I bought a 1981 Ford Ranger F-100 series pickup, used. It had a lot of miles, and it was reconditioned. They told me that Ford no longer made the machine used to tune it up, that I would have to do it manually. That was O.K. with me. I was getting used to changing my own oil, and doing minor maintenance on my own cars. Nice color. Faun, they called it. It was not an easy color to maintain, I later found out -- I never had an adequate garage, and the Idaho winters gradually changed the color to a muted brown, similar to the color that the garbage company painted all their dumpsters, parked in front of every construction site. After I had the truck for a month Molly drove it to her job at a thrift store, and put a ding in it. I didn't care. I was planning to do a lot of things that would really give it a lot of character. I met a fellow who had a pickup outfitted with a giant suspension system and oversized wheels, who was a lead carpenter at a building project near mine. I asked him, if he used the wheels as part of an emergency preparedness group, such as for a flood, or other disaster. He said no, he just liked it that way, and made some symbolic analogy about high and low people that I didn't really understand. About a year after that, I was driving through Ketchum, and there was an accident. The man let his girlfriend drive the truck, and she knocked one of the wheels off in a collision in the intersection. A woman can't learn to drive a pickup. They all ask to drive their boyfriend's truck, just to put their mark on it.
Of all my experiences in Idaho, gathering firewood was often some of the more pleasant that I can remember. I would drive far off the beaten path, searching for standing dead timber. If the wood was on the ground, it would be excessively oxidized, and wouldn't burn long enough. I found a place that wasn't near the road, but it was on a hillside, and I could drag the logs down. I just had to push them over: the roots were rotten. I cut them into eight-foot sections, notched them, according to the rules on the permit, and took them back to my house to cut it all up. I didn't like using the chainsaw that much up in the mountains. To me, it seemed out of place with crisp Fall weather, the beautiful vistas, and the pheasants and other wildlife running about. I would pile the logs high and tie them all down with an elegant trucker's knot that I learned working at the lumberyard. Once, I drove up a narrow logging road, which grew increasingly steeper. I was looking for a place to turn around, when the road finally became too dangerous to proceed. I started backing the truck downhill, but the tires slipped on the loose gravel, and the bed of the pickup pressed into the hillside. I couldn't get the truck back on the road. I was many miles away from anybody that could help. Finally, I remembered that I had a deer hoist. I don't know why I bought it. I didn't have a gun. But it had lots of wheels on it, though the rope was very thin. I hooked this device to a tree, and was able to pull the pickup back on the road, even though the gravitational force holding the pickup in the ditch was enormous. All this while sitting in the drivers seat, steering, and putting on the emergency brake at just the right time. Soon after that, I discovered that I didn't have to work so hard, just to gather wood. I started gathering aspen, which nobody wanted because it was on the ground. But aspen is a water-based wood, and has to weather several years before you can burn it. It could be found everywhere, and very close to my house. It wasn't quite as nice as pine, but I got to like the smell of aspen burning in the woodstove.
Starting up the truck and getting to work in the winter could be quite a problem. Sometimes there would be snow, several feet deep, which had to be removed before I could move out of the driveway. The city would make things worse when the plows came by and left a ridge of snow five or six feet high at the front of the driveway. I know people that gave up trying to remove this frozen mass of ice and snow, and made a arch through which they would exit their abodes and walk to work. Removing the ice from the windshield was a pain. I used the hard acrylic scrapers. It was too cold to use water. Getting the engine started was another matter. I bought a heated dipstick, which helped. I frequently had to use a spray, which I could use on the carburetor. I held several types of jobs during the winter. Once, I worked for a seafood buffet. Two college students had the brilliant idea that they could buy fresh seafood in Seattle and drive it in a refrigerated truck all the way to Sun Valley, and sell it all in an enormous buffet, at the Elkhorn resort. I enjoyed some of the things I did there. We all took turns shucking oysters. There was a huge barrel of them packed in ice, hibernating. I would shuck them using an oyster knife and a steel glove, and arrange them neatly on the half shell on a bed of ice. Every time I broke the shell, I got to eat the oyster, still alive. That's when they taste the best, when they give off their liquor. I worked with the pastry chef, who made an great variety of of sweet rolls. We made napoleons, chocolate eclairs, strudel, everything you can imagine. Frequently during the day I would see yet another fellow working in the kitchen who would sneak into the room where the pastries were kept, shove an eclair into his mouth, and leave with his cheeks stuffed. Once, I was asked to prepare the shrimp, which was displayed on a bed of ice. It was a large round plastic bowl, and to make the work interesting I arranged the shrimp in a large yin-yang, the two forces of shrimp locked in an eternal conflict. The next day, they told me not to do that again. The customers of the buffet ate all the shrimp in fifteen minutes. We wanted the shrimp to last longer than that.
Times eventually became hard for us in Sun Valley. Several years went by with inadequate snowfall. I found it harder to find work. Some of the people who employed me were, to use a mild term, jerks. I worked for a man who had a brother working for a lumber company, and could buy insulation cheaper than everyone else. I started working for him, at a piece rate, doing ceilings only. I learned a lot about how insulation needs to be done. I also learned that the people who employed us tended to despise people who worked for wages. He paid me using the 1099 form. I guess, to his mind, I was getting enough vacation for anyone, working for a living in Sun Valley, and they, meaning his class of people, certainly wouldn't want a lot of people hanging around after they were too old to work, no longer beautiful people. Hence, don't pay into Social Security. It's too good for them. I was beginning to feel exploited. One of my worst job situations was working at the Alpenrose, a project without end run by a eccentric millionaire. I worked for them, off and on, many times. I finally quit them for good over a dispute about my back problems. They wanted me to mix sand and cement and shovel it into a hopper which fed the gunite machine. I had done this before, and I had made a reputation for being the most tireless laborer for this and many other similar tasks. The trouble is, they had piled the bags of concrete and sand very close to the work area. I told them that I couldn't work with that setup, because I would be able to shovel the mixture in only one direction. This would give me troubles with my back. They refused to move the bags, and insisted that I do the work. After several weeks of this, I was working on another task, using a heavy drill, when I finally tweaked my back. I went to a chiropractor, and got a note. The foreman just tore it up. I left the site, and collected workman's comp, as had the two men who had preceded me in doing the feeding-the-shotcrete-hopper job. I spent the next month mostly in a health club, recovering. I made myself a lot stronger. That always seemed to work, to counteract the weakness of an injury. The injuries never really leave you. I can point out numerous places on my body that still tingle with an old injury, and I can recall how they all happened. Molly started having some medical problems, as well. We had to drive all the way to Twin Falls, to see a specialist. It was time to go.
After being told for years that I was wasting my time, living as a ski bum, and taking on menial jobs, I was completelydiscouraged. But in hindsight, it is a choice which makes a lot of sense for many people. How many college graduates have you met, who have attained a bachelors degree, had good grades, and are unemployed? Resorts have lots of work available, are pleasant places to be, and you meet lots of people. I didn't get to ski as much as many of the permanent residents in the area. I couldn't afford a season pass. Sometimes, I would work half a day for the resort, usually as a gatekeeper for amateur racing events, and spend the afternoon skiing. More often, I would go cross country skiing. The trails that led off into the wilderness in every direction during the wintertime became cross country excursions, creating completely new vistas on the forests which I frequently jogged during the summer. But there were no social services for the workforce in Ketchum and Sun Valley. For one thing, there wasn't one psychiatrist, and probably not a single psychologist, in the entire area. Not that there weren't any crazy people around. Rich or poor, half the people who live there are nuts. I want to tell you their stories, but, another time. Nowadays, you hear conservatives deriding the "entitlements" of Social Security and Medicare. Those same people all have private chalets there. They arrive in Lear jets, and drive special Chevy Suburbans outfitted with ski rack on the side, so their help can drop them off right at the lift. When I collected workman's comp, I did it to pay the chiropractor. I got well. But my erstwhile employers insurance was increased, and he shut down the whole job, for another year. They finally ran him out of town, for spending too many years with the same construction project. But I learned that if I wasn't permanently disabled, I would be called a fraud for making a claim there. I could do thirty pullups. I could ride a bicycle one hundred miles in one day. I jogged fifty miles a week. I must have been faking it.
We moved to Santa Clara, California, where I immediately started working as a carpenter. I learned to commute, and to locate job sites anywhere in the area and get to work on time. Two hours, every day, on the road. Eight hours of work. Once a week, six hundred dollars. Life was good. I bought a camper shell, back in Idaho, which kept all my tools safe. I bought it from a neighbor, who had divorced her husband, and he wasn't paying any child support. It wasn't really hers, I later learned, but she had to make rent. We had neighbors in our new apartment complex in California that had small children, like ours. The mother was extremely fatigued one day, and locked the doors and took a nap. Her children, three small boys, had learned how to open the window on their bedroom and climb out to play in the yard. The youngest one, Edward, went to the parking enclosure, and entered my pickup from the rear. He climbed over the toolbox, wet his pants there, and then opened the window and climbed into the cab, where he pretended to drive, and finally summoned someone when he honked the horn repeatedly. I needed a lot of tools. I went to a finance company, who persuaded me to borrow much more than I requested. I was able to buy nail guns, a new table saw, a huge chop saw. I paid off the loan easily. The pickup started having problems. Backing up a driveway, something happened to the transmission. I paid nine hundred dollars for a shop to replace it with a reconditioned tranny. This also was not a hardship. I had a worse problem with the smog check. This Ford was not made to be sold in California. The machine used to tune it up used a gas which was injected into the carburetor during the calibration processess. I removed the carburetor from the engine, disassembled it completely, and cleaned the parts in a noxious liquid on the balcony of my apartment. I replaced the linkage with a kit a bought in the automobile store. I was able to pass the smog test, but it made the truck guzzle more gas, not less.
The brakes also gave out. Rather, the vacuum assist to the power brake system failed. After talking to a few mechanics, I learned that I could replace the part myself. I went to the San Jose Pick and Pull, found a pickup like mine in the automobile graveyard, removed the part, and took it home with me. The mechanics that I met in that area were used to an extremely well-to-do clientele, but they were always willing to give good advice. I had a neighbor who worked in a shop in Los Gatos, who only did Jags. He said it takes twenty gallons of oil, for an oil change on a Jaguar, but it lasts much longer. I'll have to buy a Jaguar, if I can ever afford one. I attached the new vacuum unit onto the brake pedal of my pickup, and everything worked again. A few months after that, I was driving down the expressway through Campbell, and the road was slick and shiny with rain. I experienced water planing for the first time. I spun completely around, and continued on, but at a reduced speed. I don't think that makes it any safer, because this phenomenon occurs when it first starts raining, and some oil from the pavement floats to the surface. It was also a newly paved section of the road. I have to credit my years of driving in Montana and Idaho for getting through that one. I was used to black ice, as they call it. In Montana, I remember riding in a car a sixty miles an hour to the ski hill, the road covered with ice. It's O.K. just as long as you don't try to stop, or turn. Some kids passed us, and handed us a beer. I learned to handle almost any skidding situation there, reversing the direction of the steering wheel and all that, without even thinking about it. I can't go into controlled skids to make high speed turns, however. I'm not that kind of driver.
I had some hard times in Silicon Valley too, as I had before in Idaho. Molly was hospitalized for several months, and I had to do it all. I entertained the kids by making origami that could fly. I took them to all the choo-choos in the area. In Los Gatos park, there was a miniature steam engine, originally from the Venice Beach area in Los Angeles. I took them to a gigantic blimp hangar at Moffat Field, to watch people flying rubber band airplanes that could fly for an hour without stopping. I wanted to know more about computers, but it was all very new to me. My brother in law, who lived in Menlo Park, worked in a small company called Telebit, which manufactured modems. He was a "project manager" which meant that he had to find out what the customers wanted, work with engineers to design the product, find companies to supply the parts, and package and sell the product. All this, he called marketing. I started appreciating what it is, to have a MBA. He helped me out, with Molly's illness. He knew an internist, a physician who specialized in diagnosis. The man examined Molly, and found out she had a medical condition which had not been discovered yet. She started recovering. After taking care of my two children for several months, I wondered how she had been able to do it, to take care of them while I was away for ten hours.
When Molly returned from the hospital, we decided to take a few night classes together at De Anza Community College. I learned about the MacIntosh personal computer. You put one floppy in it, to boot the operating system. Then you put another floppy in, to use for your personal files. When I was in the lab, a technician was going around, fixing all the machines. There was a computer virus going around. We could only use floppies that stayed in the lab. I also took a class in flamenco guitar. This I found very exciting, because besides being interested in carpentry, I have always had a strong interest in playing guitar. My guitar, like my truck, was marked by all the work I put into it. All the spaces between the frets were deeply pitted, top to bottom, with the wear from my fingers. My philosophy for learning to play the guitar was, play by ear. I learned to play from a musician back in Connecticut, Peter Kane Dufault, who was a retired lawyer and a poet published in the New Yorker. He went to all the folk festivals which were the heyday back then, and he was the most interesting person I had ever met. He said that it is better to play by ear, because then the music you play is your own. He claimed that most of the musicians he met who were classically trained were helpless when they were asked to play along, to to improvise. In the flamenco class, I learned that the gypsies in Spain have a similar philosophy -- they learn to play with each other improvisationally, and must adapt to all the variances of the dancers, the people clapping their hands, and the singer. Basically, it is a kind of blues, only Spanish. Even the subject matter is similar to the Blues. Suffering. Persecution. The main difference, however, is the emotional intent. In the Blues, the singer seeks a common ground, a sharing of sympathies. With flamenco, the singer begins with what might seem as self pity, as he may relate humiliating and heartbreaking events. But in the end it's all about pride. Pride, for being a survivor. Pride, for refusing to change to the will of a society that lacks any compassion. Studying flamenco, I started growing my skills in the guitar, but it was more than that. I learned something about learning itself. Something that is difficult, you can't learn it all at once. It takes a lot of small steps. It takes creativity, more than planning. Sometimes I tell people that I solve problems like a cat in a box. The cat will try everything, until he finds a way out. This is the method of sheer creativity. I knew from studying education in college that each person has a favored learning modality. Some people pick things up by what they hear. Other like to learn by doing, hands on. My techniques for learning music started to take a myriad of forms. I started creating new methods for learning and acquiring new skills. I was learning how to learn, perhaps for the first time. I remember studying for a test, back in college. It was a German class. I started reading the study sheet, fifteen minutes before class, in the hallway outside the classroom. I was the only one in the class to get a perfect score. I don't remember anything that was on the test, I am sad to say. The blues and flamenco, they shaped my attitude about work and life. I've had to learn as I go, but it's alright.
My pickup never really died. It became difficult to shift into second gear. Once, the brakes completely failed, and I was able to stop in time using the emergency brakes, and I carefully drove to a shop. I sold it to a fellow who didn't register it, so I had to fill a form at the DMV to declare that I no longer owned the vehicle. I think he parted it out. It's in somebody's back yard, rusting away. I bought a smaller Ford Ranger after that, thinking that it would be more economical to drive. Big mistake. For one thing, it had more computerized parts. That makes cars better in some ways, but in other ways, it is a disaster. Planned obsolescence. I learned while taking a Spanish class in southern California that one in four men in Mexico makes his living by repairing American automobiles, and reselling the vehicles further south -- the cars end up all the way in South America. By computerizing American cars, the manufacturers have created machines which cannot be repaired, in any conventional sense of the word. We wonder why drug cartels have taken over Mexico. Because we have removed their staff of life. We've even reengineered corn, so that they can't afford to eat it. After acquiring the vehicle, I looked up its specifications online, and found that it had the same specified mileage as my much larger pickup. The motor was just a four-banger, a wimpier engine in every way, yet it used the same amount of gasoline. There can be no satisfactory reason for this, other than a complete perversion of every principle of engineering. Every time the automobile manufacturers get into trouble, the oil and gasoline companies must bail them out. They must own more than fifty percent of every American automobile manufacturer. I guess they own more than fifty percent of everything else. Corporate assholes. That's our real problem. People sometimes wonder why there aren't any protest songs any more. That's because corporate executives don't listen to any loser stories. Within my mind, the story of my pickup is a blues. Maybe I'll actually compose it as a song, someday.
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Addendum-- Here's a link to a lot of songs, both lyrics and audio, about blues songs which mention automobiles, especially Fords, from Mike Rugel's blog The Uncensored History of the Blues : http://uncensoredhistoryoftheblues.purplebeech.com/2011/03/show-52-ford-blues.html