A gentleman in Eugene OR messaged me saying he'd meet my asking price if we could work out some shipping details. He said "I have a 1990 Chas Roberts mountain bikish-type machine that is very nicely made, fade paint oversize tubes but basically a road geometry. Would like an earlier classic Charles Roberts frame. [Charles was Chas' father.] Nice work caring for this bike over the decades." I fessed up about the seatpost, emailing him the link so he knew everything about what he was buying. He said "I totally enjoyed your seatpost story, and your patience. It is from sort of the golden age of Roberts, I think. Simple; very nice work on the stay ends. Am curious about the Ambrosio rims; have not seen those anywhere. Also curious to look a the SN on the BB. All in good time. I will take it apart, clean it and the parts, and build it back up."

Turns out he's 70 years old. Clearly it's finding a good home.

I packed it securely in a well-used triathalon road case I bought years ago to ship Ethan's bike back and forth to Los Angeles. UPS just came and picked it up.


So, for the first time since I was 18, the Roberts isn't in my house. It needed to be done, but I am surprisingly melancholy. Really, though, it's no surprise. We get very attached to who we used to be. Some of those identities are to be treasured, but we don't always need to hold onto the goods.

I told the buyer that if he could send me a photo of him and the bike overlooking the Pacific ocean it never got to see because I never did that big tour, it would do my heart good.

Farewell, Roberts. Long may you ride.

Monday, June 8, 2020

The Seatpost and the Damage Done


I'm not really that complicated. If you want to understand me, you really need to know just one thing: I have a deep sentimental attachment to, as The Beatles said, people and things that went before. And I don't give up easily (except in my musical endeavors where I give up way too easily). So, two things—people and things that went before (that's one thing), and I don't give up easily. Plus, I value kindness and intelligence. Right. Three things. People and things that went before (still one thing), not giving up easily, and valuing kindness and intelligence (which is also one thing, not two). Got it? And I'm loyal. Help me out by doing me a favor and I'm yours forever. Okay, four things. Start again. Amongst the things you need to know about me are such diverse elements as... (any good soul-searching should digress into Monty Python's "The Spanish Inquisition").

As I wrote in my first book Memoirs of a Hack Mechanic, before I was a car guy, I was a bike guy. I pulled bikes out of the garbage, fixed some of them, stripped others for parts, and used the parts to improve the actual bike I was riding. It was where I learned about maintaining and repairing mechanical systems. I didn't know it, but this would prove to be a natural jumping-off point when I got into cars.

But I also did a lot of cycling. The apogee of it was in junior high school where I'd do week-long trips into New Hampshire and Vermont with bike clubs (thank you Jim Luippold!), but it continued into high school and beyond. 

My father's death was service-connected (long story), so we received money from the Veteran's Administration. In addition, when my grandfather passed away, he left my sister and me each about $1500. When I got into college, I blew that money on the things you'd imagine, but in high school when I was still pretty clean cut, a lot of it went into bicycles. When I say that I pulled bikes out of the trash, that's true, and it sounds very egalitarian and hack mechanic-ish, but in addition, I bought an ever-nicer series of bicycles. I moved from a Raleigh Super Course bought at the Amherst Cycle Shop (Fred Rosewence's store in The Alley in Amherst, where I worked for a brief period), to a Lejeune bought at Peleton in Amherst, to a used full-Campagnolo Legnano which then got stolen from my bedroom in Lexington, to a full-Campy Rolls-Colnago bought at Lincoln Guide Service in Lincoln, MA, to, when the Rolls turned out to be too stiff, an R.E.W. Reynolds bike set up for touring. These last three were so nice that it was absolutely ridiculous that a middle-class kid from a single-parent family whose mother was a college administrator had them (much less had the last two of them at the same time), but again, my mother really did kind of let me get away with murder.

As I entered my senior year in high school, the plan was to formally crown my bike mania by participating in the loosely-organized cross-country "bike-centennial" being held the summer of 1976.  In preparation for the trip, I inexplicably decided that the R.E.W. Reynolds wasn't nice enough and built myself another touring bike, about the best available anywhere. In those days, if you wanted a 15-speed bike touring bike with very low "granny gears" for long hill climbs, you could either buy a Schwinn Paramount P-15, or an expensive boutique European bike like a Rene Herse, or you could build your own. I did the latter. I went into The Bicycle Exchange at their original location on Bow Street at the top (east end) of Harvard Square and bought a Charles Roberts frame. I then outfitted it with a T.A. triple-chainring crankset to get the 15 speeds, Campagnolo Rally derailleurs and Nuovo Record hubs and brakes, Ambrosia rims, Cinelli bars and stem, Phil Wood sealed bottom bracket, a Weyless seatpost, Cool Gear "The Seat" (a very early padded saddle), and other period-correct top-of-the-line goodies. 
"The Roberts," showing how my attraction to things brown began far before the Lotus.
When my mother saw that the receipts totaled over $700 (again, this was 1976), she sharply rebuked me, one of only two times I ever recall her doing so. Anyone who new my mother knows that her having an outburst like this directed at someone she loved could only be caused by them doing something completely unacceptable.

It gets worse. My planning to cycle cross-country alone (and the "alone" part was really because I was far more focused on building the bike than I was on making any specific plans for the trip) so scared the shit out of my mother that she laid down the big bribe: "If you don't go, I'll buy you a car." 

I took the bribe. 

As I said in Memoirs, that was the event that produced the 1970 Triumph GT6+ and kick-started my life as a car guy, after which things were never the same. I wrote in Memoirs that the car bribe was one of a number of areas where my mother was too easy on me for being the son whose father died when I was ten. But I didn't go into detail on the bike itself, how ridiculous it was, or what happened to it.

I did use the Roberts a few times after high school for a little bit of light touring in NH and VT, but in truth, the apogee of Robby The Bike Kid was already years in the rear view mirror. The fact that I did most of my touring on that old Raleigh Super Course and less and less of it as the bikes got more expensive isn't lost on me now, but it was then.

Reading this, you can probably appreciate how the Roberts became more than a little bit of a symbol of my own excess and overreach and what was a terrible tendency to become more fixated on the thing than the activity that the thing was supposedly for. Yeah, I know; the current me who owns eleven cars and a similar number of guitars doesn't have a leg to stand on if I lecture about how material objects don't bring long-lasting pleasure, but in general, over time, at least I got better about not being so fixated on having the finest possible configuration of "the thing." Of all the guitars I own, there's only one that I bought new; the others all were purchased well-used and were bargain-hunted and snagged for their low price due to wear or damage. It's similar with the cars. Even my gorgeous red 3.0CSi's beauty is only skin-deep; it's a writhing mass of hacks, kluges, and imperfections that would be nitpicked to death if it ever was put on Bring a Trailer. Really, my entire automotive stock in trade is based on owning cars with patina and damage and not chasing perfection because perfection doesn't bring you happiness. Further, the older I get, the more I'm actually attracted to patina and a bit of damage because they mirror ourselves. We are damaged goods, every one of us. We wear our scars out in the open. Why shouldn't the things we own?

If it sounds like I'm apologizing for the Roberts, yes; I'm totally apologizing for the Roberts. I'm sentimental about it—how could I not be?—but those sentiments aren't entirely positive.

The bike got moved down to Austin with Maire Anne and me in '82, back up to Boston in '84, and to Newton when we bought the house in '92. It was hung upside down from the ceiling in the basement for nearly all of those 28 years, only ridden the handful of occasions when all of the cars were broken at the same time and I had to get to work. 

A few years back, the Roberts got briefly pressed into service when my son Ethan relied on a bike to get to work, and his bike got stolen. I took the Roberts down from its upside-down bat-like perch in the basement and found that its tires were badly dry-rotted. I had a funny moment when I thought "That's odd, because I so clearly remember replacing them not that long ago." I continued the interior monologue with myself, asking "Okay, Mister I Clearly Remember, exactly when was that?" "Well, I remember replacing them in the bicycle co-op in the UMass Student Union, so... it was over 40 years ago." Boy, memory is a funny thing. I installed new tires and tubes, adjusted a few things, and explained to Ethan that he was free to use the bike but I'd be really pissed if it got stolen out of carelessness like his last bike. He rode it into Harvard Square and came back reporting that a few people were like "DUDE! Nice vintage touring bike!" The idea that the Roberts was out and about in the world, and in fact was returning to the location of its birth (at least where the frame was purchased) made me smile.
Ethan,  briefly rocking the Roberts a few years back.
Unfortunately, though, this use uncovered a problem: Ethan is about 4" taller than me, so the seat needed to be raised, and I found that the seatpost was seized in the frame tube. This is actually very common. There's a phenomenon with cars, bikes, and other things made from metal and used in a wet environment called "corrosion of dissimilar metals" where, especially with steel and aluminum, an ionic transfer occurs that causes the metal to corrode and practically weld itself in place. I did a little reading on methods to remove stuck seatposts, and found that, if you can't work it free by simply using penetrating oil and twisting on the seat (and I couldn't), you have a big problem and need to destroy the seatpost to get it out. I didn't want to take a bike that was rideable and render it useless, and I certainly didn't want to risk damaging the bike, so I elected to leave it alone. Ethan really wanted the seat higher, so I sent him into Harris Cyclery in West Newton for an estimate to have the seatpost removed professionally, and he came back saying that they quoted him a worst-case $200, something I didn't understand until later. Ethan bought another bike whose seat was adjustable, and the Roberts got hung back up for several years.

A few years back, Maire Anne and I bought a small RV (a Winnebago Rialta, which is a VW Eurovan with a Winnebago camper body on the back, sort of like a VW Westfalia camper on steriods) and began using it to do weekends on the Cape. I attached a bike rack to the back, strapped on a couple of pulled-from-the-trash mountain bikes I had lying around, and we began enjoying riding on the bike paths that run along the beach. I briefly flirted with using the Roberts, but one 20-second ride in front of the house showed me that, with my 60+ years, bad back, and sciatica, the geometry of the bike with its long reach and dropped handlebars was instantly pain-inducing. After trying a few Craigslist bikes, I found a "Specialized" hybrid bike with flat bars and a much shorter reach that was surprisingly comfortable. It felt great to be riding again, even just a few miles at a time along level bike paths, but it was also sad to acknowledge that the idea that I'd ever use the Roberts again was fantasy.

Last year, as part of a general trend of my realizing that I'm bad at ending things and moving on and that I should do something about it, the Roberts' sad unfulfilled existence began to bother me, and I decided that, like the Guild D40 guitar I bought with my bar mitzvah money when I was 13 but that drove me nuts because its intonation was never right, it was time to pass it on to someone who would love it and use it. I did a quick survey on what 1970s-era Campagnolo-laden road bikes in fair condition were going for, photographed it and described it, warts and all (including the stuck seatpost) as I do when I sell cars, priced it at $600, and put it on Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace. 

I received a number of inquiries, including a fascinating one from a guy who'd previously worked at The Bicycle Exchange in Cambridge where I'd bought the frame in 1975. He said that that Charles Roberts frame was, at the time, the best of the best, that anyone who worked there wanted one of those frames back then and would kill to get their hands on the bike now, that I'd massively under-priced it at $600, and that, to the right person, it might be worth as much as $1500. He explained that he had a daughter completing her graduate degree and that, as was a tradition with former Bicycle Exchange employees, he wanted to build her a vintage bike as a present. He offered me $1200, saying that all I needed to do was take the bike to Rim and Wheel Works in Belmont where he knew people who'd pack it and send it out to him in Wisconsin. He also said that he'd connect me with a private Facebook group for former employees of the Bi-Ex to see if anyone would offer me more. I had some great back-and forth with the group. I posted the receipt I had for the purchase of the Roberts frame, but couldn't read the signature of the salesman. Richard Olken, former owner of The Bicycle Exchange, chimed in, saying "It says "RMO." That's me :^)"

The fellow said that he was heading into the hospital in a few days for a surgical procedure. I said I'd think about it and would get back with him after he recovered, but it sounded like I'd found the perfect new home for the Roberts.

Unfortunately, about a week later, he contacted me with some bad news—his surgical procedure was to remove a tumor, and they'd found that the cancer had spread, so he needed to pull his offer off the table.

I continued to float the Roberts for sale on both the Bi-Ex Facebook page as well as the "Steel is Real" page (vintage steel road bikes), but the only real traction I got was advice that I needed to deal with the stuck seatpost. This, actually, made perfect sense. When I advertise a car, I write up the warts-and-all description for the ad, then look at the warts and decide which ones to put time and money into removing. After all, any time you need to apologize for something in an ad, it's far better to fix it instead.

I read up in more depth about removing stuck seatposts. The more stuck the thing is, and the more invasive the method of removal needs to be, the greater the risk of damage to the bike. The basic methods involve trying the following things in combination:

  • Lubricating: Squirting penetrating oil (I use SiliKroil) between the post and the frame tube to break up the corrosion.
  • Freezing: Packing the post with dry ice to get it to contract slightly (you can't really heat the frame tube to get it to expand, as you'll blister the paint).
  • Twisting: Grabbing the post with a monkey wrench, or putting the bike upside down in a bench vise and twisting the frame.
  • Pounding: Using a dent puller (slide hammer) or other device to try to knock the post upward.
The advanced methods were:
  • Pouring ammonia down the frame tube (ammonia reportedly is good for dissolving corroded aluminum), putting a cork at the top, turning it upside down, and letting it soak.
  • Cutting off the seatpost flush close to the frame, then using a hacksaw blade down the inside of the post to essentially resect it.
  • The nuclear option: When all else fails, filling the frame tube with lye which dissolves the aluminum. This reportedly requires disassembling the bottom bracket to pour the lye in, and typically damages the paint at the top of the seat tube where it leaks out. This was the worst-case $200 estimate that Ethan had gotten from the local bike shop.
I tried all the basic methods. None budged the seatpost. I was quite surprised by the failure of the pipe wrench. I use two of them to remove stuck collar nuts holding in front strut cartridges in vintage cars, and the grip and leverage that they impart is significant. As they say, when an immovable object meets an irresistible force, something's gotta give. But what gives is that the protruding part of the thin aluminum seatpost begins to buckle and crush, and its deformation actually makes the post harder to remove because the bulged sections press against the inside of the frame tube even harder. I worked it to the point where, if I tried any further, I'd crush the seatpost, at which point the seat wouldn't mount and the bike would no longer be rideable. Again I backed off.
The Weyless seatpost with pipe wrench marks from my removal attempt.
This spring, with Covid-19 tending to bias me toward around-the-house projects, I again tried to address the seatpost. I re-tried the pipe wrench and SiliKroil, again bringing it to the edge of destruction before backing off. I then tried the fill-it-with-ammonia-cork-it-and-hang-it-upside-down trick to try to loosen the corrosion (the fact that the bike had a Phil Wood sealed bottom bracket made me sanguine about pouring ammonia down the seat tube and then flipping the bike over). I waited for two weeks and tried the pipe wrench again. Nothing.

The next thing to try was to drill a hole crosswise through the seatpost, put a long bolt through it, and beat on the bolt. I again drenched the post in penetrating oil, then turned the frame upside down and took a sledgehammer to the bolt, trying to pound the post downward and out of the frame tube. All I succeeded in doing was elongating the holes until the bolt tore out of them, and when it did, it took the top of the seatpost with it. In other words, I went for broke, and I broke it.

The result of more twisting, drilling a hole, putting a bolt through it, and beating on the bolt with a hammer.
So, I'd destroyed it. The bike could no longer be ridden until the seatpost was out. Like Alexander The Great, I had burned the ships and cut off my only method of retreat. And so I took a deep breath and prepared to battle the beast to the death.

The "resection" idea was appealing since I'd done it before with seized bushings in the control arm of a car. If you have a hollow metal sleeve stuck inside a metal hole, you can take a hacksaw blade (just the blade; you can't use a hacksaw on a handle since the C-shaped handle doesn't let you stick the blade inside a closed tube) and carefully cut a few slots in the sleeve. This does several things. First, it makes it so that there's no longer an unbroken sleeve that's gripping 360 degrees around. Second, it creates edges that you can get penetrating oil under and pry up with a small chisel or other tool. In combination, these steps usually release the death-grip and allow you to lift the resected pieces up and out. 

Unfortunately, the challenge here was that the seatpost went nearly six inches into the frame tube (I measured using a coat hanger with a hook bent into the end so I could feel the open bottom). I bought a "close quarters" hacksaw handle that let the tip of the blade protrude so I could stick it down inside the post and saw outwards, cut the seatpost off with only about 1/2" protruding, and had at it.
The cut-off seat post, with blue tape marking the location of its bottom inside the frame tube.
The "close quarters" hacksaw.
The problem is that if hacksaw blade isn't on its regular C-shaped handle, it's not rigid, and there's almost no way to ensure that you're actually cutting a six-inch-long slot whose depth at the far end you can't see is the same as on the near end you can see while maintaining the goal of not sawing into the frame tube itself. I tried to always maintain downward pressure on the tip of the saw to bias the cutting force to the end while also knowing that it's naturally going to cut deepest at the top no matter what you do. So when a slot was cut all the way through at the top and any more cutting would hit the frame tube, it was difficult to cut any further at the bottom end, or even know how deeply you'd cut there.
The seatpost, resected with three slots, as well as I was ever going to get it.
I took a needle-nosed vise grip and wiggled one of the pieces, and became very hopeful when it began to break free and move away from the frame tube. If I could break one of the resected sections away along its entire 6" length, I thought I'd be home-free. I kept working it with the pliers while soaking the area in penetrating oil, hoping that the twisting would free up and snap the not-completely-cut-through slot started by the hacksaw. I was elated when I felt it give way, but when I pulled the snapped-off piece out, it was only about three inches long, not six. Crap.

I looked down the tube and could see the top of the pulled-away piece, but there was no way to reach it, at least not with vise grips. I tried prying the tops of the other slotted pieces, but they didn't budge.

I looked in my tool chest and found something I've had for nearly 40 years but have rarely used—a pry bar with a tapered round shaft. I placed it down the tube and got the tip of the shaft behind the snapped-off piece, and gently tapped the top with a hammer, hoping to break the slots I'd partially cut. I could feel as the gentle tapping moved the shaft further down, but then it stopped. Without really making a conscious decision to do so, I tapped harder, and harder still, until I was really pounding on it.

Then I looked at the frame tube. I could see a line where the paint was cracking due to the outward pressure of this rod being hammered between the seatpost and the frame tube.

Cracked paint from hammering a tapered rod in to break the slot I'd cut in the tube.
FUCK!!!

I was livid. The prime directive in all of this was not to damage the frame, and I'd damaged the frame. As a mechanic, I try to recognize the "red mist" of adrenaline, the feeling that you're nearing the end of a difficult repair and you're so close that a good hard twist on the wrench or a few good whacks will finish it off. These are things that I have the experience to recognize as being when you get into trouble, and I'd ignored them. 

I sat in the driveway as a wave of shame and remorse flooded over me. For over 40 years this bicycle sat basically unused, accumulating little more than patina and a few scuffs from being moved around, and it's only now that I think about selling it that I damage it? Fuck. So incredibly stupid. So incredibly careless. So incredibly typical.

I tried to decide what to do next. Should I walk away from my attempted resection, with the only other choice being using lye, or should I take the tack that the damage was done, that I was close, and that I might be able to complete it without doing further damage?

I carefully proceeded. I switched to using a big long screwdriver, getting the tip of the blade under an edge of the resected section, and putting a wrench on the handle of the screwdriver for leverage and twisting it, figuring that twisting wasn't as destructive as hammering. I did that until it no longer produced motion. I then switched to using the tip of the screwdriver as a chisel, tapping gently with the hammer, trying to cut the piece away from the rest of the seatpost. I felt and heard it give way, turned the frame upside down to get it out, and saw a piece was too short. There was still about a 1.5" piece remaining. Crap.

Again I repeated the strategy of twisting and gentle tapping, but I began to see another small crack open up in the paint, so I stopped. I was sooooooo close. Finally, being very gentle, I heard the last piece give way. I put the needle-nose vise grips on the protruding section of the seatpost and twisted, and for the very first time, it began to move. Soaking with SikiKroil and twisting by small amounts, it freed up, and out it came.
VICTORY!!
I then turned the frame upside down and tapped the hole where the seatpost had been over a piece of wood. I had to laugh at the two puffy seatpost-diameter mounds of aluminum filings that came out.
These reminded me of the flower from Horton Hears A Who. 
With it finally out, I examined the bottom of the seatpost, and saw why the resecting wasn't nearly as productive as I'd hoped. Despite my having made every effort to angle the saw handle to apply pressure at the tip of the hacksaw blade, most of the cutting was at the very top; the cut depth of the rest of the slot was less than halfway through. No wonder the resected strip wasn't easily breaking free like I expected.
The shallowness of the hacksaw cuts.
I went onto the basement and yanked five seatposts out of a box of parts (I still pull bikes out of the trash. Old habit.) and was astonished that none of them fit. They were all the wrong diameter. I looked closely at the underside of the part of the Weyless post that I'd knocked off and saw it was stamped "27.2." I thought I'd order an inexpensive 27.2mm seatpost on Amazon or find a cheap used one locally, but I did something surprising: I spent fifty bucks and ordered a used Campagnolo Nuovo Record fluted seatpost from a guy in Ukraine who had it on eBay. This serves two purposes. First, it give the bike a period-correct seatpost that's in harmony with the rest of its Campagnolo components. But second, it lets me buy the Roberts a present and make up for the horrible way I've treated it.
Totally not kidding about the box in the basement with six seatposts in it.
With no other seatpost to install, I took a moment and assessed the damage I'd done. In terms of the removal itself, it's one thing to damage something and regret it when you haven't yet successfully seen things through to the end, but it's another to see it in the light of victory achieved. That line of cracked paint that had initially broken my heart, I now saw as relatively minor damage that was acceptable in the context of having successfully removed the stuck seatpost. 

But there was a larger meaning to it, though it took me a couple of days to grok what it was. First, in my worldview, I choose to see that line of cracked paint as a scar that tells a story. As long as the bike is in my possession, any time I see that crack, I'll instantly recall the whole epic stuck seatpost saga. 

But more than that, even though the damage wasn't from normal wear-and-tear use, it still oddly seemed like it was helping to complete a big circle, and it was this: At least, after all those years in storage, I'd laid my own hands on the bike, spending more time with it than I had since 1978, and with the best intentions, tried to make it whole again. I certainly hadn't planned it this way, but by damaging it a little, I actually felt more connected with it than I did before.

When I get the Campy seatpost, I'll install it, give the Roberts a thorough cleaning, and again try to move it along. It really will do my heart good if I can find someone who will love it and will give it a good home. If life were perfect, they'd trek it cross country, taking advantage of those granny gears that nothing else had back in 1976. But even knowing it's seeing sun and bike paths would make me very happy.

As I said at the beginning, I have a sentimental attachment to people and things that went before, and I don't give up easily. I can't fix the world's intractable problems, but I can remove a nearly-intractably stuck seatpost. Did I mention that I also value kindness and intelligence? Amongst my weaponry are such diverse elements as...