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patterns of ink

How fruitless to be ever thinking yet never embrace a thought... to have the power to believe and believe it's all for naught. I, too, have reckoned time and truth (content to wonder if not think) in metaphors and meaning and endless patterns of ink. Perhaps a few may find their way to the world where others live, sharing not just thoughts I've gathered but those I wish to give. Tom Kapanka

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Father Far and Away: Part III

Since the late 1980s, nearly all cars (barring trucks and SUVs) are front-wheel drive, meaning the same front wheels that steer the car also power the car (like a tricycle).

But virtually all American cars through most of the 20th Century were rear-wheel drive (more like a bicycle than a tricycle). From Henry Ford’s first mass-produced Model T to the fabulous 1964 Mustang and beyond, the power from the engine under the front hood was transmitted (via a transmission and a driveshaft) through a long, high hump in the car floor to a differential between the rear axles which turned the wheels.

Why the brief primer in automotive design? Because many readers, including my dear family, know little about what makes a car go--much less how designs differ. And because a basic understanding of rear-wheel drive hardware is essential to this part of the story.
So let’s see… where were we. Oh, yes…

We were headed north on I-75 in the family wagon, a 1964 Ford Country Squire, tooling along in the right lane at 55 MPH, which as you may recall was the national speed limit from 1974 to 1988. It was imposed in the "oil crisis" caused by OPEC's embargo against the U.S. which sent gasoline prices to an all-time high of 59 cents a gallon! (It was half that just a few years before.) In response to such unthinkably high prices, the Feds demanded that we "Slow Down and Save."
So Dad was putting along; everyone else was dozing off or staring out the window. When all of a sudden, just outside of Berea, Kentucky, something in the rear axel snapped-- Kerplunk! Wham! Whup-whup-whup! Smell of rubber. Sound of grinding steel. The car rolled to a shaky halt on the shoulder of the interstate, leaning to the right, as we held our breaths in trembling silence.

“Is everyone alright?" Dad asked, "Did anything come up through the floor? Stay in the car while I go see what we hit.”

Mindful of the traffic, Dad slipped out his door around the rear of the car to my side. Shaking his head in disbelief, he motioned for us to get out and have a look. The tire was in shreds. Worse yet, the wheel itself was leaning at a 45 degree angle and pressed down in the gravel under the weight of the car.

“Oh, Don,” Mom sighed, “Can we put on the spare?”

“It’s not just the tire, Mom,” Dave explained as Dad shook his head, “The whole wheel is off.”

“We must have broken the axel,“ Dad added. “I don’t know how it stayed in the well like that.”

“I felt it pounding around in there right behind my seat,” I said.

“I thought it was going to come right through the car,” Jim added.

“So now what?” Mom asked trying to stay calm.

“So now I go up that exit ramp and see if that gas station has a tow truck. Dave, why don’t you come with me and Tom you stay here with Mom and Jim.”

Until that moment, I had not noticed that we were just a stone’s throw from an exit. We could see a faded Marathon Gas sign high on a pole, but not the station below it. Within a half hour, an old tow truck rolled across the overpass, came down the far on-ramp, crossed the “emergency use only” short cut, made a three-point turn on the shoulder and backed up to our car. Dad, Dave, and a large man about Dad’s age in dirty coveralls got out of the truck. The name “Clee” was sewn on his pocket.
The man nodded our direction but got right on the ground to see the damage. He shook his head, let down the hoist, and double-hooked the bumper. [This was back when bumpers were made of steel and actually up to such a task.]

“I don’t want to pull it on that bad wheel,” he said, “It’s pert-near off already. Likely drop right out when we lift ‘er up so step back.”

He slowly lifted the car onto its front wheels. Sure enough the broken wheel dropped to the ground. He and Dad picked it up and heaved it in the back of the truck.

“I can take you and the wife and him,” Clee said, pointing at Jim.

Dave and I walked to the station in as little time as it took Clee to wait for a long gap in traffic, make a slow, wide U-turn, and lumber up the ramp. I’m not sure which looked sadder, my parents and Jim squeezed into the front of that truck or the sight of the car itself being hauled off like road kill by the tail.
Standing there alone with my brother in the setting sun, I asked him the question that had been on my mind for an hour.
“Do you think it was all those neutral drops?” I whispered.
A “neutral drop” was what boys back then did to cover the fact that they were driving an uncool car that could not “burn rubber” [squeal the tires from a dead start] We would sometimes rev the engine in neutral and then drop it into gear so the tires squealed when you took off. The sudden jolt was extremely hard on every moving part involved. We never did the stunt in front of our house, of course, but it did occasionally happen when we were with a car load of boys headed to the beach. Dave did it more than I did, and we felt bad the summer before when Dad had to replace the universal joint (U-joint) in the drive shaft, which had developed a strange rattle. After that Dave and I drove the family car more gingerly--except the time when he wanted to see if it would go over 100MPH. It did. If the wheel had come off at that speed, I would not be writing this story.
I asked Dave the question again: “Was it all those neutral drops?”
“I don’t know. I was thinking the same thing, but it's been over a year ago since Dad replaced the U-joint. Besides this wasn't the drive shaft; it was the axel. And don't forget: Mom's been driving this car for a year without us. She's awful hard on cars," said the neutral drop king without even a hint of irony.
Crossing the road to the station, we agreed not to bring up the subject again, and to this day we have never talked about the possible connection between our foolish tire-squeeling and the wheel falling off that day. [In fact, it is only safe to write about it now because Dad is not here to read it.]
The filling station was small, just two pumps, but on the north end of the cement-block building it had a garage stall for repairs. Unfortunately there was a car in the stall up on the lift. Just beyond the station was a one-floor, long motel that looked like it had been built about the same time as the station when the interstate came through in the early Sixties.
Dad and Clee were looking at the bottom of the car while it was still in the air. There are some young men our age who would have walked right up to that conversation and joined in, but Dave and I decided to stay back just in case Clee was explaining possible causes of such a freak accident. Suddenly Dad smiled and thanked Clee who ran off to pump gas for a car that had just pulled in. (This was a few years before self-service at gas stations became the norm.)
"We're spending the night."It was a relief to see Dad smiling. "In the morning he's going to take me to the junk yard to get the parts we need and let me do the repairs myself."
"So whatever broke can be fixed?" Mom said somewhat in shock.
"Sure. Anything can be fixed on a car if you've got the parts."
"What about tools?" Dave asked.
"Clee says he's happy to let me use his tools."
"How much?" Mom winced. "We don't even know this man."
"Sure we do. His name is Compton. Friends call him Clee. He knows the guys at the junk yard and he says they'll take good care of us. He's calling the motel to get us the best rate, too. As soon as he lets down the car, we'll grab what we need and check in."
He said it as if we'd stayed in a motel before, but his nonchalance could not hide the relief that we were safe, this bad thing happened at a good place, and this problem--like nearly all problems in his life--was something he could fix.
Jim and I looked at the motel a short walk away. In spite of the circumstances, we couldn't help but feel excited about the fact that we were staying the night. It was then Jim pointed to the edge of the motel parking lot. There was an outdoor pool. We tried hard not to smile.
To be continued...

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Blogger Julie said...

Whew! It has been awhile! I love this story and can't wait to read more!
How have you been? Have you been camping a lot? We just got back on Sunday and we are leaving agian on July 6th. We are heading way north to Lake Michigamme. We will camp there and take day trips to Copper Harbor, Pictured Rocks, and probably Crystal Springs(I think that is what it is called) The kids can't wait, such an adventure. I think it will be fun too. These are places that neither Dan nor I have seen before.
Hope your summer is going well and you are not too busy!

Julie B., Muskegon

24/6/08 1:56 PM  
Blogger patterns of ink said...

Hey, Julie in MI,
Good to hear from you. It feels like our summer hasn't begun yet but that will change this weekend when we head to Kansas and my sister-in-law's lake house in Missouri next week. We plan to go camping when we get back.
I've been to some of the places you mentioned but it's been a while. It will be a great family adventure!

24/6/08 2:58 PM  
Blogger Tom said...

As I was reading your post, I had memories of some of the "things" I did when I was a teenager and had access to a vehicle (that was not mine)-I decided to post part of those memories on my blog-they were to long to leave as a comment.

Hope you have a good summer, thanks for triggering my recall.

24/6/08 10:58 PM  
Blogger the walking man said...

My very first thought was "what a waste of power producing torque" but then I remembered what you were driving Tom. So what was it, a sheared axle shaft (yes your 'neutral drops" could have contributed to the failure) or metal fatigue in the retaining clips (planned obsolescence at work)?

Continuing on your FWD v RWD essay. FWD allows for better control of the vehicle, better steering and better use of the power produced by the engine due to the compact nature and location of the power train. In FWD technology with the engine and transmission being centered over the drive wheels the weight holds the front end to the ground better. Rear wheel drive technology while not as efficient as FWD, it's advantage is room in the engine compartment and all of the torque (force that powers the wheels) producing engine you can put in that extra room.

As a mechanic, I preferred RWD cars for ease of repairs but FWD for my own vehicles because of the increased efficiency of the fuel delivery technology.

About the "U" joint...naaaaaahhhh your poor driving habit had nothing to do with the failure of this minor part. They do fail regularly if not properly maintained, and are high MILEAGE. Yours was dry (lacking grease) hence the noise before the shaft dropped, a good man, a hammer and 15 minutes from front to finish to replace it.

Did I ever tell you that all cars always have been, always will be dung?

25/6/08 2:12 AM  
Blogger patterns of ink said...

I'm looking forward to reading about some of your carventures as a kid. Sad to say that teens with a license and no car to call their own quite often miss the lessons in auto care that come with ownership.

I actually thought about the fact that a mechanic (you) would be reading this and would be much better at explaining it so I kept the primer short, but I'm so glad you added these thoughts here in the comments. Dad eventually became a front-wheel drive fan for all the reasons you mention.

The first car I owned was a Oldsmobile Delta 88 with the biggest engine GM ever made. Under the hood was a V8 block so huge no car today could hold it. It got 12 MPG. I like the new efficient technology, but I can do almost no maintenance myself on the new engines.

The torque that may have contributed to the rear axel failure couldn't have helped the U-joint, but I'm glad to know they sometimes go on their own if not greased. Dad was keeping up with three cars and building a house on weekends at the time, but you're right it didn't take him long to ramp out the wagon and switch out the U-joint.

"Engineered obsolescence" was something Dad hated. Sad that it took foreign competition and Japanese cars that held their value to get the "Big Three's" attention and improve the dung heap (to use your well-chosen term =).

25/6/08 6:53 AM  
Blogger Dr.John said...

Another great chapter. Wow! A motel with a pool.

25/6/08 3:05 PM  
Blogger patterns of ink said...

As you'll read in the next chapter, it wasn't much of a pool, but it was a "first" and those tend to stick in you head. =)

25/6/08 9:52 PM  
Blogger Josie said...

Isn't it funny how things work out. That could have happened miles away from a garage or a motel (with a pool), but as luck would have it, you were in the right place at the right time. Great stories!

25/6/08 9:53 PM  
Blogger Tammy said...

Thanks for your kind words on the post about my dad...(yes, I don't think it's coincidence that my husband reminds me a little of him...)

I really enjoyed this story...I hung on every word and could picture it all! Great imagery...even to a girl like me who knows very little about cars, I do remember the era and what it was like to ride seatbelt free in the back of a station wagon... ;)

Can't wait to read more stories like this...

Blessings to you!

26/6/08 1:09 AM  
Blogger the walking man said...

My childhood friends and I could have had great fun in that big block olds. We'd soon have it getting about 6 MPG.

Funny aside in my own Journey Tom, when I tested for the Navy to decide what job I should have, the result that always stuck in my mind and craw was that the jobs I should never go near were anything dealing with tools. The results said I should be a Priest, or counselor...ha ha ha ha ha ha ha fooled them!

The book is an anthology contributing were Aricka Foremen a young black female poet and I, an old fat white man, both born and raised in Detroit, our perspectives.

Black White and Blue in Detroit
60 pgs.


in the Poetry section, released in 2006. Thanks for asking the post detailing it is a couple back from where I'm at now.

26/6/08 1:37 AM  
Blogger Donnetta Lee said...

Sounds like some of the adventures I had when I was a kid. Hey, I remember when gas was 22 cents a gallon in Oklahoma City. Those were the days.

26/6/08 2:43 PM  
Blogger patterns of ink said...

The last chapter (two to go) tells of how Dad expressed his gratitude to this man who was in the right place at the right time.

Writing about my father (and my mom last fall) gives me great pleasure.

Yes, those were the days. I don't we owned a car with seat belts until I was out of college.

It does not surprise me at all that a "Kuder Preference Test" would tell you you'd make a great priest or counselor, but you became a mechanic fixing cars and writing poetry which is sort of like being a priest. =) Thanks the link to your book.

Donnetta Lee,
I remember those prices, too. We used to call them "Gas wars" all along Gratiot Avenue in the Detroit area. Will we ever see gas below $3.00/ gal. again. I doubt it. (I was thrilled to see it for 3.99 yesterday.)

26/6/08 3:15 PM  
Blogger Nancy said...

As usual, your comment section has taken on a life of it's own. Interesting... to say the least. I may have learned more about cars than my little brain can handle.

My dad could fix anything too... a mechanic in the Navy and then a mechanic for DuPont. Sounds like your dad was just like him.

God was watching over your family that day- close to the exit, a mechanic willing to share his tools, a motel, and a POOL! Now that is a blessing indeed.

I hope you have fun in Kansas and Missouri. Enjoy your down time but keep us posted.

28/6/08 11:44 AM  
Blogger patterns of ink said...

We leave tomorrow. Hope to have a good time and that a wheel doesn't fall off. =)

With any luck at all I'll get another chapter up when I get to Kansas.

Thanks for coming by.

28/6/08 4:23 PM  

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