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Written by Robert Higdon.
Van Singley, the BMW instructor, looked at the five of us when we sat down at 0803. "Let's take a walk around the room," he said threateningly. So we did. "See how clean it is?" he said, putting no question mark at the end. "See how everything is put away?"
"Let me guess," I said. "And that's the way we leave it in the afternoon?"
"You got it," Van said.
The room really was immaculate. The Harley people say that when you go into the BMW lab, you have to wipe off your feet. It isn't true, but it might as well be. Tools, millions of them, are hung on huge peg boards at the back of the room with silhouettes and seven-digit factory-designations. The rest of the school competes for an exhaust gas analyzer. We have our own. In the Harley lab next door there were 10 bikes for 43 people. When I bring my bike in, our ratio will be four bikes to five students. And that doesn't count the six engines on blocks for practice.
Can you say "factory support?"
Van gave us some tips for the five-week section. He said that the first thing we would notice that five weeks wasn't enough. It should be ten. Despite that, he continued, "I'm going to make a BMW mechanic out of you whether you want to be or not." This statement produced a few smiles but no outright laughter. No one had the courage to laugh yet.
He reviewed other guidelines. When we have a camper's meeting, called by Van to make particular note of something interesting, we should make notes because we will be see that material again in a less friendly environment later on. When we get into electricity, gremlins will visit the lab after we have gone home; they will screw up the bikes. The next day we will find out what they did to them or else. We will know that /5 BMWs had 13 ribs on the fork gaiters but that /6 bikes had 11. Someone asked if we had to know any German.
"Not much," Van promised.
So we spent until the afternoon break trying to figure out how to read microfiche transparencies which are half in German. If I have to locate a smoke red fender, I dig out microfiche #51 (the main group number for accessories and paint), look for einsatz (start), and figure out where in the next 10,000 parts the fenders are before I come to auslauf (end). If I can find a fender that fits one of the 8 tribillion models BMW has made in the last 71 years, I hope it's dunkelrot and not plain rot, blau, gruen, swartz, braun, or weiss. After a couple of years, they say there's nothing to it.
I left at the break to fly home. The day after I arrived it snowed 4" and I got another cold, my second in three weeks.
Does anyone know the German word for "death?"
Two days into my third five-week term I feel as if have been dropped more than two months back into time. This is the way I was when I was a stone cold rookie, not knowing anyone or anything and not believing that I ever would. Most of the faces on the campus are new --- Class #231 is now the junior class --- and I rarely see my old friends except in passing for a few seconds here and there.
This morning when I showed up, shivering, sneezing, sniffling, and shaking from the onset of another damned cold, I told Van that over the weekend I had the horrible realization that it was actually expected that I might remember what was taught to me during the first ten weeks. He chuckled morbidly.
Maybe I've been hanging around the BMW scene too long, but there's a lot of deja vu occurring recently. Van gave us some examples of service information bulletins on Friday. They were signed by the (then) two top tech guys at BMW of North America, Frank Stevens and Richard Dampf. I know those guys. Worse, they know that I am at AMI and I know that they are getting reports about me. Lord.
Then this morning a new guy in Class #233 came up to me and said he knew me from the BMW Motorcycle Owners of America. I instinctively looked for a wall to cover my back. As the vice-president of that 25,000 member club, I have found it laughably easy to make legions of dedicated enemies wherever I travel. But he said he didn't know much about club politics, so I may be safe for a while.
Van showed us a video about basic parts and warranty searches. The film was shot in part at Bob's BMW in Jessup, Maryland. The bike I ride to school was the first motorcycle Bob Henig sold when he became a dealer four years ago. He had a bit part in the video, playing a customer. I could have had that role, I bet.
Just as I was beginning to relax, concluding that this might be a pretty soft five-week term, Van stood up and said, "OK, now there are three R-bike engines back there. Go take them apart."
Stunned, no one moved for a moment.
"Apart?" someone asked very quietly. "How far?"
"When the crankshaft is on the table, that'll be good enough."
Hank Neely and Mario Korf teamed up, as did Sean Lee and I. Adam Siano volunteered to do one on his own. Van had to kick us out of the lab at lunch. I spent that hour inhaling a hamburger and digesting endless pages of engine disassembly instructions from two manuals.
Just before 4:00 p.m., Sean and I pulled the crankshaft out and put it on the table. I don't know how we did all that, I truly don't. Most of it is a blur. But there it lay, and I poked it. It didn't move. I think it's dead.
We now have a dozen things to measure and compare against service wear limits, but that's just more micrometers and calipers and dial bore indicators and feeler gauges --- yesterday's news. The real problem, and it may be cropping up real soon, is that unless I miss my guess, someone is going to have to put those 500 parts back together again.
We sat down. Van asked one question of each of us. I knew all of them except, of course, the one he asked me.
"What is the end play on the rocker arms on BMWs before and after 1984?"
Mark Twain would have appreciated my response. He once said, "I was pleased to be able to answer promptly, so I did. I said I didn't know."
I blame it on the rerun of the filthy cold I picked up. If this hangs around much longer, I'm moving to Key West. If that doesn't work, Mexico.
At lunch I headed for the john to blow my nose for the 3,341st time. Suddenly I realized that I had been in BMW training 2.5 days, exactly 10% of the course. Absurd. Maybe I understand 1/15th of 1%, no more.
I staggered into the lounge with my notes. Maybe if I studied very, very hard and Van asked me a true/false question after lunch, I could come away with something better than a zero for the day. With that thought I looked up from my notebook and saw Van walking past, chuckling to himself.
Steve Bordner, the BMW MOA member who'd introduced himself to me yesterday, sat down across from me. I was still whining about the rocker arm question I'd missed that morning.
"Oh, before 1984 there was no end play. Then it was 0.002"."
I groaned. This is my eleventh week in school. Steve is in his third day. Seeing my mood darken, he hastened to assure me he's been doing all his own work for years. Wonderful.
After lunch Van asked me a true/false question and I got it right. Then we started putting the engine back together. The rest of the afternoon is lost. I'm going to bed.
The R80G/S engine we'd left disassembled yesterday afternoon did not put it self back together overnight. We'd left off trying to stick the timing chain back together and resumed with that one right after our morning quiz. I'm learning to hate the daily quizzes. But I knew that a BMW part number has 11 digits, so I dodged that bullet.
As usual, Van would gather us around from time to time in a "campers meeting." Sean and I moved along reasonably methodically. As usual I am a lot slower at the tasks requiring tiny little finger movements, such as sticking valve retainer clips next to a spring that is loaded up with maybe six trillion pounds of pressure and ready to leap straight toward my eye. I am one of those few humans who actually listened when mother said, "Don't do that. You'll put out your eye."
By noon I was ready to go home. The cold/flu/pneumonia had gone beyond merely terminal. I told Sean that I probably couldn't last the rest of the afternoon, but I wanted to stay at least long enough to finish the engine. I tried to study for the afternoon question, but gave up after a while and lay down on a bench.
"Bob, how many milliliters are in a quart of oil?"
"946," I said instantly, as another bullet whizzed past my ear. Maybe I haven't forgotten everything pounded into me during the first 10 weeks.
All was going well. Sean and I finished up the engine and I began feeling a little better. Adam, working by himself, needed some help so I trained a heat gun --- a hair drier, but heating up to 1,000oF --- on a piston to help get the wrist pin in and then managed to catch a rag on a stud, in the process dropping the piston with a heart-stopping bang onto a table. Leaning over to pick it up, I listened carefully for the sound of Van's footsteps heading for his desk to write down my grade of -800 for the day.
Well, it isn't all life-threatening colds, off-the-wall questions, and dropped pistons. Today's gem: If you want your car or bike to waltz through an emissions test, simply change the oil and drive straight to the test station. Most of the contaminants, unburned gasoline primarily, that set off the meter are dissolved in the old oil. Change it and you're home free.
Four new quarts? Well, that'd be 3,784 milliliters. Plus or minus zero.
Last night I couldn't take it any longer so I went to the dealer and got the hard stuff, the most dangerous, addictive substance any chemist could devise, the original nose candy: Neosynephrine.
Sure, I know. I should have just said "No," but three days of mouth-breathing was enough. At 8:00 I found the local supplier and he made me right. Using the Big N on a nose that is anything less than surgically sealed is like taking dynamite to butter, vicious overkill but strangely satisfying. So I'll be hooked for the next five years, as was my brother in the mid-'70s. Like I care.
Sean came over at 9:00 for a weekly test prep session. We went over the 19,823 minuscule facts that could be thrown at us. When he left, I typed up a revised chart of BMW models with year-by-year changes, and tried to memorize it. I couldn't. There's too much. Maybe in ten years I'll know when monolever shocks arrived, but all I could remember now was rocker arm clearance. I'd bitten that during one-on-one questioning Tuesday morning.
This morning was class photo day. We in the haughty BMW section were ready. Donning lab coats and the regalia of True Mechanics (multimeters, BMW logo notebooks, and odd special tools), we paraded out to the front of the school for our cameo. Our appearance, as you might imagine, did not escape pointed comment from the other sections. Though we are but five, we have the moral strength of thousands.
Van warned that sometime today he would yell "Surprise," and our weekly test would begin. "And," I said, "when you do, don't be surprised to see me flop on the floor like a fish and wet my pants."
We started taking apart K bike engines after lunch. These are nothing like R bike engines and I hope that they will quickly stop making them. If they don't, perhaps one day I will understand them, though that may not be soon enough, I fear.
The second installment of the MCN diaries appeared on campus today. Six copies were given to me before general distribution, so I passed them out to Adam, Hank, Mario, and Sean at the afternoon break. We were reading the magazine in the sunny quadrangle with carefree glee when Van walked by and said, "Surprise! Hit the floor, Bob."
This week Van let us off easy. He could have given us a test that no one could pass, but he didn't. It was mostly rehash, but that didn't stop me from missing part of the same question I'd bombed about rocker arm clearances two days ago.
"I protest!" I said, tormented by my own ineptitude. It's my training: When caught in an error, lash out at the accusers.
"Good," Van said. "I'll make a poster for you and take a picture while you march." I slunk to the back of the room, mumbling veiled threats about administrative appeals. "I love to see a lawyer screw up, don't you?" he asked my classmates and former friends. They traitorously agreed.
The tenth week grades are up: Jim Brown, Steve Stenger, Joe Snyder, and Jack Denaro --- the owner of the prettiest Harley at school, and that's saying something --- all had 4.00s. That moved Jim into first with a 3.70. Chuck Fort's rare off-week, combined with my (lately) infrequent good one, tied us for second at 3.65. Six others are at 3.50 or better. Chip was right. This really is a rare class.
How rare I realized at day's end when I overheard Jim and Joe talking about their day in the Harley lab. In a week Joe has reduced his bike to rubble and is near to putting it back together. Maybe 1/10th of what they were saying I understood. I'm not in that league.
No worries. In a week I have learned 20% of utterly everything there is to know about BMW bikes. Sure.
Normally when someone drops something, the rest of us yell, "Hey, Van! Did you see how high that connecting rod bounced?" But that's grown old, so now we just yell out the BMW part number that's rattling around on the floor. BLANG! "11-31-2-504-664!" It's good practice and more accurate.
I've been thinking about that piston I dropped the other day. This is the sort of thing I shouldn't be doing at this stage of my mechanical career. If I were Van and I'd seen what I'd done, I'd have given me a zero for the day. Real wrenches don't drop things like pistons, not unless they like buying them for the customer out of next Friday's paycheck. I wrote a story once about how friction had helped me out in various difficult times, but gravity and I long ago decided to become mortal enemies. Nothing changes, unless it gets worse.
The life span of the brand new K1100 engine Adam, Sean, and I had been disemboweling had been about ten minutes. Van said that no oil had reached the top end to lube the camshaft. He asked us to find out why. Adam dragged out a handout about the oil circulation system, a good idea that I didn't think of. Everyone but me goes to the source every time. I keep forgetting.
And as soon as the cylinder head was pulled, Adam and Sean saw the problem. There was a hole in the gasket, but no hole in the metal beneath it. Apparently the factory drill bit had broken at some point and the quality control worker, who is now looking for another job, didn't see that the robotic driller had failed. The result: No oil passage hole to the top end, a ruined cylinder head, and a scrapped engine at a conservative cost of about $4,000. BMW is now trying to figure out how many engine blocks, before and after ours, had been affected. I shuddered at the thought. There are, I guess, worse calamities in life than a dropped piston.
We finished stripping the engine, pulled some valves for practice, and began putting it back together. As zealous as I am about lining up dismembered parts in takedown order, I can't compete with the other guys when it comes to recognizing what goes where and when and why. They're good, these guys, all of them, and I spend most of the day wondering when I'll catch up with them. I'm guessing it will take the rest of my life, plus a day.
At least Van thinks we're a good group. Our class average for the first week --- 3.42 --- was, he said, a full tenth higher than his last section. He complimented us for working co-operatively, showing real interest in the subject, and willing to listen. On a more somber note he suggested that the grades almost certainly will get worse.
By midday most of the staff had seen the latest issue of MCN, so I thought it was safe to storm into Lamar's office and demand six press box tickets to the 24 hour race at the speedway this weekend. But that disappointment was balanced when I ran into Dave Banes at the end of the day.
"Your story was all right," he said drily, a compliment of almost historic proportions.
"You'll really look great in the next issue," I said, ecstatic that he hadn't dropped me with a right hook. When Dave drops something, it's not a mistake. And he always knows the part number. I'm Part #231-48.
Last week I began considering taking the '86 R80G/S on the One Lap of the Earth tour. There are a bunch of decent reasons for such a plan, but certainly a big one was that I have the bike here and can begin almost immediately outfitting it. If I run into any technical problems, there aren't many places I'd rather face them that at AMI. If the teachers here don't know the answer to a question about motorcycles, there is no answer.
Still, I wondered about the wisdom of starting a two-year trip over uncertain roads in uncertain conditions with a ten year-old bike that already has over 75,000 miles behind it. Van assured me that bottom end problems, the ugly metal sounds that can bring a trip to an indefinite halt, are basically unknown in BMWs, irrespective of mileage. Anything else I theoretically would have a reasonable chance to fix.
Over the weekend I made a wish list of about $12 million in miscellaneous items for the bike I'd like to have, including a couple of wheels that will run tubeless tires, and sent it off to Capital Cycle in Virginia. Then I spent the rest of the time trying to figure out what needs to be done in what order. September, the proposed take off date, seems strangely near at hand.
So with a head full of prehistoric R bike details spinning around in my head, and with four hours' sleep, I headed off to school this morning to learn how to adjust valves on 21st century K bikes. My heart wasn't in it. During a lull, I sat down at the parts microfiche and looked up a wish list item for the R80: #36-31-1-458-453 (spoked rear wheel for tubeless tire), $514.95. Yow! I didn't have the courage to look up the price for the rear wheel; I know it's much worse.
Another plan bit the dust this afternoon. I thought I'd grab some brilliant kid in the class behind me who is headed for BMW. Since he would go straight to shop at the same time I'm finishing my BMW training, I might be able to bribe him to take the graduating Sean Lee's place. I looked at the grade sheets for Class #232. Bingo! I headed for James Watts' office.
"What do you know about this fellow?" I asked him. "I need someone to hold my hand. You know that."
"He's a good student," Watts said.
I beamed brightly in anticipation of meeting my new hero.
"But he had to withdraw from school," Watts said, trying to suppress a grin.
OK. I can live with that. After all these weeks I'm finally forced into being self-sufficient. It won't be pretty, but I'll do it.
I saw Chip Ream after school and told him I wanted to hire him to help me make my bike run electrically the way his does. Long ago he yanked every wire on the bike and rewired it such that everything meets on a board under his seat. There are maybe eight wires in the whole bike and he can check every electrical circuit in 15 seconds. He said that my project intrigued him. He and Van have been talking, I guess.
"And forget the tubeless tire stuff," he said. "I can change a tube tire so fast it will scare you. I'll show you how to do it."
Hey, Chip. You don't have to ask me twice.
Back in December we studied gearboxes. One of our handouts stated, "Direct transmissions have two shafts; indirect transmissions have three shafts. Nothing else has ever been or ever can be." But I rode home that night on my BMW, shifting a direct transmission with three shafts.
Today I saw one. It wasn't that bad getting to the transmission case, since someone had already divorced it from the engine that sits in front of it and the drive shaft that sits behind it. But getting the shafts themselves out was more of a problem. Because they are wedged into the case with an interference fit at the south end, we warmed up the box with a heat gun until the gun seized up, then we took a propane torch to the case. It finally gave up its cargo, just before lunch.
Later Van zapped us with four rounds of questions. I got three out of four, missing one I knew and guessing correctly at one I didn't. Another day, another dollar. I'm keeping track of every question he asks; my guess is that we're going to be seeing a lot of these guys again on the certification test.
Someone had misassembled a cam shift disk. At the break I was still trying to put it back together. I grabbed some tools and hauled the thing to the picnic table outside. A moment Sean came up behind me and said, "Look at this." He was pointing to a circlip that he had placed in the grass. "When one of those takes off, this is what you'll be looking for."
I laughed. Two minutes later one took off. Then I wasn't laughing. It's on its way to Miami tonight, I think.
Late in the afternoon Chip wandered into our lab. He walked to the back of the room and looked at the R80 which was sitting cheerfully on a lift. He stared at the bike. Van wandered over. He stared at the bike too. They didn't say anything. They just stared. They reminded me of an old married couple who's been together so long that they communicate effectively by telepathy.
After a few moments I couldn't take it anymore. "Well?" I said. "What do you think? Say something!"
They continued to stare wordlessly. Flaws in the bike I hadn't noticed before began to wink in a neon-like glow. I swear I could almost see paint flaking off while I stood there.
After an eternity Chip finally said, "It'll work." The two of them chatted amiably in a foreign language for a minute, then Chip took off. I hope that's a good sign.
Every time I start getting depressed about things --- today is one of those days --- I try to remind myself that I am one of the very few people in the entire school who is never going to earn a dime twisting a wrench for my daily bread. I also try to keep in mind that I've had quite a fortunate life. The world doesn't owe me anything.
For me, my presence at AMI is pretty much a lark. For most of the others, it's the fulfillment of a dream. For a small few this is the last stop if they don't make it. I used to think there was some pressure on me. I've learned better. Pressure? I wouldn't know pressure here if it squeezed my head flat.
Yesterday, another day when I wasn't feeling all that chipper, I was talking to David Harrison at the afternoon break. He's in the Harley program here. Back in the real world he's the co-owner of a dealership in Canada an hour west of Toronto. He's been a pretty fair mechanic for several years but felt that if he could come to school here, he'd be even better. I admire that kind of sacrifice today for goal tomorrow, not the giggling, summer camp mentality that I brought here. He knows what he's doing and he's serious about it.
David is like most of the students in Class #231. They have gotten happier with the onset of the hands-on part of the program, disassembling their own or other real motorcycles and revelling in the grease. I'm trying to catch on. But I feel as if I fall farther behind each day.
I saw Van heading across the quadrangle. End of break time. Ach. Soon he'll discover that I don't have a clue how to adjust valves on a K bike, despite having been doing it for more than a day.
"Don't get discouraged," David said.
"Not me," I lied.
I headed toward the BMW room; David turned to the Harley lab with a smile. His happiness is evident. He really enjoys those thumping bikes.
I walked a few steps, then turned to watch him. It has always been interesting for me to see how he goes into a room. Grab the door handle, slide back a foot while swinging it open, then dart forward before it can whack him.
He makes it look easy, going through a door in a wheelchair.
The end of week #12 came on what for central Florida was another very cold day --- temperatures in the high 20s overnight and not warming up during the afternoon as I'd hoped. This morning my legs were numb before I was halfway to school. If it is this bad here, I can only imagine what it must be like in the Real World.
We were back flailing away and measuring ring and pinion gears today, a task that not many full-time wrenches will do more than a few times in a working career and that I shall do never again. But it's pretty clean work and requires a lot of heating with a propane torch which I enjoy.
It wasn't all fun and games, however. One of the students dropped a ring gear. It doubly lived up to its name by hitting the floor with a terrifying BOING, then circling around the room to the utter horror of the poor guy who dropped it. I glanced up at Van, moving not a millimeter from where I stood so that he could easily see that I was not the culprit.
Later another pair was busily beginning to yank a bearing off a shaft with an enormous three-pronged puller that looked as if it had been stolen from a gynecologist's office. Van walked in and said, "Hey! What are you doing? We're not pulling any bearings." Uh oh. I curbed the urge to say, "I told them not to do that."
Not long after that Mario was taking the torch to an aluminum rear drive housing when a silvery glob of molten metal suddenly appeared. "Oh, God!" he exclaimed. We all rushed over to see how much Van would deduct for Mario's having melted a hole in a piece of machined metal that surely cost an easy five million Deutschmarks. But it turned out just to be a crummy glob of solder. Mario's heart started beating again after about ten minutes so we cancelled the 911 call.
All this sounds rather zoo-like, I know, but we've taken apart many engines, transmissions, and other things with zillions of moving parts and not one has been sealed back up with so much as a single washer still sitting on the table. I think that's pretty impressive. One of these days these fellows will all be superb BMW wrenches.
That day may not be too far off for my mentor, Sean Lee. Apparently a job opening has come up at my local dealer, Bob's BMW in Maryland, the place that Sean has long expressed an interest in working. During the afternoon break, I called Ted Porter, the chief of the intensive care unit at the dealership, and told him that Sean would fit in there like a hand in a glove. I admitted that I had a vested interest in Sean's employment.
"He's good enough to work on my bike right now, Ted, and I fully expect that one day he'll be doing just that," I said. "And that's more than I can say for myself."
Ted promised that he wouldn't fill the vacancy until he'd had a chance to interview Sean, delighting me absolutely and rendering Sean, when I told him, nearly speechless. I do try to take care of my mentors, even though sometimes ring gears do get away from them.
Oops. I didn't mean to say that. Well, at least Sean has the courage and intelligence to dig things out of strange, expensive bikes and put them back where he found them. For myself, I rarely lose points on technique since I have found that the fewer objects I handle, the fewer objects I drop.
There's a lesson to be learned here, I feel, but we're starting electricity tomorrow and it's all I can do to concentrate on one thing at a time. Maybe tomorrow I'll figure it all out.
When we put away the last of the transmissions and final drives this morning and turned our attention to BMW electrics, I felt weightless. Van gave us a brief lecture on relays. Then he passed out some large schematics. "Now trace the headlight and tail light circuits," he said. I can do that. I like volts. Volts like me.
We lumbered through, out of practice. Then Van told us to do the charging system. Ha! My specialty! I told the others to hang up their spikes: I am the world's leading authority on BMW charging systems. I beat Sean by at least 15 seconds, though he claimed a foul because I hadn't traced the B+ wire from the alternator to the battery."Immaterial and irrelevant," I objected confidently. "That wire doesn't do a thing. Unplug it, heave it in the dumpster, and the bike will still charge harder than a mad bull at Pamplona."
Van walked over. "You didn't include the B+ wire." I stared at him contemptuously. "It charges the battery," Van said quietly. Which, I guess, is the principal point of the charging system. So maybe I'm not the world's leading authority yet, but I'm getting closer.Sean beat me by just under a minute on the horn circuit, and by at least two minutes on the ignition system. I challenged him to a showdown on the right turn signal switch but he stomped me there too by nearly a minute. It would have been worse but he threw in the left turn signal circuit for additional insult.
Van saved the best joke for last. At 4:50 he passed out the final grades for our second week, completed yesterday. Mario and I had tied with 3.6s for highs on the weekly test but he'd been hammered on performance for a couple of unfortunate moments that Van caught. Sean's dropped ring gear yesterday did not escape Van's all-seeing eye: One full point lost for the day, a grade killer. Adam's unexcused absence to confront an insane landlord, combined with temporary brain swoon on the weekly test, doomed him. Hank went in the tank on the weekly test plus some performance losses.
Et moi? A 3.68 for the week, the BMW class leader.
How does this happen, you ask? Is there truly no mere ounce of justice in life? As someone who spent the majority of his adult career in the justice system, I can assure you with a smile that there is not. On the superficial GPA level I continue to excel because I know how to take tests and how to duck when the random rifle shots erupt. I have learned how to stay out of trouble, to avoid the evil eye, to look good because I've spent a lifetime airbrushing my less attractive features.
The game, always the game. Jousting with life, to bet pennies or Ferraris on which raindrop rivulet will hit the bottom of the window pane first. To memorize a random numbers for a grade, to outflank a classmate for an advantage, to maximize your competitive edge. It is transcendent. I do love it. It's what made America great. But it won't fix a holed piston or find a frayed wire. Not by itself.
Sean wants to work at Bob's BMW. So I made the calls tonight because Bob and I are friends and I put the airline fare on my VISA card because Sean's a little short this week. They'll pick him up in Baltimore and give him a place to stay that night and they'll interview him and give him a job because he may be the best BMW student wrench who's come out of AMI in the last 15 years. He has the touch, the golden wrench gift. Jim Brown has it. I know what it looks like. But I don't have it. Never will.
Justice? Sean will get his. I'm afraid that I will also get mine, because it will surely be on a dirt road in Pakistan. Whatever that competitive edge was worth today, I sure hope it's sharp tomorrow.
It was a quiet day in the office. We plunged right in to checking out electrical systems in R bikes this morning. My R80 seemed a likely victim, so Sean, Adam, and I walked over to it and began ripping cosmetic parts off of it, like the tank, seat, and other things in our way. I thought I could feel the bike shudder at one time, but I ignored it.
Then I remembered something ominous Van had asked me last week.
"This bike was running when you brought it in, right?"
"Sure," I said.
"Well," he smiled, "it won't be running soon."
Ah, the sabotage begins.
The handout for a step-by-step process to check the diode board required us to use a test light, a crude device that a multimeter rendered obsolete about 8,000 years ago. At first I went along with the directions but soon rebelled. I'm not taking any test light, no matter how small it is, on my trip. Even if I planned to be a working wrench, I doubt I'd use one. Besides, if my bike's battery was dead, the test light would be useless. That isn't the case with the meter, which has its own tiny little battery.
So I told Sean and Adam they could use the light but that I wasn't having any part of it. So I felt better and did all the tests in a couple of blinks.
After lunch we got another stack of handouts about fuel injection. That brings the handout total to four vertical inches in 2.2 weeks. With any luck I'll be able to get through 80 pages tonight and maybe understand half of that.
We spent some time adjusting the ignition timing on the latest model engine that BMW makes. The factory tolerance on these engines is vanishingly small. We had to use a dial indicator and get the lead firing piston lined up to within four ten-thousandths of an inch of top dead center. A few weeks ago I was adjusting points to practically the nearest foot. BMW makes two cylinders for the K bikes. They differ in diameter by a thousandth of a millimeter. We don't even have instruments to measure such microscopic differences. No wonder these engines can run for a million miles.
The real fun was waiting for me when I came back to the motel tonight. A knot of sullen AMI students was herded together on the second floor balcony. I tried to sneak up to the third floor without being noticed but someone saw me.
"Hey, Bob! Come here. We need a lawyer."
Wonderful. They could have said, "Hey, Bob! We need a mechanic," but no. My former life hunts me down like a dog yet again.
I'd prefer to wait a day on a full report of this ugly problem, but to be on the safe side, I'd recommend that anyone who owns stock in the Daytona Inn at 219 S. Atlantic Avenue might consider selling short tomorrow.
The management of this motel, the Daytona Inn, gave most of the 30 AMI students who are living here a pre-Valentine's Day present last night: Take in more roommates --- 3 or 4 to a room --- or get out. There was a generous four hours notice. I don't know what the law here is about greed-riddled innkeepers, but nothing would surprise me about the avarice of Daytona Beach when Race Week and Bike Week and College Break strike. In any normal environment such landlords would be strung up by a court without even the formality of a trial; I doubt that's the case in this weird outpost of Mammon.
They haven't screwed around with me, except for moderately and unilaterally rewriting the deal I had about my telephone usage. I think they realize that if they tried to give me so much as a flea for a roommate I'd sue them back to the 15th century, whether I had a case or not. I talked to Lamar Williams, AMI's president, this morning. His hands are tied. You have to stand in line to throw rocks at the rapacious money grubbers who prey on anyone who gets near Daytona during prime time and he's tried before. Many times.
Steve Stenger and his roommate told the management here to suck eggs. He's expecting to be booted at any moment. We can all remember endless weeks last fall when the only vehicles in this motel's filthy parking lot were owned by AMI students. We kept this place alive during the dead season, but it changed hands, and any deals we had with the former owners went up in smoke. If I had the time, I'd be in court with a class action suit on behalf of my classmates that would tie these unconscionable suckers up until they turned as green as the money they chase so slavishly.
It was a long day in school: Don Parker's scary two-hour lecture this morning about welding --- I listened to so many of his horror stories of blood and dismemberment, blindness and second degree burns, that at the break I told him that welding sounded to me basically like a life-threatening form of soldering --- and an endless review of fuel injection this afternoon. For a giggle, and to convince people of what acetylene gas can accomplish when angered, we exploded a --- how shall I say this? --- a common rubber product filled with the gas outside another classroom.
Later, when Parker suggested that he might sneak up to me one day and do the same thing, I reminded him pointedly of the essential elements of the tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress and how he probably wouldn't enjoy working for me for the rest of his natural life.
I have enough to do to keep me awake for the next eight hours but I don't think I can make another eight minutes. I left a 0500 wake-up call this morning. I've been getting up earlier and earlier trying to keep pace. The natural consequence of that is the time I get back to the motel I'm staggering into walls. The only real relief is from 1800-1830 when I watch a rerun of the Simpsons. I swear, if it weren't for the common bonds I share with dysfunctional family, I'd be checking into the Betty Ford Clinic as a pre-emptive countermeasure against suicide.
Ah, the life of the student-wrench. Miserly motel keepers, exploding latex gas bombs, incomprehensible fuel injection computers, fatigue.
Just 36 school days to go, or forever and a day, depending on how you're counting.
The full court press that is Race Week is now deeply upon us, a sort of Bike Week except that instead of motorcycles jamming the roads in all directions there are cars, pickups, vans, trucks, tractors, trailers, RVs, clunkers, step ins, limousines, tanks, grain threshers, jalopies, and half-tracks, each sporting at least 14 NASCAR stickers, and all piloted by people who are 170% above the median weight at which death itself would be a blessed relief.
Fortunately most of these people don't get up early, so the ride to school in the morning isn't too bad, so long as I don't ride near any places that sell doughnuts, lottery tickets, or Elvis memorabilia. In the evening it's a different, much uglier, story. If there's a way to get back to the beach in one piece, I haven't found it.
We watched a couple of videos about BMW fuel injection systems this morning. I was sorry I'd ever mentioned not hearing enough about fuel injection when we were doing carburetors; now I've heard about as much as I can take. One of my BMW manuals says pointedly that the bike owner can't test fuel injection systems, can't fix them, and if something ever goes wrong with one, the only thing to do is call AAA and have the bike towed to an authorized specialist. I cringed when I realized that one day I might be "an authorized specialist."
Van then turned us loose on a '87 BMW K100LT and told us to yank off the panels and tank. When we'd done that, crank it up because we were going to inspect the primitive fuel injection system. I was pretty comfortable with this bike because I'd had one just like it some years ago. And I stayed reasonably happy until I realized that it wasn't about to start running on its own.
"Hey, Van," Mario said. "This thing won't start."
"Van already knows that," I said. He'd plainly sabotaged it. The bike had turned over last week. Now it was stone dead.
First it was a loose connector. We found that and fixed it. But it still wouldn't start. Van walked over. I could tell that he hadn't expected that. We traced the problem to the fuel pump, an electrically-driven coil and impeller which sits at the bottom of a 5.2 gallon pool of bubbling gasoline, something I think took great courage to design, much less sell in a country where ambulance chasers in cheap, shiny suits advertise remorselessly on TV.
It turned out that the bike had been sitting around for weeks with premium gasoline in it. Inactivity had rotted the rubber pump fittings to the consistency of bubble gum, producing what could easily be a $500 bill for the unlucky owner (the school's president). Van said that this could have been avoided if the bike had been stored with low octane gasoline and some fuel stabilizers. I made a note.
Van switched the K100 with a brand new K75, which made me even happier because I have an eighth of a million miles on that kind of scoot. But it wouldn't start either. We found a couple of things that hadn't been fixed by the last people to play with it, then ran into a wall. Out came the BMW Diagnose (not "diagnosis") tools and a voluminous manual. It was at this point that Don Parker decided to start setting off acetylene balloon bombs outside our door to the great delight of the Harley boys and girls in the lab next door. He was paying me back for being a smart-ass in welding class yesterday.
At day's end we had concluded that the bike wouldn't start, something we'd known for three hours. I walked out to the lot and cranked up my P-D. I'd almost forgotten that BMWs could actually run.
The traffic going back to the motel was a nightmare, but at least no one was throwing gas bombs at me.
To my delight the day dawned with a shroud-like fog. I thought it would keep the race fans, hung over and quivering, huddled in their expensive motel rooms a little longer until I had a chance to get to school. It didn't. They were up late --- I went to bed at 0300 and they were still running up and down Atlantic Avenue with their air horns --- and up early. The ride west on International Speedway was the worst traffic I've seen in more than three months. That, at 0715.
We played "find out how Van sabotaged the bike" with the K75 most of the day. This is a frustrating activity because I don't have Clue #1 about a fault-searching methodology. You'd think that after 100 years of working with internal combustion engines someone would have devised a flowchart. If one exists, I haven't seen it.
And that really grinds, because for months I've been forced to memorize jet codes and BMW main group numbers and o-ring chain specifications and interconnected carb float measurements and 14 octobillion other useless pieces of dreck that I'll forget just as quickly as I legally can. But the one thing I'd get out of bed to have tattooed on my forehead isn't available at any price.
This is how I learned to swim, by nearly drowning first, and even though I was only six years old, I knew it was a stupid, frightening, and painful way to obtain an education. And I can still remember the name of the bastard who threw me in the deep end that day. I've been thinking about that sadist for close to 50 years and one of these days I'll find him.
You'd think the unravelling of this trickery would be a little easier with the BMW Diagnose tool. The instrument costs just a little less than the gross national product of Liberia but in two days not one of us, including Van, has figured out how to zero balance the damned thing for use as a simple ohmmeter. I've spent most of my time poking at the wretched bike with my $17.95 Radio Shack multimeter.
Being a day evenly divisible by five, that can mean only one thing: the weekly test. An easy 4.0 turned into a 3.2 when I missed the same question twice, a tried-and-true AMI method of shoving students off the ledge by adding bitter insult to gaping injury. Worse, it was the same question I'd gotten right (twice, of course) last week.
After a couple of weeks of watching from third place while Jim Brown and Chuck Fort, both now in the Harley lab, duked it out for first place, the grades from week #12 showed me slinking back into first. Since I probably didn't take any serious performance hits during week #13, not having performed much of anything, and since the Harley kids are taking some pretty serious body blows, I may stay atop the heap for a while.
It's taken long enough but I truly don't give a sideways damn about that any longer. I've gotten to the point where I don't even care about graduating or passing the BMW certification test. Those are all nice and jolly and smell like crushed rose petals. But laurel wreaths and oak leaf clusters won't get me through the Congo. Push has come to shove. Tomorrow begins the 14th week and I still can't decode a broken bike. And, not to put too fine a point on it, I still have to remind myself when I approach a bolt, "Righty tighty, lefty loosey."
Oh, yeah. We're #1. Where's my big rubber finger?
Let's see. Where to begin the litany of horrors?
Well, first, Van informed us this morning that he'd given us all zeroes yesterday in the performance category (I also did poorly in the Miss Congeniality competition). Our failure to find an air hose he'd disconnected on the K75 yesterday brought us to our knobby knees. We spent about 10 student-wrench-hours, never to be confused with actual competent man- (or woman-) hours, and did not find it.
Explanation: 1) If you're going to diagnose something, it helps to have a general idea of the anatomy at issue. When you complain to your doctor that your stomach hurts, you would naturally be disturbed to see the physician begin the inquiry by an inspection of your knee. We don't know the limitless variety of the tender parts of these bikes under the hood, and we're not going to know that in five weeks. 2) We don't have a methodology. I griped about this in yesterday's note. 3) Although we recognized that there might be a massive air leak, our instructions were to begin spraying the bike with acetylene gas to trace the problem. The precautions given in one of our handouts took up two-thirds of a page in bold face type, concluding with a paragraph on the advisability of preparing a last will and testament in advance of beginning the tests. We already know what acetylene gas can do when it becomes annoyed.
Second, Van also said that yesterday all of us had also zeroed the "following instructions" category. He said he'd told us to put the K75's battery on a charger and no one had done it.
Explanation: I didn't hear him. If I had, I'd have done it. It's one of the few things I know how to do. Positive first.
Third, I did a pre-op compression test on my R80 in anticipation of next week's major service surgery. It revealed tiny numbers, about 40% less than I'd assumed. Concerned, I did a leak down test, which indicated a 55% loss of pressure in each cylinder. For readers not technically inclined, my interpretation of the numbers was that the bike would soon require the assistance of a coroner, not a mechanic.
Explanation: The R80 is a low compression bike. Van said once we'd adjusted the valves, things would be in the high-normal range. One hopes. One prays. One's dreams also usually leak down.
Fourth, Don Parker roamed around with his gas balloons again. Explanation: There are two Harley sections. Today Don finished up with the second group. He did not come near the BMW area, convincing me that my warnings of suing him until his pancreas could fit though a soup strainer had an effect. Ah, yes. Legal advice: The gift, like syphilis, that keeps on giving.
Fifth, we volunteered our superb technical skills (see above) to synch the carbs of a beater BMW. At each step we found dreadful signs of neglect, culminating in the discovery that the bike was running on a half-quart of oil, instead of the required two, so cruddy and black that it resembled paste. "I can't stand it when someone abuses a motorcycle like this," Van seethed.
Explanation: I was so delighted not to be the owner of that poor motor that all of the other disasters of the day nearly vanished, that is until I got to ---
Sixth, and last, the R80G/S repair manual I'd ordered a week ago, a reproduction of the microfiche, arrived. It carried the trivial price of $78.22. That, for a book (a small book), you may ask?
Explanation: Yes, and worth every thick dime. It is The Official Revealed Word. I'm going to have it autographed by Phil Capossela, the V-P of motorcycle operations for BMW of North America, and place it in my collection of books too valuable even to touch.
At two o'clock this afternoon the alarm on my wrist watch went off. I asked the group to bow their heads for a moment of silence.
"At this hour," I said solemnly, "those of us in Class #231 are precisely two-thirds of the way toward graduation." A moment of silence followed. "Thank you for your support."
My hands, gritted and befouled, were festering hotbeds of filthy, impenetrably dark grease. The R80G/S, which at 0800 this morning was an operational motorcycle, lay in pieces around Sean and me. Nothing was left of it but the instrument pod, the frame, a few wires, and the engine case. We had reduced it to rubble on orders from Obergruppenfhrer Singley. Tomorrow we'll finish it off.
On at least a half-dozen occasions during the day I stopped work and stepped back to see what we were doing. I'd seen bikes denuded and deflowered before, and I'd even taken one down to a comparable level last year when I worked briefly as an apprentice tear-down boy. But this was the first time I'd ever taken something I myself owned and deliberately destroyed it. I know it wasn't much of a bike, but it at least used to run happily. And it was mine. For now, it belongs to the ages.
From time to time Van would appear to inspect our progress. The first time was when we'd actually ripped the transmission case off the back end of the engine housing. I stared at the dusty, dry rear end of the clutch, wondering when I might run across a part of the bike that actually looked clean.
"Looks great, doesn't it?" Van said.
"Right," I said cheerlessly.
"The rear main seal hasn't leaked a drop and the splines are beautiful."
"Right," I said. "Should I rip it apart too?"
"I wouldn't touch it."
OK. So that's one system that should make it to Tanzania before atomizing.
We showed Van the transmission splines.
"Lube 'em and wrap it up," he said.
"That's it?" I asked.
Good 'till Tibet, maybe, I thought.
"No leak in the rear drive housing," Van observed. Could make it to Cambodia, I hoped.
And that basically leaves the basic engine gut. We'll look at it tomorrow. But from what we've seen so far, while this bike is badly in need of a bath, and may have had a difficult childhood, it looks essentially healthy. I'm beginning to believe that the idea of taking it around the world is only half-insane.
At the end of the day I noticed Van sitting on a stool, staring at the remains of the bike. I walked over to him.
"Thirteen weeks ago," he said quietly, "I didn't think you'd be able to do this."
"Well, Sean did the hard stuff. You know that."
"I didn't think you'd be able to do it."
Well, my friend, that makes two of us. But there's still that little matter of gluing it all back together . . .
Today was so much like yesterday that I challenged myself to find ten things that were different. Today's differences, in no order of importance, are:
1. I woke up at 0500 instead of 0700.
2. On our morning quiz, prompting a chorus of Homer Simpson-like "Dhoohh!" sounds from the five of us when Van announced it, I didn't miss anything.
3. The cumulative number of telephone calls, packages, mail, unexpected checks in excess of $500, and proposals from Michelle Pfeiffer's manager to be her love slave: Zero.
4. I'm not in first place anymore. Every time I think I've finally sent him packing, Jim Brown returns from the Land of the Undead, this time with a weekly 3.85. Nobody but Batman can get grades like that in the 14th week without doing something illegal.
5. Finally tiring of the black crud on my hands all day and using up a half-quart of the school's soap during breaks, I wore some latex gloves, enduring the skinhead taunts of my fellow Beemer wrenches. Even James Watts made some rude remark when he came into our lab this afternoon. Like I care. I was an outcast before I got here and I'll be an outcast after I'm gone; why should the five month interim be any different?
6. An inspection of the carburetors, so dirty and encrusted that you would not believe the bike capable of speeds greater than perhaps 4 mph, disclosed no suspicious animal or vegetable material. Surprisingly, the oil pan was sparkling clean, giving wonderful hope that the big metal pieces in the main gut are in a shape too good to be true. At day's end I peered ever deeper into the recesses of the engine, looking at the poor bike's exposed camshaft and feeling like a voyeur. Tomorrow I'm going to rip its little pistons off and weigh them.
7. Gravity and I, after weeks of horrific losses on both sides, may have reached a truce. Somehow I didn't drop a single thing on the floor, not even a wave washer. I pray that this armistice outlasts the scores of cease-fires achieved so far in Bosnia.
8. I cornered Dave Banes and asked him when the school was going to ask for volunteer corner workers at some of the races during Bike Week. He said, "Maybe tomorrow." He's been saying that since mid-November. To be selected for such "work" is a great plum; we get at least one free day out of school, which means at least one day when I don't have to drop anything (see #7, above).
9. Today the only new Spanish word I learned is one I can't repeat.
10. I locked myself out of my motel room both in the morning and at night, instead of just in the morning.
And to make tomorrow different, I'm leaving a 0400 wake-up call. This is a downpayment for my sins, which are multiplying, because even though I should have more time to study, I find that I have less each day.
I don't know why that is. It just is.
The delay in this post is prompted because I have been overtaken by events. And I was tired.
So I came home from school, watched the Simpsons, tried to study for the weekly test, retyped some notes, and went to bed at 2200. I read the next to the last chapter of Martin Chuzzlewit, a book that I started on the first day of school 3.5 months ago.
I got up at 0300.
This isn't the way I thought it would be.
Yesterday finished up in the category of "no good deed goes unpunished" when James Watts came around to solicit volunteers to be corner workers during the races that start the weekend after this. This was what I'd been waiting for, getting good grades for, and having a nearly flawless attendance record for.
"You'll have to work from 0800 to 1830 on six days."
For this? Well, maybe a true race fan would crawl out of a sick bed for the opportunity to see the Daytona 200 and many, many other races up close and personal, but I've already done that with the best press and pit passes human ingenuity can scam and my personal view is that the track at Daytona is the worst place on earth to try to watch a motorcycle race. So I passed, with regrets. Three days I could have handled, but not six. Not during Bike Week.
Today wound up in the category of "it's an ill wind that blows no good."
I awoke at 0300 and studied for three hours. This is the end of week #14 and, as faithful readers know all too well, the weekly test. I did as much fuel injection and anti-lock braking system cramming as I could, then picked up 14 GEnie e-mail messages, only two of which were hateful but I knew would burr at me all day long, as they promptly proceeded to do. I vowed to pick up e-mail never again in the morning.
When I cranked up the bike to go to school, I noticed a headline in the newspaper stand. "Olympian Greg Lougainis Has AIDS." I felt sick.
We've wasted too much time on the R bikes and now we're in some time trouble with learning how to do a major service on a K bike. It was time for Sean and me to start putting the R80 back together. As the day progressed, it was obvious that a lot of the work I'd hoped to accomplish on the bike wasn't going to occur during my stint in the BMW section. That's too bad. At the end of next week I will no longer have access to the invaluable BMW "special tools." Nor, as a daily routine I've happily gotten used to, will I have instant access to the even more invaluable Van Singley.
When Sean and I were reassembling the jigsaw puzzle that used to be a working motorcycle, I decided it would be good to take a look at the pistons, despite our increasing lack of time. Van approved, so we yanked the cylinder covers off. Looking at the crown of the piston, I reeled backwards in horror. It was crudded with carbon so thick and flaky that I felt sick.
"I've seen worse," Van said. "It actually isn't that bad for 75,000 miles." At least it answered the question we'd been curious about. Had anyone ever gone in there before? Nope.
But the cylinder walls were silky smooth, still bearing the original crosshatch pattern honed in Berlin nine years ago. Amazing. My rough calculation indicates that already those pistons have scraped up and down those walls nearly a billion times. And now that it is broken in, I'll ride it around the world. Deutschland uber alles. I guess so.
But as we began sticking the parts back on, I realized that I didn't have the faintest idea how to clean those pistons. Did I have to heat the crown to free up the wrist pin? Did I have to replace the circlip or could I reuse it? What position did the open end of the circlip go, 6-12 or 3-9 o'clock? Should I measure the free end gap of the piston rings and, if so, how was I supposed to line up those gaps when I reinstalled them?
Once, months ago (or was it weeks or just days?), I could rattle off those details the way I can even now still remember chapter and verse from the ten most important medical malpractice cases ever decided in the District of Columbia. But just before 1700 I had to ask for Sean's help to do something so trivial that when he showed me what I was doing wrong, I apologized forlornly.
Our room is lined up so that the five us sit in a line, facing Van's desk --- Sean, moi, Hank, Mario, and Adam, left to right. We've been in that position, fixed like stars as planetary Daytona and the rest of the world orbits around us, for 20 days, an eternity that has passed so quickly I am astonished. And fearful.
I slumped back into my chair and looked at Van. He wore his usual beatific smile.
"We have a week left?" I asked. "One week. Then I go to shop, right?" Van nodded.
"And if they tell me to take the top end off a two-stroke scooter, I'm going home. I don't know these BMWs, Van, whether I get 99% on the certification test or not. You know that. What I need instead of shop is to come back here and do these five weeks all over again."
But that's not going to happen. BMW (as well as the Japanese bike with their 45,382,891 models) is a five-week program. Harley is ten weeks. BMW has had fuel injected models for 11 years; Harley's coming out with one this year. BMW has a second generation of anti-lock brakes available; Harley is working on it. On the latest model of BMW, a bike that the company will be making 20 years into the next century, we will have a total of one day's practice. Go figure.
And I can't even understand my own poor '86 R80, a bike that is from the Paleozoic era by mechanical engineering standards.
The others left. I sat in the chair for another moment shaking my head. Then I got up.
"Wait a minute," Van said. "You're intelligent. You can learn all of this. You just don't have the experience right now. It will come, believe me."
I thanked him for the encouragement. As I left, I remembered his first words weeks ago: "I'm going to make a BMW mechanic out of you, whether you like it or not."
Back at the motel I watched the Simpsons, my intellectual stimulation for the day. Then I lay down for a nap. Ten minutes later the phone rang. It was Frank Cooper of Capital Cycle, a fellow club member in the BMW Bikers of Metropolitan Washington. We didn't talk very long, but it was long enough.
The company wants to contribute parts and material to the Big Ride. Well, perhaps "contribute" is not a strong enough word. "Give" would be better --- 100% backing to the hilt. Anything I need, they hand me. Saddlebags, like perhaps a 45 liter capacity each? Sure. Maybe a ten gallon gas tank? We can do that. A shop with special tools so I can work on the R80 when I get home? Come on over. They're next door to Redskins Park at Dulles airport, a half-hour from my house. A lift? A knowledgeable, truly certified BMW wrench to help me out when I screw up? Parts out the yang? Got 'em.
I don't know who first said "I'd rather be lucky than good." But I know the feeling. And I share it.
To finish putting the R bikes we'd been working on this week back together before 1700 this afternoon took some effort. It became so hectic that we skipped the afternoon break for the first time since I started school. Apparently a morning and afternoon break is mandated by federal law, information which should relieve anyone who has been wondering whether Uncle Sam is spending his time and our money wisely. We made it, but it was close.
We are down to the last four days, but it is really more like two days. On Monday and Tuesday we'll do major service work on K and R1100 bikes. Wednesday is reserved for cleaning up the lab, a place that is more sterile even now than 90% of the motorcycle shops I've ever seen. Thursday is the big day: Graduation for Sean, Mario, and Adam. When they return after lunch, we will sit down for the two-hour certification test, 100 questions, open book.
Then Sean, Mario, and Adam will go back to the real world; Hank and I will go to shop.
I continue to be amazed by Sean's skill. He really has been the rock whom I hoped could replace Jim Brown. I didn't think I could be, or deserved to be, so lucky twice, but I have been.
Everyone turns to Sean for the answers to questions when Van isn't around. He selflessly explains odd or useful things that he finds to the rest of us. And tomorrow he is flying up to Baltimore for an interview with Bob Henig (owner) and Ted Porter (chief wrench) at Bob's BMW. I have no doubt that Sean will be offered a job because Bob deals in nothing but the best and Sean is exactly that.
This weekend I will be rearranging all my notes from the BMW section, sorting things by BMW's 22 main group identifying numbers --- 11 = engine, 13 = carburetor, 61 = instruments, etc. Van's style is to throw out important facts as we run across them. It is by its nature a disorderly approach, but the main group system can force order and organization out of randomness. And on an open book test it can save the day. If I run across a question about front forks that I don't know, I can just tab to main group #31 and the answer should be there. Somewhere.
That's the theory, at least. If it works, by next Thursday afternoon it is conceivable that I will actually be a Class 2 certified BMW mechanic. If that doesn't send a shiver down the spines of the motorcycle section honchos at BMW of North America, I don't know what will.
Enough. To work.
Vacation retreats: Thomas Jefferson had Monticello; Andrew Jackson had the Hermitage; Bill Clinton had Whitewater. I, too, have my very own: The Daytona Inn, hereinafter to be spoken of respectfully with my preferred nickname, "The Slimehold."
A new problem has arisen over the last couple of days at The Slimehold: Punks, lots of them, but whose ringleaders seem to be in the room next to mine.
On Saturday night around midnight, when they returned to the sty after a drunken day on the beach and pumped up the volume on the boom box to two clicks beyond transistor warp, I made the first call to the motel office. Two hours later I made the second call. In the next 24 hours four more calls followed (including three calls for security), a personal talk with the motel owner, Marvin Janus, and (at 0430 this morning when they let loose in a final blast that recalled the heady days of Jericho, moments before the walls collapsed) a letter to Janus. He tells me, "It's not so bad."
Yeah, it is bad. I left school an hour early this afternoon to try to get some sleep. It's the first time I've ever missed so much as a minute from school, other than a couple of times when I flew home on Friday afternoon. But no sooner did I appear back here than the bastards next door cranked up again.
I've asked the management in every polite way I know to shut these brats up; I've told them that I'm trying to study for a test this Thursday that I've spent almost four months preparing for; I've asked that the hooligans be moved to another room; I've done almost everything but call the police, and that I'll do tonight.
Not that I expect the cops to do anything except take a formal report, a copy of which I will insist upon. Tomorrow I'll use my break time to track down the state agency that regulates motels and make a formal complaint to them. That might succeed in getting Janus in deep water for jamming students up together and double billing them. I'm confident it's unscrupulously greedy; whether it's criminal conduct --- I do hope so --- remains to be seen.
In the meantime I'll just go through the motions to build up the case file so that when Janus tries to bill my credit card for March's rent, I can plaster my objections to VISA with a pound of documented material about this wretched backwater dump at 219 South Atlantic Avenue, The Slimehold.
And that's basically how I understand how it's going to be most of the time for the next six weeks. But whether I'm around to see that has become a lot more conjectural of late. Clearly I'll have to stay through Bike Week, just so Janus can't rent the room for $150. I do think he'll be surprised when he finds that not only will he not get that, he has been renting to the occupant in #331 since last Saturday for nothing a night.
We'll see. After the certification test on Thursday, I'll basically have nothing to do except think about ways to get even with these slugs. And, being a fairly psychotic lawyer, I've developed that talent to an art form.
One good thing happened last night. While I am not one of Tom Clancy's big fans --- by now nearly everyone has forgotten about the unfortunate arson charge that arose when I torched a store that I caught selling one of Clancy's awful books --- I did watch the first part of the miniseries, Op Center, last night. I knew it would be embarrassingly hackneyed, and of course it was all of that even before the first commercial break.
But that wasn't why I numbed myself with industrial-strength Demerol and sat through it. Nope, it was because Mia Korf had a part as the press officer for the government agency. Korf? Sound familiar? Her brother, Mario, is one of my BMW classmates. And it was worth sitting through the drivel just for her, a singularly striking Asian-American actress who makes Joan Chen look like a pig farmer at The Slimehold. And she can hold her lines, too, with some pretty heavy people.
Unhappily, I had a bad day at the office, which I attribute solely to a lack of sleep. Late in the afternoon I forgot to replace the top on a tube of gasket sealant. Van got out his red pen, a legitimate "performance failure" that was the precipitating cause of my going home early. I should have left at noon.
On a more pleasant note, Sean's trip to Bob's BMW in Maryland went pretty well last weekend. He's one student in Class #230 who has stopped worrying about finding a job when he graduates.
And if I don't start learning a lot more about BMWs than I know right now, he'll not only soon be able to work on my bikes: He'll have to.
It is an ill wind that blows no good, I suppose, so while the rampaging Mongol hordes now in abode at The Slimehold are driving me closer to the edge of madness, an AMI student here has quietly taken up with one of their females. I laughed in what could only be described as a sardonic manner when I heard about it. I not only laughed but sneezed, because today has brought my third official cold/flu of this year alone, more than the total number I've endured in the past five years.
It has taken almost four months, but Daytona and the Visigoths at the gates have finally brought me to my knees. I don't know what it will take to surrender, but I'm willing to do it. I'd wave a white flag, but I spilled some oil on my only remaining clean T-shirt this morning.
We flailed away at a BMW of the Incredibly Primitive Variety today, changing packed clumps of oil for a new and improved brand (one without clumps). We adjusted the neolithic points and set the timing, not with a strobe light, but by the reflected glow of hot coals in a cave campfire. Sean scratched out a work order in the dirt with a pointed stick. I cleaned out some pterodactyl feathers from the air box. Once we'd gotten it started, no one wanted to turn it off for fear that it might not start again until the advent of the Bronze Age. By day's end I was so tired I could have stretched out on the linoleum floor and slept for a week.
The Huns were not at The Slimehold when I returned. The relative quiet last night was prompted by their pre-dawn departure this morning to attack Disney World, three leagues distant, where they would fit in remarkably well. We knew that they wouldn't be back until about 2000, so I jumped into bed with my clothes on and slept for almost two hours. Then Sean, Hank, and I went over to Mario's for a study session that lasted until after 2300.
Tomorrow is the last test that AMI will require me to take --- no exams of any sort are ever required in shop. The day after that we will have the biggie. I am as organized as I can be, have tabbed and subdivided every conceivable bit of reference material, have typed out tables of contents for my own notes, and have studied to the point where I can't do it any longer. I have learned all that I can learn about BMWs, given the allotted time which is grossly insufficient. There is no room for another fact in my head; if one tries to get in, it'll just shove an older one out.
Each day I notice a few more motorcycles milling about in the area. They are the scouts for the two-wheeled army still on the distant horizon, bound inexorably for Main Street, three blocks north of The Slimehold.
I have to laugh when I think about it. The Vandals who've taken over my petty little castle this week think they've unleashed a good bit of hell here. What pathetic innocence. Until they've seen Bike Week, they won't have a clue what real hell is all about.
At first Van was disappointed. But when some of my classmates returned from lunch not only 90 minutes late but reasonably well-lit, he just became angry. They'd decided to go to Hooters for lunch. I had declined, knowing what was going to happen.
They're big boys and should have known better. Van's been good to us; they were repaying him with an insult. Just yesterday he'd said that this was the first class he could remember where he didn't have to take a stick to anyone. He didn't get out the stick. He just moved the time of the certification test back two hours tomorrow afternoon so that we could finish what we should have taken care of this afternoon.
The last weekly AMI test bit me just like so many others have done. The test was on three separate sheets. On the first sheet were three questions about diode boards. One of them asked, "How many diodes are in an R bike diode board?" Nothing to it. I wrote, "Eleven, except before /6 there were six." Then I went to another test page.
The second question on that page was, "How many diodes are in an R bike diode board?" A better question, I thought: How many times have they done this on other tests? Ten? Twenty? Q1: How many grams does the Chrysler Building weigh? Q2: If one pound = 454 grams, how many pounds does the Chrysler Building weight? Q3: How many grams does the Chrysler Building weigh? Etc. So, weary of the unchanging tune, I wrote "11," and continued merrily on.
Studious readers can already guess what happened. Naturally I lost 1/2 a point on the latter answer because I didn't repeat myself again and again, redundantly saying the same thing more than once in a duplicative, repetitive, twice-told, replicating, clone-type answer that was a matching (or interchangeable) mirror of the identical, if not indistinguishable, thing I'd said. Before. I took a 3.48 on the test, another 3.50 for the week, and thanked God that it wasn't worse.
While waiting for the others to return from lunch, I wheeled the R80G/S over to the shop and stuck it on a lift. The shop is universally known as "Jap bike shop," except by me. I have not used the sobriquet "Jap" since the day my father backhanded me across the room when I was eight years old and reminded me as I bounced off the wall that "The adjective we use in this house is `Japanese,' son." Since he was a military officer and had fought in the war, I figured that I would accept his point of view.
The GS will be in good company there during Bike Week. AMI generously makes the shop available to race teams on a round-the-clock basis. Some of the best wrenches in motorcycling will be wandering through there in the days to come, so I'll take a few minutes Friday to clean the poor thing up as best I can. With any luck that bike may be famous one day as well. Perhaps not like Ted Simon's Triumph or Ed Culberson's "Amigo," but everyone has to start somewhere. And I have to give the thing a name. I'm considering "Bud," after my cat. She'd appreciate that, I think. But really, who knows what cats like?
This afternoon I rolled up to my usual parking spot immediately in front of The Slimehold's front door. To my horror a Harley was almost completely occupying the half-space I've been parking in for almost four months. I shiver of rage coursed through me until I realized that the wedge of tarmac didn't actually have my reserved name on it.
So it begins: The Total Raging Hell of Bike Week. And I can't afford to become angry at such a tiny thing so early in the game. Not unless I want to go even crazier than I already am even faster than I'm already doing it.
Tomorrow at 1701 I officially become an AMI senior. Too weird. Where did I put that Prozac?
3.1.95 - Addendum: Green Day
Years ago I heard a phrase, ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, and decided to memorize it not because I enjoyed the scientific basis of the thought but because it was so tonal. Human beings, it says more or less, embryonically will successively appear to be amoebas, tadpoles, fish, rudimentary apes, and so on before reaching the final stage of a human fetus. If you see time-lapse photos of the genetic process, you really can't argue convincingly against the proposition.
I think it may also be the basis for concluding "like father, like son." And I've been feeling a lot like my father lately, surrounded by a wall of noise and depravity that has lacked, so far, only an animal sacrifice to be complete. He truly loathed such displays of overt behavior, being nearly the most perfect Victorian gentleman I ever met, and his teeth would grind audibly. I hear those molars rubbing still, though he is dead these seven years.
But this is what makes Spring Break and Bike Week what they are: Major league hedonism, wrapped in a noisy package of libido running drunkenly from the cops up a one-way street and actually, for once, escaping. It doesn't happen that often and, should it even happen at all, is over too quickly. But there is the unforgettable memory of once having rebelled without penalty, having won a small war, having had a glimpse of life before Life itself closed in with its bigger arsenal and showed you what it was all about.
It took me forever to become disciplined and, when I finally did, I did it with wretched excess, just like I've done everything else in my life. Do it best, hardest, fastest, first, most vengefully, whatever. If you continue that pursuit long enough, you can make a real name for yourself.
You can also find yourself alone at 0200 in Room #331 at the Daytona Inn thinking of a way to murder the kids in the next room. Your neighbors are the people whom you used to be when you were young and hot-blooded and revved the record player up to levels never previously achieved and had some hair and weren't grinding your teeth. But my legal training has taught me that unless you're Lady Macbeth or O.J. Simpson, murder is rarely the answer.
So tonight, instead of staring at my father's photograph and studying for what arguably is the most significant test I've taken since the bar exam, I bought some beer and decided to make a separate peace. It was the song that tipped me over the edge.
They must have played it fifty times since they've been here, the Room #330 crowd. They are close to 150 strong, from Quebec --- I've hesitated to mention that before because I didn't think it mattered where rioters were from --- but it was obvious from the start that the stronghold of the kings was next door to mine. I brought the beer up to the room after school and waited. I knew they'd play it. It was only a matter of time.
At about 7:30, when the first notes knocked out another tile in my shower wall, I took a beer from the fridge, opened the door, and strode onto the balcony. About six feet separated me from the edge of the jackal pack. I stood at the railing and stared. A lean one emerged shortly. From my repeated calls to the desk, they obviously knew who I was.
"Est-ce que vous parlez francais?" he asked.
"Un peu," I said. "Est-ce que vous parlez anglais?"
"Oui," he said. "It's not much loud, is it?"
"It's not loud enough," I said.
"Pardonnez?" he said,
"I like the song. Comment s'appelle t'elle?"
He consulted with his girlfriend. They didn't know what the title was. It was a song by Green Day. Or Greenday. Or Jourverde. Or something.
"It's . . . How you say? Boogie?"
Boogie. Tell me. Without me and my generation, Elvis would still be driving a truck in Tupelo. And without my father's help, Glenn Miller would have been jailed as a radical. And if my grandfather hadn't intervened . . .
"You want girl?" he asked helpfully. "No money."
"Not tonight, thanks," I said, my father's genes blipping a warning signal. "Maybe tomorrow." Maybe twenty minutes after I'm dead.
"I tell mes amis, `Not hit #331 door,'" he said.
"Tell them not to worry anymore."
I'm going to pay for this conduct. I'll get 80% instead of 85% on the certification test. I could have memorized a couple of torque settings or valve clearances tonight. I didn't. My father twitches. I twitch phylogenetically.
Five more Class 2 certified BMW wrenches were unleashed on the planet this afternoon. Yo am one.
Now I lay me down to nap.
Next Report, Days 76 through 100: Bike Shop: The Belly of the Beast
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