This begins Part II of "Stranded" and is the seventh in a series which takes a look back at an earlier era, when we asked monumental favors of our siblings, without consulting the ledger, to see whether or not the scale of life was balanced.
Down But Not Out
“The roses in the window box
Have tilted to one side
Everything about this house
Was born to grow and die
Oh it doesn’t seem a year ago
To this very day
You said I’m sorry honey
If I don’t change the pace
I can’t face another day
And love lies bleeding my hand
Oh it kills me to think of you with another man
I was playing rock and roll and you were just a fan
But my guitar couldn’t hold you
So I split the band
Love lies bleeding in my hands”
Fast-forward one year from 1975 to 1976, something that is easy to do when one is reminiscing about the past. As curious as it sounds, this one-year period of time, marked my entry into a field that I never list as being among my life’s occupations. Alongside professional student, grocery store clerk, personnel specialist, and automotive parts expert, I could now legitimately list VW engine-repair specialist, as a skill I had acquired.
Because I worked at United Auto Stores, Story Road, I had access to the machine shop in the rear of the building. I got good at yanking engines out of both Beetles and buses. I could clean the aluminum cases and glass-bead them myself, staying well out of the way of the current resident of the shop, which resulted in a factory appearance of the formerly grungy engine components.
I could buy engine bearings, gasket sets and even a new set of [balanced] connecting rods/pistons/rings if I felt so inclined, all at an employee discount that couldn’t be beat. The machinist, whether it was Jamie, Don, Eric, Doug, or Richard, could always squeeze a few minutes here or there, to hook a brother up.
|VW cases split apart.|
I could count on this because as a guy on the counter, I was the liaison between the customer with the set of small-block Chevy heads, and whichever machinist was grinding the valves and seats in the back of the shop. What if one [or more] of those valve guides were wasted, and needed to be replaced, and a valve guide insert were required? More loot and a customer contact would then be necessary.
There had to be continuity to keep the rhythm of the shop flowing smoothly, and I was likely to be the guy who was orchestrating the whole procedure. This close association with the dude in the back, at any given time, resulted in the occasional reciprocating act, such as having him turn a flywheel for me, or press a bearing.
I once calculated that I had been involved in the rebuilding of more than a dozen VW engines over a five-year period, every one belonging to a family member or close friend, and every one done gratis. Unfortunately, this included multiple encounters with the same motor, Bro Brian’s little orange 36 HP Beetle coming to mind.
Brian was a med student over at Davis at the time, and had no loot for his beat-up little bug. Unfortunately, the engine was in need some TLC. Working alongside Ken, one of the few dudes on my short list of bff’s, and our buddy, THC, we split the cases four times on that beast, before we finally got that rubber band properly in place.
Included in the fiasco, was the accidental dropping down into the recesses of the engine, a simple bolt, which then had to be extracted from an area inaccessible to a magnet. Already on the brink of despair at how frustrating this little motor had turned out to be, I broke down and sobbed. We had already assembled the motor three times.
Ken guided me out onto the rear balcony, sat me down and rolled up some Acapulco Gold. He told that it was no big deal.
“What difference does it make?” he asked rhetorically. “It’s not worth getting your panties in a bunch. We’ll smoke this joint, drink a beer, sit out here and listen to the baseball game. In a while we’ll take a look at that turkey and split those cases again. No biggee-dah.”
|The flywheel needs to be turned when you replace|
a pressure plate and clutch.
I could have hugged him, but right then I was afraid I’d burst into tears again.
I worked on my parents’ fastback, I worked on their van and I tore apart my own Beetle more than once. As soon as I found out that the 40HP engine in a ’64 Beetle, was almost identical to that of a VW Bus, I started searching the ads until I found what I was looking for: ’64 VW Bus, engine in the back seat, $300.00-firm.
Jack, who was staying with Nancy and me at the time, rent-free, used his three-quarter-ton Chevy truck to tow the van from Santa Cruz, over Highway 17, and back to our upstairs apartment on San Fernando St, directly across from the library at SJSU.
There was no garage at San Fernando Street, so I ended up working on the kitchen table, much to the chagrin of Nancy. On the other hand, there was no way we could have afforded to have the work done, so being able to do it myself, was saving us a bundle. Give and take.
I put the engine back together again, a bare-bones endeavor, and got it on the road for virtually nothing more than the cost of gaskets and bearings. I knew the engine wasn't going to last forever, but I was going to pretend it would.
We took a vacation.
A vacation for us meant a road trip in the van up to Vancouver, in August of 1976. On the way back down we came via Mt. Shasta, intending to stop at Bell Springs Road on the way through, because the folks were camping on the newly acquired parcel, and we thought a rendezvous was in order.
Somewhere around Hayfork, we encountered technical difficulties with the fan belt pulley, an ongoing issue with this bus, and I stopped at the only auto parts place in town to see if they stocked them. Nancy and I entered the establishment and found it deserted except for a little old lady, who explained that everyone was out to lunch.
I asked if she minded if I jumped into the books and got a part number, and she said that would be fine. Mission accomplished, I wrote myself a tag, paid the nice lady, and installed the new pulley in the parking lot out back. We set off again, heading south towards Bell Springs.
Not long afterwards, I became aware that something was horribly amiss. Through bad timing involving a steep grade, an unrelenting big rig, an inability to pull over, and a bright red light on the instrument panel, I ended up once more on the side of the road.
The pulley had malfunctioned, the engine had run without any cooling component in place for a minute too long, under arduous conditions, and I had spun a rod bearing. The bus was just too big, too loaded down with camping gear, and a 40HP engine was just too small for it succeed.
I guess I was too materialistic to be a true hippie.
The twist to the story is that the van was down but not out-at least not yet. If I kept it below 25 MPH or 2,500 RPM’s per minute, I could limp along. If I got the rubber band torqued up more than that, a raucous sound began to ring forth, warning me that I was “pushing it.”
Nancy got out the map, consulted it, and announced happily that we could make our way all the way down from Shasta to Bell Springs via dirt roads, even if it meant asking for directions occasionally.
Five times, to be precise, we found ourselves at junctures in the road where we had to decide which of two forks to take. Each of those instances required that we flag someone down to make sure we were on the right path, a task not ever easy to do because we were in the middle of nowhere.
Not an adventurous person by nature myself, if not for Nancy’s encouragement, I would have placed THE phone call, way up at Shasta. Nancy wanted to see if we couldn’t get a little closer to “home” before we sent out the distress signal.
At least this time around, it was broad daylight when we sounded the alarm.