© 1994, 1995, 1996, Iron Butt Association, Chicago, Illinois
Please respect our intellectual property rights. Do not distribute any of these documents, or portions therein, without the written permission of the Robert Higdon or the Iron Butt Association.
Written by Robert Higdon.
I staggered into my first day of shop ninety minutes late and told Neil Hayes, the chief instructor, that whatever tasks he might have planned for me today, I hoped that none of them involved handling sharp objects. He made me "service manager," which involved telling people when to go to lunch and turning off the battery chargers at the end of the day, a low-maintenance job that even I could not screw up.
An hour into shop I began missing BMW in a most nostalgic way. Although Hank Neely is with me, Adam, Mario, and Sean are gone and might as well be dead. I did see Van a few times --- he's teaching the five-week Kawasaki group --- and I was able to go over the questions with him that I'd missed yesterday. A couple of the answers were pure idiot mistakes; a few were questions I'd never heard of and couldn't track down in any of my notes or handouts; and a couple were just tie-breakers, material so off-the-wall that no one but a German engineer could have known it. I got 91%, which was about what I'd expected. The others had comparable scores.
When I mentioned the other day that my battered R80G/S might be keeping some powerful company in the shop, what with all the racers in town, I didn't know how powerful. Not ten feet away from my R bike this morning were two of the incredible Brittens, recently described by Nick Ienatsch in Sport Rider as "the finest motorcycle in the world, period." Four or five New Zealander mechanics were poring over them all day long. Students and AMI staff would wander in from time to time just to stare at these spectacular machines. And the R80 just sat there, oblivious to it all.
Somehow the day, the week, and in another respect, a strange part of my life wobbled to an end at five o'clock. I returned to the motel and slept for a few hours. The Quebecois are nowhere to be found and their busses aren't in the lot. Perhaps they've gone. I miss them too.
But I don't miss the Harleys that bomb up and down Atlantic in a stream that already could stretch from here to Key West. I chuckled when I saw a news clip of Clinton challenging the Republicans to balance the budget. Give me one EPA enforcement officer and I can balance the damned budget by tomorrow afternoon: We'll stand in the intersection of Atlantic and Speedway and issue $10,000 fines to the owner of any bike that comes by with unbaffled pipes. Simple, effective, and completely legal. I wonder why no one's thought of it before.
Tonight is the end of an era. A dozen or more AMI students are down in the parking lot having a goodbye party for Sean Lee. Everyone's happy, even Sean, who is facing the prospect of an endless bus ride back to Johnstown, PA tomorrow afternoon.
Even if the party weren't going on, it would still be like a war zone out in the streets. All of the rules have changed here during Bike Week. The normal gouging, crowds, traffic congestion, and insanity have reached atmospheric levels. If I didn't have a cheap place to stay, I would be 8,000 miles away from here. Or more.
But this zaniness does have its charm and the occasional advantage. Over the weekend I spent a lot of time back at school, a bus driver's holiday, I guess. Huge numbers of race teams and their mechanics were all over the shop.
One of the wrenches there Friday night was a guy I'd have walked a mile to see: Armen Amirian, a legendary mechanic who is at home with any engine ever made. I spent about eight of the next eleven hours hearing his customary free-fire, bawdy blast of non-stop words on what I should do to the R80 for the big trip.
Much later that evening I also saw the Team Chrysalis bike from Great Britain rolling up on the dynamometer. A crowd began to gather around. This was truly an event. It's a BMW single cylinder 650cc engine, made by Rotax, and is driven by a chain, the first such device in BMW's 72-year history. The motorcycle is not available in the U.S. yet, and this particular motorcycle is not available at all except with the expenditure of cubic dollars. Most race bikes make me yawn; this one didn't. And when it cranked up on the dyno, the people standing around became hushed. No BMW ever made sounded like that engine. Afterwards I had a chance to speak briefly with owner/rider David Morris and his wife Alison.
"Please don't feel any pressure about the races this week, Dave," I said, "but you should realize that BMW owners throughout the world are betting their homes, futures, and children under age 12 that you will crush those awful Ducatis." He laughed, which I thought was remarkably civil.
Soon enough things returned half-way to normal. I struggled to set some ignition points in an old Kawasaki this morning. When I was through, having nailed the firing position to within a 16 millionth of an inch --- not even Armen could have done better --- Neil Hayes, our shop teacher, checked it. "That's not too bad," he said, then asked me whether valve adjustments can ever affect ignition timing.
For 15 minutes I sat motionless at my table and pondered weak and weary. I decided that the answer was "No." For the sake of research (I don't call this cheating), I wandered over to the two mechanics who were working the New Zealand Britten bike. You will recall that this machine has recently been described as the finest motorcycle in the world, so I figured that its wrenches were probably not morons.
I asked them the question. They said, "No."
Then I asked Van Singley who happened to be hanging around. "No," he said.
"Yes, it can," Neil said, and suddenly I began to see why the grades in shop tend toward the basement level.
It got worse. It usually does. In mid-afternoon I was in mortal combat with an outboard motor-type recoil starter: Yank the rope, a huge concentric spring contracts, and when it is released it snaps the flywheel or something into motion. I hate springs in general and this spring I hated in particular. When flaccid, it was a coil a couple of feet in diameter. When constricted, it was not 4" across.
Dimly I heard a song on the radio. It had a haunting, vaguely threatening repetition. "Who is singing that?" I asked Hank Neely who sat next to me.
"Nirvana," he said.
I considered that. A few moments later I said, "The guy who killed himself was with that group, right?"
"Yeah," he said. "Kurt Cobain."
"It's called `Lithium,'" chipped in Bill Christner, next to Hank. "Li," he added, mentioning the periodic table of the elements. The oddity of that remark didn't sink in just then. I concentrated on the spring.
A few more moments. "Was he depressed about recoil starters?" I asked.
The party continues in the parking lot. A beer is raised to Sean, someone laughs and I can hear it on the third floor balcony. The war continues out on Atlantic Avenue. Unless someone somewhere is trying to start a lawnmower, I may be the last person alive who is worried about recoil starters tonight. I still don't have that damned thing back together.
You never know what's going to take to make someone happy. For a Rwandan refugee it could be a photo of a cup of rice instead of rice itself; for a lecherous politician it could be voting for a decent law instead of receiving a job application from a 19 year-old secretary; for me today it was being on my hands and knees, stuffing a tire onto a rim with a couple of levers.
I knew this day would come. Indeed, I had both longed for and feared it. One of the reasons I have given most often about my desire to spend five months at AMI was that I could learn to change a tire at the elementary level, pulling the rubber off the round thing. Honi soi qui mal y pense. I write that last line for the 0.0002% of our literate readers who still follow this misbegotten tale.
In my 55 years until this afternoon I had never changed a single tire --- not bicycle, nor moto, nor the basic car. Nada. I avoided them because to do so required the use of big, heavy, dangerous tire changing tools, not to mention compressed air (which I hate nearly as much as springs and gravity). It was, need I add, dirty, grimy, back-breaking work, or so it looked from where I stood when I paid other people to do it.
But my principal goals when I came to AMI in what seems like decades ago were to learn 1) what a volt was and how I could bring it to ground, so to speak, and 2) how to change a tire. The first task, through the gentle help of Chip Ream and others, has been brought under as much control as I can bring to bear. The second, the tire business, awaited.
I didn't look forward to this; I would lie if I said I did. But I could not put out of my mind the experience of Steve Attwood, a globe-circling friend, who told me that in one month alone he had changed ten flats in India. Clearly, he knew something I had to learn.
When I made a first effort at getting the tire seated (after I had presumably patched the tube), I asked one of the instructors how I could be sure I wasn't pinching the tube itself when I levered the tire back over the rim with these rude, sharp tools. He said I couldn't know. I didn't believe him. It's one of my traits, the one that gets me into trouble, questioning authority. This time it got me out of it.
"Van," I said, tracking him down at the break, "I want you to show me how to stick this tube tire back on the rim without smashing the tube." When in doubt, I go to the people who know how to do things. I'm never embarrassed about asking questions of them, the people who can get me out of trouble.
"It's easy," he said in his Alabama drawl. But then, everything is easy to Van. Once I asked him whether he didn't feel any pressure being summoned to fix things that had already been irrevocably screwed up. He said, "That's the kind of stuff I like."
Ten minutes later he showed up in the shop. He looked at the wheel and the tire. He looked at me. He'd spent the past five weeks with me. He knew what I was all about. You don't bullshit a guy like this.
"O.K. Now you're either going to do this on the table like you've got it set up, but then you're going to need a couple of people that maybe you have to pay. Or you're going to do it on your hands and knees in a ditch by yourself. So what'll it be?"
"In a ditch," I instantly replied.
And he showed me. Put this here. Put your knee there to brace it. Stick. Move. Lever. Slide. Notice how there is no pinching. Boom. Boom. Boom. I moved, as did Mandrake the Magician, and not once did my fingers ever leave my hands. The tire levitated before my very eyes.
I don't do "high five" hand slaps. That is for the newer generation, the guys who listen to the incessant booming of "Lithium" on the shop radio. But I got up off that tire with my dirty knees and gave one to Van this afternoon.
He must have been as happy as I was. He'd somehow figured out that the exercise was a symbol of all that I didn't know but could still learn. With a little help from my friends.
Every time I think I can't get any more tired, I wake up and say, "Crap. I'm more tired than I was yesterday."
Monday I had dinner with Fred Rau, editor of MCN. He says the mail is overwhelmingly in favor of the stories. I thank all of you who helped stuff the ballot box. The $10/letter I promised is going to be delayed because of a bank processing error, but everything will work out, I think.
Tuesday I went to the MOA campground at Bulowville, saw lots of people I hadn't seen for ages, talked some moto politics with people who still care about that, and happily chanced to find Steve Attwood, the Englishman who won the '93 Iron Butt rally. To have someone of Steve's reputation asking about me at the campground before I arrived makes me believe that at one point in my life I did do something right. Last Friday morning, when I showed up late for school, someone said that Nick Ienatsch, the Britten jockey and editor of Sport Rider had been looking for me. Rats. One day that I clearly should not have slept in. The man is a wizard.
"He's not a big guy," one of my classmates said with some surprise, referring to Nick's size.
"Yes he is," I said. "You weren't looking at his tall side --- the side that makes you about four seconds slower than he is each lap."
I've been thinking about my tire changing success all day and the Kurt Cobain song, "Lithium," won't leave my mind. I was stuck in the "crib" all day, the 12'x15' tank where shop parts, tools, and accessories are held. I was the gatekeeper, an assigned task. Since I didn't know where anything was --- air nozzle, grease gun, 21mm socket, whatever --- I had a standard response.
"Not available," I said, sneering. "Broken. Checked out. Something. Go away."
"Bullshit," they said.
"O.K.," I said, "you look for it."
No one is permitted in the crib but the shop manager, the teacher, and me. Like I care. No one stole anything and the integrity of the school wasn't compromised. But I probably took a 2.3 for the day for crib work. Neil Hayes, the instructor, is so notoriously bad in grading that grown men start to cry when he's around. And I could never be confused with a grown man, as childish as I am.
I did the soldering task today, when I wasn't telling customers at my crib to go away and leave me alone. Neil showed me a way to do something there that I hadn't actually known before, being (you will not believe this) a master solderer. When I took my final examples to him at the end of the day, he said, "Well, it's obvious that you know how to solder." I checked around: No one in recorded memory ever received a higher compliment from the man.
After school, instead of taking a richly deserved nap, I went to a party given by Rider magazine. There I met a true legend: Arlen Ness, the master bike architect who had parked his motorcycle --- an incredible two-wheeled version of a '57 Chevy --- right next to my P-D at the motel's entrance. After taking a half a roll of film of my miserable and dirty P-D next to this gleaming work of art, I forced Mark Tuttle, the mag's editor, to introduce me to the designer. For many agonizing moments for Ness, I fawned my way grossly beyond the point of wretched excess, and will treasure this memory until a couple of weeks after I've died.
I also met the engaging Andy Saunders, formerly of "Motorcyclist." He's a Limey, for those of you who didn't know, and I didn't. But he writes in English, and well too, as those of you who've seen his work in all the rags can attest.
This stuff makes up for the burnouts that the Harleys rip off in my motel parking lot hourly. It makes up for the tedium of a points adjustment on a KZ400. It helps me remember that there is another world out there, a world I used to swim around in before I became a student-wrench. Real people, talented people, ingenious ones withal. That I can share their air for a few minutes is something that I would pay real money to do. Instead, I show up and they give me free beer.
I mean, is this a great country or what?
Where I spend my days in the shop is just a stone's throw, even for a skinny girl, from the dynomometer. All day long the screaming from motorcycles on that machine rip along the passageways and through the classrooms of the school. This is the week of the Brute Horsepower Contest, now in its sixth year at AMI. Hundreds of bikes compete in various classes, but only one class counts for most of the spectators: Open.
That means big, serious engines. And while many pretenders step up, everyone knows that only two bikes have a chance. They're the same two every year. And they're back again this year, currently in first and second place.
To give you a benchmark of horsepower that a competent motorcycle can produce, my '91 BMW was stuck on the dyno last week when they were establishing a base line after the replacing the drum on the dyno. This is a 1,000cc engine in pretty fair shape, clearly a big bike by anyone's standards. It cranked out 45 ponies. I knew it wasn't much, but it's probably a lot more than a Hyundai can generate.
In mid-afternoon last year's winner, a turbo-charged Kawasaki ZX-11, came up to the dyno and banged out 375 hp. It was the highest reading ever attained in the contest. An hour later Mike Molsan, the only other competitor with a shot, cranked up his turbo Suzuki GSXR1100 and let it rip. You could hear the walls trembling in the shop. When the reading was posted, few could believe it: 405.7 hp.
Tomorrow's the finale. The ZX-11 has one last try. If the bike beats Molsan's Suzuki, then Molsan can have a final attempt to take back the crown. I asked Molsan how much he had in reserve.
"I don't know," he said. "It was 22 pounds of boost. I've never had it that high before. Something's going to break. It has to."
I agree. That motorcycle, with an engine just 100 cubic centimeters larger than mine, is putting out nine times my bike's horsepower at the wheel. The numbers are staggering. What is almost as unbelievable is that Molsan then put on his helmet and rode the bike away. If you didn't know what had just happened, you would never know what that bike could do. It looks just like any other big Suzuki, except it's cleaner.
Seeking the ultimate truth, I asked Dave Banes what was really going on.
"They're playing with each other," he smiled.
But who'll win?
"I think the ZX will take it."
Tonight is the biggest night of the year for AMI. Lamar Williams and his staff are hosting The Party. There's only one like it in Daytona during Bike Week. They even let us out of school early so that they could finish smoothing everything out. It's a western motif this year. A man with a trick pony will be there (they were practicing this afternoon). An invitation to the bash is much prized. One student was invited. He'll be reporting on the festivities later.
First, this is a fake report because for the first time in living memory we actually have a day off so that the school can recover from the party. But I'm counting it as a class day, otherwise we'd have 99 days instead of 100, and I need to know the exact percentage of days that I've finished. So this is the first day of Week #17. Don't argue with me. I'm in charge.
Second, the bad news. The weather was typical early March in Daytona --- a slicing north wind that whipped colder air into town by the hour all day long. People at the party were huddling in the lounge, in classrooms, in shops, and in the johns, venturing out only to get another drink at one of the bars. I'll probably get another cold.
Third, the good news. There was lots of that. Lamar Williams knows how to throw a party. Everyone who is anyone in the motorcycle industry was there, from Ed Youngblood, AMA's president, on down. I had a chance to speak with all sorts of friends I hadn't seen for 30 years or more and to meet the wives of Van Singley, Chip Ream, and Neil Hayes, guys I have felt married to from time to time. Nice people, all of them.
But I couldn't stay away from the shop. I wandered in, pretending to get out of the wind. What I really wanted to do was to look at the blackboard (actually a whiteboard) again. Earlier in the day Neil had drawn a multi-colored diagram on the board that contained at least a half-dozen mistakes in various circuits --- starter system, charging, ignition, lighting, etc. My task was to stand before that enormous chart and tell him what he had done wrong.
"They tell me you're an electrics whiz," he said with his customary non-trace of a smile.
"Oh, man," I sagged. "Don't lay that on me."
It took a while, I made a truly grotesque error, and I accepted some subtle coaching along the way, but eventually I straightened it out. It wasn't as good as changing a tire, but I hung on.
My corrections tonight were gone. A couple of bored students working overtime in the shop had erased that magnificent Hayes art work and were busily creating the worst sort of a caricature of a wiring diagram. Some mistakes were easily visible, such as the ungrounded starter motor and hot wires that dead ended in space. But some of the other errors were really classic: Touching the horn button with this bike would turn on the high beam and cut off the ignition system, bringing the bike to a halt with a well-lit road ahead.
It takes some knowledge of how to do things right before you can parody doing things wrong. These guys were good, what you'd hope an AMI graduate can be. Their work was good enough to have reached Chip Ream's ears. When I came in, he was standing before the board, laughing happily as he traced the various awful mistakes.
"Why don't you make the positive lead from the battery going to ground and the negative as the hot lead?" I suggested, hoping to add to the disaster.
Justin, the departed Mario Korf's roommate, had an quick answer. "That's how some of the English bikes were wired," he said with a smile not the least bit condescending. "BSA, you know."
"Sure," I said, not knowing at all.
I decided to go home. Swinging open a door, I nearly knocked Lamar down. We ended up in his office for a while, trading life secrets. He's happy with the way the magazine stories have appeared, Fred Rau's pleased with the reader response, and I'm overjoyed to be theoretically learning something. There may not be many satisfactory three-way agreements that endure beyond the dotted line, but this has been one.
I met Lamar exactly one year ago tonight. On that night at the AMI party I bounced the idea off Fred Rau to have MCN send me to school. It came to pass, despite what we can now admit were some very serious reservations on all sides.
Tonight I walked alone around the perimeter of the pool, listening to the music and the chatter of indistinguishable voices around me. I must have made that walk hundreds of times, worrying about tests or no mail or charging systems or other nameless dreads. I wasn't worried tonight. I was thinking how much I would miss this walk when the merry-go-round closes in four weeks and the wooden horse stops rolling me up and down. I'm going to miss it a lot.
Yesterday morning I realized how a deer must feel when, standing peacefully and nibbling on a piece of bark, a 30mm shell rips into its side, dropping the animal like a stone.
I had survived the Total Raging Hell of Bike Week. Sometimes it would take me ten minutes just to ride the last 100 yards to the motel parking lot. Every trip had to be planned methodically to avoid the clotting traffic. Every night I stuck the ear plugs in and hoped that the noise of the unbaffled Harleys --- some so throbbing that they would set off car alarms --- and the ripping whine of the high-revving Japanese sport bikes doing burnouts in the parking lot would not finally prompt me to go out and buy a large handgun.
But I made it. I outlasted the 300,000 bikes. And at 11:00 yesterday morning I rolled into the lot, finally empty of all but a few motorcycles. Even my old parking spot directly in front of the lobby was empty and waiting. Also waiting were six huge tour busses from Montreal.
Thwaaaaaack! The bullet didn't even slow down when it went through me. I sagged in the seat, bereft of hope. Chip Ream tells me that it will settle back down to normal in early July.
Three days in a row of not having to go to school was incomparable joy. But at 0700 when my wake-up call didn't come again, I was up and out the door with a light heart. I decided to learn how to work the tap and die tools. I think they repair wrecked screw threads, but I'm still a trifle unclear on the concept. But when I arrived at school, I found that the carb rebuild kit I'd ordered had arrived. So much for the tap and die exercise. I like carbs more than tapping, and there will be plenty of time to die while the Montreal kids are here, so I revised today's schedule.
Things were going well until just before the afternoon break when James Watts dashed in.
"Bob!" he exclaimed in a panic, "I need your help."
"Go away," I said, fiddling with a needle jet and enjoying its elemental nature. Normally I wouldn't have been so cavalier with the #3 man on campus, but I'm a short-timer now and have little to fear any longer.
"Please!" he said. "My voltmeter's screwed up, my turn signals don't work, and the carbs need a synch. Can you fix this?"
"OK," I said, feeling that somehow this was the real final examination at AMI. A few weeks in the BMW section, we'd done a major tune-up on the bike, an old BMW tourer. Maybe I was in part responsible for the problems, but I didn't think so.
Watts thought that the bike wasn't charging, since the voltmeter on the dash normally was pegged at zero, even with the engine running. He wanted me to charge the battery, among other things. I didn't think so. I thought there was something wrong with the connections at the voltmeter itself or farther down the line toward the battery. And I was right.
It took me longer to take off the seat and check the battery charging than to find the problem. It's a bad connection, just as I'd thought, but it's intermittent, one of the most hated problems in electrics. It took me only five minutes to isolate it. The problem is that the meter's connections are behind the dash panel, so I was working blind with my left hand. I couldn't believe I was doing it, so I stopped thinking about how this would have been more impossible a while back than walking on water and just kept working.
After school I ran into Chip. We discussed the problem briefly.
"That meter is crap," I observed with casual disdain, the wealth of my electrical experience bubbling to the surface in a steamy froth.
"Yeah," he agreed. "James would be better off putting something useful on the face of that gauge. Like a picture of his wife."
Maybe I didn't fix it, but at least I knew he could safely ride it home. Progress it is, I guess, of a sort. Still, it's irritating that I couldn't bring the fault to its knees. On the other hand, to be thought of as the student guru of BMW electrics, to remember that there is no given flat rate for electrical problems, and to look back on the base line of my awesome ignorance of last November isn't irritating at all.
It's just plain weird.
I was thinking of prehistory this afternoon, back to the second week of classes and the look on Eric's face when Dave Banes tipped the carburetor upside down and everyone for a block around heard the jet needle rattling around. That error on Eric's part so depressed him that he left school the next day. But he returned, recovered, and is now doing very well in his specialty term. He doesn't make mistakes like that any longer.
But I do. For part of yesterday and most of this morning I'd been doing a rebuild on the R80's carburetors --- jets, o-rings, floats, the works. I was Mr. Confident Ease himself: Cleaning, sorting, doing everything right and by the numbers. Everything I touched turned to gold, or perhaps brushed aluminum. When I presented the finished products to Neil, I was prepared for any fastball he would try to blow past me.
I hammered line drives like frozen ropes, stole second, then third. When he asked me to describe the physics behind the operation of a constant velocity carb, I not only hit a three-run homer but pointed out an error in the textbook diagram that misdescribed the process.
"This has a spring in the vacuum chamber?" Neil asked.
"Sure," I said. "You want me to pop it open?"
"No," he said quietly. "What does it look like?"
An odd question, I thought. He must know what they look like; his knowledge of intimate anatomy of various bikes is extraordinary. For a second I thought of how to describe the spring, then glanced down and saw one just like it on the desk not six inches from my suddenly shaking hand.
"It looks just like this," I said with a trace of a smile.
It can happen to anyone, I know. One of the best guys ever to work on my bikes once sent me out the door without any fork oil. Another, a fellow who's trained scores of BMW mechanics, once forgot to tighten four bolts that link the transmission to the drive shaft. The consequences were delayed but disastrous.
Still, up to that point today I felt like a Marine recruit who can reassemble his carbine blindfolded. I'm not exaggerating. I was that close to those carbs. I still am, one large vacuum chamber spring out of over 50 separate parts notwithstanding. Fifteen weeks ago this error would have driven me half-crazy, as it nearly did Eric. Today it made me smile, because I sort things so neatly on disassembly that the chance of my forgetting anything on reassembly is virtually non-existent. Much, much worse is the error of sticking a component in upside down, inside out, or backwards. It's all too easy to do.
At lunch I grabbed Hank Neely and told him that we were either going to run the intermittent open circuit problem with James Watts' bike to ground or die trying. This morning, while taking a shower, I realized that the symptoms of the problem could probably not be solved by what I'd done yesterday. I expected Watts to tell me that he'd had more of the same problems.
Yep, riding home yesterday the glitch returned, he told me. Strangely the bike had worked fine this morning. Hank and I spent almost an hour ripping the bike up and sticking the multimeter everywhere, rechecking what I'd done yesterday and tracing grounds until there weren't any more grounds or connectors to check. Except in the headlight assembly.
"I'm not going in there, Hank," I said moodily. "They don't pay me enough to do that."
He laughed. We couldn't make the bike break. Maybe I'd actually fixed it; maybe the problem was sleeping in a corroded fuse box or a big multi-connector up there in that impossibly-difficult-to-take-apart-front-end. I don't know.
When I took the keys back to Watts, I gave him a full report. "My hope is that it won't recur for at least three weeks," I said. "Because by then I'm outta here. You can give it to the next BMW class. There's a guy who'll be in it, Steve Bordner, who's got a bike like yours and has forgotten more about Beemers than I've ever learned. Permit me to remind you that his five-week GPA is 3.88. If any student in this school can find it, he can."
And that, I think, is what being a mechanic is all about. If you can't figure it out, give it to the next guy up the line. And when finally someone gets it right, that's the wrench you want working on your bike.
Plans to take my bike's top end apart ran into a stone wall when Neil said this morning that for the next 20 hours we'd disassemble an ATV engine I already knew inside and out. We were supposed to partner up. Neil went through the roll. When he got to me, I said I wanted Eraldo Ferracci.
"If he's not available, I'll take Hank Neely," I said to some scattered laughter.
We hauled the ugly engine over to our table, pulled the cylinder head off, dislodged the cam, and dropped the chain into the void. My teeth were grinding. This was at least the fifth time I'd opened this pig up, going back to Week #3.
"Wait a minute," I said, rudely tossing a wrench onto the metal table with a clank. "I can't do this again."
Hank stared at me blankly.
"Step into my office," I said. We walked a few feet to a small outside alcove where old tires were stored, a place where we could conspire in private. A couple of thousand years ago did Roman senators thus gather to assassinate Julius Caesar. I was planning to assassinate Neil Hayes.
"Look," I said. "I have a real motorcycle in there, not that miserable 250cc ATV. It needs real work. I'm going to tell Neil that we want a waiver on dismembering the Honda Swinemaiden and that we should be allowed to finish up the work on the R80."
Hank gulped. "OK," he said nervously.
A few minutes later Neil wandered by. I told him that we needed to have a father-son chat. Since it was almost 10:00, we put it off until the break. I reviewed my strategy. This was a legitimate Big Issue. If he wouldn't play ball, I was prepared to go to Watts; if that didn't work, I'd call on Lamar. From there it would be back to the motel to pack up. Enough is enough.
My complaints about AMI can rattle around in a thimble, but it continues to rankle me that the Harley students get 10 weeks in their specialty and the rest of us have only five. I've heard the arguments. They're all sad excuses. The most exotic Harley ever to roll off the line couldn't touch any Japanese or German bike made in the last decade for sheer complexity. Period.
It would be one thing if H-D had a crushing market share, but Honda by itself outsells Harley more than 2-1. Even lowly BMW is beginning to make dents in H-D. But 75% of the AMI students are here to learn about shovelheads, flatheads, and panheads, not ABS, fuel injection, or catalytic converters. And AMI is listening to them, not to Wall Street or me.
I laid it out for Neil, plainly and calmly. My bike needed a lot of the same work we were supposed to do on the ATV; I had to ride the R80 home; I was running out of time; we'd not had enough practice in the BMW term, etc.
"I'm not trying to avoid an unpleasant task. You know I haven't dogged it since Day One. But I've got about $1,300 in parts that have to find a home in my bike before it's going to roll out of here."
To my surprise, he didn't laugh and tell me to go to hell. "But I can't afford to set a precedent here," he said, not unreasonably.
"We can tell the other guys that this is an odd situation and that Hank and I will do the ATV later. If we don't have time, then that's that. I'll take a hit on the grade. I don't care."
"OK," he said.
I put the knife back in my toga. "You're a good man," I smiled.
Hank and I happily reassembled the Honda and started ripping the R80's heart out. By day's end we'd cleaned off most of the filthy top end parts, scraped gaskets until our little fingers twitched, and bead blasted the cylinder barrels and valve covers. I may not be a world class wrench, but I can bead blast with the pros. Tomorrow the pistons, capped with a half-foot of carbon, come off.
On the way home I made what these days has become a ritual stop at BMW of Daytona for parts resupply. I sat down on the showroom floor with my back against a display case, exhausted. I chanted out my order to Dean Plumer, an AMI graduate in Class #229.
"You want me to help you read that microfiche?" I asked. He ignored my stale, bored taunt.
"$33.62," he said. Four gaskets, two o-rings, and thank you for your support.
I was asleep before the motel room door slammed behind me, dreaming of Brutus and Cassius.
It isn't really Day #85. It's Day #84, because when I thought that our day off last Friday counted as a day, it didn't. But since I'm taking tomorrow off and going away for psychiatric rehab, I won't count that as a day, though it is.
I need a day off. In truth, I need more than one. Things are slowly but surely going wrong all over the place. I make sloppy mistakes, mainly due to tiredness. If I don't shape up, I'm going to do something disastrous.
Some days are happy; others less so. This week has been reasonably bad. The kids who came in on Sunday are different from the earlier Canadian group. This group likes to set off the fire alarm, stay up until 0400, and roller blade along the balcony walkway. But their favorite game is to stand outside their rooms and just howl. Think of that. They howl like animals. I don't know why. You've never heard anything like it, these group howls.
And as fascinating as it is, I'm tired of it. Every time I try to concentrate on a simple thought, like how many feet are in a yard, one of them lets loose. In a moment a pack will join in, and the whelping and caterwauling will go on for a minute or more. Then it stops, but by then I've forgotten what I'd been thinking about. I feel as if I'm living in a kennel.
There's no relief in the shop. They play the radio at a level that sets up a harmonic vibration with the fillings in my teeth. Whenever "Lithium" comes on, Hank tells me. I like that song. I wish I had some because it's the other Top 99 that make me want to stick my head under the drill press and flip the red button. Three weeks to go.
Hank and I kept yanking parts off the bike, cleaning them, and measuring things, each a time-consuming job because of the awesome accumulation of carbon and trash everywhere. I don't know how the bike ever ran as well as it did. The former owner must have been filling up with wood chips instead of gasoline. I didn't think that would work.
The exhaust valves are shot. Back when Lanny was teaching us to grind them down and refurbish the little mothers, I thought it was a waste of time. How much can a valve cost to replace? Ten bucks? Twenty? I looked up the part number in the microfiche, then ran it down in a 1991 price book: $70.95 (each). I guess I'm lucky I don't have a 16-valve engine.
Something just set the hyenas off again. I went outside to see what it might be. A full moon? Maybe that's it. Maybe it's the week before spring. Maybe it's nearing midnight. I watched them baying and hooting and bellowing vacantly at the sky for a moment and thought of Alan Ginsburg's poem, Howl: "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed . . ." Small wonder.
When Gary Gilmore decided he'd rather be executed than remain in prison forever, people thought he was nuts. He wasn't, but he knew he would be if they didn't shoot him first. He said that the noise in prison is something people can't understand unless they'd spent a night in one.
I gotta get outta this place.
In an hour it will be spring, so I can legitimately crawl out on the balcony and let loose with my own mating call, which strangely resembles the howls that for more than a week have been emitting from the motel's balconies about 21 hours each day. I look forward to it.
This day, the vernal equinox, has always been a happy one for me. Winter is the pits, but I hate the fall even more because it means that winter is coming in. I intend to avoid both of them on my world travels by staying south of the equator when the snows fly north thereof. I was 14 years old before I saw a snowflake fall. If I had my way, I'd never see another one, except in the movies.
There was a moment of pain in this otherwise excellent day when I discovered that the exhaust valves I'd ordered weren't the right ones. Although the evidence isn't clear, the guilty finger points at me because of a part number on the microfiche I may have misread.
I'd been in the process of measuring components --- valve stem diameters, piston ring installed end gap clearance, etc. --- that Hank and I had been excising from the bike. The box with the new exhaust valves arrived. There was no need to measure them because they were new. But because AMI has so ingrained the measuring process in me, I began to subject them to the micrometer and vernier calipers anyway.
Right away I knew something was wrong. The overall length was a tenth of a millimeter longer than what it should be. The stem diameter was butchered by more than that. BMW part tolerances are usually ten times more severe than required by other manufacturers. When something is wrong, it's obvious even to me, the guy who used to have trouble measuring the width of a dime to within a half-inch.
But my chagrin, easily rectified by another phone call and more money, was nothing compared to the poor fool who was caught cheating on a test today. When I heard about it, I laughed. Here is a guy who has put his entire future on the block, theoretically willing to invest huge amounts of time and money to become a real wrench. And when he perversely spends his time studying at the Boot Hill Saloon or the Point Break Club, he writes notes on a crib card. The instructors have forgotten more about how to cheat than this bozo will ever know. It reminded me of the kid who was caught in my college bookstore switching price tags on an ethics textbook.
Neil gave a tire lecture to Chip Ream's class today, so Chip was in charge of supervising those of us in the shop. He wandered by my table, overflowing with top end parts, and pointed out a curious abrasion on the pushrod, as if the piece had been rubbing against something. I'd seen it. So what? Not Chip. He wanted to know what had caused it. In a few minutes he discovered that at some point a head gasket had been installed backwards. He smiled and walked away.
"Did you see that?" I asked Hank. "The man barely knows a BMW from a Panzer tank, but he saw a problem and he solved it. That's what a real mechanic is all about."
After lunch Neil reviewed our last week's grades. Mine, unfortunately, had a hole in it because I'd forgotten to get an excuse for missing school on Friday.
"I'll see Dottie and get one right now," I said.
Neil reminded me that she does that drill only between 12:15 and 12:45, that it was now 1:40, and that I didn't have a prayer. Dottie is James Watts' assistant and doesn't take any lip from anyone. I told him I'd give it a shot anyway.
"You," Dottie said sternly when I appeared. "I remember you."
"I know I owe you 100 favors, Dottie," I pleaded, "but I need just one more: I missed Friday. I need an excuse."
"Do you remember what you told me the last time you were late?" she said with a fearsome frown.
"Was that the one where I helped the wounded kids in the train wreck?" I said morosely, thinking of their little mangled bodies.
"Yes, it was," she said. She flipped through a ledger of student absences. "And the one before that was when the Pope wanted an audience with you?"
"His Eminence asked me to give you his regards."
"So what is it now?" she said.
"I had to address a meeting of the American Psychiatric Association on the stressful aspects of being a student mechanic."
"Fill out a slip," she said, successfully suppressing a snarl.
I walked lightly back to the shop, feeling a touch of spring in the air, and handed the waiver to Neil. It has become a daily challenge for me to make the man smile. I did it today. On the first day of spring, anything is possible.
While trying to tap a hole I'd drilled in a block of metal, my hand slipped and the raspy edge of the tap chewed up part of one of my fingers. Before the blood took over, I noticed a mirror image of the serrated edge of the tool impressed in the skin. It was the most spectacular, and clearly the most picturesque, non-fatal injury I've sustained so far. Later I reported to Neil.
"Sir, I wish to advise the general of yet another severe combat wound, sir," I said dutifully.
"Is it bleeding?"
"Sir, not any longer, sir," I said.
"Forget it," he said.
So I forgot it, as I have forgotten the bleeding scrapes on my left forearm from the glass bead machine, the blackened fingernail from an argument with the starter recoil, the shaved knuckle from a wrench with a mind of its own, and a sliced finger from a Ginzu knife masquerading as a piston ring. That's in the last week. One of these days I'm going to have to get some health insurance.
At least I'm in better shape than the valve guides in the cylinder head. Van pronounced one DOA today. That was the end of my attempts to finish off the top end. Anything important from now on out will have to wait until I get home. Hank and I, when last seen, were sticking the heads back on, wrestling with piston rings that also need to be replaced.
I checked with James Watts today. His voltmeter/charging system is still working perfectly. It is now officially undeniable that I fixed a real world problem in close to world record time, though it is far from certain exactly what I did to accomplish it. My view is that it was the main ground, which I tracked down to its lair and bagged without remorse. It's the only connection that can explain all the evils that had beset the bike.
Tomorrow we have an all day lecture/demo on cylinder boring, not to be confused with cylinder interesting. As usual, my case is different. In 1981 BMW changed the design of their cylinders. They are now constructed of a hardened material which cannot be reamed out. Indeed, the crosshatch pattern honed into the surface of the R80's cylinders was still clearly visible after 75,000 miles, nearly indistinguishable from that of a bike that came off the assembly line yesterday. So boring them is not something I can do, even if I were fascinated by it, which I'm not.
But there's a bright side: By sitting still all day at a table, I nearly eliminate the possibility of hurting myself.
After listening to Neil Hayes talk for two hours about preliminary matters that should be considered prior to boring a cylinder, I walked over to James Watts office at the morning break to give him my latest thoughts on the educational process at AMI. He kindly suppressed a groan when he saw me in his office doorway, for he is nothing if not courtly.
"You have a man running the generic bike shop, Neil Hayes, who is as knowledgeable about motorcycles as any person I ever hope to meet, not to mention being a lecturer of the first rank. And you have Lanny Young, a born shop teacher, giving introductory lectures to students in the first week. You have to switch these guys around."
We discussed many of my other unsolicited plans for the school's improvement for a while. Finally, to make room for the 14 students with real problems who were stacked up outside his office like planes trying feverishly to land at O'Hare, Watts handed me an evaluation form of the school and faculty that is normally filled out by graduates on their last day. I promised to submit a 48 page, single-spaced, typewritten report in lieu of the form. Watts shuddered and ushered me out.
Hayes continued his assault for the remainder of the day, an incessant Socratic question-and-answer session that was the ultimate gut of troubleshooting motorcycle problems of every conceivable variety. Occasionally I would rock back on the stool, amazed that he had absorbed so much information and that he could relate disparate functions and systems of any bike on earth. He deals in the interaction of fundamental principles; I deal in memory. The relationships will appear to me, if ever, months or years down the road. I may not have that much time left to appreciate it all.
Until then, the least I can do is supply parts off my R80 to instructors for the purposes of testing or illustration. Van's left carb is acting up, he thinks, and wanted to borrow mine for comparison. Fine. I'm happy to contribute what I can to someone who tunes an engine with his ears and uses a four-gas exhaust analyzer to backstop his findings. He worries about things that most people could not even recognize.
Then Neil wanted to borrow one of my R80's cylinders to give a demo on boring, promising not to actually do anything. He placed it on the boring apparatus. Our class gathered around. I grabbed the end of the power cord and wrapped it around my hand to make sure no one did anything dumb, like turn on the machine.
"This is a cylinder that cannot be bored," Neil said. "What is the plating?" he asked me.
"Nikasil," Hank and I said simultaneously.
"You ought to see this," he said to the others. "This cylinder has 75,000 miles on it and the crosshatch is untouched." He paused as some students edged closer. "It's incredible," he said with a trace of awe, pleasing me enormously. The cylinder's bore shimmered like a metallic mirror. One student looked at it and simply said, "Wow."
I wonder about this poor bike sometimes, already a wizened veteran that doesn't know it's being prepped to ride around the earth, at least doubling its already substantial mileage. A lot of components seem less pristine than they did when I was younger and stupider a couple of months ago. I get depressed now and then.
But I am soon to be a boring expert, a talent that I shall never use on a bike that doesn't want it anyway. It doesn't matter. It's the process that counts.
For Class #231 the process has but twelve class days to go.
For about three hours this morning after the nurse kicked me out of the blood truck, I watched another student set up the boring machine and bore away. Since I remain eternally uncomfortable with doing something I've never done before, which accounts for a number of striking facts about my life, I stared at what he was doing until I had it fixed in my short-term memory banks. Tomorrow I will bore. I do not expect to return from that task with all of my fingers intact.
It has always been that way. I am not inquisitive, and I embarrass easily. With those qualities I have found it pays just to sit quietly and watch life slide by. Unfortunately I still have a number of unfinished tasks in the shop, things that I continue to shy away from as if they were tubercular. Today I volunteered to spend the last ten days in the crib, handing out tools to other students. Neil turned me down with a grim laugh.
Yesterday Dave Banes was asking for volunteers to be drained when the Red Cross blood truck came to the school this morning. Since I apparently qualified (no tattoos within the past year), I put up my hand. But when I appeared at the truck today, they wouldn't take me, claiming something about my having taken some anti-malarial drugs in Central America last year. Even though I was a reject, they gave me a T-shirt for community spirit. I told the guys in shop that my blood was too old.
At lunch I stumbled upon Jim Brown and Gerd von Doemming. I asked Jim how he'd done on his daily quiz.
"Three," he said.
"A crummy three? What'd Chuck get?"
"Four," he said.
This was bad news. Chuck Fort and Jim are mathematically tied for first place. Every point counts now.
"What do I have to do? Take your tests for you?" I smirked in a bad jest.
For a second this man, who never gets irritated at anything, looked at me with a trace of irritation. Then he said, "OK. Take this test. With excessive piston to cylinder clearance, what kinds of problems can you have?"
I didn't blink. "Piston slap, with consequent noise; possible skirt breakage; blow by; decreased performance; cylinder wall damage; reduced power; and possible heat increase."
Gerd shook his head. Jim smiled. "Those are legitimate answers," he said, "but you lose. You forgot ring wear."
"And you shotgunned. We have to question your motives," Gerd chimed in.
Their teacher is, shall we say, severe. The two answers, and only two, were piston slap and ring wear. Give three and you're doomed, because that's shotgunning and your motives are questioned. When Don Parker walked by a few moments later, I gave him the question. He named 15 things without taking a breath.
"We have to question his motives," I said to Jim and Gerd. They smiled, but they weren't happy. I guess so.
I mentioned that I'd been turned down by the Red Cross. They laughed. What the hell. I've given a lot of blood to AMI, some of it probably still on various tools. And I'm not out of the woods yet, not with that vicious boring machine waiting in the mist.
"Neil, I have four things," I began. "One, I vote for the oldies radio station after lunch. Two, I have to go to the bathroom. Three, being a certified mechanic, I repaired and cleaned the paper towel dispenser, so I demand extra credit. Four, I renew my request to be assigned to the tool crib for the rest of the term. I would be happy there, providing useful service to mankind in general and this class specifically."
He treated my non-negotiable demands with a casual wave of his hand, indicating that I should leave his sight instantly. My lawyer tricks don't impress him, but I knew that he'd go along with the oldies station. The radio is decided by popular vote, but I convinced him early in the term that as a primal ruler he has one more vote than the rest of the class combined. I can handle Guns 'n Roses four hours a day, not eight, though I have developed a fondness for Kurt Cobain's "Lithium."
The volume level is decreed to be "reasonable," which means that about twice a day I turn it down from 10 to 5. As soon as I'm not looking, someone turns it back up. It's all right. I've had much worse experiences.
Surprisingly, the cylinder boring exercise wasn't one of them. The most demanding part is ensuring that the cylinder is exactly centered on the boring apparatus; if that isn't done correctly, a ceaseless rain of frogs, reptiles, and pestilence will follow. With blind luck I knocked that out easily and began making a series of small cuts.
Unfortunately I made too small a cut on one pass and decided to make up for it with a slightly larger one on the next swath. More unfortunately, it was immediately apparent that I'd gone much too far; metal specks, big ones this time, started flying out of the bore and spraying over me like hot, black raindrops. Stopping was out of the question. I held my breath, praying that I hadn't gone beyond the maximum required cylinder diameter.
My luck held. A microscopically tiny pass got me within 0.0002" of what I needed. And like any good scientist, I faked my data to make it appear as if I'd taken the two last cuts in equal magnitude. Saved, by God, and looking good. Then the weirdness began.
I was now 0.0022" short of the designated bore. At this point I was required to use a hand-held drill with a hone, something that didn't appeal to me at all because 1) it spins angrily, 2) it can come apart if you push or pull it too far beyond the length of the cylinder, and 3) when that happens, you're dead, rotting meat. It seems to combine the worst features of a sort of gravity, which I abhor, and springs (even though it has none), which I detest almost as much as gravity.
It took me the rest of the day to scratch out that last pathetically small layer of metal. Even Neil didn't understand what was wrong. I think I ran into a previously undiscovered vein of titanium in that cylinder. Who knows? It's not an exercise I'll ever do again, since post-1981 BMW cylinders can't be bored; it's just another drill, this time using a drill.
All but three of us, since we'd already seen it, were excused from shop to attend Don Parker's welding seminar this afternoon. I put the radio on the oldies station and turned up the volume to 10. No one said anything. How can they? I'm the senior citizen, the bald guy who wanders around grinding his teeth and muttering incoherently. Joe Cochran finally stopped referring to me as "Mr. Higdon" when I told him that if he called me that one more time I would take him out back and strip his skin off. He's seven inches taller than I am, outweighs me by 50 pounds, and his biceps are bigger than my thighs. He was just trying to be polite to an old lawyer, I know, but I'm not a lawyer any longer. I'm still old --- everyone agrees about that --- but now in my latest metamorphosis I'm a lightweight mechanic, one of the boys young enough to be my sons, who'd rather be called "Bob."
And listen to Ricky Nelson rather than Axl Rose.
You hope for little miracles, avoid big disasters, and another day passes. I told Dave Banes today that I've been counting them, one at a time, since the first morning. At one point I was so depressed I was counting half-days. Now I can count the ones remaining on both hands; soon one hand; late next week, a finger. It was a blur when it started. It's a blur now, like listening to "Gluey Porch Treatment."
Neil wasn't so much holding the paper and studying it as he was fondling it. I stood nervously a few feet away, awaiting the verdict. It was the piston fit task, measuring the bore of a cylinder and the outside diameter of a piston to a ten-thousandth of an inch and answering a variety of questions. There were a few twists, but basically I've been doing this sort of work at AMI for at least an eternity plus a couple of weeks.
Depending on the instructor, we normally get a couple of attaboy points just for trying. At the bottom of this task sheet was a warning in capital letters: CLOSE DOES NOT COUNT! After my hateful experience with the wheel bearings this morning, I anticipated the worst.
He looked up at me, expressionless as usual. "This is really excellent," he said. I'd never heard him say anything like that, so I just stood there, silent. "Now do this for me," and he laid out the remainder of the task. Essentially I had to do what I'd just done for all four cylinders and all four pistons, instead of just Cylinder #1 and Piston C, and fill in a chart with 32 minimum and maximum clearances.
I smiled. This looked suspiciously like I was preparing a master sheet for Neil to use for the next ten years. All right. When I finished another round of measurements and calculations, Neil still wasn't through with me. "Which piston do you think fits best with which cylinder?" Was there no end to this task? I'd thought it might take a total of a half-hour if I slopped through it; instead I'd spent most of the afternoon on it.
"A with #3, B with #1, C with #2, and D with #4," I said, faking confidence.
"That's how I'd put them," he agreed, initialling the sheet. Below it he drew a little five-pointed star. I'm not sure what it means, but I don't think it's bad.
The wheel bearing exercise was a disaster. I don't want to think about it. Why would I want to write about it? I covered everything up beautifully.
But Hank Neely had a happy moment. I rode home with him and his sister, Ann. We had to make a stop so that Hank could sell five CDs at a record store for cash, an underground economy that I didn't even know existed. He and I sat in the back seat, since the right side of the car is caved in. The windows mostly go up. It was a hot afternoon; the back seat was sweltering. He pulled off his shirt.
I looked at the ring that pierced his left nipple. "I think I would crawl over burning rocks rather than have that done," I said.
Ann laughed. "But it depends on how long you'd have to crawl, doesn't it? I mean, a mile of burning rocks versus ten minutes of that?" she said, glancing in the mirror at Hank's jewelry.
"No," I said.
When he came out of the store, Hank was waving $16. "And they wouldn't take one of my Melvins," he said happily.
"Melvins?" I asked.
"A punk group," Ann said.
"Yeah, there was a small scratch on it," Hank said. "That's O.K. I hated to part with `Gluey Porch Treatment.'"
"If you listen to it long enough," Ann added, "you'll feel like killing either yourself or your mother."
"I'm sorry I missed it," I said without conviction.
Still, I hope Hank makes it through one more night. Tomorrow I'm counting on him to help me tune up the P-D so we can check off another task on our way out the door of the shop.
In the past week I have gotten into a discussion --- well, I think it's a discussion but the sysop has all but accused me of igniting a flame war --- on the BMW GS internet list about what's wrong with R100 bike paralever drive shafts. Someone on the list mentioned that it might be related to weight.
"Sure," Van said this morning when I bounced the idea off him. "That makes sense. Heavy people would flatten out the angle. So you gotta get yourself a fat girlfriend."
I'm trying to keep the poor man happy these days. He's practically at war with the Kawasaki class he's teaching. As nearly as I can tell, he thinks they're all lazy and they think he's a malicious tyrant. Most of the students are from Class #231 and I know they're reasonably diligent. Van isn't a vicious martinet. But somehow things went wrong.
He gave them an electrics test the other day. One student out of eleven passed it. This was a duplicate of a test Chip had given us ten weeks ago. The next day Van gave them a 30 minute lecture on relays, their care and feeding. He'd given us nearly the same talk in BMW. I wound up with a full page of single-spaced typewritten notes with a detailed diagram. When he was through, he asked to see their notes. Randy Dubay, one of the bright lights in #231, was the only student who'd taken any. Van blew up.
"Why didn't y'all write anything down?" he asked in Southern exasperation.
We already know all that, they said.
"Hell!" he said, "You couldn't even pass a Week #6 electrics test yesterday. You'll never remember relays."
And the beat goes on. When I heard about the relay skirmish, I asked one of the involved students. "I do know how to test them," he swore solemnly. "But," he added, "he told us on the electrics test that we could use our notes. And when we took the test, he wouldn't let us."
Ah. Vintage Van. He'd done something similar to us in BMW. You don't have to memorize the main group numbers that BMW uses, he said. On the next two tests we had questions about just that. Sean Lee and I then instantly memorized them and never missed another question about them, for indeed they appeared on other tests. It's unfair, and I told Van that when it continued to happen.
Neil was ill today and Lanny Young filled in. In times of yore that news would have filled me with angst, but now we both look back upon The Dark Days with embarrassed amusement. He helped Hank and me with a leak down test on my P-D when we were trying to figure out why the engine seemed to have developed a sudden onset of viral cancer. A hurried consultation with Van, to take his mind off the Kawasaki students, helped clear up the problem.
The whole day was like that. Hank and I would do something wrong. Then we'd remember what it was we knew five weeks ago and that we'd never forget. Then we'd correct it. Then it still wasn't right. Then we'd re-read the Haynes manual and the worthless factory manual I paid nearly $80 for and we'd ask Lanny and we'd ask Van and we'd redo everything and by the end of the day I rode the P-D home, which was a lot more than I should have been granted after the mauling we gave that poor thing today, all for the sake of a crummy check-off on a task list for a tune up the bike didn't need, didn't want, and didn't deserve.
"Adam says the real world isn't like AMI," Hank said at one point, mentioning our conscientious former classmate who has been working at a local dealer --- not, I add hastily, BMW of Daytona --- since graduation. "He says they use a hammer for fine torque settings and other things you don't want to think about."
The spring days grow longer. The AMI days grow shorter. Yin. Yang. Intake. Exhaust.
During my routine pre-break, I was standing near the gate behind the shop when someone called me to the telephone. It was Sean Lee. He was at work at Bob's BMW, said that things couldn't be better, was as happy as a clam, had found a place to live, and had picked up a beater truck for commuting. His is clearly an AMI success story.
Not such a success was a classmate of ours who left school last Friday at the end of his 18th week. At first I didn't believe it: What could prompt someone who was 90% through to bolt? Some of his friends mentioned a domestic situation that had been plaguing him off and on for months. No one at school has been able to reach him. Qu‚ l stima. They couldn't wedge me out of here short of graduation with even a nuclear alert.
Worn out, I volunteered to run the tool crib again today. It's a brainless job, exactly what I needed on this long day. I managed to read parts of a Spanish book, not much to inscribe in the Big Book for the expenditure of eight hours of life.
At 11:00 this morning I officially ran out of steam. My head slipped down onto the metal table with a bonk, I shut my eyes, and slept for about 20 seconds. Max Modenssi was hyper-revving his Suzuki about 15 feet from me, Mike Partridge was running an air hammer, and Luke Allen was drying off something with compressed air, a screaming, high-pitched whistle that was driving dogs nuts in Flager county 20 miles to the north. The radio droned on with the same monotonous ragings I've heard 20,000 times before. I dreamed and didn't care.
Slowly I dragged myself from the nether world back into the shop's cacophony. Suddenly the noise was oppressive, unsettling; sticking in ear plugs didn't help. I wandered outside and ran into Larry McCarthy, my admissions adviser.
"Are you going to hang around for another four weeks to take the personal watercraft course?" he smiled.
"On April 7, ten minutes after I graduate, I am going to be a northbound blur on I-95."
It's true; I am worn out most definitely, and have been so since the day I finished the BMW certification test. The last five weeks of shop was supposed to be a waltz, but it has been anything but that. This morning I was up at 0500, typing up detailed notes about the tune up Hank and I had done. I think it took longer to do that than it took us to do the actual work.
But Neil likes voluminous reports and specifications, U.S. standard and metric, and any lawyer worth his salt can produce a cubic yard of blinding dreck without breathing hard. You just have to get up at 0500 to do it. Writing, but barely doing, got me a 3.25 last week, second only to Glen Smith who is the clear shop star. That was the style that got me through the first ten weeks; it got me through BMW; it'll get me through shop, but not by much.
I tried to start the front brake caliper tear-down, but I couldn't focus at all on the service manuals. They were written in Urdu. My head swam. Finally I stood up, grabbed a big Allen wrench, and yanked the ancient caliper off the right fork. It hung there by the brake line in the hot, noisy shop air, not having any more idea what was supposed to come next than I did.
Futilely, using every tool short of a wedge and a sledge, I tried to separate the halves of the caliper. These bolts were never meant to come off, that's obvious, but the more they resisted, the more pissed off I became. Neil suggested a vise and a breaker bar, but I suggested that I had to leave at 4:15 to get a haircut. As an aside, I said I'd see him on Monday.
I'm taking tomorrow off. That'll probably be enough to put me on attendance probation, but I can live with it. It's an attitude problem, and mine isn't an isolated case. Jim Brown, of all people, is out of sorts; so is Hank, who has made a career of floating through his short life.
He looked up from the table with a dark frown. He has taken far too long to do the piston fit task and he knows it. I've helped as much as I can without getting either of us into trouble, but he's at the edge.
"I have a real bad, red feeling inside me," he seethed. "I feel like going out and committing some sort of hate crime."
I tried not to laugh at the prospect. "Just five days," I said. "You can do that . . ."
". . . standing on my damned head," he finished. "I know. But it's getting seriously mean now."
Just then on the radio Kurt Cobain kicked in from the grave with "Lithium." We looked at each other and grinned. We need some, for sure.
When I came to Daytona it was raining. It's raining now. These are not soft spring zephyrs wafting gentle pre-April showers toward my adopted home. This is a western ripper, shredding sopped buds on the trees, overflowing storm sewers, and shifting sand beaches from Florida to the west coast of Africa. It's coming down at a 15 degree angle off the horizontal.
I will receive no credit for today, as I am absent, though I prefer to think of it as being eight hours tardy.
It doesn't matter. When I return on Monday, refreshed and burbling with new-found energy after a three-day weekend, I will have five days left, four of them to be consumed solely in thoughts of how to reach the fifth day.
Up before the alarm clock I was, and out of the shower before the wake-up call came. Enthusiastic, energetic, perhaps even hyperkinetic. Even the brake caliper that had refused to part last Thursday succumbed to my Moses-like command. Today was mine, in a wrapped package.
I cleaned things, figured things out, wasted no time, ate little, hustled much, and generally comported myself with scholarly effectiveness. I felt good, clean, worthy. Maybe I could purge the sin of Friday's absenteeism with a total commitment to a voracious work ethic.
Lamar Williams, AMI's president, caught my eye at lunch. I dodged adroitly, but when he summoned me with an unmistakable, "Come with me," I had no excuses left in my bag. I followed him into his office.
Obviously not many students spend part of their lunch hour communing with the chairman of the board, but here I have never been an ordinary student. Everyone knows that. When I walk by a group of students in Class #232 or #233 or #234, I occasionally hear a whispered, "That's the guy." The lawyer. The magazine writer. The BMW guy. Whatever. Someone who is here on a giggle or a whim, one whose life isn't ultimately dependent upon success here in an academic or even a real-world sense.
Hank and I were in my office, the 6' x 8' alcove outside the shop where they store rotted tires and broken wheels. In passing he mentioned his father, a weekend sailor who studies ocean sailing and celestial navigation, though his boundaries are currently limited to small lakes in West Virginia. Hank didn't seem to understand why anyone would do something so useless, confined as his dad was.
"How old is he?" I asked.
"He was born in 1939," Hank said, trying in vain to imagine an era before pre-history.
"So was I," I said, "But I was born late in the year, so I'm sure he's older than I am."
"December 24?" Hank grinned.
"You're right," I said. "I'm exactly two months older than your old man."
So I started walking around the room, casually asking my classmates what year their fathers were born. Half didn't know, but all but one knew how old their fathers were. I am older than all but two. Somehow I don't think of these kids as being young enough to be my sons. When they corner me about whether I do any drugs, I usually figure it's the prelude to an embarrassing close-to-home illegal search and seizure legal question, not a moral one. A few guys play basketball at breaks. One day I stole the ball and made a nice move.
"Wow! Air Bob!" one guy said. I smiled, trying to conceal my shortness of breath. I couldn't do it twice. I didn't have to. You only have to do it once.
I sat where not 1% of the AMI students sit, not unless their number has come up for the last time. Lamar motioned to the ashtray on his desk. "This isn't a communal area," he said. "Smoke if you want." I lit. The school has recently been hit by a complaint that it violates Florida's Perfect and Totally Oxygenated Air Act. Lamar and Gaylin, his ridiculously patient wife, both goodly smokers, are on edge. Their days are spent trying to conform to regulatory agencies that don't even have names any longer, just acronyms.
"You have two stories in this," he said, handing me a copy of Rider Magazine.
"Yeah, and I distinctly remember telling you not to get an extra copy of this for me," I said. "I'll be home in a week. There's one waiting for me there."
"It's no trouble," he said.
They'll engrave that on his grave. "Lamar Williams. It Was No Trouble."
On the way out I picked up a package of BMW parts of inhuman value, and began to carry it back to the shop. Nameless, priceless parts, multiple parts without name or number, BMW R80G/S parts, parts I couldn't describe five months ago, scores of parts of parts that require a Singley mind or a parts fiche or fifteen guys named Dieter to decode, parts, as it was in the beginning and now and forever shall be, without end.
Lamar offered to UPS them to me when I got back home. I told him I was a certified Class II BMW wrench because of him and his staff and I would be damned if I couldn't stick most of these things on my wheezing R80 before I graduated.
One last gasp. "How old are you, Lamar?"
My little brother is older than he is.
"I can handle it," I said.
"It's no trouble," he added helpfully.
"Now you know where you have to be and what time you have to be there," James Watts said. "Are there any questions?"
"I have one," I said. "Is there any conceivable act that I could perform that would prevent my attendance at the graduation ceremonies you have just described?"
"What sort of act did you have in mind?" Watts asked warily.
"Oh, taking a swing at a teacher, for example."
"That would prevent your graduation. Any other questions?"
There were none.
Our grading period ends tomorrow afternoon at 5:00. That means that Thursday is a skate and that Friday is even a lesser challenge: Show up at school at 0800, fill out an evaluation form of school and faculty, and then appear at the ceremonies at the Days Inn at 11:45. Wear anything you like, Watts said, but nothing unsocial. This was delivered with a scathing frown to instill fear.
When he left, I wandered around to the pre-graduates --- Luke, Brent, Max, and Hank. "We have 1.4 days to go. You heard the man. Can you believe it? We've done 96.6%, and the last two don't even count!" We were all slightly overcome. It's really going to happen.
Hank and I were a speeding haze today, slashing and burning from one task to another, none of which counted worth a damn on our shop worksheets. We were sticking parts on the R80, cleaning, polishing, and bead blasting junk, replacing fork springs and seals, and changing the front tire and tube. It was good work, though somewhat sweaty withal. No worries. Being on my hands and knees, trying to jam a resisting tire around an equally resistant wheel, is good for me. I enjoy it. I really do.
Jim Brown and I went up to the deck that overlooks the pool at lunch. He thinks he has a job lined up in South Boston, VA, 50 miles from his home town.
"Good," I said. "And how did you do on your test today?"
"Four," he said without emotion. He and Chuck Fort remain mathematically tied in first place after 18 weeks. It doesn't matter to Jim.
"Who cares?" he mumbled.
"Who? Debbie, your wife, does. And I do, for God's sake. It would make a great ending to my story. You know how I love Hollywood endings."
The intercom blared at that point. It directed me to report to the front desk. When I appeared, Lamar was manning the phone, oblivious to basic management principles that suggest the president of a corporation should be in charge of finding someone to fill in for the receptionist, not doing the job himself.
"The latest issue of MCN came in," he said. "The box is on my desk. Take as many as you want."
I shuddered. This was the issue that Fred Rau, my editor, had not sent to me for pre-approval. I trotted back to Lamar's office, grabbed a few mags, and took them out to the lounge. Dawn Waites came by while I was reading the article. I tossed her a copy. "Look," I said. "You're famous." She saw her picture and beamed. A bright day among the recent clouds. Someone stole her bike a few days ago.
A few minutes before 1:30 I walked over to the shop. Neil was waiting, alone. I gave him a copy of the magazine and directed him to read the comments I'd written about the lecture he'd given to us weeks ago. He never laughs, I'd said, unless he is talking about a battery exploding in someone's face, etc.
He read, totally expressionless. When he was through, he looked up at me blankly.
"You didn't think that was funny?" I said, stunned. "That's very funny stuff."
"I guess," he said with a trace of a smile.
"You're amazing," I said. "Actually I was hoping I'd be out of here before this issue hit the school. Now I guess I'm looking at a really horrible grade this week."
The End must be near. Neil laughed.
This was the last graded day for Class #231. Probably Hank and I should have been tackling some of the unfinished tasks on our shop worksheet, but neither of us had the stomach to explore a Kawasaki clutch, a Honda ATV final drive, or a Yamaha master cylinder. We finished up replacing the fork springs in the R80G/S and spent the remainder of the day reducing the bike's weight by removing the turn signals and tachometer, ripping out miscellaneous wires, and installing a high-intensity headlight bulb. It was light work and the overcast, often rainy day skipped by quickly.
We can stick clutch, throttle, and choke cables on the bike tomorrow. We can clean it up some. We can look busy. It won't matter. It's merely time-serving. Absent a criminal act of unimaginable proportions, we will be out of here early Friday afternoon.
It's unbelievable. Where did these 98 days go?
By the time I got to school this morning my socks were wet. I hate it when that happens. It's not just the jungle rot; it's the knowledge that if I'd had the least bit of brain left, I'd have stopped before I saw the rain on the road ahead, coming at me like a gray curtain. The road was dry when I left. I thought I could make it. I couldn't. At the morning break in shop, three hours after I'd been slopped, I was using the compressed air nozzle to dry off my jeans and shoes. Socks never dry out. Trust me on this one.
Hank didn't show up for roll call this morning and by 10:00 I already had a 30mm gash on the top of my right hand. I didn't even notice it until the blood was dripping onto a part I'd just washed.
"What happened to your hand?" Andy O'Connell asked.
"I don't know," I said bleakly. "And I don't care. All I know is that in in 27 hours I'm northbound on the slab."
I wiped the blood onto my jeans, almost certainly infecting my hand with nameless grease from yesterday's miscellaneous crud and worsening the condition of my already worthless jeans. Had I been wearing the Bhagwan-recommended Latex gloves, which I'd bought at Wal-Mart for $3.50 for 60,000 pair, none of this would have happened. Familiarity breeds contempt. I have become a true wrench: I don't even care about the blood any longer. It's just part of the game.
My latest combat wound wouldn't have happened if Hank had been there, and when he showed up after lunch with his head looking like a tennis ball --- overnight he'd dyed his damned hair, all 1/16" of it (he shaved himself bald a couple of weeks ago), a fluorescent yellow with a tinge of green for the ultra-dynamic punk effect --- I just sighed. His parents, younger than I am, are coming to graduation tomorrow; let them deal with this weird angst. I'm worn out.
Graduates, and no one told me that I wasn't one of them, were instructed to clean up their areas in the shop and return their tool boxes. I am missing a 12mm wrench. I had an extra 15mm socket and 5.5 Allen wrench. Would that compensate? Who knew? Who gave a damn any longer? The tool kit in my R80G/S had two 12mm wrenches, but they were indisputably German. I volunteered to contribute one. Neil looked at me in the way he frequently does. I am confident that each of thinks that the other is the oddest person who ever drew breath.
At lunch I sped off on my pathetically-tuned bike to Sears, met with my salesman, and dropped over $1,400 on tools because of the substantial discount AMI engineered with the company, a deal that is good only so long as I am a student. It's different from last fall: Now I know the names of the tools, even though I may not be very good at using them. I figured it was cheap. That sum amortized over 55 years (the period over which I have spent nothing on tools at all), is trivial.
There's another reason: This school taught me how to use these things. It took these guys five months, but they did it. I have learned a new language now, mechanicspeak, and the tools --- things that a few months ago I would never have thought of buying but that today I grabbed happily --- can help me communicate with the outside world. It is conceivable that one day I can even communicate with my own motorcycle(s). Time will tell. It usually does.
I rented the one-way-back-to-DC-U-Haul truck tonight, a big sucker, sufficient to pack up two bikes, all the junk I brought down here, all the stuff I accumulated along the way, and some extra storage space for the memories. I'd hate to lose those.
One hundred times in the last five months I have come home from school, turned on the computer, typed a header line, and told my diary what I learned in school today. A story needs closure. Tonight is that, the final entry.
At 0800 the graduates-to-be gathered in a large classroom. When James Watts walked in, someone in the back of the room cranked up Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance March #5 on a boom box. Watts passed out the critique forms. When we'd finished them, we were free to go over to the site of the graduation ceremony. I handed in an 18-page evaluation I'd already prepared and told Watts I'd see him at 1145, the appointed time, at the beachside Days Inn. I hadn't even begun to think about packing.
A lot of this is becoming dim. I remember walking around to the various classrooms and offices, saying goodbye to the teachers and staff who wouldn't be at the ceremony. With the help of a couple of fellow students, I shoved the R80G/S into the back of a U-Haul truck and lashed it to one side. Then I retrieved the P-D from the U-Haul parking lot, rode it up the ramp, and tied it down. Finally I returned to the motel, threw everything I owned into some plastic bags, and heaved them into the truck. I made it to the Days Inn only ten minutes late.
I sat at a table with Watts, Dave Banes, Van Singley, Courtney Cummings, Gaylin Williams (Lamar's wife), and Mary Ream (Chip's wife), who'd been invited as my guest. I tried on a couple of occasions to summarize my feelings about this day, but I wasn't having much success. There were too many conflicting and overlaying emotions, too many things left undone, too much to learn in too little time. Though I was eager to get back home, having spent just eight nights in my own bed during the past five months, paradoxically I wasn't eager to leave Daytona.
The last time I felt anything similar to this was five years ago when Mike Kneebone and I emerged from an endless ride through the Australian outback. We had hammered at that unforgivable loneliness with such fervor that we didn't even realize it had subtly taken us prisoners for keeps.
AMI did that to me, and though it took a little longer, it did its work just as efficiently.
Watts handed out the diplomas. Chuck Fort, steady to the end, was the overall winner with 3.60, beating out Jim Brown (3.54), Joe Snyder (3.52), and me (3.49). With a giant smile Jos‚ Luna, the Brazilian whose struggles had been the stuff of legend, took his diploma and broadly wiped his brow. Many parents at the banquet looked on proudly as their sons and daughters walked to the front of the room, accompanied by cheering and clapping. My name was the last called. When Watts handed my diploma to me, I dropped to one knee in gratitude; I felt as if I'd been knighted.
"We will make you an entry-level mechanic," Watts had said on that first day so many months earlier. I'd had doubts. But the school did more than that with guys like Jim, Chuck, and Joe. Even the guys who'd run so long on the ragged edge knew infinitely more today about the trade than when they'd arrived. Indeed, I'd been the perfect test case. From someone who didn't know a dial caliper from a micrometer, AMI turned me into a BMW mechanic who just three days ago was offered a job at a dealership. Thus do worms turn.
"Some of the people you will meet here will be your friends for life," Watts had said on that blustery November day. Maybe, I thought. But when I was taking some photos of friends I'd experienced so much with for so long, I knew I'd be seeing them again.
People began filing out of the room. I hung back, savoring the moment. These students had survived a war; many we'd begun with had not. It had been a classical epic, a story line that runs without interruption from Homer's Odyssey to Twain's Huckleberry Finn to Kerouac's On the Road: A youth leaves home, journeys uncertainly through alien, forbidding lands, and returns, hammered in a crucible but wiser.
I made a final stop back at school to say goodbye to the one person I had not seen all day, the man who had made my journey possible. Lamar wasn't in his office; he was at the receptionist's desk, filling in. I shook my head and smiled. It was so typical.
"This is not easy for me," I said. "All I can say is that I have never in my life felt such a sense of accomplishment as I do today. I owe you and the staff far more than I can ever tell you."
"You worked hard," he said. "We're proud of you."
"I learned from the best." We shook hands a final time.
A U-Haul truck takes me home, I thought, as I turn onto I-95 northbound. I could have come home on my shield. Strange winds blow this way and that.
You never know.
© 1994, 1995, 1996, Iron Butt Association, Chicago, Illinois
Please respect our intellectual property rights. Do not distribute any of these documents, or portions therein, without the written permission of the Iron Butt Association.
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