Man and Machine

Things are pretty quiet this time of the year. Hard to think of anything current and relevant to talk about and for some reason Facebook keeps deleting our posts. We’ll be back with the most current agenda post haste. We will be adding Clint Crookshanks from the NTSB to our presenters list. Meanwhile I thought I’d add something irrelevant. 

Over the years I’ve had the privilege of burning up a lot of dinosaurs in a wide range of flying machines. After a brief flirt with a Lotus Cortina and a Porsche 911 in my youth my carbon footprint on the highway has been more subdued and my ground transportation mundane. 

Some might find it odd that a relationship can form between man and machine, that you can come to depend on each other, learn quirks and moods. My first long-term relationship was a VW van I bought in Pensacola, Florida. Unlike most of my peers in flight school I lived hand-to-mouth. The van was cheap to buy and operate and transported any number of people. We went to Mardi Gras in Mobile, Alabama, and spent many nights sleeping with the white noise of wave’s breaking on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico, rising to the morning light bouncing off the ripples of an infinite sea. 

An old VW van is also a good test for relationships. Not long after I’d met my future wife we took a trip. I gave her a sleeping bag for a wrap as heat was limited. When the car wouldn’t start after a pit stop I adjusted the points with my Swiss Army Knife and we proceeded. This impressed her. 

She was a keeper.

My mother-in-law was appalled with our vehicles in later years and generously offered to buy us a car. A used 94 Plymouth Grand Voyager, gray minivan, with 64,000 miles was selected. I think of it as a soccer van. It was a cliché in the 90’s. We had accumulated a small tribe of three children and it fit the bill, soldiering on through soccer, swim teams, basketball, vacations, and visits to relatives in far off Sacramento and beyond. The three kids learned to drive in it. We loaned it to the pre-school in later years when they needed the extra space. 

The two vans cohabitated for several years before I parked the VW and moved on to a new Chevy truck in 1998. Several years later our youngest daughter began to drive and she fancied the truck: over time she took possession: my wife evolved to something small and efficient. Typically the last thing left to drive was the soccer van. It grew on me. Unlike my old VW it had heat in the winter. It had cool until a couple of years ago when the compressor died. It had cruise control and a descent radio. It had immense power and superior handling compared to the VW bus. I could put a 4x8 sheet of plywood in it and close the door.

My son and I drove 8000 miles exploring Mexico in the old Plymouth in 2008. The premise, if it quit, we would leave it there. It used half a quart of oil and came home. It had become Super Van.

It has suffered cosmetically but we’ve kept it mechanically sound over the years, spending more than most would deem reasonable. At some point people we haven’t seen for awhile are surprised we still had the car and it ran.

I got a new job with Cal Fire last year and I struck out for So Cal in Super Van. It’s transmission started slipping and shifting erratically south of Stockton on I-5, not good. Judicious use of the gas pedal allowed me to pace the traffic around me. I slid in behind a big rig to draft, a technique reminiscent of my VW days. I needed an off ramp, hopefully with services. Roth road, one mile said the sign. I coasted from the I-5 artery coming to a stop at the junction of Roth. Looking under the overpass to the left a convenience store gas station beckoned. I waited for traffic to clear then pressed the gas pedal gently. The engine sped but it didn’t translate into movement. I tried abuse. With the motor roaring the vehicle lurched ahead, I coaxed it to a dimly lit parking spot, took a breath and felt tension subside.

Fortunately, my wife is prescient and opted for the 200-mile towing with AAA when Super Van died in Stockton. She rescued me and I went to work. The transmission problem was a broken fluid line, minor, but the front wheel bearings are evaluated to have not many miles remaining. They want $1,100 for the repairs, substantially more than the value of the car. I’m looking for my Swiss Army Knife.