December 26, 2020•2,118 words
Saturday was my birthday, and the weather was fine and sunny. Over at the garage the social scene was in full swing, ES dropped by with a curly-haired little terrier under one arm. He was bringing in a hay spear that SF had welded up for him, which is a plate with three projecting spikes that you attach to a tractor and run through bales of hay to move them around. This one had bent and twisted under the weight of 1000+ pound bales. While RM and I were chatting with ES about tractors and wood stoves, SF drove up with some questions about why his oven wasn't getting hot enough to bake the Christmas cookies. We all offered theories (although later it turned out to be a combination of a maladjusted valve and the thermometer he was using to test it being over 100 degrees off). "I figured that thing would break," he said about the hay spear, "I didn't realize your bales were so heavy." "What kind of bales are they," RM asked, "the round shredded-wheat kind?" "Yep," ES replied. "You know they outlawed those things," said SF. We all looked at him quizzically. "Yeah," he deadpanned, "cows can't get a square meal." The conversation meandered to buses, and RM and SF told about a time they had started an old bus which it turned out had had the fuel rack removed so the engine raced uncontrollably. There was a very real risk it would come apart and hurl parts with deadly force, so the safest thing would have been to stand back until it ran out of fuel, but it was also in the middle of a fleet of other old buses in a bone-dry field, so if it blew it would also start a very destructive fire. RM and SF went in with hearts racing and finally managed to stop it. Later it turned out all the brake adjusters had been unscrewed to the point of not working and the bus had to be run into a tree. Who knew mechanical work could be so exciting? I've really been appreciating this little social scene, there always seems to be something interesting going on.
Later I helped RM sweep leaves off of metal roofs, carefully stepping only on the heads of the roofing screws to avoid making dents. I helped load trash and recycling onto the bed of his ancient VW truck. It felt good to be out and moving on such a lovely day. After lunch I took a long walk around BH Farm and ran into TM and RM talking on the road. TM, wearing a tweed coat and carrying a chainsaw, had cut back some small pine and cedar trees lining the road and thrown them over the fence to the goats, who were happily munching away and filling the air with the smell of Christmas. Then KK rode up with a load of old tin for a new goat shelter, and I helped unload it and herd goats away from the gate as the truck went into and out of the pasture. Back at the garage I noticed some details that I hadn't before. The curvy trim on one corner that playfully followed the grain of the wood, the gargoyles carved out of hebel blocks, no two alike, and the niche carved into the wall for an alter to Ganesh, remover of obstacles, which seems very appropriate for mechanical work. I reflected on the Gothic spirit of the place, the way it had been shaped by many independent hands and minds.
As the sun started setting, I headed back to AP and GB's place for a little birthday gathering, with BF, JP and LS, and my parents all attending. There was chili, cornbread, prosecco, and a gingerbread cake preceded by a row of candles stuck into a banana so that I could blow them out safely. My mom gave me some books and BF gave me a bag of homemade biscotti (which I'm still eating), some sparkling white wine (which I traded for welding work), and best of all some homemade firestarter/potpourri nuggets made from half an egg carton. It was interesting talking politics with JP and LS, who both work for the state department and have unique perspectives on the politicians they've met and the workings of the "deep state". Back at the garage RM was surprised to discover it was my birthday, "and I had you sweeping roofs and hauling trash!" "Are you kidding?" I said, "This has been been an excellent birthday." I thought back to last year's and how much had changed since then, and told RM some of what had happened since. "Wow," he said, "your life is more complicated than I thought." "Well," I said, "it was." "Now it's simpler but weirder?" "Yeah, simpler but weirder."
Sunday started out rainy, and I spent some time on a couch in the garage just sitting and listening to the rain, slowly getting up the nerve to start working on the exhaust system, which promised to be one of the most challenging parts. The difficulty was joining up the old muffler, which fits the bike and looks very cool, to a new exhaust pipe which fits the engine. At one point it seemed like it might be simple, since the straight sections of the two pipes could slide into each other, but there was a tricky offset. RM suggested we might be able to gently twist the old exhaust to get them to fit, but after some careful work a rusty and rotten section of the old pipe ruptured and it became clear that it wasn't going to be that easy. "This is hard!" RM said, "I'm glad it's you doing it." I spent a lot of time looking and thinking, and eventually decided to just keep moving forward. Clearly the rotten section had to be cut out, so I did that. And then there was a gap that had to be bridged, a three-dimensional curve that was hard to visualize and understand. Some piece would need to go in there, but the fact that pipes take up space makes it impossible to really determine whether a piece fits without cutting it, and if I cut it too short I couldn't go back. I spent most of the day thinking and planning, screwing everything down to discourage wishful thinking, tracing out the curve with wire and holding it against sections of pipe. Finally, I found a section of the new pipe which seemed like it would bridge the gap, and with two cuts and a lot of careful grinding and filing it actually worked! At the end of it all I was exhausted (ba-dum-tsch), but feeling good about the path forward. RM brought me out a second dinner of delicious yams, collards, and salad, all grown on his wife ML's farm down the road.
On my Monday morning walk, I stopped to listen to the gurgling of the overflow pipe that drains the pond, a sound I hadn't heard in years. Apparently we've had record rainfall this year and it just keeps coming. But the sun was out and I spent a glorious afternoon sunbathing and working outdoors for the few hours before it went behind the pines and the day got cold again. Unsurprising on the shortest day of the year I guess, and the days will be getting longer from there. The family got together just after sunset to look at the planetary conjunction, and A ran back and forth between us getting tickles and asking if each of us was "spooky".
In the shop I started to practice welding on scrap pieces of exhaust tubing. I hadn't welded since college, but RM was encouraging me to try picking it back up. After all it was a MIG welder, which is the easiest kind, sometimes called point-and-click welding, and RM calls it the "hot metal gun". But the thin-walled tubing was very challenging because the welder kept blowing holes through it. After practicing for a while I felt a bit more confident but my sample looked pretty ugly. "Let me try it," said RM, and it was gratifying to see that he also kept blowing through. "SF offered to weld it for me," I said, "I think I'm going to phone a friend. I know where my strengths are." The next afternoon SF dropped by the metal shop and looked at my practice piece. "Jesus," he said, "that looks terrible." Then he grabbed some scraps and started practicing, and was soon cursing as he blew holes through it. "This is tricky," he said, "it's cheap material, really thin". I felt even better about my failures since he'd actually gone to welding school. Apparently it actually was hard. "This is really a TIG job," he said, "but we'll get it. It's going to take a shitload of grinding." I asked why it would take a lot of grinding. "Well, to make it look pretty." "I don't care about pretty," I said, "as long as it doesn't break or leak, I'm happy." It turned out his aesthetics were similar to mine and maybe that helped him relax a bit.
He got the voltage and wire speed dialed in and got ready to tack the real parts together on the motorcycle, holding the tubing in place with his free hand. "Aren't you going to get burned?" I asked. "Well... yeah!" he said, and made the tack. "I'm an Arab, we're used to getting burned," he went on, "by the sun... the US government." I took the tacked pipe off the bike and got it in the vise. SF started to weld it in short bursts. "Back in school they used to call me stop-and-go S," he said. "It seems like the right technique for this job," I said. "Yeah," he said, "it's the only way." The final result looked cratered and crusty and full of what welders call "bug holes", but it felt strong and it fit back on the bike with a bit of coaxing from a wooden lever. Later it turned out there were a few leaks, but now that the major work was done, I managed to tack over them and grind it back. The final result looked a bit like a healed scar on a tree branch. I was happy.
I took Christmas Eve off from both my job and Punkin and it rained all day. I took a few walks but spent most of the day in the tent, reading Blue Highways, which MH recommended, and listening to audio books and an old episode of Car Talk for the nostalgia value. It was warm, and a few tree frogs were still hanging in there and peeping away. The creek below the field which often dries up in summer was constantly roaring. The pond got so full it overflowed the dam, something that probably hasn't happened in forty years. I splashed through the stream to have dinner with my parents on their screen porch. Christmas was sunny and bitter cold, barely climbing above freezing, and I had dinner with my parents again on the back porch around their Solo Stove. I'm starting to make plans for January... can I stick it out through the cold or should I try and move inside somewhere until Punkin runs and all my DMV business is finished? Sometimes it's hard to remember that I have choices, and don't have to stick no matter what to my crazy plans.
Things I Learned
- The Honda Cub is the most produced motor vehicle in history. They've made over 100 million of them and counting.
- There's a theory that Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk, was assassinated by the CIA. I find it pretty plausible since it happened in 1968, which was just a crazy year. There was a pandemic and there were protests, plus a whole lot of domestic terrorism. In a way I guess Punkin is a sort of bridge between 1968 and 2020.
- According to some, Ford used to "season" engine blocks by letting them sit outside through the Detroit winter, which relieved the internal stresses created while casting them.
- One reason things look different around sunset is that as the visible spectrum gets dimmer, the proportion of ultraviolet light gets relatively higher and you can see more of the fluorescence.
- Working outside on a sunny day with a friend.
- Drinking hot tea and listening to the rain come down.
- Getting fed with delicious food from a thriving farm.
- Listening to sacred medieval choral music and organizing my workbench.