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Written by Robert Higdon.
Friday I completed Day #1 of the AMI course. It was pure orientation: Do this; don't do that. Since there are 20 weeks in the curriculum, five days a week, I figure I have already got 1% of it under my belt. It isn't much, but it's more than I had on Thursday. And no one has yelled at me yet.
Daytona Beach has its advantages in the winter. The odds are good that there won't be nine inches of snow on the bike tomorrow morning. But the "snowbirds," escapees from the Great White Frozen North, soon will appear, turning fairly grisly traffic into hypertensive nightmares. I've tried not to think about Bike Week, when traffic ceases to move at all in any direction.
But I can't help it. I know what Bike Week is going to be like. In the first place, it isn't just one week. It's more like a month, and it's the Harleys from Hell bombing up and down Atlantic Avenue (A1A) twenty-two hours a day. The traffic halts on International Speedway, the main east-west drag. And none of this would matter at all to me, except that I'm staying at the Daytona Inn. It's at the intersection of Atlantic and International Speedway. Even as I type this at 0037 in the wee hours, a Harley is throbbing on Atlantic. They like to warm up for about four hours, then lurch north toward Main Street where the serious profiling begins. Slowly but surely, I am being driven crazy, and I've been here only five days.
Saturday afternoon I decided to head north on I-95 to look for another motel. AMI sits just 300 yards west of I-95 and International Speedway. A motel somewhere along I-95 would be great. The blue and orange pastel Ho Jo's appeared 12.8 miles north of the school. I cruised into the parking lot and donned my most winning bullshit smile.
"May I speak to the manager?" I inquired politely. In a moment he appeared. I ran through my spiel --- can't stay on the beach, takes too long to go across town, the salt air is already rusting out the brake rotors, etc. I told him what I was paying at the Daytona Inn. He winced. I've got a good price and everyone knows it.
"Work with me here," he said.
I knew what he was after. Nope, I don't need daily maid service; I'll pay a month in advance on the first of each month, gold bullion if necessary. I just have to make sure it's not a toll call to the GEnie node in Daytona Beach. It's a local call? Wonderful. Can we handle all this? We indeed can. I'll probably be moving over there on December 1. It's almost twice the distance, but it's much less time. I'm cheering up.
Now the rest of this is just for the old-timers on MOTO. I handed the manager my card. He handed me his. "H. Patel," it read. I smiled. I felt as if I'd come home. I walked back out to the bike whistling happily.
Don Parker was assigned to teach us the metric system today. Basically there are three conversions you need to know: distance, weight, and volume. If you know that 25.4 millimeters is an inch, you can figure out how many kilometers it is to the sun, if you know the miles. Same with weight. Same with volume.
But that's not the way AMI does it. The system seems to seek out the most complicated case, then work its way slowly back to the easy problems. Don't ask me. I gave up listening after the first 10 minutes. I knew what the metric system was about 100 years ago.
A weird day. I was up last night until 0200, twitching and thinking about two-stroke motors. Something about them bothered me; I couldn't tell exactly what.
It was cloudy and threatening this morning. It should have been threatening --- southern Florida is being washed into the ocean by Tropical Storm Gordon. For the last four or five days it's been ugly, with occasional periods of sun. As usual I was up at 0700 and on U.S. 92 (International Speedway, running right by the track) 30 minutes later heading west seven miles to the school. Speedway's one of the rottenest roads in America; the lights are timed to change red when you approach and the old folks occasionally get up to 7 mph in the straights.
My primary problems today were two:
1) Don't get thrown out of school (that problem never changes);
2) Get in touch with Fred Rau and tell him to stop yelling about my not having any photos for the first article in the mag.
At noon my time I reached Fred's answering machine in L.A. Later, after a frantic phone call to Ace Foto Backstop Kneebone, a hurried consultation with Lamar Williams, AMI's president, and eventual success in contacting Fred, I think the photo problem is solved. Now all I had to do was . . . Yeah, it really does never change. What I wish was that Lamar wouldn't chuckle every time he sees me. The man's up to no good. I can feel it.
But today was a skate --- micrometers (three kinds), their care and feeding. Tomorrow it's hands on, measuring pistons (at the bottom of the skirt, 90 degrees from the wrist pin --- a week ago that would have sounded to me like instructions in the Navajo language), assuming that the school hasn't been washed away. The rain is coming down sideways from the ocean. It's supposed to let up sometime in February, at which time Miami will be a suburb of Havana.
They gave us student numbers today. I'm #48 (of 56). It makes the four times/day roll calls go a little more quickly. The highlight today was when I asked the teacher a question at a break that turned out to be so stupid that when another student asked me what I'd asked, I wouldn't tell him. And I'm not going to tell you either. Every time I think I'm making a little progress, something like that comes along.
I need more hours in a day. I really do. To save time on eating, I am going through cans of Slim Fast. I don't care what it tastes like; it's more efficient than standing in line at McAnthrax.
Here #48 says goodnight.
It looked bad this morning. U.S. 92, International Speedway, the principal road east-west from the beach (where I live) to the school (where I go to school) was closed after a few blocks due to flooding. I went south, took another road over to the interstate, then north. There are usually about 50 bikes in the parking lot. Today my P-D was the third and last to show up.
We weren't in the micrometer lab for more than a half-hour when James Watts, the director of education, popped in the door with dire warnings about floods, tornadoes (someone bit it this morning, but I don't know where), and other Biblical occurrences. Call these numbers for further information, listen to FM 100.2 tomorrow morning, etc.
Thirty minutes later, at 0915, just as I was clamping a micrometer around an innocent and unsuspecting piston, Watts came on the public address system. School is out. It was raining like pure hell. And the worst part of it hasn't gotten to us yet.
Now I've been around long enough to take weather reports with a grain of salt. The fact of the matter is that no one ever knows what a storm is going to do and if they say they do, they're lying. But it is nonetheless quite clear that this storm is about 750 miles in diameter and if you look at it just right it bears a vague resemblance to a hurricane, though not as pretty nor as well-formed. So it obviously was going to keep raining for another day or two and you didn't need a degree in meteorology to figure that one out. All this, despite the fact that pretty much everyone agrees that the Bad Storm season is behind us.
I went over to the cafeteria and ate a "breakfast sandwich" with at least 825 grams of fat per bite, smiling curiously to myself all the while. I'd needed a few extra hours to catch up with life, and now I had them. I made it back to the motel without problems, washed some clothes, made a few calls, paid some bills, downloaded the e-mail, and watched a bunch of my classmates trying to drink as much Budweiser before noon as a human system can hold. There's a large, loud contingent of AMI students here, but the walls are thick and I rarely hear them. What I hear are the wretched Harleys out on Atlantic Avenue (Rt. A1A). Main Street is about five blocks north of here, Ground Zero during Bike Week.
The chances of class resuming tomorrow are negligible. Maybe less than that.
They have a grading system here that would drive any normal person crazy, and I do not pretend to be a normal person. Basically it is a 4.0 grade point average (GPA), but it's not like any GPA system you've seen before. A perfect score (100%) = 4.000. So far, so good. Then the strangeness sets in: 90% = 3.000; and the minimum GPA required of 2.000 before you have to start visiting the director of education's office is 80%. Notice that an ordinary passing grade of 60% = 0.000 in this system.
To calculate the GPA you take the weekly quizzes, labs, and miscellaneous grades which crop up and multiply that average by 75%. Then you take 25% of the score on the weekly test. Add the 25% and 75% averages together and you should have some number between 0.000 and 4.000. I spent a moment or two thinking about this system today and while I recognize that it is some sort of offset slope (y = mx + b, for you analytic geometry fans), I'll be damned if I can get much beyond that.
Right out of the blocks we had our first quiz this morning. I nailed that one for 4.0. Then we had the weekly test, 25 questions, and I also smacked that one into the left field seats for another 4.0. In the afternoon things went a bit south. We were given a sheet with 10 drawings of micrometer scales, metric and U.S., and had to write down what the readings were. It's like reading a ruler.
Micrometers have working ranges, essentially the minimum and maximum width of the object they're trying to measure. For example, one could be 1-2", which would be fine for trying to measure the width of a deck of cards but pretty useless trying to measure the diameter of a bowling ball.
So there I was, sailing along, and I came to Question #6. The working range of the (metric) micrometer was 0-25mm (so it will measure the width of things from a small hair up to about an inch). It was a little nasty, though, because the line fell at a boundary. It is easy to make mistakes there and I was being particularly careful. I finally decided the reading was 4.01mm and wrote down 40.01. Obviously it couldn't be anywhere near 40.01 because the scale only goes up to 25 (sort of like reading a 12" ruler and writing down 120.58"). As I handed the sheet to the instructor, I noticed the ugly 40. "Hold it," I said. "That 40 should be a 4." Too late.
We ended the day taking the top end of a two-stroke motor apart in a lab. The first instruction was to remove the alternator cover. After a few moments I quietly put up my hand and asked, "May I ask where the alternator cover might be?"
Yeah, as I said, it was an odd day.
Tomorrow we start carburetors. I've heard bad things about carburetors.
For the past couple of days our class of 56 has been split up, 70% and 30%. I am in the little group. When they split us up, they didn't adjust our textbook reading assignment. According to our reading list, we were supposed to be in the four-stroke chapters. But my section was going to be doing carburetors through next Wednesday, though no one told us to read about those things. I skimmed the four-stroke stuff last night, then plowed into the carbs. I feel sorry for anyone who didn't do the same. Today was brutal. If you can figure out a carburetor, you can design aircraft carriers.
So there I was at about 2030 last night on page 158, reading about needle jets and jet needles --- a certain amount of imagination was missing when they named these parts originally, I think. A drawing on the page pointed to a needle and labeled it a jet; on the same drawing a line pointed to a jet and called it a needle. I wrestled with that one for too long, finally deciding that the labels were wrong. It took some faith to believe that I was right and the book wrong. Naturally I'd never seen either one and wouldn't have known the difference if one of them bit me in the butt.
Promptly at 0805 the teacher began pouring it on, advising there would be a quiz at the end of the day. A big handout, a metric ton of information, and a sea of lecture words. We were in a small classroom, sitting on four-legged stools. I pointed out that the needle jet and jet needle were mislabelled in the book. Teacher agrees. At the 1000 break I went into the bathroom and washed my face off. It was a torrid pace. My hand was cramping from scribbling. The pace continued after the break. At lunch I studied the handout, reviewed my notes, and hoped for the best.
After lunch it was the 38 distinct parts of a Mikuni VM-32 carb. Know them and their function by Monday for the quiz. Know what a 5D14 jet needle code means, as well as . . . It was endless. We took a carb apart and my neighbor helped me put mine back together. We looked at a video of a carb in action. We took the quiz.
Question #5: From a throttle opening of 1/8 to 1/4 turn a needle jet meters fuel through the jet needle. True or false?
We weren't even supposed to have questions about the throttle phases, since the handout clearly specified that the quiz would cover only basic carb principles and phases were plainly not in that area. But I knew the 1/4-1/8 range anyway because I skipped lunch to learn it (and other things I can't even remember now), and that it was right there that the jet needles did their thing, so I said TRUE, you betchum, Red Rider.
It is false. The question is trick and the teacher admitted it. The needle meters fuel through the jet (a tube, called a "jet" to make it sound more snappy), not the other way around. It is like saying that the dust sweeps the broom (and in a certain submicro-region of physics, that also is true). When the instructor pointed out the difference, I just said a simple "Bullshit." There were a lot of people pissed and groaning loudly; obviously (the student says knowingly) the focus upon was what dances were happening in the 1/8-1/4 throttle opening interval. Some student; some focus.
It struck me that most of the people who would get this question right were the ones who had no idea what was going on anyway. Fifty-fifty. At least I have actual proof, as 18 classmates will attest with my correction of the erroneous textbook labels, that once upon a time I knew the difference. And this too is true: I will never forget it, as much as I would like to.
Bong. You got one wrong, bubba, and the GPA drops a little more. What horrible psychodrama occurred in my twisted past to make me believe that 90% is death?
I spent the entire weekend retyping and printing out notes, reading about carburetors, and watching a few old movies on AMC. It rained off and on both days and my toes have begun to web. I don't own a thing that is still dry; when I look at the bike, I can see it rusting before my eyes.
This was the second day of carburation; at the end of the day we would have a test in which we would be given an exploded diagram of the 38 parts, numbered but unlabelled of course, of a Mikuni VM-32 carb. We had two columns to fill in with part numbers: Column A was the name of the part (so what number is it in the diagram?) and Column B was a description of what the part did (find that part on the diagram and write down its number). At breaks and at lunch I didn't do much except look at the diagram, trying to burn it into my memory. Twenty years ago I could have memorized that crap in a half-hour. Now it takes me a weekend and then some.
It apparently was enough of a task to send one of our classmates packing. I saw him at 0745 and said hello. But when class began 15 minutes later, he was gone. I wasn't surprised. He had been at sea from Day #2 onward. It was just a question of time.
The instructor, Dave Banes, has a dry, monotonous speaking voice. But he packs so much material into a two-hour session that at a break I find my poor brain throbbing against cranial bone. On top of that we are perched on four-legged stools; it takes an act of faith not to topple over, and I fully expect that someone will do it before we're through with carbs (in another three class days).
We were blasted with videos and slides of carb operation, cleaning, channel paths, diagnosis of rich/lean problems, and maybe six other things I've already forgotten. We took the carbs apart again. Then we finally had the names and functions test. It wasn't as bad as I'd thought. I checked everything twice. 100%, and have a nice day.
Two of the students stayed late for a tutoring session. I spent a while taking the carb apart and putting it back together again. It's where I'm going to have trouble, I know, tasks that require manipulating these skin-covered sticks at the end of my palm. Anyway, I got the bastard back together in 7.30 minutes.
Tomorrow our test will be to trace air and fuel passages in the carb, then put it back together. I'm aiming for five minutes. A real wrench could do it in probably 58 seconds, but I'm not there yet.
But then again, I haven't dropped out.
The fellow who sits next to me received an object lesson today in detail. Our quiz was to disassemble the carb we'd been playing with for a couple of days, take it to the instructor, and with a passageway tracing implement (also known as a partially-straightened paper clip) trace for him the eight air and fuel channels from intake to output. Each wrong answer was worth -1.25. Then we had to put the thing back together. One part turned backwards, upside down, or in any position other than correct was worth -3.0 points, a failing grade.
He was plainly struggling with the different channels, but I tried to help him, under the theory that you learn something better by teaching it. So I zipped through the test and reassembly with 100%. My neighbor made it through the passageway tracing without a problem, to his obvious relief. He then reassembled the carb, taking it to the instructor for approval.
Half the class was standing around. The teacher looked at the carb casually and flipped it upside down. We all heard a metallic tinkle. Even I knew that it was the jet needle rattling around. The blood drained from the kid's face; he'd put the needle clip stopper in, then dropped the needle through the hole in the stopper's center. It goes the other way around. The stopper holds the needle, except in his carb. Bong.
Everyone says that it's better to get a graphic lesson here than to screw up a customer's bike. True enough. But in my case, I'm the customer.
At the break James Watts, the director of education, walked by a group of us standing outside the carb lab. He smiled at me and said, "I just noticed on your application that you and my mother were born in the same year." This, obviously, was greeted by great guffaws. I am, at the tender year of 55, at least ten years older than the next oldest student in class. I didn't blink.
"Yeah," I said, "I think I used to go out with her." Bigger, better guffaws.
I wonder what my grade on that will be.
Eric, the young man sitting next to me yesterday in carb class wasn't sitting there this morning. He'd bombed the carb reassembly test with a misplaced needle clip stopper late yesterday and was disconsolate. I figured he had hit the road, bringing our known combat losses to a total of two. He'd been struggling anyway. The clip stopper had merely put him over the edge, I guessed.
At the morning break I saw James Watts, the director of education.
"I think we lost Eric this morning," I said glumly.
"Yes and no," Watts said. "He packed up and left in his car last night. He stopped on the road and slept in his car. When he woke up this morning at 0700, he called me at home and asked me what he should do."
"You told him to bag it," I volunteered.
"No," Watts said in his Alabama drawl. "I asked him whether he was closer to home or to school. Home, he said. So I told him to keep going, enjoy Thanksgiving with his family, and we'd see him on Monday."
I smiled. Watts is good, an iron fist in a velvet glove, knowing somehow when the fist should come out and smack a punk to his knees or when the glove might grab a confused kid back from the edge. He himself is an AMI graduate, maybe fifteen years ago. His name is still on the wall in the wheel room, one of the twenty or so fastest spoke lacers in the school's history. My name won't be there when we do that drill; and I couldn't do his current job either.
Having a few more minutes, I wandered over to the lounge to see if weekly grades had been posted. Nada. Coming out I ran into a friend, Gerd von Doemming (a retired Voice of America employee, though I'll always believe that such people are actually CIA spooks), from whom I've been separated since our class split into two sections last week. His group is doing measurements and real engines. He looked shaken; another bad day with the micrometers, I guessed.
"I'm having a philosophical crisis," he said. "My Slavic side is warring with my German ancestry. The Slavic side says that any measurement within a half-mile is good enough. The German part wants to hunker down to +/- 0.0004". I need the German side to prevail or I flunk. But the Slavic side is winning." He looked a little green; the morning had gone badly, maybe worse than the day before.
Because of Gerd's troubles and my anticipatory fears, we'd arranged the day before for both of us to meet with an instructor at 1700 today for some micrometer tutoring. The school doesn't charge us for this, something I find both generous and heartening. If they want to tutor me on sucking gasoline through a syphon, I'll take that one too. Pride goeth before the fall.
They never spring pop quizzes on us. You know when they're coming. And today was the "jet" test, one that even the instructor described days ago as "tough." It would be 32 questions and cover some very detailed material about carburetor jets --- sizes, codes, oddities, and more specifications than you'd ever dreamed possible.
I hate waiting all day for these tests: Just give me the damned thing when I show up in the morning, before my dripping brain gets clogged up with about 68 billion other little facts I'm being sprayed with in the hours before the exam. At 1630 the test was handed out: fill in the blanks.
It either wasn't tough or I was over-prepared. Had I written this test, I could have thought of a dozen questions far meaner than the ones I was looking at. I filled in the 32 blanks with the speed of crap going through a goose, checked it, and walked it up to the front of the room. This was a clear 4.0 and the perfect end to a pretty good week. The teacher graded it while I stood next to him.
Front side of test: Ace. Dhoooooooh!
Dave Banes, the malevolent teacher, turned the page over. "Sucker," he smiled, making two check marks next to pictures of fuel and air screws. I'd mislabelled them. My heart sank. It was the easiest question on earth, one I'd have gotten out of bed in a cancer ward to answer. Miss one label and they toss in the corresponding error for free, sort of. Minus two = 3.4, and now I'm looking for the vomitorium. This can be a hard way to earn a living, I think.
At 1715 I met Gerd and our tutor at the engineering lab. My brother, the high school physics teacher, would appreciate this. You have to measure things in this school, with tolerances of +/- 0.0004" (four ten-thousandths). A human hair's thickness is practically a wallowing pig in that exquisitely tiny realm. And my problem was that I could spend the next five months measuring everything in sight with extreme care, never deviate in my readings by the diameter of spit, and still be off by half an inch. What we have here is the difference between precision and accuracy: I might have precision (consistent results), but could be doing the same wrong thing over and over, never coming within shouting distance of accuracy. I needed some feedback.
I measured piston diameters and cylinder bores for an hour and had the tutor measure the same thing after me; the pistons are looking better, the bores less so. Time will tell. It may tell a lot.
Gerd, on the other hand, had an early visit from Santa Claus. One of the bores that had dropped him on yesterday's test from a 4.0 to a 1.4 turned out to have been a mismeasurement on the instructor's master sheet. In a blink Gerd went from eight wrong to eight right and if you think that didn't improve his mood for turkey tomorrow, you don't know much about half-Slav-half-German-ex-CIA-spooks.
I walked back out through the lounge on my way out. The first week's grades were up. I'm 5th of 56 with a 3.75. Now I know that I won't be keeping that kind of company for long, but it's nice while it lasts.
Happy Thanksgiving to everyone.
This was a long, frustrating day. Long because it is the tenth class day and therefore the end of the class week and therefore the time of the weekly test (25% of the weekly grade), not to mention a 20 question quiz on symptoms of rich/lean carb mixtures. Frustrating because 1) for the first time we fell significantly out of schedule and 2) we had zero feedback for the weekly test from the rich/lean quiz --- and of course there were a bundle of rich/lean questions on the weekly test.
Normally they hold the quizzes until the mid- to late afternoon (with the weekly test coming at the very end of the day when you're worn out and more tense than a rat in a coffee can). Last week another guy and I bitched so much about the proposed timing of the rich/lean quiz, pleading to have it moved up to the first thing in the morning, that the instructor actually went along with us.
Waiting all day for a quiz is simply tormenting and is almost guaranteed to produce a crappy grade. A first-year psychology major can tell you why: Once you've learned something, any new information received will overlay the old. And the new information comes in this case in the form of a ton of lecture material in the hours before the quiz. For example, during the first four days of carb classes, I wound up with 22 pages of typewritten lecture notes. That is overload with a vengeance, particularly (as in my case) if you couldn't even spell "carburrateor" before this part of the curriculum began.
So the rich/lean quiz gets passed out at 0810 this morning and the guy who had lobbied with me to have the quiz time changed was nowhere to be seen. If there ever was a quiz that I felt I was going to whack 40 rows deep into the seats in left center, this was it. I'd written a flash card program in Turbo Pascal for the laptop; the program pops up a symptom ("slow to return to idle") and waits for me to answer. No worries.
And so I proceeded to hammer 18 of these suckers. One of them stepped me back ("fouled plugs") --- I'd broken it down further than that, by color of plug, condition (crushed beyond recognition, etc.), and so on. Then it occurred to me that lean conditions don't "foul" plugs --- they either leave them looking great or blown to bits. And carbon fouling was an unmistakable sign of richness. Ha. Gotcha. Then I came back to the question that really had trashed me on the first pass through the quiz: "Seized engine." That one wasn't in my flash card program file, and I had to think about it (I would appreciate everyone not laughing at this). I really did. Finally I came to the conclusion that gross over-richness is not going to seize an engine, so, reductio ad absurdum, the answer must be lean.
During the lunch break, I decided I never wanted to hear another word about carbs and quit studying at that moment. I'm maxing out and perilously close to killing myself with over-studying. I can't do this pace for 20 weeks, not without a full-time psychiatrist.
We were supposed to have spent 2.75 hours in the carb synch lab by this point but the demo bike didn't run right, the lab was filling up with carbon monoxide, and at 1625 we all retreated back to the carb room for the weekly test. I don't know how I did, because the instructor brought the wrong answer key (35 multiple guess, two of which really were total guesses that I lucked out on), but I'm pretty sure I was dinged on a couple (of 35) just by the law of averages. At least I aced the damned rich/lean quiz.
And tomorrow we start tires and wheels and stuff that can't be nearly as complicated as carbs, although I'm sure they will be in their own humorous way. In all honesty, I'm becoming a real devotee of fuel injection. Stick the box in the analyzer; if it looks weird, get a new box.
Now that's real wrenching.
The grades were terrible on the weekly carb test. Nearly half the class was under a passing grade (80%). I don't know what I missed, but I missed 3 of 35 --- 91.4%. It was the third highest grade, but I didn't feel good about it. We learned the grades the first thing in the morning. My mood turned grim and never brightened.
This week is tires and wheels and round things. More factory codes and junk. The lecture was like watching a glacier come down a mountain. I'd look at my watch. Three hours later I'd glance at it again, screaming internally when it was revealed that Mickey's hand had moved only about six minutes. Finally lunch came around.
After that we went to the frame and suspension lab with Darryl Traver, an intense instructor who could make Mother Teresa nervous. He has a good sense of humor, but he has no patience with smart-asses. I am the soul of self-effacing modesty when Traver is nearby.
Our job is to learn how to lace a wheel (stick spokes in it) and true it (tighten up the spokes so that the wheel doesn't wobble up or down or side to side). We're going to be timed on both efforts later in the week. The record for lacing is just under three minutes, I think. They have a list on the wall of about 30 people who have done it in under five minutes. Traver said his average time is about seven minutes. Unless we can do it in fifteen, we're in deep kimchi.
Traver gave us a lacing demo. Not even a dimwit could possibly misunderstand the process. He seemed to be moving in a dream-like state, but he got it done flawlessly and quickly. This was going to be a large piece of cake, I thought.
I stuck the inside spokes in and began lining them up. Traver walked by. I reached for the pile of outside spokes. "Are we happy?" he asked in a tone that Jeffrey Daumer might have used just before sitting down for dinner with a guest.
"We're happier than an entire squadron of clams," I replied.
Ten seconds later, I recognized that my wheel was turning into a writhing nest of vipers. I glanced at my watch. I'd been at it almost ten minutes and I'd created a ticking bomb. God in Heaven, I thought. What have I wrought?
"Break time," Traver said. I started peeling fasteners off, throwing the inside and outside spokes around. They should never be mixed up and I was mixing them up. My brain was bouncing, totally out of round, incapable of being laced, much less trued.
I walked outside. My hands were shaking. A friend walked by and asked me how things were going. I couldn't even talk. My first zero loomed one day in the distance. A zero for not being able to stick stupid spokes in a stupid wheel. After the break we would take a practice "timed" test. I sorted my spokes back into their respective piles, muttering darkly to myself. I stared at the spoke piles the way a mongoose seems to study a cobra.
"Go!" Traver said.
There's plenty of time if you don't hurry, I thought. Remember Rule #1 for hospitals: In an emergency the first blood pressure you take is your own. I stuck the inside spokes in one flange, flipped the hub and finished off the other flange. Now the outside spokes. I dropped them in, flange #1, then flange #2. At nine minutes someone yelled "Done!" Others began to chime in.
"Eleven minutes," Traver said. I didn't look up. I started sticking the fasteners on. Finally, the last one was threaded. "Done," I said. Time: 13.2 minutes. Not great, but under the wire.
I knew the tests involving my fingers were going to drop me like a fifty pound sack of prunes. Lordy.
How does it go? You know it's going to be a bad day when the "Sixty Minutes" camera crew is waiting on your front porch as you're leaving for work. Dave Banes, our instructor since Day #6, wandered into this morning with a smile on his face. I groaned. Surely he had some hellish plan.
"Here's the weekly test you took," he said, still smiling. "Now you can find out what you did wrong."
Three dumb mistakes, especially the one on hydrocarbons. Everyone in the room had known it was coming. I just checked the wrong answer. The other two were nearly as grotesque. My stomach began to invert itself all over again.
There were no perfect scores. Two guys missed just one, and it was the same question. I laughed at them during the break. Little children would have run through traffic to answer that one correctly.
"Yeah," one guy said. "Like hydrocarbons."
Banes began to blast us in his usual take-no-prisoners style about brakes, drum and disc. I kept misspelling them, writing "breaks," and when I'd scratch it out, being anal-retentive, I'd be three sentences behind the curve. Stomach flips, hand cramps, head bangs against softening bone. If Banes ever talked about what happens when brakes break, I'd have a seizure.
But when he started in on leading shoes in drum brakes, I could have used a good seizure. At least it would have been less embarrassing than what happened next. He was describing how the leading shoe tends to fall toward the rotating drum wall, but the trailing shoe falls away from the wall on the opposite side of the drum. I stared at his drawing with less comprehension than if I'd been watching a Kabuki play performed by Bulgarian dwarves.
"But when the trailing shoe comes around on the other side, where the leading shoe is now, then it'll all even out," I observed.
Now the shoe, so to speak, was on the other foot. Banes looked at me as if I were a Bulgarian dwarf. "The shoes don't rotate," he said quietly.
"They don't?" I said, barely audibly. "Well, you didn't say that." I could hear stifled laughter all around me. Mike Wallace and the camera crew were probably pulling up outside.
"No," Banes said. "I didn't think I had to."
"Look," I said, regretting the day I'd misplaced my cyanide-filled fake tooth for just such occasions, "with me you're probably on the safe side just saying everything."
Later on, when he was talking about disc brakes and calipers, he looked pointedly at me and said, "The calipers don't rotate."
"See," I said, "I'm going to make a better teacher out of you yet!"
Some holes are too deep to dig out of. In such cases I have found that further burrowing can help. Once you quit struggling for air, the end is fairly peaceful, I hear. At least I put a sword through that ancient adage that the only stupid question is the one that isn't asked. They sure as hell won't be saying that to the next incoming AMI class.
The wheel lacing test came after lunch. We had plenty of time to practice. In my first run I jammed those spokes in the wheel in 11:09 minutes, a personal best. I pulled all the spokes out, carefully sorting them in inside and outside spoke groups, then began rejamming. At the half-way point, even I could see that something was terribly wrong. I yelled for Darryl, the teacher.
"Ugh," he said. "You put the outside spokes in the inside holes."
And I knew why. I'd always started with the insiders in a stack to my right. But when I'd removed the spokes from my record-setting drill just minutes before, outside spokes first per instruction, I'd dropped that pile to my right. "Ugh" didn't even come close.
And then it was time for the real thing.
"Now child," I said to myself in a small, prayerful voice, "you can do this. So do it."
And I did it. Time: 11:04 minutes and a new world's record, sort of. A 4.0 (along with every other student in the class), the last I may be seeing for a while.
For a mere $800.
And that's about what I'd pay someone to do it for me when we have the wheel trueing test tomorrow afternoon. It's about time I find out what a large zero feels like.
The wheel trueing test this afternoon went about as well as I'd expected. I don't know what my grade was, since the guy who was teaching us this stuff isn't the same guy who'll be grading it. What I do know is that I wouldn't want to ride on a bike that had a wheel trued by me.
Anything else I might say about this ugly episode would sound just like sour grapes. Basically I did achieve my goal: I found the wheel on the trueing stand, left with the wheel still on the trueing stand, and broke no wrenches, hammers, or other instruments of mass destruction during the class period. If some of the spokes were tightened in the right direction, that'll be a definite plus. Right now I'll be happy to take anything above a zero and put that wretched crap behind me.
After class I walked out to my bike and looked at the rusting spokes on the front wheel, the residue of some sort of acid in the brake dust. It doesn't happen on the rear wheel. BMW NA has warranted these manufacturing defects --- I found that out a few days ago, when I learned about the clever brake dust slime. Naturally my bike is about nine months out of warranty, but I may be able to do something about that if I can keep my level of anger about spokes in general at an appropriate level of uncontrolled hysteria.
Well, the day wasn't a perfect loss. I did discover why I feel so neurotic all the time. During the afternoon break (brake?) before the trueing test, I stood alone in a corner of the yard with that 1000-yard stare I used to get about ten minutes before I began trying a lawsuit I knew I was going to lose. Suddenly it hit me. Almost everyone in the class knows something about something. I know nothing about everything. Every time the teacher opens his mouth, it's news to me. Every page in the textbook is a Dead Sea Scroll to my eyes. As a result, I can never coast for even a little while.
Gerd von Doemming, the retired USIA officer, knows what it's like. I see him wandering around at lunch with his eyes rolling up in his head. I don't even have to ask: He's had another close encounter of the crankcase kind. Between us we've probably got more educational merit badges than half the class combined and our GPAs to date can crack rocks, but the truth is that we're both already in deep trouble and awash in paranoia. We laugh about it, but it's not really a pretty picture. Gallows humor, I think they call it.
And tomorrow it will start all over again.
We have a brake quiz tomorrow morning. I hope he asks whether brake shoes move or not. At least I know the answer to that one, by God.
Dave Banes, our baleful instructor, had promised a quiz on brakes right after the morning break. I was, as usual, paralyzed with fear, guessing (correctly) that it would be ten questions. Miss one and you've gone from a 4.0 to 3.0, half-way to failure. Ugh.
After the break, he didn't say a word about the quiz. And he hadn't looked at our "trued" wheels either. He said he wanted to grade them while we were there with him. I suffered through the rest of the morning with a knot in my stomach. As the class broke up, I told Dave that I was leaving to fly home in mid-afternoon.
I wasted two-thirds of the lunch hour trying to find someone to process some slides for MCN. Fred never misses an opportunity to remind me that he wants lots of pictures to go with the timeless prose.
We convened in the lab. Banes began by saying that he never flunks anyone on wheel trueing. I lit up a little. Now I'd gone from a sure 0.0 to a 2.0. He then started walking around from wheel to wheel. I noticed that he wasn't even putting the gauges on them to measure radial and lateral runout. I guess he's seen enough of them to know when they look right.
Eventually he came over to my pathetic little wheel. Before he could get near it I said, "Dave, this thing was dead on yesterday afternoon but the lateral's all screwed up now. I think the humidity got to it last night." What the hell, I thought. When in doubt, make 'em laugh. It used to work in Superior Court when I was in trouble.
He smiled, spun the wheel a little, made a comment I was too terrified to hear, checked something on a sheet, and walked away.
"Er, what'd I get?" I asked lamely.
Yikes! A great score on a wheel so tormented that when it spun on the axle I was afraid it might hit the guy at the desk next to mine. Frabjous day!
By 2:30, a half-hour from the break, I was convinced he was going to save the quiz till the last moment and I'd have to make it up Monday. Then he walked over to me and my two partners; they'd been busy disassembling the back end of a Yamaha dirt bike to inspect the brake. I'd helpfully looked on, doing something wrong now and then. Then Banes appeared.
"You're leaving at 3:00?" he asked.
"Nope. In fifteen minutes."
"Everybody stop what you're doing," he said. "Bob's got to catch a plane, so we'll have the quiz now."
"Thanks a lot," I muttered to him. "Now everyone will love me even more than before."
It was easy. I shot through it in record time, turned it in, and stood by while he looked it over. Ten questions. Ten right.
I know there's no justice in the world, but today I was happy to take what I could get, deserved or not. I'll learn to true a wheel some other time. Right now I just wanted to get on that plane.
Days that are evenly divisible by five mean only one thing: the weekly exam. After an extremely pleasant weekend at home --- all forty hours of it --- I came back last night and hunkered down to get ready for the test on tires, wheels, brakes, frames, and suspension. After four days I'd accumulated 20 pages of single-spaced typewritten notes, plus another 25 pages of handouts. And those were half-days, since we had spent every afternoon in the lab.
I did what I could last night, left a wake-up call for 0645, read a chapter of Martin Chuzzlewit, one of Dickens much lesser known works, and hoped for the best. I actually had a plan for my salvation that had nothing to do with the test.
An hour before the wake-up call came, my eyes popped open. If I didn't roll back over, I could get in another hour of studying. So I crawled out of bed. By 0730 I pulled the bike up at school in the midst of yet another rainstorm. The first person I ran into was Jim Brown, a former helicopter pilot from Alabama.
"Just the man I've been thinking about all weekend," I said. "I'm in trouble here and I want you to help me."
I laid it out: I was handling the academics, but we were going deep into heavy engines with our hands on Tuesday and I wanted someone who'd been there to guide me around. "If you do this for me, in return I will make you rich and famous." I've used this line before and most people just laugh.
Jim laughed. "Rich I could use," he said.
I continued, suggesting that I would exercise whatever influence I might have anywhere on earth to help him in whatever area he needed as we continued through the program. He's going into the Harley side, and I told him that while I didn't know Willie G. Davidson personally, I was sure I knew someone who did.
"Just do this," I said. "When we pair off in labs, I want to follow you around like a shadow. If I start slowing you up or making your life miserable, we call it off. OK?"
"OK," he said.
"Goodie," I said, trying to hide my elation. "I promise you that you won't regret this."
I walked over to the lounge. The second week's grades were up. Jim was second overall for the week (3.64). I was third (3.59). "Can I pick 'em, or what?" I said to myself. The board also indicated that our losses now have increased to a total of five, dropping our class fighting strength to 52.
The weekly test was preceded by a three hour lecture on final drive systems (13 scribbled pages of notes that, of course, would also be covered on the test). Finally Dave Banes, the instructor, handed out the exam: 25 questions. On the first pass I skipped ten of them, an ugly sign. But I went back, took my time, and finally turned it in, feeling pretty comfortable. He graded it while I stood there. 4.0. I'll take it.
Jim and I disassembled the front and back ends of a Suzuki 125 that afternoon in a graded lab, didn't lose any parts, put the thing back together, and heard Banes say at the end of the day, "Good job." Another 4.0. I'll take that one too.
"If this were Friday evening, what would you be drinking?" I asked Jim when we walked out to the parking lot. He told me.
So tomorrow at the usual time of 0715, I'll be heading off to school with my books and notes and rainsuit in the saddlebag.
Oh yeah. And a fifth of Jim Beam.
For the first time in a couple of weeks this was a quiet day. I felt like I had been tossed back in time. After undergoing the mysteries of carbs, frames, suspension systems, and round things for two weeks at the hands of the non-stop-talking Dave Banes, we were back with the casual Don Parker who teaches by weird example and war story. Banes is structured with a vengeance; Parker is stream-of-consciousness. So today was like a vacation, especially when I saw some of the people in the other section of our class coming out of Banes' first morning carb lecture looking as if they'd been hit by a truck with an eight-barrel Mikuni downdraft.
We're now back to four-stroke theory: Suck, squeeze, bang, blow. I don't know who thought up that mnemonic --- maybe the second person to work on such an engine --- but I owe him or her a beer. It is the total essence of the problem, collapsed into something that few humans could forget.
The entire morning with Parker produced a trivial ten pages of scribbled notes --- Banes could equal that output simply describing a main air bleed system and do it in eight minutes. Last night I told Gerd von Doemming, the ex-spy (he vigorously denies the charge, which merely confirms the truth of it), that Banes reminded me of an embryology professor at the University of Maryland years ago. His name was Dr. Ramm and in his lectures he did just that. If you dropped your pencil in that class, you might as well withdraw from it; you'd never catch up.
Nathan Stophel, another instructor from our distant rookie past, took over after lunch. He was going to do a show-and-tell with a four-stroke engine from a three-wheeler. AMI managed to grab scores of these engines when it became a federal crime even to speak about selling them. Nathan began by saying that we didn't have to take notes. So I instantly grabbed my pen and wrote down everything he said for the next four hours.
And I'm glad I did. Just the top five pounds of that engine have about 68,000,000 moving parts, half of which seem to fit comfortably in eight different positions, and sooner or later someone is going to ask me not only to take it apart but to put it back together again, having measured everything with a diameter greater than 0.01 microns in the process. At the afternoon break I saw von Doemming sitting in the grass chuckling. He'd borrowed my carb notes and had photocopied them. I asked him what he thought was so funny.
"You even wrote down Banes' jokes," he laughed, waving some of my notes at me.
"So?" I said. "Do you know what's going to be on the next carb test?"
"No," he said.
"Neither did I," I said. "So I was ready for anything." I can't help it. I've always felt that if you're going to be an anal-retentive, obsessive-compulsive, Type-A, basket-case, you might as well be a good one.
Speaking of the devil, Dave Banes then walked by, looked as me as if we hadn't met since that rainy afternoon in Paris in 1943, and asked me how things were going. Great, I said, meaning it for a change. For a moment I thought we were going to get emotional.
Ah. The old days.
My earliest memory of the guy who became my best friend in law school occurred during our second day in property class. The teacher asked a question that made as much sense to me as if he'd been speaking in Hmoung. To my surprise a hand shot up. "I know," the hand's owner said, uttering a string of legal words that also sounded like Hmoung.
"What's your name?" the professor inquired.
"First you tell me if I'm right," the student said. "Then I'll tell you my name."
The entire class suppressed a terrified communal gasp. "You're right," the professor said.
"I'm Lou Jacobs," the young man said with a brilliant smile.
The class --- and the teacher as well, thank God --- erupted in laughter that I can still hear. "I've got to meet that guy," I said to myself. And I did, we became close friends, and he still has more brazen courage than anyone I've ever met.
The entire afternoon found us in the engine-mechanical lab, the first two hours being spent in practicing with the dreaded micrometers. I tried not to revert to my old form. I measured a cylinder bore eight times in the x/y axes with a snap gauge and took the works up to the teacher. Eight readings were at 2.7655, +/-0.0002", your basic tight bombing pattern.
He read 2.7665. I asked him to do it again. He got 2.7666. An error of ten ten-thousandths is unacceptable. We're allowed only four ten-thousandths (0.0004").
"I don't believe this," I said to him and stalked back to my desk. Angry, I gave the apparatus to Jim Brown next to me and asked him to read it. A moment later he said, "2.7656." Dead bang.
"I'm not changing my procedure now," I told him. "I won't do it."
As we were leaving the lab, I saw our four-stroke teardown instructor, Nathan, and asked him to measure a bore for me. I gave him my cylinder and mic. "2.7654," he said. I thanked him for his accuracy.
Following the afternoon break, Jim and I took the top end off a cylinder, dropped no parts down into the crankcase, and waited for Nathan to show up and reward our excellent progress.
"What are these?" Nathan asked, pointing to some things lying around.
"Cam chain sprocket bolts," I said happily. He asked something else. Jim chimed in with the right answer.
"What's the size of this bolt?" Nathan asked. I stared at him with utter incomprehension. He'd warned us that he might ask such questions but no one had believed him.
I lined up a knuckle on my index finger with the bolt's head. "25mm long," I stated. Long experience has taught me that part of my hand is an inch long, and since it was a Honda engine, it had to be metric. Soon Nathan and I were discussing with some passion the length of this miserable bolt without the benefit of a ruler other than my finger. It was absolutely surreal. He staunchly maintained that it was 32mm. I said it couldn't be that long because my finger between the first and second joint never lied.
He started to leave, then said something about his own experience in the lab.
"Well at least you don't have someone sneaking up on you and asking questions about bolts," I said.
For just a millisecond there was a frightful silence. Then Nathan burst out laughing. Jim started to laugh too when he saw that everything was all right. Nathan walked away, still snorting.
"You've got to be very careful about saying smart-ass things like that," I said to Jim, wiping a bead of sweat off my forehead. "A good friend of mine got away with it once. Now he's the head professor of constitutional law at Ohio State University."
"And today," I added, "I'm learning about metric bolts."
We had a little problem this morning. Lanny is a new instructor. His background is in Harleys, making them go fast and run with torque that could haul the Queen Mary into port. He knows all about boring out cylinders, race cams, and things that definitely have an interest for many of the students in the class.
I, on the other hand, am constantly thinking of ways to make my bike run slower and with far less compression than German engineers ever dreamed of. The reason for my retro-thought is that I want to run on gas that will be available in Chad, which might have an octane rating of 50. If I could find a way to make my 1,000cc bike into 500cc with a top end of 50mph and the inability to climb a 2% grade except in second gear, I'd do it tomorrow. Bring on the crap gas.
Being new and not having good pace, Lanny sometimes zooms ahead of and sometimes lag behind the appointed schedule. When he has dead time to fill, he tells war stories. Also when he's unsure of an answer, he occasionally will make up one. He's not trying to be evil --- I know there isn't a mean bone in his body. But it's a little disconcerting. We had a couple of examples of that this morning during his lecture on pistons, rings, and cylinders.
Someone asked about lands and grooves on a piston. For once I knew what the subject matter was since once I'd taken a course in toolmark and firearms identification. I've actually matched bullets under a compound microscope by identifying lands and grooves. Lanny tossed out a statement that suggested that they were the same thing. They aren't. That got straightened out a while later.
With a half-hour to go before lunch, and with everyone uneasy because there was still a lot of material that hadn't been covered, Lanny misspoke when he referred to a 30 degree angle in a crosshatch pattern in a bored cylinder. He was measuring the angle off the horizontal plane; he should have been measuring off the vertical. I ended up at the blackboard trying to resolve the misunderstanding, which naturally succeeded in confusing everyone but myself twice as much as before.
Jim Brown, God bless him, finally came to my aid. With a couple of graphic examples he was able to say in a few words what I'd been trying to say in many more. The whole process took fifteen minutes to unravel, the result of which was that we ended up skipping an important section on measurements which, of course, will be prominently featured on the weekly test Monday. There is some hope for recovery we are told.
After lunch we finally had the micrometer test: Piston diameters and cylinder bores. We'll have the grades back tomorrow. I was consistent on the first set of measurements (I did a second set for extra credit, figuring that I'd sure as hell need that), but I've been consistent before --- consistently wrong. On the second set I was all over the neighborhood, one measurement different from another by 68/10,000ths of an inch. That is roughly equivalent to a plane trying to land in New Orleans and arriving in Chicago by mistake. I don't care what my grade is. I really don't. If I haven't learned micrometers by now, it's hopeless.
In the afternoon lab we were back at the four-stroke engines, ripping the top end apart, decompressing the valve springs without once hitting anyone in the eye, and measuring some of the parts that were falling onto the table. Jim and I felt like ballerinas. It couldn't have gone better.
The local BMW club is having a Christmas party tonight. I'm going to go because I deserve it. And the quiz tomorrow can wait.
Please hold the snickering down, but the cumulative grades for the first three weeks were posted this morning and I'm first in my class --- now down to 52 from 57 students --- with a 3.72 average. See? There really is a place for blunt force in academic affairs.
The hypothesis that brought me to AMI was straightforward: That a mechanically-inept, comical, old dog really can learn new tricks. A month into the experiment I think the hypothesis is proven. I've worked hard at this, but more of the credit belongs to the school. AMI's techniques are virtually guaranteed to produce knowledge of the subject matter, if the student is willing to learn.
There are some flat-spots in the system here and there, so says the veteran of 3.8 whole weeks. Obviously I didn't care much for the time spent on wheel trueing, nor do I think many graduates will ever be grinding valves and valve seats, as we started to do today. Most shops ship those jobs out. I would have preferred to spend more time on fuel injection, CV carbs, and clutch assembly, things that are likely to be faced by real wrenches. If a valve costs $8 to replace, no one's going to waste time measuring or grinding them. It's notched? So pitch the pig and get a new one from stock, Jack.
But the overall instructional pattern is clear. They teach the important stuff in an orderly fashion; they clearly show you how to do the manual work; they give anyone who asks free tutoring; and then they give you a test. If you can't pass it at that point, it really isn't the school's fault. And if you're still having trouble and get bounced, you can come back and repeat the five-week term at no cost. AMI doesn't make any money there. But by offering that as a last hope and resort, the school gains credibility that money can't buy.
I saw my first clutch this morning, up close and personal. It is a fascinating organ. Jim Brown spent lunch explaining to me how the thing really worked. I'd read the textbook last night, but got nowhere. Then somehow I missed the part in the lecture about how the steel plates and the fiber plates sort of come together with ensuing friction snapping a bike like mine forward from 0-60 mph in a matter of mere minutes. The details are a little fuzzy, but I've got an entire weekend to bring this clutch sucker to its knees. The weekly test is the first thing Monday morning, as usual. Yuck.
After lunch Lanny handed out the grades from the micrometer test we'd done yesterday. I held my breath, praying for anything better than 2.0. It was a 3.7. On the top of the paper Lanny had written, "You've got it!" I felt like Eliza Doolittle --- `The rain in Spain is mostly 0.0281" in diameter.' At least by my micrometer.
Curiously, two measurements Jim had taken, both within 0.0004" of true, were marked wrong. His grade was a 2.7.
"Lanny made a mistake," I said heatedly to Jim. "Tell him!"
"No," Jim said. "I don't care about the grade." He was still concerned about the confrontation we'd had yesterday with Lanny about the angle business. I shook my head. I would have yelled like hell.
After school I walked back over to the lounge and looked again at the posted three-week grades. Jim may not care much about them, but he's second in the class, 0.15 of a point behind the poor bastard he is dragging through these classes 0.0004" at a time. I swear to God, if the man weren't already married, I'd be shopping for an engagement ring this weekend. As it is, I'm having dinner with him and his wife tomorrow night. Jim told me not to bring anything, but I think his wife might be able to use a box of chocolate.
I want to keep that family very, very happy.
Our section had . . . well, a little misunderstanding with the instructors on the scope of the weekly test this morning. What we were told Friday was that all of the material we'd had during the first four days --- primary drives, clutches, and lubrication systems among several other things --- would be on the test. We were also told to review the material from the first week of class a month ago. I thought that was because there were some two-stroke issues --- cylinder construction, port design, and pistons --- that were included as part of 40 pages of handouts on four-strokes last week.
Not exactly. It turned out that ONE-THIRD of the test was material straight from the first week, and none of it connected even on an astral plane with what we'd studied last week. Two questions, arguably three, had never been covered anywhere by anyone. Another question was laughably ambiguous.
Except I wasn't laughing much, particularly when I realized I'd spent about ten hours over the weekend studying clutches, primary drives, and lubrication systems --- a quarter of last week's material --- and there wasn't a single question about those things anywhere to be seen.
The grades were predictably awful. I came in with a stunning 2.4, missing four questions. Jim Brown and Steve Stenger, in my view the best students in the class and with whom I spent yesterday afternoon studying, didn't do much better. One question will be tossed for sure --- even the instructor admits he didn't cover it --- and two others ought to follow it straight down the storm sewer.
I know what happened. When they split up our original class, my small section started Week #2 with carburetors, which is normally material covered in Week #4. So what we had last week was what we should have had in Week #2. If we'd followed the normal scheduling sequence, we might have had a fighting chance to remember that U.S. bolt pitch is measured in threads per inch (Stenger bit that one) or some bizarre torquing sequence (my personal favorite). And it explains why 20% of this stupid test involved reading diagrams of micrometer scales, the sort of thing that drove people nuts a month ago. At least those were a gift by now.
Well, we'll either get this crap straightened out in a real hurry or I'll be spending the next four months taking apart the BMW in my garage with a Haynes manual.
At 0740 today I walked into education director James Watts' office to tell him curtly what I thought of the weekly test we had yesterday --- in a word, not too damned much. And he wasn't in much of a mood to hear my gripes. For a moment I thought about leaving him a detailed letter I'd written last night, composed when I was in a fair heat, but good sense for once overtook me so I left with his assurance that he'd look into it.
He'd already heard about my complaints, I'm sure, because I spent some very angry moments yesterday morning at the break telling Van Singley how pissed off I was. Van is the BMW instructor and doesn't take any crap from anyone, particularly students. He terrifies them, in fact. I, on the other hand, really enjoy him. He's an absolute martinet, but at least he knows what he's doing, is a terrific teacher, and expects you to remember what he has told you without any whining. I can live with that.
We spent the morning getting prepped for a series of graded lab exercises that will take the next few days to complete. Some of it appears a little daunting --- we're beyond simple springs (which have always petrified me because you never know when one of them is going to let go and fly straight through your eye into the deepest part of your former brain) and have now moved on to a hydraulic press to put a ton of pressure on some innocent crank pin --- but I took good notes and might scurry through unnoticed.
This afternoon was a transmission lecture. I thought I understood them from reading the textbook but within an hour I was twitching with yet another massive anxiety attack. Jim Brown tried to calm me down, but it just got worse. At one point I walked out of the room in despair. I was disconsolate again, desperately trying to think up a good excuse to go home for keeps.
Just before the period ended, someone passed a transmission over to our table. Jim took it, quietly placed it on our desk, and said, "It's easy. Look at this." Clunk-clunk-clunk. He started sliding gears around on a couple of shafts, explaining how they interacted. Three minutes later I was all happy again.
At 5:00 the instructor started shutting the class down to head off to a teachers' meeting. We were supposed to have had a tutoring session tonight but the meeting bagged that idea.
"Lanny," I said, "please tell those guys that I want to try to reschedule that tutoring later in the week. I'm in deep kimchi as usual with these clutches and oil slingers and other moving parts."
He said, "Oh, don't worry, Bob. I'm sure we'll be talking a lot about you."
I just laughed. What else could I do?
Today the weather turned bitterly cold. It must be down in the 50s tonight.
One day I will look back on this one and conclude that it was a watershed. Today I quit chasing grades, quit worrying about things that I couldn't change, and quit bitching about the essential random perversity of life.
I made these decisions as I rode into the parking lot this morning at 0735 and saw Jim Brown's Harley stuck in its usual place. It was the only bike in the lot. He's always the first to arrive. I looked at that lonely bike and decided that I was probably driving its owner nuts. Jim doesn't do any of the things I had been doing, except study like hell. He complains not, suffers the brutal outrages that are the customary lot of student-wrench life in stony silence, and exhibits a serenity that normally is found only in reformed sinners. I mean, real sinners.
Now I can't afford to lose this man. He is my Eternal Rock of Salvation, for in times of true stress he is there. If he knew how much I depended upon him, he would be charging $150/hour for me to sit next to him, which is what any normal psychiatrist would charge (if there are any left). I had to do something to avert the calamity that was sure to come if I continued to be so despondent over such tiny plagues and locust infestations. An amendment to the General Orders was required.
Jim was sitting in the lounge. I apologized to him for being so bearish lately. No problem, he said. I said that I had lost sight of my goal --- to learn to fix a broken BMW on the outskirts of Cairo. Right, he said. I said that it would be a disaster if I ended up first in the class for two reasons:
1) People would actually think that I was a mechanic when I graduated and, when they found out the truth, would condemn the school for unleashing an idiot onto the world as a certified wrench; and
2) The school's reputation, and what little is left of mine, would be tarnished indelibly because of the suspicion I had been given a free ride because of my affiliation with the magazine.
Therefore, I said, I shall anger and angst no further, and will do what I came to do: Learn to fix a blown Beemer. Period.
He laughed but agreed that there was some sense in my position.
Five lab tests awaited us today. We should have had 16 hours to complete them but, because of scheduling problems, we may have only 12. Yesterday I could have cooked eggs on my bald head with that prospect. Today I vowed to get the tests down in whatever time was available. You can do them in any order. After lunch we convened in the lab to begin. I headed for the crankshaft trueing wheel for the first of the Trials of Ulysses.
Yes, wheel trueing, the problem that had nearly hospitalized me when I hacked away at spoked wheels a couple of weeks ago. But the crankshaft is different, principally because the flywheels I had to align today don't have spokes and to straighten them up you hit the bastards with a big hammer made of really neat, hard lead. I was definitely in the mood for this one, whether I got a good grade or not, and since I didn't care about grades anyhow anymore anyway I was raring to go with but a tiny idea of what I actually had to do.
The crankshaft: This taxes my descriptive powers. Imagine two iron wheels, known as flywheels, perhaps eight inches in diameter, connected with an iron rod perhaps two inches long and an inch thick. But the rod does not connect the flywheels at their centers. It is offset toward the edge of the wheels. Now the flywheels will still roll along a table as one wheel would, but the rod that connects them (you might think that would be the "connecting rod" but you would be wrong since it is known as a "crank pin") describes what is known as "eccentric motion." It bobs up and down --- now one inch off the table's surface, and a moment later three inches above the surface, etc. --- as the wheels roll merrily and evenly off the edge of the table and drop onto the floor with a satisfying smack.
Now when you pick the wheels up you might notice that they have become dented, so to speak. They are not parallel to each other along their longitudinal axes as they were when Honda made them. They are, in a word, pinched, and this phenomenon occurs at the side of the wheels opposite from where the crank pin connects the wheels together.
Consider, however, the opposite condition. Take a wedge, stick it in the opening between the wheels and thump the wedge a good one with a suitable hammer. Do it again for good measure. You have created the opposite of pinching. You have now bowed the wheels because when they try to walk across the table, they look bow-legged, except that you have to remember that wheels don't have anything below the knees. Just think of them as being horribly non-pinched.
There is yet more. It is the specter of non-concentricity. When you look at the two wheels in profile, you should see one wheel. If they are non-concentric, you will see that one wheel is trying to get ahead of his brother. The bottom of one wheel might be pointing to 5:30 and the mate will be laughing, already at the 6:30 position. Please keep in mind that wheels are relatively stupid and do not realize that 180 degrees from now, the wheel that was behind will not only have caught up but will have gotten an hour ahead of his friend. Such is the nature of the mystical realm of non-concentricity.
So my job was to make the flywheels non-bowed, non-pinched, and concentric. I had a big hammer and a lathe-like object with a couple of attached pointers to accomplish the task. And it was going to be a pretty easy task because before lunch the instructor, Nathan Stophel, as a demonstration had just finished trueing the wheels and crank pin, known collectively as a crankshaft, that I was getting set to work on.
So I walked over to the trueing lathe, spun it a couple of times, watched the pointers move not so much as 1 click in either direction, took the crankshaft out of the stand, walked it up to Nathan, and said, "I'm pretty happy with the way this looks."
He laughed and told me to go give the thing a few whacks to make it imperfect. So I did. I reasoned that if I took a wedge 180 degrees opposite from the crank pin and stove that wedge in a bit between the flywheels, I would bow the sucker. And I knew how to fix a bowed crankshaft, that being essentially to smack the crap out of it a few times at about 180 degrees from the crank pin. Which I did. And the needles didn't move much after that. And Nathan gave me a 4.0, telling me to bang it again for the next student, except this time to put three clicks of non-concentricity in it. I told him I knew how to do that, and I did, plus I tossed in a thwack of pinch for good measure because Norman Hammond might be the next guy to come to the wheel and he's pretty close to me in overall grade point average, except that I don't give a damn about grades anymore.
Today we had to finish the Five Labors of Hercules --- graded lab exercises involving such things as honing a cylinder, splitting flywheels apart to measure bearings and clearances, using a dial bore gauge, etc. We'd never done these things before, so I was somewhat antsy. They looked time-consuming, but I hoped for the best. The two that I'd completed yesterday afternoon convinced me that the instructor was using a very generous marking pencil for grades.
It ended up being a piece of cake. Nearly everyone waltzed through with a series of 4.0s and by noon Jim and I were finished, relegating the remainder of the day to a study hall. But unlike high school, we got something worthwhile done --- trying to understand various types of transmissions. When Nathan, our instructor, walked over to see what Jim and I were doing, I explained a theory I'd developed to get gears back together if they were found sitting in a pile. I explained it to him. He said it sounded reasonable. As he turned away, I heard a series of dull clunks behind me. Jim had dumped the entire gearbox on the table and had scattered the pieces.
"OK," he said with a smile. "Do it."
"Well," I said, "I was just trying to impress Nathan. You know. Blind them with bullshit."
"Do it," he repeated.
It took a while, and Jim offered some helpful suggestions now and then, but I did it. The ten gears were back on their respective shafts and meshing happily. Amazing. A good day.
Dean Plumer, two class days away from graduation in the BMW program, and the real inspiration for my liberated attitude about not giving a damn about grades anymore, told me about a 1986 R80G/S BMW that was for sale at the BMW of Daytona dealership. This has become sort of a cult bike recently, and was the type that Ed Culberson rode, shoved, and canoed through the trackless Darien Gap between Panama and Colombia. Despite its 75,000 miles, it obviously has been well-cared for by its owner, an old friend of Culberson's.
I talked to Russell Cheatham, the shop's manager.
"The bike clearly went down hard on the left side," I said, mentioning an ugly left engine guard and cosmetic damage to the mirror and clutch lever.
"That bike has probably been down on every side it has," Russell admitted. But he assured me that the engine was exceptional, with good compression and solid electrics. Dean confirmed it. He works at the shop on Saturdays for $0.00 an hour but is learning a lot by osmosis.
So I bought it.
When I go into BMW training in January, I'll use the R80 as a commuter bike and field strip the PD down to the molecular level. The PD is a twin of the '94 model I'll be using on the ride around the world. I might as well find out now what makes it tick in the safety, security, and quiet of a well-equipped shop rather than looking at a failure for the first time in a Sudanese ditch.
As I said, a good day. Of course the next two are going to be butt ugly with a bunch of quizzes, more lab exercises on grinding valves, and the usual weekly test on Monday afternoon that looms in the distant mist like a snake-infested swamp.
I'll worry about it later.
At ten o'clock last night I called the front desk and left a wake-up call for 0500. I was exhausted. The past week has been filled with a weird tension, real and imaginary. Half the school is sick with flu (probably as a result of the arctic front that hung around for a couple of days), the staff seems edgy, and everyone is walking on eggs. I don't know what's wrong. Maybe it's just the end of a five-week term. Ordinarily I'd chalk it up to self-induced paranoia, but my mood the past two days has been positively cheery.
We were finishing up some exercises in the lab today and would have a picture/parts recognition quiz on transmissions and gear ratios in the afternoon. Before the morning break Jim Brown and I were putting a clutch assembly back together. On the lab sheets there are stop signs. They require that the instructor initial the sheet before you can proceed. Jim and I had stuck everything back together and slammed the cover shut with about 2,000 bolts. As the chain gang boss came walking over, Jim said, "Uh oh."
"What?" I said, trying not to panic.
"We ran a stop sign," he said. The boss' shadow loomed. We shouldn't have bolted everything together. Miss a stop sign? It's easy to do in the heat of the moment, believe me.
Jim told the boss, "Hey! We didn't call you."
"Screw it," I said to Jim. The instructor stood by with a grim smile, knowing exactly what had happened.
"It can't take ten minutes," Jim said.
So we yanked the 2,000 bolts out, showed the instructor what he wanted, bolted everything back together for the second time, and took a 4.0 instead of worse. Two minutes later the guys at the table in front of us were dinged a full point for not putting the date on the lab sheet. Another pair groaned when they didn't put inch symbols after a measurement and were clipped. It was that kind of day.
Two places at the valve grinding table opened up, so Jim and I went over there. Basically the drill was to take some cruddy valve seats and valve and make them fit together. I hated that job the first time I saw it explained and wasn't looking forward to it one bit. You wind up with blue stains on your hands that never come off. So the boss made sure I would truly loathe it when he dug a trench in the valve seat that a back hoe would have had trouble filling.
When the procedure was first explained a few days ago, I took practically verbatim notes, typed them up on the computer, and printed them out. And I followed my notes explicitly, right up to the point where I forgot to put some lubricating fluid on the grinder.
"Oh, Bob," I heard the voice say. I looked up. The drill sergeant was pointing to the plastic lube bottle. Ugh. Eighteen people in the room and he zoned in on me. It took 90 minutes, but I finally ground that bastard valve seat out and when I slammed the valve against the seat and tossed in some fluid to check whether it leaked, it didn't even ooze. But a day late and a dollar short.
The grades through the end of Week #4 were up today. Everyone in the upper ranks did well except me, owing solely to that miserable weekly test on Monday that would still be pissing me off if I cared about grades which I don't. I dropped a bit to 3.70 overall and Norman Hammond, a skillful and intelligent racer from Tennessee, rose to a 3.68. I told him this afternoon that I hoped he was having a good week. I meant it. Anything could happen on the weekly test Monday. I don't have a clue what has been going on lately.
But I got a 4.0 on the gear recognition quiz. Like I care.
Another class day evenly divisible by five, and this one is not only the end of the school week and the wretched weekly test but the end of a five-week term. It means graduation for the class that started off 20 weeks ago, among them three guys in the BMW group of Class #228 --- Dean, Jay, and Tom. Ordinarily such a day would be filled with merriment; for them graduation meant only that they had to return to the school after the ceremonies to take a two-hour, 100 question exam supervised by BMW of North America. If they passed with 75%, they would become Class II certified BMW wrenches.
And they all passed.
It gives me hope, not that I ever expect to charge anyone a dime for helping them with a bum Beemer, but that the educational process is sufficient to convince BMW itself that other AMI graduates can do so with the company's seal of approval. I'm pleased for all the graduates, for Van Singley (their instructor), for BMW, and for AMI.
For Class #231 --- at least the 75% of us who have managed to get this far without quitting or being forced to repeat these last five weeks --- we are about to become not the newest members of the student body. Class #232 will be appearing on the campus shortly. Ah, the newbies! I may not have a clear picture yet of the internal miracles of bi-valved solenoids, but at least the ladies in the cafeteria know my name. It isn't much, but it's progress. When I started these misshapen and often cringing chronicles, I was just 1% through. Today at 5:00 p.m. I was officially one-quarter of a mechanic. Well, perhaps not officially, but official enough.
Our smaller section of Class #231, composed principally of Japanese bike students, a couple of Harley types, and moi (the sole BMW standard bearer in the entire class), today continued our inspection of transmissions and finished up some lingering lab duties. I had spent most of the weekend studying for the weekly test in fits and starts, finally growing so sick of the waiting that when the day started I was almost looking forward to Christmas.
I ripped a six-speed tranny down to its atomic parts a couple of times in the morning and managed to identify various thrust washers, splined bushings, and other things that barely deserve names for a cheap 4.0 on a verbal test. After lunch I managed to get through the "what gear is this transmission in" verbal quiz. The only problem was that I'd spent hours looking at the gear box in one direction; now the teacher was showing me the thing from a different perspective --- the main and countershafts were reversed, and possibly turned upside down and inside out. He wouldn't let me turn it around, touch it, or walk behind him. I finally laughed. My tip is that if anyone ever asks you such a question, just say "Fourth gear." It worked for me.
Gerd von Doemming had told me that there was a question about kickstarters on the weekly test when his section took it --- we know they use different tests, so prior information may not help --- and he said that they told his class just to check answer #23 with "D." When the test was handed out, I looked at #23. Sure enough, it was a bizarre kickstart/clutch diagram that not even a German engineer could have worked through. No one had ever talked about these things with us either. So rather than cause another war as I'd done last Monday, I said, "What the hell?" and checked "D." Gerd was right. Jim Brown figured it out by himself. Nothing new there.
I think my 3.6 was the highest grade in the class, a fitting end to a stressful week. I've done the measuring thing with the endless ruler variants, the vacuum thing with carbs, the round thing with wheels and tires, and the heavy thing with crankshafts and gearboxes.
Now tomorrow at 0800 it's the zap thing: Electrics.
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