Yes, it’s taken a loop of trips to AutoZone, Walmart, Tire Warehouse and Home Depot with a stop at Rawlings (for variety), but the truck has new tires and new shocks.
It took two trips to buy a special tool to disconnect the fuel lines from the old fuel tank.
The first tool snapped in half upon use. Bought the more expensive one the second time.
It took hours of wrestling with wrenches and cutting fingers on metal edges but the hole-pocked old tank is out and the new, gleaming one is in place.
The truck is almost ready to make the 2,000 mile drive out west.
The mission: Get this work truck to 40 acres of land I own out west with a friend.
We’re building a lodge out there.
This F150 has to bring supplies from town to the land.
After this trek, it will only have to make short supply runs.
Asking this truck to make this cross country journey is like saying to a pro fighter: do one last championship fight then you can open a gym, put out an online course, and dink around with some exhibition matches.
I still don’t have a spare tire. Maybe I should figure that out before I leave.
Tonight, I’m testing my tent and sleeping bag in what will be a 48 degree weather.
The tent is a simple two-man deal from Walmart.
The bag is rated for 30-40 degrees and I snagged an insert to bring it 20 degrees lower.
Should be cozy.
Still, I’d rather discover you shouldn’t bargain hunt for outdoor sleeping gear sooner than later.
After all, this polyester stretched over aluminum will be my lodging for a full week or more.
Back on foam pad and sleeping bag in between me and the nearly frozen ground, I go over the to-do list for the upcoming trip.
Find a spare tire
2. Pick up propane & camping food
3. Pick up landscaping tools and big measuring tapes
4. Have a pro mechanic give the truck a final check over
Bunch of other things I can’t think of at the moment.
Take the time of life in between leaving home and finding a track that works.
Capture the all-night shifts, seasonal work, scary rooms you rented, criminal colleagues, moments of your own questionable judgement, and get them down as stories before the river of memory washes them away.
That what Odd Jobs & After Hours is.
It’s a story collection I hope you find humorous, relatable, and cathartic.
Filled with the types of places that (I hope) make you say, “I’m glad I got chance to be there.”
Filled with characters I hope make you think, “I’m glad I got to meet those people.”
I leave you with the intro page of the book itself:
“Feel the heat of molten metal.
Hear the clang of hammer and anvil. Be bowled over and skid across a muddy rugby pitch.
Taste the kiss of the sea.
Work odd jobs & after hours in the big city.
Get thrown out the window. Join the all-night, coked-up film crew. Meet the vegan poacher woman, the psycho roommate with a hatchet, and the world’s greatest salesman before he explodes.
Bloody your hands with the worst of it.
These stories are a tin mug dipped into the river of life to draw up one cupful you can’t catch again.
It’s like every portion and none other at the same time. It’s a hot day, and I pass the mug to you.”
It’s dark blue and rusty, also just like me. (Kidding).
A mechanically savvy friend agreed to drive me to the northern Vermont town where I bought it to pick it up.
Brilliant leaf change and reddish, craggy angles of rock wall all along the 89.
About 72 degrees, and not a cloud in sight this particular time of year.
That’s the good thing about Vermont, even if the taxes make you want to hang yourself and there are statistically more bureaucrats than normal people.
Yes, some of the young newcomers there want you to live on chlorophyl and charcoal and drive a sail-powered Prius, but the land itself is gorgeous.
I kid, they’re good people, the Vermonters, especially the old school farmers.
What scenery on the drive. Rolly-polly hills. Apple-red, pumpkin-orange and goldenrod leaves overhead.
Can’t wait to see it passing by out of the window of the new truck.
New, now there’s a wrong description if there ever was one.
Rust holes pock the lower part of the blue bed. Rust encrusts the undercarriage. If you lift up the rubber mat under the driver’s feet, you can see clear through to the pavement below. If the brakes go, at least you could use the Flintstone option.
Why buy a truck in such morbid condition? Other than affordability?
There’s a cliche about certain women, that they look at a chatty, coke-head wino and think, “I can save him.”
Even knowing nothing (yet) about mechanics I look at this battered truck and think something similar: I can save her.
We are here. There’s my blue ride where I left her.
The auto-savvy guy strolls up to the truck.
This is the first time he is seeing it.
He’s been advising on the truck hunt from a distance, but I forked over the cash for this one on my own.
Wonder how I did.
He chuckles at the degree of rust.
He asks me to turn the engine on. I slide into cabin, with its cloth seats, elderly rubber, and old truck smell, and fire up the engine.
Whine, rattle and roar.
“Holy moly, that is the worst sound I ever heard come out of a truck in my life. Shut it off.”
A twist of the key, and peace returns to the Vermont afternoon.
Well, it could be worse.
Savvy guy opens the hood. He pops the belt off of the wheels in there. Spins the wheels. The rattling is all coming from the alternator.
And wouldn’t you know it, as soon as he says that, the guy who sold it to me, an old-school Vermont guy, a walrus-mustache biker with a leg in a brace, hobbles into his shop and comes out with a brand new alternator.
Just like that.
He plunks it down on the edge of the hood and says it is included in the price of the truck, no extra. That was pretty cool of him, I thought.
Unclear what the standard etiquette is when you buy a truck for cash, but that seemed pretty cool.
The bolts on the old alternator love their home. They won’t evacuate. We soak them down with PB Blaster.
Out comes the old part. Its wires need to be snipped, poked into the new part’s metal tubes, and the tubes crimped. Out comes a pen knife and the copper wires get their oxygenated crust scraped off.
My friend lays a wrench down on the edge of the truck’s open hood to create a hard surface he can use to hammer the tubes into a flat crimp. He brings the hammer down.
Orange sparks fly up. The wrench slid under the blow. It completed a circuit running from the positive battery terminal to the edge of the truck. After some adjustment, my friend tries again. The tubes are crimped and the new part is connected to the wires. Now it’s time to get it bolted in place.
Getting the belt back on is a two-man job.
I scoot under the truck to hook the belt over a wheel from there.
Then I’m back up to crank back on this wrench that lifts the set of wheels the belt runs on to make them reachable. The wrench is just too short.
My friend grabs a piece of pipe from his truck, and saws it off with an electric grinder. Orange sparks rocket off the metal and onto his jeans. The grinding rips through the quiet air, and echos off the barns. He hammers the wrench into the end of the pipe. Now it’s a lever that will work.
I crank on the better lever and savvy guy shoves the belt into place over the wheels. I fire up the ignition.
That was fast. It sparked a second ago.
Trip to town and back for a new battery.
Last thing is fixing a flat tire.
We grab an air tank from the truck and fill the tire.
We’ve got about 25 minutes to a town where we can fill up the nearly empty gas tank.
I am driving the new truck while my friend follows .
The truck is rattling and rumble-bumping along.
It likes to lurch way to the right.
Driving takes constant correction on the steering wheel.
It sounds better with the new alternator in.
Hey, here’s a Shell. Perfect. I pull in.
The truck has two gas tanks, one in the middle of the body and one in the rear. The condition of each tank is unclear. The switch that toggles between them is set to the back.
I put seven gallons in the back and seven gallons in the front. As soon as the pump is back in its holster, we hear trickling.
I look under the bed. Rivulets of gasoline are trickling all over the pavement out of the front tank.
I pull it up near the grass next to the shop.
We figure we have get it home, even though it is dripping gas from one of its tanks.
My job is to watch the rearview mirror as I drive in case the truck makes a spark and a fire starts.
The plan is pull off to the right, scoot out of the passenger door should that situation happen.
Well, I’m watching the speedometer, the road, my sideview because there’s no rearview and then just before our exit, almost there, almost there-
I pull off to the side of the road and scoot out.
Soon, I’m riding home with my friend and Googling the tire type for a ’94 F-150.
All the shops are closed because it is Sunday night.
I guess I’m doomed to a fine from the cops for an abandoned vehicle.
Or maybe not.
Wouldn’t you know it, my friend has a trailer’s tire with the exact right lug pattern.
Yes, it will be so skinny compared to the other tires it will practically look like we jammed a bike tire on a truck.
But for one more exit?
Twelve more minutes of driving home?
It should work.
Back home, we grab jacks, blocks, the tire, and head back.
After the roadside tire change, I ease the truck home watching the mirrors and dials with intense paranoia.
After everything, there’s the truck in the front yard, leaking gasoline into a five gallon bucket. Got it home. Just barely.
You used to have an even shot of common-sensing your way through auto repairs decades before I was ever born. In fact, the first check engine light was called an Idiot Light. As in, “something’s wrong. Gee, think so, idiot?”
Now a car runs on computers. That check engine like flicks orange, it can mean any number of countless problems. You open the hood, and there’s a big tangle of wires. Plastic veneer covers the key components you need to reach. Nothing looks wrong. Nothing looks accessible with typical screwdrivers or wrenches either. Sleek unassailable surfaces greet you.
Replacing a Headlight
But let’s pull back and talk about a simpler light. A headlight. Replacing a lightbulb is so easy that if you want to make a joke about how dumb somebody is, you ask how many of them it takes to change a lightbulb.
Surely you twist the old one out and twist the new bulb in before the cops pull you over.
A guy I know, a guy who knows more about cars than anybody wanted to replace the headlight on his girlfriend’s Volkswagen. He’s a guy who can restore and modify a 60s truck from the frame up. The headlight fix is almost, ALMOST beneath him.
He popped the hood and saw an absolutely unreachable socket behind the burnt out bulb. He opened the repair manual, and saw you had to remove the entire front end to reach the bulbs. It was a thirteen-step job per the manufacturer.
Well, now you can’t fix the issue for the price of a dollar fifty bulb. Now you can’t keep bulbs in your glove box and pop new ones in when they die. In fact, the manufacturer would like it very much if you took time out of your weekend or workday to bring the car in just to change a headlight.
Why is it Like this Now?
By the time you’ve researched and developed a car, paid engineers, designers, emissions counselors, marketers, shippers, manufacturers, regulation consultants, regulatory fees, crash test costs, and things you can’t imagine go into making a vehicle, your margin is slim.
This is even true on a car that’s $32,000 five years used. A great deal of money gets made in repairs. How do you squeeze a little more money out of your product? You design a car that needs plenty of repairs. Something that doesn’t threaten life and limb like a faulty brake but still gets you pulled over like a headlight makes a profitable problem to maximize.
The Less the Customer Can Do, the Better
That’s fine if you’re the car company, but now I’m the absolutely egg-faced chump bringing a car into shop for nothing but a burnt out lightbulb.
It’s other little things. Cars ride lower on average. They want it so you HAVE to lift it with a jack. You can’t just scoot under there. Does it bottom out more often? Good. That’s more repairs.
Want to change spark plugs? Change the oil? You need the proprietary wrenches. Is the wrench for sale? Is it worth your time and money to do all that arithmetic comparing buying new wrenches to bringing the vehicle into shop?
I’ll tell you right now, I didn’t grow up fixing cars.
That said, is is the story of my first project truck.
It’s a blue 1994 Ford F-150. It has 84 thousand miles, and that mileage is probably real given the decent condition of the upholstery and pedals.
If the dial had been reset, the upholstery would have been chafed to ratty rags by the long-term friction of the driver’s body. It’s got a manual four-wheel drive with a big joystick to engage it. Not one of those dinky plastic buttons they’re doing now.
I’ve got help from somebody great with vehicles, an engineer who grew up taking every machine you can think apart and putting it back together.
The to-do list:
Replace rear left spring shackle
Bypass smog pump
I’m sure the list will only grow, but I’m looking forward to learning. There’s an ugly history with the auto giants of the world and the average American who would like to fix his own car. See, back in the day, the auto giants were lobbying to make it illegal to work on your own car. Illegal. Home repairs were eating the profit margin.
Ever seen that meme floating around about how Republicans were the party that lobbied against mandatory seatbelts? Reasonable laws like that were the headlining door keys to mandates that brought the cost of a brand new truck from $3,200 to $65,000.
A few red-faced red staters railed against this march of progress. The auto companies said, “just take out a six-year loan instead of three.”
What could possibly go wrong?
Yeah, the ballooned price of a vehicle loses the spotlight to student debt and the housing crisis but it’s there, and it’s not going to get any better.
What were your lofty aspirations when you were a kid? Forget astronaut, let’s just say you just want to do things for yourself because you like to. To that aim, I say, “good luck.” Big forces are machinating against you. On the other hand, if the role of spectator and consumer is all you’ll ever need, there’s a comfortable, comfortable future ahead of you.
When they couldn’t ram that no home repairs law through, the giants realized they could get the same effect through the power of technology. Now a new Toyota Corolla has more lines of computer code coursing through it than a supersonic fighter jet.
The engines are more efficient. A computerized engine can detect humidity, altitude, O2 levels, and countless other factors to optimize engine efficiency in a way a purely mechanical engine never could. Hooray. Our air isn’t as bad as China’s, where there are no emission’s laws. Again, hooray. Clean air is good, truly. I write that without irony, for people who need that clarified.
Still, it’s good to be able to do things for yourself. The more people like that there are, the better off everybody is. Having the option of doing a fix yourself will get you farther if you break down somewhere without cellphone service. I drive through places with no cell phone service often.
A headlight should not be something you need to bring the car to a mechanic for.
The Journey Starts
I got an OBD that pairs with my phone. That’s the scanner that your cop shop will plug in to read the error code. I used it to diagnose and replace my mass air flow sensor. First fix I ever did myself. That was on a Kia Sportage I don’t own anymore.
Now I’m going to repair this F-150 and drive it across country.
I’m publishing a book titled Odd Jobs & After Hours soon. It should be available in paperback by March 1. The e-book edition will follow that shortly. Still figuring out if it should become an audio book.
The title is exactly what the book is about.
It’s a collection of the type of stories you run into in between leaving home and getting your feet under you. Scary rented rooms, evil bosses, psycho roommates, after-midnight shifts, rugby games, squatters, poachers, and more.
It’s written. I’m dealing with all of the final details. After that, it will be very easy to grab a copy on Amazon.
For now, here is the intro page of Odd Jobs & After Hours.
“Feel the heat of molten metal.
Hear the clang of hammer and anvil.
Be bowled over and skid across a muddy rugby pitch.
Taste the kiss of the sea.
Work odd jobs & after hours in the big city.
Get thrown out the apartment window.
Join the all-night, coked-up film crew.
Meet the vegan poacher woman, the psycho roommate with a hatchet, and the world’s greatest salesman before he explodes. Bloody your hands with the worst of it.
These stories are a tin mug dipped into the river of life to draw up one cupful you can’t catch again. It’s like every portion and none other at the same time.
If you got a chuckle out of this story, grab my book for stories you will not find published online.
Many cultures develop their own martial art.
Some are ritualized and traditional, some are field-tested and highly practical.
One collection of non-lethal yet crippling techniques is taught and practiced beginning in middle school in the US.
Its practitioners diminish, but do not disappear through the college years.
In adulthood, the artform is often all but forgotten.
This martial art is yet unnamed, but recognizable by a few consistent techniques replicated in schoolyards and above-ground pools everywhere.
Technique: The assailant opens his hand with five fingers spread (hence the name Five-Star) and delivers a whip-like smack across the back of his target.
Outcome: A bright red five-finger mark and fire-hot pain. This technique takes on a particular brutality in aquatic combat. Expect a pool noodle lashing in retaliation.
Notes: What makes the Five-Star insidious is that if delivered the proper distance from mom, the telltale red mark on the victim’s back will vanish completely before any tattling can be completed. It is a crime that disposes of its own evidence.
The Wet Willie
Technique: In this maneuver, the assailant wets his index finger with saliva and uses it as a poking weapon.
Outcome: Useful as an intimidator, the Wet Willie can clear a room with a single, threatening pointed finger.
Notes: In our pathogen-conscious era, it could work on full grown adults.
If you try this, you might get arrested, or you might feel like you have the Force from Star Wars. This is not legal guidance.
The Purple Nurple
Technique: The assailant grabs and tweaks the nipple of the target.
Outcome: Revulsion and recoil in the victim.
Notes: As with all techniques, this typically a man-to-man maneuver.
Guaranteed to be obnoxious.
Technique: The assailant executes a headlock, then rubs the knuckles of his free hand into the scalp of the victim.
Outcome: Red face, temporary hair loss.
Notes: If the Noogie is happening to you, the raid is over, your cabin is burning, and you are being scalped.
The Sack Tap
Technique: Assailant delivers a quick flick to the crotch of the victim.
Outcome: Victim doubled over.
Notes: A brutal technique, known to end friendships but also entire bloodlines. The Sack Tap is Old Testament warfare. It is against all Geneva Conventions.
Technique: Assailant makes blades of his hands by joining his fingers. He approaches his target from behind. He jabs the target just above the kidneys with his fingertips.
Outcome: When the target turns, the assailant explains the maneuver is supposed to result in the target defecating himself.
Notes: Ineffective by most credible accounts.
The Death Touch
Technique: Not recorded in detail by any credible source. The theory describes a nerve cluster in the foot which, if smashed with the end of a bo staff, will result in the instant death of the victim.
Outcome: Instant death.
Notes: The Death Touch is preached by the one kid with a rattail hairdo.
The one who carries a bo staff whenever he is allowed to do so.
Though mouthy, he will never demonstrate the Death Touch, despite pleas and extended sneakers from brave volunteers.
He will swear up and down he took a life at his last school, yet here he is, walking and breathing freely among you mortals.
Foolish doctors can not identify the Death Touch as the cause of death in autopsies, after all.
Now you are armed and ready for your life’s true calling; to fight with middle schoolers. Go forth; avenge yourself of the old wounds.
Free stories here. Grab my book here for the rarest, spiciest stories that can’t be found online.
They told me Austin was fun, and they didn’t lie.
I’ve flown in to stay with my friends Hutch and Rachel for half a week. The weather just turned cold, so we’re bundled up as we ride Birds, electrical scooters you rent with an app to take through a town. We’re zooming over smooth concrete sidewalk. Street lights light the way as their yellow bulbs zip past overhead.
If you move your hips like a surfer or snowboarder while you ride the scooter, you can sashay around divots and ledges in the sidewalk. The max speed is maybe 18mph. In the wide sidewalks of this clean, spacious city, it’s a great way to get around.
And where are we going? The Russian House of Austin, a restaurant with numerous depraved flavors of vodka. Infusions is the more correct way to say it, I guess. And that goes with a menu that has duck liver, wild boar dumplings, elk, borscht, and caviar from salmon, sturgeon, or beluga.
When we arrive, we’re brought into a room with a wooden banquet table, and benches to match. Overhead, there are paintings of peacocks, doilies, and masks in red and white patterns on the high ceiling. The light is warm, orange and dim. As Hutch, Rachel and I dump our coats, red-cheeked from the Bird ride, the waiter sets down three vodka shots, and a bowl of pickled beets and cabbage. There are slices of white bread on a wooden board, too.
We clink shot glasses and swallow down the vodka. It’s cold going down, but I feel warmth spreading out from my stomach soon. It brings on an appetite for the bread and pickled food.
The place is using QR code menus. I’m scanning through the options on my phone. There are maybe one hundred different vodka shot options. We start with cocktails. Mine is the Russian Rabbit, which has jalapeno, spicy pepper vodka, lemon and pomegranate juice.
“I’ve got an idea,” I say. “Let’s play vodka shot roulette. We each order the strangest vodka shot we can for the person to the left.”
Hutch and Rachel love the plan. Hutch is to my left, and he’ll be ordering for Rachel, who will order one for me. No we peruse the infusions looking for something truly suited to the recipient’s personality, like when you’re giving a gift.
Some of the infusions make me wonder how they’re possible. One is called cigar, which is both intriguing and scary. What will I get Hutch? Today was the first full day of my visit here in Austin. It started with numerous supplements, including mushroom extracts. That fact helps me make my decision.
I hope Rachel doesn’t pick anything too outrageous for me. Especially not the cigar one. I like cigars, but what if it tastes like dip juice? How do they make these shots, anyway?
I find a note from the restaurant on the menu. It says all vodka infusions are created by Chef Vladimir. The flavorings are natural. The base vodka is Kruto and Gzhelka.
The waiter comes back, fingers folded around his notebook. Have we made a decision, he asks in a Russian accent.
I order first. “Please bring this man the wild mushroom vodka shot,” I say, gesturing to Hutch. He laughs at the thought.
Hutch orders for Rachel. “Bring her cherry cayenne,” he says. Rachel has only recently discovered a taste for spicy food or drink, and she shivers at the imagined shot.
“And bring him the Cowboy,” Rachel says.
Oh no. The Cowboy is a vodka shot of beef jerky, Texas BBQ sauce, leather, charcoal, and yes, cigar.
“I thought you would order that one but I hoped you wouldn’t!”
I recently bought land in the middle of nowhere out west. The cigar, leather and charcoal shot was my obvious fate. No escaping it.
The waiter returns with a wooden board holding three shot glasses. There’s mine, reddish from the BBQ sauce. There’s a feint brown vodka for Hutch’s wild mushroom shot, and there’s a pinkish one for Rachel.
“Nostrovia,” says Hutch. We all throw the shots back.
The Cowboy gallops down in phases. First, I taste the BBQ sauce. Not too bad. Then my face shudders and my hands shake. Leather taste, like being punched with gorgeous vintage boxing gloves hits me. It’s not over, next comes a flavor like chewing beef jerky around a dead campfire. I take a breath, and there’s the cigar, yes, a little like dip juice, and a little like after you’ve puffed out cigar smoke.
We take bites of our appetizers of duck liver pate and cheburek, which is a Mongolian dish. It’s a crescent-shaped crispy dough filled with beef, pork and seasoned herbs.
I look down. I’m white knuckling the edge of the table. Hutch and Rachel aren’t much better off. The cayenne was far stronger than the cherry in Rachel’s, and the wild mushroom was rich with the earthy taste of fungus.
“Again,” I say. “Let’s do that again.”
“Reverse order,” says Rachel. Good idea. Hutch is ordering for me now, Rachel’s ordering for him, and I’m ordering for Rachel.
There are so many shots to choose from. How do I decide?
The waiter comes back, and it’s game time. “Please bring her the pineapple goat cheese,” I say.
“No!” says Rachel. “I can’t stand goat cheese.”
“Payback for the dip juice,” I say.
She orders the Nuclear for Hutch. No ingredients are given.
“It’s vodka and puddle from Chernobyl,” I say. “I bet it comes out glowing.”
Hutch orders for me. “He’ll have sea buckthorn.”
“What’s that?” I ask. “That sounds like there’s going to be a live anemone prickling around in there.”
“Hopefully!” Hutch says.
We order some entrees, too.
“Goat cheese,” says Rachel. “The worst.”
“I love goat cheese!” I say. Hutch is a fan of it too.
“It taste like a sheep’s butt. You guys like the taste of a sheep’s butt?”
“I don’t judge your weekends, why must you judge mine?” I answer. A laugh goes around the table.
The shots arrive, all a similar color this time.
We find our assigned sentences, and carry them out. A lifting of elbows, and three shots go down the hatch.
Sea buckthorn. What is it? Soy sauce and blueberry? Scratch that. It’s licorice and vinegar. No, more like seawater and cedar tree oil. Forget it. I have no idea what it is. I can’t come up with a combination to explain it. Some day, you’ll just have to try it.
Rachel is making faces from the goat cheese pineapple, and Hutch has broken into a full sweat.
“That is the single spiciest thing I ever drank in my life,” he says about the Nuclear.
Food has arrived to save us with saner flavors, and some meat and potatoes to soak it all up. Hutch has chicken tabaka, a Soviet dish with grilled chicken marinated in garlic and wine sauce, then pan fried in its own juices. Rachel has chicken kiev, a fillet pounded and rolled around cold butter, then coated with eggs and bread crumbs, and fried.
I have a bowl of wild boar dumplings, which come with cups of spicy tomato sauce and sour cream. You might imagine they’d be gamy, but they’re not at all. I like them.
After eating our fill, it’s time to explore the dessert shots. It’s a coffee vodka shot for Hutch, coffee and milk for Rachel, and caramel for me. Mine tastes like butterscotch sundae sauce with vodka.
Now we’re armed and ready to venture back out in the cold to go to the dance clubs.