I’ve wanted to drive ever since my dad let me sit on his lap behind the wheel of his 1952 Edsel. The automobile was our passport to get out of the city and discover new lands. Growing up in a relatively small town, the routine sites and sounds got to be rather boring, even for a kid. Owning a car meant you could escape your normal surroundings and explore. Even Chevrolet hired Dinah Shore to sing their jingle, “See the USA in your Chevrolet.” I don’t know about Elon Musk, but my first ride was a go-kart.
My dad built the first hybrid
When I was 5 years of age, my dad bought me a push pedal car. It was a great little car, even though my little legs gave out trying to pedal it through the grass in our small yard. I guess my dad saw me struggling to pedal it and got to thinking.
He had an old self propelled reel style lawn mower that he was tired of sharpening the blades on. The motor on it still worked. What if I could make a go-kart out of the self propelled mower and the pedal cart. My dad didn’t own a lot of tools but he did own a hack saw and bailing wire. With those two things in hand, he sawed the pedal cart in half where the rear wheels were. He then sawed the handles of the self propelled mower off. Taking the two parts, he wired them together to make my first go kart.
Skip ahead 10 years
Skipping ahead 10 years to my teenage years, being able to legally drive a car was still a few years away, not that this kept me from driving! Somehow, I had to find a way to be able to drive. I needed something that I could drive legally. What I needed was a real go-kart. My dad still had that old engine from the reel lawn mower that he had converted into a motorized scooter. All I needed was a go-kart frame. My job at the chicken farm didn’t pay much. At $1 per hour, all I could afford was $25 for an old dilapidated go-kart frame. The right front wheel didn’t touch the ground due to someone running the go-kart into a tree which had bent the frame. The front tire was about 1 inch off the ground, but it was a beauty to me, even painted baby blue.
As if tying a pedal cart and a lawnmower wasn’t bad enough, my dad was able to attach the old mower engine to the back of the go-kart and somehow rigged it up so that I had a real gas pedal and brakes. To me, this wasn’t a Frankenstein, this was a car worthy of the Indy 500. By then, we had moved to the country with gravel roads and a field next to our new home. I sped up and down the gravel roads and in a big loop in the field to head back down the road in front of our house. We lived in a sleepy town, so there really wasn’t any traffic. Everything was great until word got out that Gill owned a go-kart.
A free attraction
A number of the neighbor kids came over and asked if they could ride my go-kart. Hesitantly I let them ride it a few times, but gasoline wasn’t free and this was MY go-kart. After a couple of days, I put that to a stop telling them to go build their own go-kart. My dad got word that I had closed up shop, not allowing other kids to ride it and I was told that I must share and let them have turns.
There, stood a line 4 to 5 kids deep with me maintaining this free attraction and having to give driving instructions to the kids. It wasn’t long before I was out of gas. I told the kids, “Hey, you supply the gas and you can ride.” Amazingly, they all left and none of them returned with gas cans. I guess as long as the ride was free, they didn’t mind riding.
The need for speed
After a couple of weeks, it seemed that my go-kart had gotten slower and slower. In all actuality, it was going the same speed. I was just ready for more speed. Noticing that there was this wire near the carburetor that if I pulled it, the engine revved up like crazy. I wondered why it didn’t sound like that when I use the gas pedal. I found a way to take the throttle cable and attach it to this wire and then to my gas pedal. Now, I was able to increase my speed by almost 33%.
I was zooming up and down the road. This was great! Why didn’t the manufacturer of the motor done that originally? What I didn’t realize was that this was the engine governor. It kept the engine at a normal rpm while the engine was under load. To me, it was free power, to the manufacturer, it was a way to keep the engine from blowing up when not under load.
Back to the drawing board
Now that my engine was an anchor, I was back to the drawing board. I had a go-kart frame that was engineless. I needed to be able to save up enough money to buy another engine, but making only $1 per hour, I couldn’t afford a new engine.
By now I was in high school, still with no drivers license. There was a kid who was a senior that raced go-karts. I found out his name and went and located him during lunch one school day. I explained my dilemma. I’m thinking that he felt sorry for me. He was from a family of mechanics and racing was their middle name. He said that he had a used 2 stroke racing engine that he could part with for $20. I was exuberant. After a couple of weeks, I could afford that. I promised to buy the motor as soon as I could earn the money for it. After a few weeks of working, the day arrived that the transaction would occur. He delivered the engine to my house explaining that a 2 stroke motor required oil to be mixed with the gasoline as well as other tips.
Getting hooked up
My dad was busy with his barbershop quartet singing and didn’t have the time to help me with my go-kart any longer. He told me that this time, it was up to me to get the engine hooked up to the frame. This was when I realized that I would need actual tools. A hammer, screwdriver and a pair of pliers wasn’t going to cut it.
I bought my first set of wrenches and ratchets on sale for $10 and felt like a real mechanic. My dad had a power drill which was needed to drill new holes in the go-kart frame to be able to mount the engine to the rear frame. This I was able to do as well as attach the chain to the sprocket. What I couldn’t figure out was how to connect the throttle control to the gas pedal. Knowing the shortest distance between 2 points was a straight line, a piece of wire from an old picture frame did the trick. I was ready to roll!
Let’s wake up the neighbors
It was Saturday morning. My go-kart was ready. All I needed was 2 cycle oil to mix with the gasoline in the gas can. My buddy had given me a partial bottle of 2 cycle oil when he sold me the motor. I carefully added the correct amount as he had informed me. Pouring that mixture into the small gas tank on the 2 stroke motor and I was just about finished. I pushed the go-kart to the top of the driveway, took the pull rope and gave it a tug. Nothing happened. I gave it a little gas and pulled again. Suddenly the 2 stroke motor sprung to life. It made this loud raspy rat-a-tat sound like a chain saw. I didn’t realize that chain saws also used 2 stroke motors, I just knew that chain saws were loud.
I positioned myself in the metal seat of the go-kart, using an old cushion for a little padding on the metal seat frame. Carefully, I pulled the wire that I had connected to the 2 stroke motor throttle control and the rear wheel of the go-kart spun like crazy. Gravel was spinning high into the air behind the go-kart. I finally pulled it just a wee bit to get it to finally grab the gravel road and head down the lane.
I had only pulled the wire a little bit and I was going faster than the old lawn mower engine at it’s top ungoverned speed. What would happen if I pulled it all the way? With one hand I held the steering wheel, with the other hand I pulled the wire. The go-kart took off. The wind was blowing against my face. Water was starting to stream from the corners of my eyes due to the speed of the go-kart. Three wheels were on the ground with the 4th wheel touching only when I would head around corners. I was in go-kart heaven.
Part of the chain gang
Due to my limited amount of tools and how I had attached the motor to the go-kart, whenever I hit a big pump, the chain would pop off. This would leave the engine revving wildly high with the go-kart slowing to a stop. I limped the go-kart back home to realize that the L bracket that the engine was mounted on wasn’t really strong enough and that this was going to be a regular problem. What was needed was a thick gauge bracket, a welder and more tools than I had. I figured out how to reattach the chain and settled to just live with the chain popping off on every ride.
I was the talk of the neighborhood, but not in a good way. It seems that my early morning weekend drives around the neighborhood was too loud for the neighbors. They complained to my parents that it was bad enough to have to listen to the wind of a chain saw when neighbors would use their chain saw to fell a tree, but to listen to one running up and down the street day in and day out was enough to drive them crazy. The complaint department told me that my go-kart was grounded and my days of running unfettered through the neighborhood was over. I put the go-kart under the front porch where it sat for months and months.
During this time, I had turned 16 and acquired my drivers license. One of my first jobs working at a gas station, I had my eyes on a Chevy Belair Station Wagon which an older fellow employee owned. He saw the stars in my eyes and it didn’t take much for him to convince me to purchase it from him. That was a quick $300 he pocketed.
All good things must come to an end
By now, I had a car, a girlfriend and a job that paid $3.25 per hour. It was time to grow up. After several years, I found someone to take the old go-kart off my hands. He had a son that was around 14 and he wanted to go through this rite of passage as I did. I think I sold it for $25.
I will always remember my old baby blue go-kart. From riding in my dad’s Edsel, riding in a pedal cart/mower hybrid all the way up to my current ride, a Tesla. Hmm, I wonder if Elon Musk ever had a go-kart? For me, the go-kart holds fond memories of learning how to drive the way that most kids do not. I learned a lot of lessons along the way, the most important…….buy a quiet muffler!
This is one of the most memorable lines of the movie The Matrix. “I know kung fu,” Neo says. My question is, has anyone else ever experienced something to where EVERYTHING comes together? I have one time in my life. The only difference is that I had to work for it, it obviously wasn’t just downloaded into my brain.
I was in college taking a computer language course for engineers called Fortran. The professor spoon-fed us notes on a screen that we simply copied all semester. Can you say B-O-R-I-N-G?
We all learn in different ways
It’s true, some of us learn linearly. We like to be spoon-fed, sort of as our GPS spoon-feeds us where to turn to get to a destination. I don’t do well with that sort of instruction. I need to know why I am making a turn, why I am learning this. How will I use it? How does this line of code work into the project that I am assigned? I’m not a computer that just looks for the needed data and doesn’t ask why. Show me the 30,000-foot view of the city, then tell me where I should go. With that information, I can then use gps; it’s just that I would prefer a map first. When it comes to learning, as a teacher, don’t be a gps, just spoon-feeding me information. I don’t learn that way. I pity the students where a professor doesn’t try and communicate on several levels.
This was the case with my Fortran class I was taking. The professor, who was trying to get his PHD was thrown into teaching a beginning Fortran class. I’m sure he wasn’t excited.
The end of the semester project
All during the semester, we would be given projects to do. We had to write code to be able to generate whatever the assignment said we had to generate. Supposedly we had been given the tools up to that point of the semester. Fortunately, I had a buddy that knew much more than I did, so we worked together to do each project, or should I say, I watched while he figured it out. The whole class did not make sense to me at all. At the end of the semester, our final was a large project that was due. This was our exam of sorts. My buddy and I collaborated on it. He got to a roadblock and admitted, “I have no clue what to do.” I thought to myself, “Well if you don’t know what to do, we are screwed.” We both sat there looking at our notebooks with absolutely nothing on the blank page. I had taken down every single word from the professor’s overhead projector, looking through all of my notes. All of a sudden, it was like a light switch had just been turned on in my brain. All of the notes I had taken were instantly downloaded, or at least it seemed, into my brain. I looked at my buddy and said, “I know kung fu!” He looked at me and said, “What are you talking about?” I replied, “I know how to do this project. I understand the entire semester.” I took my pen and started writing code faster than I had ever seen him write code. He said, “What? How? Are you sure?” I replied very confidently, “I don’t know how, but I know exactly what to do. This will work, I guarantee it.” My brain and my pen were one. I just watched my hand as code flowed from the tip of my pen onto the page. I was amazed while I was writing the code. After about 15 minutes. I looked up to Morpheus, I mean my buddy and said, “It’s done.” I went to school and uploaded the code to the school computer and voila, out came the project, perfectly completed, well except one comma that made every result show up on a separate sheet of paper the size of a ream of paper. Once I removed the comma, it printed beautifully and we turned it in. I got an A.
What I experienced that day was AMAZING. I have never ever experienced it again. It was an epiphany. I do hope that somehow I am able to experience this once again. It involved work and dedication, but the sudden connection of every synapse that had been wandering around in my brain that semester was a feeling that was beyond anything that I have ever experienced.
It was 1972, I lived in Nansemond County, recently annexed by Suffolk VA and I was bored. Living in the country there wasn’t a whole lot to do other than build tree houses, forts and ride our bikes. Halloween was just around the corner and I had trick or treat, ghost stories and pranks on my mind. I was too old to trick or treat so I had to think of something else to do for the season. Billy was my comrade in “crime”, not the illegal kind of crime, the bored country kids kind of crime. What could I do this Halloween season that would scare someone, but not harm them, at least not physically.
With Halloween around the corner, what night could I pull off such a prank? I thought to myself, tonight is Saturday night and my parents typically go out on their date night every Saturday. To be quite honest, this is the night when most of my escapades were launched. The two cats were away and I was the mouse that wanted to play. As I sat around that Saturday morning with my buddy Billy, I asked him “What can we do tonight that will scare someone?” We were sitting on the couch in my den and as he looked into space, his eyes fell upon these two ancient looking candle holders with rope handles. They looked like something from medieval times. Billy asked me, “What are those hanging on the wall? They look kind of creepy.” “Oh, those are portable candle sconces. You stick a big ole’ candle on the nail and you can carry them around.” I replied. Billy got this mischevious look in his eyes. They are pretty creepy and there are two, one for you and one for me.” I looked back at Billy and the wheels of a prank started to spin. “You know, if we put a large sheet over our heads, lit the candles and walked around, it would look pretty scary, but who could we scare?” Billy continued while grinning, “Your little brother, do you think that we could scare him?” “Probably, but we would need to do more than just wear a sheet and carry these creepy candle lanterns around.” I answered. “How about if we had scary music and turned the lights out in the house.” I added. “That could be scary but how would you pull it off?” Billy asked. My mind started to ponder of all the different ways I could turn this night into a spooky experience.
After Billy headed home, I started to think about what tools and other resources were at hand. I would want spooky music, no lights in the house, two sheets for ghosts and the candle sconces that hung on the family room wall. I had just started to experiment with home electricity and knew enough to know that our fuse panel had a bunch of glass screw in fuses that controlled different parts of the house. If lights were on in the house and you simply unscrewed a fuse, then the lights in that section of the house would go out. Seemed simple enough. Now, how to create creepy music. Back in the 70’s, you didn’t download creepy music from your computer because the personal PC hadn’t really been introduced in every home. I did possess an album from ‘Iron Butterfly’. There was a popular song called ‘Inagodadavida’ which if played at speed 16, would sound very scary. My parents stereo system was in the living room and it had a turntable with speed 16. I would keep that circuit turned off until the opportune time and then turn that fuse on, turning on the turntable and stereo to play the song at the preselected speed 16. I drew out a map of the different circuits of the house after testing what each glass fuse controlled. I would slowly turn off the circuits in the house one by one, starting with the lights in the furthest part of the house and one by one, the house would begin to get darker.
The next hurdle was going to be, how to keep my brother in the house when all of this spookiness started to happen. I had an idea. I could take the front doorknob and turn it around so that the keyed part was inside the house and the inside portion was outside, once the door was closed, he would be locked in.
My brother and I were not known for spending a lot of time together back then, so how was I going to get him out of the house so that Billy and another friend of mine could get dressed up in the sheets, light the candles and then start down the stairs from the 2nd floor acting as ghosts? My brother Drew had wanted to go on my adventures, but rarely did I let him. I would tell him that we were going to take a dozen eggs and go egg a few houses after our parents left for their date night. “Hey Drew, how about coming with me tonight to egg some houses?” Mom had just come back from the market and had a fresh dozen of eggs. “Sure, that would be great!” he replied. “Ok, when it gets dark we will head on out and cook up some fun.” I said with a grin on my face.
It seemed like forever for my parents to leave that night. Billy and his buddy Jimmy were down the street waiting for Drew and me to leave the house. Finally, my parents headed out the door. “We are off, behave yourselves and we will be home later.” they said as they left for the evening. The great Halloween caper had begun. “Ok, let’s get our ammo and head on out.” I told Drew. “Why do you want me to go with you? You never take me with you on these escapades?” Drew asked suspiciously. “I don’t know, I just thought it would be fun.” I replied, only not telling him which part of the evening’s events were going to be fun in my mind. Now that it was dark, we headed out. We walked around with 3 eggs in each coat pocket, 6 for Drew and 6 for me. We finally found some homes that looked like the owners were out for the evening. “Watch what I do.” I told Drew. I took an egg and hurled it across the yard. Splat, it hit the target, the front door and the yolk dripped down to the threshold as planned. “See, it’s that easy.” I told my brother. He chose a brick ranch a few doors down, unoccupied for the evening. He wound up like a pitcher on his mound and decided to hit the side of a large brick house. It found it’s target and made a cracking noise as the egg yolk found it’s way deep into the brick and mortar. “That’s not going to be easy to clean.” he said, very proud of
his first egging. “You’re right, we will have to see what it looks like in the daytime.” I grinned. After a few more houses and only 2 eggs left, I told him that we should probably save a couple of eggs for breakfast the next morning or we would have to explain what had become of a brand new dozen eggs.
It was time for the Halloween prank to begin. “Boy, that was fun!” my brother exclaimed. “Yeah, that was pretty fun.” I said as we got closer to our house. I noticed that all of the lights in the house were on. I had already put the record on the turntable, set it to speed 16 and had the stereo turned on. I had turned that circuit off so that when I turned it on, the music would begin. Right after my parents left, I had turned the doorknob around backwards so that it would do what I had intended it to do. I just hoped that Billy and Jimmy were in place. Finally, we reached the front door. I had left the door slightly open so that it would not lock. I opened the front door and pushed my brother into the house. I slammed the door so that it would lock. My brother looked at me wondering what was going on. I ran to the back of the house and opened the fuse panel. Based on my paper layout, I started to unscrew the glass fuses, from the furthest part of the house to the closest one where he was located. It slowly started to get dark, one room at a time. I turned on the fuse that controlled the turntable. ‘Inagodadavida’ started to play on speed 16, very slowly and boy did it sound creepy. Finally the last light in the house was turned off. Billy and Jimmy came walking downstairs in their white sheets. The candles were eerily glowing in the rope handled sconces that they carried beside them. They tried their best to sound like ghosts as they moaned while the flames of the candle reflected off of the stairwell walls as they descended. I was the one controlling the fuse panel, so I wasn’t able to see Drew’s reaction. Billy told me that Drew appeared very startled, but not really
scared. He took a piece of driftwood that was on the coffee table and started swinging it at Billy, not knowing who was under that sheet. Quickly Billy realized that Drew wasn’t going to start whimpering like a baby, but ready to fight his way out of this bad dream. In the tussle, the candle wax dripped from the sconce onto my parent’s new carpet. I ran around the front of the house and saw the commotion so I went back to the garage and turned all of the circuits back on to end the dream sequence.
When I entered the front door, Drew said, “You didn’t scare me a bit. I knew something was up when you wanted me to go egg houses with you. Also, when you pushed me into the house, I knew something was up. What kind of music was that? It was kinda’ scary and where did you get those candle holders?” “That was Iron Butterfly’s ‘Inagodadavida’. Wasn’t it creepy? I put it on speed 16.” I said very proudly. “Those candle sconces were the ones hanging next to the fireplace in the den.” I added. Suddenly I noticed something shiny on the stair carpet. It was wax from one of the candles that had spilled. “Aww man, I’m going to get murdered. Look at the wax on mom and dad’s new carpet!” I said as the reality of it all started to lower the satisfaction of our caper. Drew just stood there and howled, laughing. “You are going to be in deep water and you deserve it! Pretending to take me on an outing and then trying to scare me like that.” I knew that he was right. I did deserve it.
I told Billy and Jimmy thanks for taking part, told them goodbye and found a knife and a brush trying to get every bit of wax out of that carpet. Drew went off to watch TV or play his guitar. I don’t remember which. I spent the rest of the evening taking the sheets, throwing them in the wash, hanging the sconces back up, along with the new burn marks that candles had made on them. Do you know how hard it is to get wax out of carpet? When you don’t have Google around to ask what is the best method, you just pick at it until it looks ok. That took me forever.
The evening finally passed, we headed to bed, my parents got home and I made some sort of deal with Drew to not tell my folks what had happened. He had thrown a number of eggs at neighbors homes and he was not free of guilt. I’m sure I used that in my defense. I’m sure my parents saw the remaining wax on the steps, but I probably pleaded ignorance. Too many years have passed since I pulled off that prank, but to this day I still feel bad about trying to scare my brother and taking him out to egg houses on false pretenses. Yep, I could be quite an ass to my little brother, but as time passed we became closer. We both have businesses of our own, great kids and many fond memories of Nansemond County and all of the things we did. I’m sorry bro’. You know that I love you, but I know you weren’t so sure when we were growing up.
Long ago in a neighborhood far away, I was just a young lad with a burning desire to enter the world of commerce. Ever since I can remember, I wanted to build something that people could enjoy, but at the same time earn a few dollars. The youngest age I remember thinking this was when I was probably 10. I wanted to open up my own dog and cat hospital. I had a cat named Purry. Somehow, Purry had been shot by a BB gun and his front leg still had the BB in it and was bleeding. In the garage we had this white porcelain cabinet that looked to me like something that belonged in a doctors office. I took my cat and using my own belts I stretched him out with all 4 legs tethered to each corner of the top. The poor cat looked like he was doing the splits. I remember shaving the area of his leg that had the wound, using tweezers to remove the BB, then putting anti-bacterial ointment on the wound and bandaging it up.
That was enough to convince me to open my own veterinary practice. I put a sign on the front of the garage that said “Cat and dog hospital”. Fortunately, nobody saw the sign as not a single dog or cat was given into my care and my parents were not sued for malpractice.
My second attempt at commerce was opening a bicycle repair shop. I put out my shingle and actually had a customer the first day. The training wheels on my neighbor’s bicycle were coming off. My task was to make sure that they stayed on the bike. I promised to have the bike repaired by the end of the day. I went to my dad’s tool box and found 3 tools, a screwdriver, an old pair of pliers and a hammer. There wasn’t a single wrench in the whole box. What was I going to do? I took the pliers and tried to tighten the bolt that held the training wheels on, but all that did was to round off the corners of the bolt.
A screwdriver wasn’t going to help and a hammer was out of the question. With my head hung low, I had to return the bike with the realization that to start a bicycle repair shop, you needed actual tools. Wilbur and Orville Wright would not have been pleased as they graduated from a bicycle shop to inventing the first engine powered plane. I removed my sign and now had 2 failed businesses before reaching the age of 11.
My next business venture involved a go-kart that my dad had built from an old self propelled lawn mower and a pedal car. He chopped the pedal car in half and chopped the handle of the lawn mower. Somehow, with only a pair of pliers a screwdriver and a hammer, he was able to take some wire and fasten them together. He attached a wire to the throttle of the gas engine and you pulled it with one hand while steering it with the other. The neighborhood kids saw me riding up and down the road, onto the dirt path, circling around and heading back down the road. Of course their first question was, “Hey, can I ride it?” I said “Sure”. After a few kids were taking their turns riding my go-kart, I was starting to get annoyed so I came up with the idea to sell tickets. I charged 25 cents per ride. Kids were going home to empty their piggy banks. After a couple of hours, I guess one of the parents called and complained to my parents that I was charging the neighborhood kids to ride my go-kart.
My dad came out and told me to stop charging the neighbor’s kids and to let them ride for free. Busted again! With everyone riding my go-kart, I wasn’t getting much time riding it. The next day, before anyone woke up, I figure out where the governor was located on the go-kart and found that if I played with it, I get get about 25% more speed. This worked great for a couple of days until the poor engine, revving past what it was supposed to, blew up and refused to run.
As a kid living in the country, getting around by bike was the only way to travel. Every kid had a bicycle and since my bike repair shop was a bust, I decided to make a bike track. My yard was pretty big for our neighborhood. We had a ditch that went from the front of the yard to the back. In the middle, during the summer, it was more of a recess than a ditch. I figure out that if I created a bike track around the next door field, through our yard, then down and up the ditch it would make a great bike track, one with interesting curves and bumps in the field to give a little excitement. I spent the next couple of days with a shovel and rake, smoothing out the really rough areas, creating signs to direct people where to go. I thought about selling tickets, but this didn’t go over too well with the go-kart, so I figured I would just do this one pro bono. I told a couple of neighbor kids what I had built and within an hour or two, there were 7 kids riding their bikes along the bike track having a great time.
We were having a blast until my dad found out that we were ruining his beautiful lawn with bicycle tracks. My dad was very proud of his lawn and still is to this day. That was the end of the bike track.
It sure was getting tough to run a business, let alone an amusement park. The bike track gave me another idea. In Suffolk, we had a couple of good snow storms that covered the hill behind us with snow. To me, as a 12 year old, the hill seemed huge, but now that I think about it, I’m sure it wasn’t that big. For kids my age, it was big enough. Having watched the winter Olympics the previous winter, I marveled at the bob sledders. I so much wanted to ride a bob sled. What if I were to create a bob sled track on the hill behind our home? Since it was fall, I had plenty of time to create a bobsled track. There were two tall trees at the bottom left of the hill. There was about a 24″ gap between the two trees. It was the perfect spot to ride our sleds through, but on the other side of the trees was a ditch. Big problem. You wouldn’t want to end up in icy water, so I built a wooden bridge over the ditch. I then took dirt and built up a banked curve right before the trees so that it would lead you between the trees and over the bridge to end the run. I made sure that all of the sticks and underbrush were cleared on the hill. I imagined the start gate with a digital timing system and someone to record the time at the end of the track. All I had to do was to wait for the first snow.
That year, snow did not seem to want to appear. What was I going to do. I had publicized my bobsled track to my friends and now I didn’t have any snow. Since I was into model rockets, I had hear that scientists were experimenting with silver iodide crystals to make it rain. I figured I would give it a shot. I somehow convinced my mom into convincing the local pharmacist to sell her a bottle of silver iodide. She brought it home and said, “I don’t think this is going to work, but go ahead and give it a shot.” I thanked her and ran to the garage to fill up the nose cone of my rocket with the precious silver iodide crystals. I waited for just the right afternoon to launch my rocket. When the clouds looked promising, yet holding back their moisture, I took my rocket outside and set it up for the historic launch. 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 lift off! It sailed into the winter sky. Just at the right moment, at apogee, it released it’s snow making crystals. Slowly the rocket floated to the ground with it’s parachute waving success, at least in my mind. I went to bed that night, hoping that I would awake to a beautiful blanket of snow. As dawn approached, I ran to the window, yet found that the clouds had not released their white crystals of snow. I was disappointed, but 3 days later, snow appeared. In my heart, I believed that I was responsible for the snow.
School was cancelled due to the heavy snow and it was time for me to get outside to inspect the bobsled course. The snow had covered my bridge and the banked curve that led between the two trees. I remember that the newscaster during the Olympics talking about how icy the bobsled track was, so I made sure to pack the snow super tight and to pour water on the curve and between the trees so that it would be fast. Around 10 AM, my friends started to show up at the top of the hill. They were excited to see what I had made. I was the first to try it. I took my sled to the top of the hill and held my breath. I took a running start and threw my body down on top of my sled, cruising down the incline. Before I knew it, the curve was coming quickly into view. I leaned to the left and rode the banked curve. I couldn’t believe how fast I was going. The ice packed snow had made this section very fast. Before I knew it, I was sailing between the trees, over the snow packed bridge and into our yard. I finally came to a stop, raising my fist in the air, whooping it up and not believing that it was such a fast ride. Before I knew it, my friends were speeding down the hill one at a time, zipping through the curve, between the trees and over the bridge. Everyone raved about how fast and fun this new track was. By nightfall, I was pretty numb from the cold and exhausted as well. It was a fantastic day for the new bobsled track. I felt proud that I had built something that my friends and I had enjoyed all day long and went to sleep that night dreaming of how I could create something else that brought so much fun and satisfaction to not just me, but others as well. Maybe I could build a rocket ship that carried people or an underground city where we could live or……..
As a 16 year old boy, I made sure to buy the most recent Hot Rod magazine once it came off the press. This was to me an auto version of Playboy; those hot cars that I would dream about yet never come to own. Blown engines, dual quad carbs, hood scoops and Hoosier racing slicks. I lived in the country, far from the downtown area where the cool cars cruised up and down the boulevard on Saturday night. No, I lived in the area of Ramblers and Studebakers. I had to somehow get a car, any car. I had my drivers license, but no car. My parents had a station wagon and a VW. How would I get a project car that I could work on? I didn’t even have any experience working with cars. How could I learn? I know, I could go find a job at a gas station and learn there. Back in the day, they were called “service stations” because they actually serviced cars, not just sold gas that they didn’t pump. I set out to find a job at a service station. I walked all over the neighboring town and applied until I found a job at a Union 76 service station. It had 2 bays and 2 gas pumps. The owner was more than glad to find an eager young guy to pump gas and push a broom. I set out to make the inside of the service station office as clean as a whistle. The owner didn’t know what to say after I spent all day cleaning his front customer area office. “I have never seen this place so clean!” he exclaimed. His long time employee didn’t look on me so kindly as I was showing him up. After a few weeks of pumping gas and selling oil, I made it known that I wanted to buy a project car, one that I could take to the local 1/4 mile drag strip. Johnny, the long time employee that I had shown up heard that I was looking for a car and he figured that he could unload his 1964 Chevy BelAire wagon on me. “So, you are looking for a project car, huh?” he asked. “Yep, I want to hop it up to race at Suffolk dragstrip.” I said with more excitement than Johnny had seen in awhile. “Well, I have this great Chevy that would make a great project car, it’s right over here.” he said. We walked over to his faded green Chevy BelAire station wagon with a big dent in the rear side panel.
“Here it is. I know it doesn’t look like much, but it could look really nice.” he said with a wry grin. “I don’t know, it looks awful big.” I complained. “I tell you what, I will sell it to you for $350 and you can make payments to me. $50 down and it is yours!” he grinned. I thought for a few moments and started to dream of what I could make it look like, jacked up in the back, big racing slicks with painted flames down the side. I could even chop it and make it look really cool. “Ok, you’ve got a deal.” I said as Johnny shook my hand and smirked under his breath. All I could do was to dream of what this car was going to look like. I called my mom and said, “I don’t need a ride home, I bought a car!” “You did what???” she asked. “Yeah, Johnny here at the service station sold me his 1964 Chevy. I got a really good deal.” I explained. “Well, I hope so. Are you sure you can drive it home.” she asked. “Sure, it’s in really good shape.” I said, not having a clue about the engine. After work, Johnny handed me the keys and the title mumbling something about keeping a check on the oil. I took the keys to my new chariot and opened the door, after tugging on it to get it to open. I slammed the door, put the key in the ignition and cranked it over. After a couple of tries it came to life. It didn’t sound too powerful. I pulled out of the service station parking lot and onto the main drag heading home. Heading onto the highway, I thought that I would see what she could do. I floored it and the car sluggishly bucked, like an old horse not used to getting spurs in its flank, but finally it accelerated. It didn’t exactly throw me in the back of my seat, as a matter of fact, the transmission slipped into 3rd gear rather slowly and the old Chevy settled down to a quiet hum. I backed off when I hit 70, not wanting to buy a ticket as well as a car that day. At 6PM I pulled in front of my parents house. I parked the car and turned off the key, but the engine didn’t want to stop, it just kind of kept going, knocking and then stopping, then starting, knocking and stopping. Eventually it stopped this whole nonsense and cut off. I scratched my head as I went in to the house. “Come out and see my new car!” I said to my dad with extreme pride and joy. “Ok, what did you buy?” he asked. “Look, isn’t it a beaut!” I said as I posed with the car as if it were a brand new car off the showroom floor. “What the heck did you buy Gill?” my dad asked. “It’s a 1964 Chevy BelAire wagon.” I said with pride. “Did you check it out before you bought it?” he asked. “Sure I did.” I said as I realized that I hadn’t done any such thing. “Well, let’s look under the hood.” my dad said. I went into the car, pulled the engine hood release, went back to the front of the car and lifted the hood for the very first time. What I saw made my heart sink. I had a stinkin’ straight line 6 cylinder engine with a lousy 2 barrel carburetor. “Well, not much of an engine in there, but that’s good. You shouldn’t get hurt with those few ponies pulling this heavy hunk of metal.” he said with a grin. He shook his head and headed back into the house. I couldn’t believe it. I hadn’t bothered to even look under the hood. How was I going to hop up a 6 cylinder engine? Also, how was I going to race with an automatic 3 speed tranny? Now that I was home, I looked the car over really well. A huge dent in the rear side panel, carpet that was so thin that you could see the floorboard, a radio that was only AM and a drivers side door that made a loud creak and barely opened. What a piece of crap. I crawled under the car and noticed that the tires were almost bald and that the inspection sticker would expire at the end of the month. What was I going to do? I slammed the door and went into the house to pout.
The next day, I drove my wagon back to the service station that I worked at. I found Johnny under the hood of a car that needed a new alternator. “Hey, that car you sold me only has a 6 cylinder in it.” I complained. “Yeah, I know. What’s your problem?” he retorted. “I thought that it had an 8 cylinder engine in it, not a stupid 6 cylinder.” I said. “Well, you didn’t ask. It’s yours now!” he smiled and returned to his work. I walked away with my hands in my pockets, dejected, realizing that I had been taken and it was my own fault for not asking more questions BEFORE I bought the wagon.
This wasn’t going to get me down. I tried to figure ways to make this clunky station wagon a hot rod. I went to my boss and asked if he would sponsor my car so that I could take it to the 1/4 mile racetrack. He laughed and said, “You’ve got to be kidding! Sponsor that piece of crap? No way! You need a two door light weight car with a nice V8 in it.” he said. I knew that he was right. Nobody would sponsor a station wagon and especially a station wagon with a 6 cylinder in it. I hung my head low and started sweeping the garage bays. Boy, was I stupid or what. Not to mention that I also had an automatic transmission. Nobody raced with an automatic transmission.
I drove it to school the next day, but no heads turned in my direction to check out my new ride. I think they purposely didn’t look to save me the embarrassment. I went to my classes and tried to forgot what was waiting for me in the parking lot. Over the next few weeks I started thinking, I wonder if my boss would think about sponsoring me if I had a manual transmission in my car? Maybe it would have more get up and go rather than sliding through the gears as it did now. I went and talked to the junk man next door. He said that he had an old Chevy pickup in the back with a 3 speed manual tranny. He said that it should bolt up to the engine. He said, if you can get it out, you can have it. Armed with wrenches and rags, I crawled under the truck and with plenty of knuckles busted finally wrenched free the transmission, flywheel, disc and pressure plate from the old truck. “Well, it’s yours!” he said rather surprised that I had freed it from the truck way back in the junk yard. Wow, a 3 speed tranny. All I had to do was to swap the automatic transmission for the manual. I mean, how hard could it be?
I convinced my buddy Craig who didn’t know a wrench from a wench to meet me at the gas station after work to pull out the automatic tranny. My boss, before leaving for the night said, “Make sure you have this bay free so that we can work on paying customer’s cars.” I told him no problem as he drove away from the station. “Well, let’s get to work!” I told Craig as I scratched my head trying to figure out where to start. We drove the wagon onto the lift and raised it so that we could get underneath of it to see what was holding in the transmission. Back in those days, all we had were trusty Chilton manuals. I broke out the manual for my car and went step by step trying to figure out all of the bolts and linkage that connected the tranny to the engine. Time was NOT on our side. It was now 3 AM and we still did not have the transmission out. My boss was going to kill me if I didn’t have his bay free. At 4AM Craig and I both crashed in the office on a couple of old plastic chairs. We were exhausted and caught a little sleep. By 5AM I woke up with a start realizing we didn’t have much time to finish. What in the world was holding that transmission to the engine? Finally, I realized that there were bolts that held the torque converter to the flywheel and that these bolts were keeping the tranny from working loose. I had a small hole to insert a socket into and slowly turn the engine over to remove each bolt. At 7AM, we had all of the bolts loose and the transmission fell with a clunk onto the jackstand. My boss was pulling up to the station and his face turned beet red as it did when he wasn’t happy. “I told you to have this bay free!” he yelled. “Get that damn car off of my lift.” I looked at him rather helpless and he finally figured out that we really didn’t know how to get the transmission off of the jack as it was hoisted high in the air and it wasn’t the kind of jack that would lower enough to clear the bottom of the chassis. “Here, let me help you get this thing out of here.” he said. With a few of us holding the transmission, he removed the jack stand and then we were able to carry it off to the side. “Now lower that car and push it out of my garage!” he yelled as we pushed the car to the side of the parking lot. Transmission fluid and grease were all over the floor. What a mess we made. I got busy cleaning it up and asked my mom to pick me up so that I could go home and sleep. I took a quick shower when I got home and fell on the bed into a deep sleep.
Now the hard part began; how to install the new 3 speed manual transmission into the car. I talked to the mechanic next door to get some pointers. You need to install a different flywheel, buy a clutch disc and pressure plate along with a throw-out bearing. It sounded like Greek to me, but with a little time spent in the Chilton’s Manual, I had a plan. I called my buddy Craig again, but this time he refused to answer my calls. I was on my own.
The next week, somehow I promised my boss that if he would let me use his bay again, I would have it free by 7AM. I guess he saw that puppy dog look in my eyes and relented. Fortunately a manual transmission is much lighter than an automatic tranny. I had purchased the necessary parts a week earlier. Changing out the flywheel, installing the pressure plate and clutch disc was actually pretty easy. Sliding the manual transmission up into the chassis and bolting it to the engine was much easier as well. By 5AM I had everything in place. The only issue was that I didn’t have a gear shift. By 7AM the next day, I had moved the car out of the bay and muscled it to the side of the parking lot. “Thank God that piece of junk is out of my bay!” my boss exclaimed as he drove up. I was relieved that I had been able to do the job by myself. I had to go to work, so no sleep for me today. I barely made it through the day and had to get a ride home once more.
A few days later, figuring that I had redeemed myself, I asked my boss “Can I use the garage again? I want to install a gear shift.” “Hell no!” he yelled. “Twice is enough. You figure out where you can work on that thing.” he pointed to my car in disgust. Where was I going to work on it? I had to have a lift. After searching around, I found that there was a new place that used to be a gas station. They were leasing out bays by the hour, as well as loaner tools. I reserved an evening and had the wrecker driver tow my car to the bay down the street. It was going to be another long night. I had purchased a Hurst Master Shifter with a spring loaded 2nd gear that threw the lever into 3rd with just a touch of a finger. It was chrome and beautiful, but there was much work to do to install it.
It was Friday evening. I had my bay reserved and I got to work. First, I had to drill a hole through the floor of the car where the gear shift would go. This was harder than I thought as I didn’t exactly have sheet metal tools. I had to drill almost 100 holes to make a square hold for the gear shift, but after an hour, I finally had a hole larger enough. Reading the instructions, I figured out how to install and adjust the linkage to the transmission. I had to test it out so that the throw of the shifter would engage the levers on the transmission in just the exact spot so that the gears would work. By 4AM, I had my Hurst Master Shifter totally installed, ready for action. I was so proud of getting to this point. I thought I had it all figured out, but then quickly realized, where was the clutch pedal. I had a 3 speed tranny, a shiny new gear shift and no clutch pedal. “Time over!” the manager said as I realized that I was going to have a hard time getting it out of the bay. I put it in reverse and hit the ignition just enough to move the car in gear, but not start it. I bumped it over and over until it was out of the bay. I wonder if……hmmmm. If I could start it in 1st gear, I could actually drive it home. I put it in first gear and made sure that nobody was around. I turned the ignition and the old 6 cylinder came to life after sitting for more than 2 weeks. It lurched forward, unstoppable and I hit the gas, just enough to keep it moving. I drove it for about a mile in first gear and then had the nerve or stupidity to pull it out of first and grind the gears into second without a clutch. What a God awful noise it made, but I was heading home. After about 15 minutes, I pulled into our driveway killing the engine and slamming on the brakes to keep from running into the garage door and taking out the laundry room. I was home. What a relief, but how was I going to install a clutch pedal??
I figured that if I could swap out the transmission and the shifter, then I could figure out how to install a clutch pedal. I went to the mechanic at the junk yard next door and asked him how to install a clutch pedal. He explained, “Well, first you have to get a clutch pedal from one of my wrecks in the back lot and install it on your car. It’s not that hard, because you just take the whole assembly out and install one with a clutch pedal in it.
The hard thing is going to be installing the bracket on the frame in the engine compartment. Yours didn’t come with the bracket that is welded to the frame to allow for a clutch pedal.” He pulled off his hat and scratched his head thinking of how I was going to pull that one off. Well, I would just have to think of that one when I got there. I agreed to buy the necessary clutch linkage and pedals from a junker in his back lot. Taking all of the parts to my car that night, I removed the brake pedal and installed the clutch pedal and brake combo unit along with the linkage. Surprisingly, it bolted right up. I next installed the clutch spring that put resistance on the clutch pedal; because the other end wasn’t pushing against the fork in the pressure plate that disengages the clutch disc, the pedal just stayed to the floor, despite the big return spring that was supposed to pull it back. I crawled under the clutch area and took a look to see what was holding it down. I pulled lightly on the clutch pedal and suddenly it shot back up with amazing force hitting me squarely in the jaw with as much force as a heavyweight boxer. I started to see stars and realized that the clutch spring had done it’s job by bringing the clutch pedal back to where it should be, except my face had been in the way. I stumbled out of the car and rubbed my aching jaw. That was going to leave a mark! All I had to do now was to somehow find a bracket and have it welded on the frame of the car.
Searching around the junk yard, the same car that I had pulled the transmission, clutch pedal and linkage had the clutch pedal bracket on it’s frame.
I begged the mechanic that had been giving me tips the whole time to cut it off of the frame and weld it on mine. He finally relented and by 7PM, had welded it to my frame. I now was able to install the linkage and I had a working clutch pedal. I could finally shift gears without grinding them. After work, I was able to drive my 3 speed station wagon home happily shifting gears with my Hurst Master Shifter.
Before I even had a chance to drive it to school I immediately thought of one last project to do on my beloved BelAire wagon. My next project was to change out the differential with a 4:11 racing rear end. It would allow me to run a 1/4 mile quicker. For this, there were no junked cars with these special gears. I had to save up money to order one from the local Chevy dealership. Finally, after several weeks I had enough money saved to order it. After a week, I received a call that it had arrived at the dealers parts department.
This was going to be another project that I had no idea what to do. I jacked up my car, crawled underneath and just started taking things apart. I dropped the drive shaft and unbolted the hogs head after spilling 90W gear lube all over my face. I yanked the hogs head out and dragged it from under the car. There were two gears, a pinion gear and a ring gear. It looked easy enough to me. By now, I had started to work at a gas station where the owners had a drag racing car that ran a quick 1/4 mile in a class called “E Gas”. It was a modified 67 Corvette. When they warmed it up before race day on Sunday, you could hear it from a mile away. I had hoped to gain more motor experience by starting to work with them. After school, I told them what I had bought and that I was going to change out the rear end gears. They told me, “You better make sure that you blue lead the gears and make sure to use the necessary shims to set it up properly or you will wear it out.” Blue lead? Shims? What the heck were they talking about. Didn’t you just swap out the gears? Well, I just swapped out the gears, couldn’t find blue lead or shims. I turned it over by hand and it looked and sounded good to me, so I just slapped it back in the car, reinstalled the drive shaft and hoped for the best! I was finally done. I was stoked! All of this hard work was going to pay off. I called all of my buddies to tell them that I finally had a working car again and that I was going to pick them all up. What a great feeling I was going to have, carrying all of my buddies to school in my modified wagon. Sleep would come hard tonight. I was so excited about tomorrow.
I woke up promptly at 7AM and dressed quickly, wanting to give myself enough time to pick up my friends before heading to school. After breakfast, I jumped in my wagon, pushed in the clutch pedal, shifted the gearshift into neutral and cranked her up. Popping it into reverse, I slowly let out the clutch pedal. The disc plate engaged with the flywheel and the car began to move as all parts worked perfectly. I turned around in the cul de sac and headed towards my first friend, Billy. After picking up Billy, I headed for Craig’s house to pick him up. Craig jumped in the car and both Billy and Craig were happy for me that I had finally finished my project car. Craig had helped me pull out the automatic transmission from the car and knew how much work I had put into the conversion. Billy was just glad that he had a ride to school. I didn’t try and show off. I just wanted to make sure that everything was working and it was. After a few miles, I was almost passing the new gas station that I had started to work at when I heard this pinging noise. At first it wasn’t very loud, but slowly it got louder and louder. After a few minutes it sounded like a school bell ringing. I started to lose power. I had just enough momentum to pull into the gas station that I had just started working at. When I parked it, I heard a loud clunk. My boss came out and said, “What’s all that noise coming from your car?” I looked at him in disbelief and told him, “I have no clue. I just finished a 2 month project to get my car back on the road.” He was fully aware of all of the work I had done. He got down on his knees and looked under the car. “Oh, that’s not good.” he said. I crawled underneath and there was oil all over the pavement under the engine. “I’m sorry to say, but you have thrown a rod. Your engine is toast. See that big piece of metal sticking out of the oil pan? That’s a rod.” he said as if giving bad news to a patient. All of my hard work had ended in this. I hadn’t even made it to school. I had only picked up my 2 buddies and was heading past my house, nowhere near school and now I would have to call my parents to take all of us to school. My head was hanging so low, I could almost lick my shoes. Why had the engine waited until I had finished all of this work before it gave up the ghost? What was I going to do? This was terrible.
My dad picked us up and took us to school. This was going to be a long day for sure. I couldn’t believe I was having to bum a ride to school. During lunch I sat at a table with a motorhead called “Frog”. He had thick glasses and was short and stocky. I guess this is why people called him Frog. I told him of my dilemma, how I had spent all of this time converting my wagon from an automatic transmission to a 3 speed manual. He just shook his head feeling sorry for me. After awhile, his eyes brightened, “Hey, I happen to have a ’59 Chevy 283 cu. in. engine in an old wagon that I was going to toss. I’ll let you have it for $50.” he said. Wow, a V8 engine. I was excited! I could afford $50 and I would finally have a V8, not a stinking 6 cylinder with a thrown rod. Maybe my boss would sponsor me if I had a V8! I told him that I would get the $50 and buy his motor. My head was spinning. Wow, a real V8 engine.
A couple of weeks later, I finally scraped together the money and went to pick up my motor. Frog helped me load it in the back of my wagon. “Oh, there’s just one thing, the engine mounts for a ’59 motor are in a different location than a ’64 motor. On a ’59, the motor mounts are on the front corners of the motor and yours are on the side. Guess you’ll have to fabricate something to make it fit.” Frog said as he was slipping my hard earned $50 into his back jeans pocket. “Uh, ok.” I said, not knowing what I was going to do. I drove home with the heavy engine in the back of my mom’s wagon, trying not to let it slide around or slam through the tailgate onto the highway.
“Well, I bought an 8 cylinder.” I said as I walked into the house. “You did what?” my mom asked. “A friend of mine at school had an 8 cylinder engine that he sold me so that I could put it into my wagon.” I grinned. “So I bought it! It was only $50.” Such a deal I couldn’t pass up. I couldn’t wait to install this beast of an engine in my wagon. I could just hear it roar.
In shop class, my teacher and I fabricated 1/2″ plate steel plates to allow us to install the ’59 engine into my later year car. These plates were going to convert the side mounted motor mounts on my frame to the front motor mounts of the ’59 engine. I got them all ready to install, but I had never swapped out an engine. I didn’t have a motor lift nor did I have any more money to put into my project car. The engine sat in my parents garage on the floor and my car sat in front of our house for months and months and months. Finally my parents said, “You need to either fix your car or get it towed to the junkyard.” Towed to the junkyard? I couldn’t believe what they were saying. All of this work and money and they wanted me to just push it to the curb. What was I going to do? I had run out of steam, know how and money. After a few more months, they gave me the ultimatum, either I call the junk yard or they were going to call them. A week later, I made the dreadful call. “I have a 1964 Chevy wagon that I need to junk. Can you pick it up?” I said sadly to the junk yard owner. “Sure kid, no charge, just have the title in the car.” he said.
When I arrived from school that next day, my wagon was gone. It had gone to that great scrapyard in the sky. All of my work was history. It was a sad day. My parents must have felt bad, because a few weeks later, they gave me my dad’s old VW as a graduation present. I really appreciated it and had another car to figure out how to create a dune buggy out of. “If I chopped the fenders and installed some larger tires on it, I could create a really cool car.” I thought. I wonder if I could install a larger engine in it. I fell asleep that night, forgetting about my old wagon and beginning to dream of my new project. The wagon had been replaced by a new car. How quickly we forget.
I’m no Rosa Parks, but my mom really made me feel like a second class citizen when I was 14. She would not let me sit in the front seat of her car, nor the back seat. I was banished to the very back cargo area of her station wagon, with the rear window wide open, almost hanging out of the window holding on for dear life as we rode down the highway back to our house. It all started at age 14. My wants came with dollar signs, for my never ending science and go-kart projects. My projects needed funding and I saw my parents as the banker and sponsor of my projects. I had come up with what I thought was a great idea, to be their groundskeeper. I would create these great spaces in our yard and they could supply the necessary plants and wages for me. I thought that it was a grand idea, but they felt otherwise. After a few more ideas on how they could hire me to be their employee, they decided that it was time for me to find some work. At age 14, a boy could only find work in more unconventional jobs, and one of these was farm labor. We had several farms around our town and one of the local farms had a farm market where we would pick up necessary items like milk and eggs. Matthews Farm was the name and my mom knew Mr and Mrs Matthews. I went to school with their two daughters and son. My mom came home one day and said, “If you want money, you will need to earn it. I’ve talked to Mr. Matthews and he has agreed to talk to you about working on his farm.” I was actually excited about the idea, seeing that my ideas to have my parents hire me was falling on deaf ears. The next day, my mom took me to Matthews Farm Market. Mr. Matthews was in the store as we found him near the checkout counter. “How are you doing there son? he said. “Fine sir.” I replied. “So, I hear that you would like to earn some money, is that true?” he asked. “Yes sir, I sure would!” I answered excited. “Ok, I do need some help tending our chickens. I’ll pay you $1 per hour. How does that sound?” he asked. “That would be great!” I said. My mind was already a-whirl thinking of all of the projects that I would be able to fund with the money. It was summer and I knew that $40 per week was enough to get my projects funded. It was 1969 and $40 would buy a 14 year old a lot of materials back then; of course even in 1969, $1 per hour wasn’t a whole lot of money, but it seemed like a fortune to me. School had ended several weeks earlier and I’m sure that my mom was ready to get me out of the house and now that I was pestering her for money every other day. I had projects that I needed to get started and she was looking for ways to solve both problems; to stop the constant pestering and to simply keep me busy. At the dinner table that night, I told my dad about my new job and all of the money that I was going to make. “That’s uh great, glad to hear it.” he said as he chuckled under his breath. He had been raised in the country and knew all about farm labor. Again, all I could think of was all of that green that I was going to earn. “Well, Mr. Matthews said you need to be there at 7AM, so make sure to set your alarm.” my mom reminded me. “I’ll be ready.” I said ready to start my first job in my new employed status. The only thing more green was how naive I was. Tomorrow would be the introduction to the work world, a world where I would never have a break in employment for the next 50 years. “Gill, you better get a move on or you will be late for your first day of work.” my mom shouted from down in the kitchen. I threw on my jeans, an old shirt and my tennis shoes. I headed down the stairs, grabbed a pop-tart and headed to the car. I sat in the front seat as my mom backed the car up and headed down our street. Mr. Matthews’ farm was only about 10 minutes away. Instead of turning into the farm market we headed down the lane between the two huge fields towards Mr. Matthews’ house. I had never been to his home, even though I went to school with his kids. We pulled up to the house and Mr. Matthews met us on the front lawn. “Good morning Gill, are you ready to work?” Mr. Matthews asked. “You betcha!” I replied excitedly. “Ok, well I think that you would work really well with our chickens.” Chickens. I imagined cute little chicks that I would throw feed on the ground as they peeped and pecked at the ground. What a great way to earn money. “Mrs. Trotman, Gill will be finished at 4. You can pick him up then.” Mr. Matthews reminded her. “Bye mom, see you then!” I said as I was eager to start earning all of that green. Mr. Matthews told me to follow him. There were all of these long building in this area of the farm. They looked to be a hundred yards long and were about 40 feet wide. I had no idea of why we were headed there, but figured all of the cute little chicks were inside waiting for me to give them their morning breakfast. As we got closer to the chicken houses, I began to get a whiff of this strange smell. It wasn’t the smell of nice dry sawdust that I imagined the chicks frolicking in, it was more like the ammonia that my mom used to clean the house with. Maybe it was a cleaner that they used to keep everything nice and clean. Mr. Matthews opened the door to the chicken house and my eyes grew wide as my mouth dropped open. There were rows of cages as far as I could see that ran all the way to the back of the chicken house. Each cage was attached to the other cage in a long row like a freight train with box cars attached as far as the eye could see. In between each row was a 4″ burlap belt that was moving toward the front of the chicken house where we stood. As soon as I realized what I was looking at, I covered my nose and my mouth. The smell of ammonia was not used for cleaning, it was the tons and tons of chicken poop that fell into a 12″ trough between each row of cages. I covered my mouth and nose. The smell made me gag and it was so strong that my eyes started to tear up as the ammonia smell overpowered my tear ducts. These were not cute little chicks. These were full grown hens, laying eggs in a egg laying factory. The combined sound of all of their clucking was so loud that Mr. Matthews had to yell to be heard over them. “Gill, what I want you to do is to clean up after these hens. Rufus will start the grader blade in a moment and scrape all of the chicken manure from the front to the very back into a hopper that is pulled behind the tractor. We take that manure and spread it over our fields as fertilizer. I shook my head to affirm, but had no idea how to clean up after 10,000 chickens. I could see Rufus in the back of the building flip a switch. As he flipped the switch, a grader like blade 8′ wide and 12” tall was tethered in the middle to a metal cable in the front of the blade and the back of the blade. The blade was perfectly made to fit into the rectangular pit where the chicken poop had fallen. The blade scraped the chicken clean as it made it’s way down the long row. I noticed that about 1/3 of the way down, there was so much chicken poop that it started to ooze over the side onto the cement walkway which was about 2′ wide between each long row of cages. I had never seen chicken poop before. Chicken poop wasn’t nice and dry, it was soft and wet. These chickens sort of just squirted their poop into the deep trough and 10,000 chickens I quickly saw could generate a hell of a lot of poop. “Now Gill, Rufus will be the one to operate the grader blade, your job is to come in here every day and use this scraper here, and to scrape the chicken poop that oozes on the walkway back into the trough. There are 3 walkways in each hen house and we have 4 hen houses. This should keep you busy each day. Welcome to the farm!” he smiled as he handed me the scraper and left. As soon as he left I said “Shit!” and quickly realized that I wasn’t swearing, just realizing what I would be handling 8 hours per day. The scraper was your standard 5″ metal scraper on the end of a wooden handle. I slowly proceeded down my first aisle scraping the wet chicken poop back into the trough. After about 50′, I couldn’t make out the sidewalk as the chicken poop totally covered the sidewalk. I scraped and scraped. I hadn’t brought gloves and after dropping the scraper a few times, quickly realized that I was going to have to get some gloves before tomorrow. My nice clean Converse tennis shoes were now sort of a gray color, covered with chicken crap which made it very slippery. How could these chickens have pooped all of this in one day. By this time, I was on my first row, halfway down the middle of the long chicken house. I could barely breath, the smell was making me gag. The only green I was seeing was the color in my face as I started to feel rather light headed. I was going to have to do this all day. The smell was nauseating and the noise was deafening. I finally made it to the back of one of the rows and noticed some movement towards the front of the hen house. I made my way back to the front of the hen house to start on the next row and noticed an older black lady sitting on a stool in front of one of the rows of chicken cages. There was a square tray between two of the rows where she sat and the 4″ burlap belts ended at opposite corners near the front of this tray. She sat on her stool, with all of these plastic trays and metal racks behind her. Reaching under the tray, I saw that she flipped a switch that started the burlap belts rolling forward. On these burlap belts were all of the eggs that the hens had laid the night before. The cages were slanted forward so that when a hen laid an egg, it would roll onto the belt, waiting for the operator to turn on the belt to begin the collection process. As the eggs started to move onto the tray, she quickly took the eggs and placed them into the 30 egg tray. She quickly filled up the tray, placed it in the metal rack and grabbed another 30 egg tray. Her hands moved swiftly and precisely so as to not have to turn off the power to the belt and stop the flow of eggs to the tray. She was a swift machine with the dexterity of a dealer at a Vegas blackjack table. After a few minutes she looked up at me with a grin, then returned back to her task as to remind me that daylight was burning and I wasn’t moving. I took my scraper and started on the next row. After a couple of hours, I was done with house #1, 3 more to go. After the second chicken house, Mr. Matthews came to get me and told me to take lunch. “How’s it going?” he said with a smile, knowing that I had come not expecting to do what I had just spent all morning doing. “Well, it really stinks in there, but I think I’m doing pretty good.” I said with a shrug. “Good, now go eat your lunch. Make sure to get back to work in 30 minutes.” he said as he walked back to his pickup. “Yes sir.” I said as I went to sit under a tree and eat my sack lunch. As I sat down, I realized that I hadn’t asked where the bathroom was. How the heck was I going to wash my hands. At home I didn’t always bother to wash my hands before lunch, but I hadn’t been shoveling chicken poop all morning either. I wiped my hands on the cool green grass, trying to wipe my hands as clean as possible. I made sure to hold my sandwich with the wax paper wrapper and not my hands. How could I have been so naive as to think that I was going to play with cute little chicks in nice dry sawdust open areas? Lunch seemed like it only lasted 10 minutes before everyone started heading back to their different jobs. I stood up, stretched my back and picked up my disgusting metal scraper and headed to hen house #3. At 4PM, I had just finished scraping the wet gooey chicken crap back into the last trough in hen house #4 when I opened the door to see my mom’s Ford station wagon rumbling down the dusty farm lane towards the place where she dropped me off. As she pulled to a stop, I opened the door to get in the front seat where I had sat that morning. “What is that smell?” she yelled. “Oh my Lord, you smell like you fell into a sewer and you look like you fell into a sewer. What is all over your clothes and look at your shoes. It looks like you are wearing shoes made out of crap!” she said in disgust. “It’s chicken poop.” I said rather dejected. “Well, you are NOT going to sit in my car looking and smelling like that!” she shouted. “Where am I going to sit?” I asked. “You can open the rear tailgate and sit in the cargo area with the window totally down. Make sure you hang your feet out the window.” she commanded. I opened the tailgate, climbed in and gingerly shut the tailgate and swung my feet out the back of the car. I couldn’t even stand my own smell. My mom turned the car around and headed down the dusty road. The dust came in the back of the car and stuck to my new gray chicken poop shoes. “Oh my Lord, I have never smelled anything so bad!” my mom yelled to the back as she covered her nose and mouth with her free hand. When we returned home, I was not allowed in the house. I had to go through the garage and shed my clothes. I had to run to my room in my BVD’s and put on some clean clothes. My mom made me take my clothes and shoes outside to the garden hose and rinse everything off. I then took a shower and tried to rid myself of the strong odor as well as the poop that had worked it’s way into my un-gloved hands. That night at dinner, my dad said with a grin, “Well, how did your first day of work go?” “It’s a pretty “crappy” job dad.” I said as I was almost laying down on the table exhausted and disgusted. “Well, it will be good for you.” he said as he started to laugh. He knew what I was going to face the night before and felt sort of a kinship to another farm laborer. As the summer wore on, I slowly moved my way from chicken poop scraper to egg collector. After many weeks, I slowly acquired the skill necessary to collect eggs off of the burlap belt without having to stop it. When needed, I still had to scrape chicken poop, but I had passed the necessary initiation and didn’t quit. It was a long hot summer, but I gained a lot of respect for farmers. Now, I am a dad and have seen my kids take on their first summer jobs. They had all heard this story, but it gave me an appreciation that no matter what I do for a living, I won’t have to take shit from anyone!
“One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” This sentence is one that I, like most Americans remember. Most people my age remember where they were when those words were transmitted from the moon. My mom was in an art show in Va Beach, VA, and my family was in a hotel room watching with the rest of America as Neil Armstrong said these words.
As a young boy, I idolized the likes of Robert Goddard who began to experiment with liquid fueled rockets followed by captured German scientist Wernher von Braun who eventually developed the vehicles that delivered man to the moon. These were my heroes. If it were not for them, we would have never made it to the moon, at least not in 1969. I wanted to be a rocket builder. I started with Estes model rockets. I combined 3 of their most powerful “D” engines as well as built the rocket to hold this engine cluster. At that time, you were supposed to only use one “D” engine in a rocket. I had to build my own launch pad in order to hold the rocket prior to launch, but after that successful launch, I knew that I would need to develop my own rocket fuel if I ever wanted to launch a mouse into the stratosphere. After building the most powerful model rockets, I soon became bored with these toys. The model rockets were simply not powerful enough to do much more than launch a few insects a few thousand feet into the air. I set out to build a really big rocket, but a rocket of this size was not sold in a hobby shop. I would have to build this rocket from scratch as well as the rocket motors to power it. I needed to find some cylinders that were large enough to house my rocket motors as well as form the body of the rocket. I found two cardboard carpet tubes at a carpet store, one smaller than the other so that one would be a first stage and the second smaller tube would be the second stage. I formed a nose cone and fins, then attached these to the rocket. This was going to be one tall rocket! Each tube was 6′, and when I put one on top of the other, I had to add the nose cone from the second floor window of our house due to it being now 12′ tall. I constructed a battery operated device that was going to ignite the second stage of the rocket, once the first stage was expended. All I needed was rocket fuel for my creation. Liquid fuel, the stuff that NASA used was out of the question as my dad, for tools, owned a hammer, screwdriver and a hammer, and at age 15, I couldn’t afford all of the metalworking tools needed, much less the precision instruments! I was going to have to rely upon solid rocket fuel. For this, I would need Ammonium Nitrate, the main ingredient, for the oxidizer. Upon research, I found that this is also used as a fertilizer. I had my dad order a 50# bag of it. He got strange looks when he went to order it, even back in 1969. The only issue that I had with this form of Ammonium Nitrate was that it was in pellet form and it turned to wet mush when I tried to grind it.
I would have to dry it out. I took some of it and poured it onto one of my mom’s cookie sheets, then put it in the oven for about 30 minutes. Well, the smell of fertilizer cooking in the oven was more than she could stand and this was put to an end very quickly as well as ruined her cookie sheets. I was able to dry out enough to make a small batch of fuel, combining it with sulfur and charcoal. The next step was to make a test apparatus for the fuel, to be able to test it in some sort of rocket motor. I found a copper pipe. I packed the rocket fuel into the copper pipe, but for the blast to be concentrated, it would have to pass through a nozzle. The only material that I had to build a nozzle was copper sheet metal. I formed a nozzle out of this, then soldered it to the copper pipe. Everything was ready to test. I hooked up the rocket motor to a test stand I had made out of 2×4’s and pipe clamps. I then took some fuse that a chemistry friend had sold me, inserted this through the nozzle so that it touched my rocket fuel. I lit the fuse and waited. How powerful would this be? Would it explode or light the field on fire? Suddenly, the lit fuse reached the rocket fuel, and it started to shoot out flames from the nozzle, but the heat of the fire soon liquified the solder that was holding the nozzle and tube together, so that the nozzle fell out on to the ground, with the rocket fuel following in one big clump of burning residue that would not launch a mouse much less an ant. I quickly realized I did not posses the tools nor the skills necessary to build a rocket motor. My 12′ rocket, was not going to hit the stratosphere, much less get off the ground. My dad used the rest of the Ammonium Nitrate to fertilize his lawn. It’s amazing how green a lawn will get with 100% Ammonium Nitrate! As I sulked about my failure to build and launch my rocket, an idea struck me as I peered outside my bedroom window looking into the back yard. My dad built my brother and I a really cool tree house. It was built around an old oak tree in our back yard. It looked like a rocket as he had covered it in cedar shake shingles and it had a nose cone shaped roof.
There was an entrance underneath the tree house in the form of a trap door. Over the years my brother and I had all kinds of fun in this tree house. Suddenly, I had an idea. The tree house could be a great mock up of a manned space capsule mission. If I wasn’t going to go into space, I could at least pretend. I hurried to my desk. The bulletin board over my desk, full of my childhood heroes, Walt Disney, Wernher von Braun and Robert Goddard were looking on, encouraging me to dream. I quickly drew out my plans and material list of what would be needed to build the perfect mock up space capsule. The inside of the tree house would need to look like the interior of a space capsule. It would need to have that shiny metal look with lots of switches and lights that could be turned off and on. For the mission, we would stay in our space capsule for several days to experience the feeling of what the Gemini astronauts had to deal with. This was going to be a Gemini mission, so I needed a “volunteer” to be my Gemini partner. I had a friend in crime, Billy who would be my fellow space traveler. We lined the walls and ceiling of the inside of the tree house with aluminum foil. We used all of my mom’s aluminum foil plus several other rolls to complete the project. I think I asked first. Next would be adding all of the necessary switches and lights. I made a trip to Radio Shack to purchase all kinds of switches, lights and battery holders. I soldered up all of the connections into a plywood panel, which I then covered with aluminum foil, then placed it into the interior wall of the tree house. How to tell which switch did what? A quick run to the garage, in my mom’s art supplies I found a Dymo label maker. I created all sorts of labels for my space capsule, like ‘Escape Tower Ignition’, ‘Parachute Deployment’ and a bunch of other names that I felt we would need. Each switch turned on a different colored light, and we would have a manual that would instruct us as to what to do when. The next task was, how were we going to look like astronauts? We didn’t have access to space suits, but we did have silver colored winter coats, along with black rubber boots. For our helmets, we simply made these out of cardboard and more aluminum foil. We used plastic for our visor. We noticed that when the astronauts went from the trailer to the launch pad, they had portable oxygen units and hoses that fed their space suits. They carried these as they walked to the space craft. They looked a lot like hair dryer units and guess what, each of our moms had one of these hair dryer units that had a case with a handle on it. We took the loose end of the hose and connected this to our coats and the other end was connected to the hair dryer case. (oxygen supply unit) This is what it was supposed to look like. As you see, it looks like a hair dryer! We would need food for our simulation. How to get food to us, without it going bad was going to be a trick as we didn’t have any space food that was stored in toothpaste style containers and squeezed out for consumption like the real NASA astronauts had. We would need some sort of delivery system. On one side of the tree house that faced our home, there was a window. I attached a pulley on the outside of the window, then a pulley under my bedroom window, which faced the tree house, I mean space capsule. I then ran a thin rope with a box to carry the food between the house and the space capsule. I nominated my brother for this task. He was going to be Mission Control. He liked the idea of being Mission Control, so he signed up for the job. Everything was set. Since it was summer and warm enough to sleep in the space capsule, Billy’s parents agreed to let him sign up for this educational endeavor for the several days that it would take to complete our mission. We had our space capsule outfitted, check. We had our food supply and delivery system that would be manned by my brother at Mission Control, check. We had our space suits and oxygen supply units, check. Now we were ready to experience deep space. “How many days are we going to spend in there?” asked Billy. “I’m thinking 3 days should do it.” I replied. “Uh, well, that’s fine, but what happens when we have to go?” Billy inquired. “What do you mean, ‘when we have to to'” I asked. “You know, when we have to pee and take a poo.” he said with an incredulous look that he even had to explain this. “Oh crap!” I said as I finally grabbed hold of what he was saying. “Exactly, ….crap!” Billy shouted. Hmm, that was a real dilemma for sure, we couldn’t stay up there for 3 days without having to go to the bathroom. “I’ve got it!” I exclaimed. We will do our business in Baggies, use a twist tie, then drop them down the bottom entry hatch door for my brother to pick them up and flush them down the toilet. “Yeah, I guess that would work.” Billy said. We walked into the house to find my brother, Mission Control, and told him what our plan was for waste removal. “You have got to be kidding! There is no way that I am going to handle your pee or your poo for you. I quit!” Drew said and off he stomped mumbling the whole way about my sanity and other concerns for my mental well being. “Well, if we don’t have anyone to take care of our business, then I guess the mission is scrubbed.” I said to Billy. “Yeah, I guess so.” Billy said as he somehow seemed to be in a hurry to go home. As I sat in my mock up space capsule, I realized that the only mission I could have would be to pretend to be John Glenn and circle the earth 3 times in 5 hours. I went from a Gemini mission to a Mercury mission in 5 minutes as seemed to be what happened to me most of the time. Typically I had been able to enlist my friends for all sorts of projects, but when the challenges appeared, I ended up finishing them solo. Oh well, I didn’t mind. For me, it was the journey and what I learned and discovered along the way. I would find another adventure to embark upon soon as I never seemed to run out of ideas. “Gill, where is all of my aluminum foil!” my mom yelled out the back door as I quickly ducked around the corner and headed for the woods. Another adventure was soon to begin in the jungles of Bennetts Creek.
I have had my share of dirty jobs over the years. Working on a farm, you get dirty and stinky, but at least you can wash it off at the end of the day. When I had just gone through a tough time in my life at around 22 years of age, recently divorced and out of work, I decided to try something different. I spotted an ad in the newspaper for a fossil fuel analyst. It looked like a rather lofty position and it didn’t really require any experience which I thought was odd. I called the phone number and scheduled an interview. The location was a small white building in Norfolk VA, off of Monticello Ave. I entered the building and was met by a gentleman in a dark blue lab coat. His name was Pat, a mild mannered guy that asked me a series of questions about how detailed I was and the generic type of questions. I really didn’t get a chance to look at the lab. He thanked me and I left not thinking that I would hear from him. In a few days, the phone rang and it was Pat. “We interviewed several people and decided that we would like to hire you.” he said. “Great, when would you like for me to start?” I asked. “Next Monday at 8AM” he replied. It was that simple. I reported to work the following Monday and was assigned a navy blue lab coat. This is pretty cool I thought, no experience and now working in a lab. Pat showed me around the lab and introduced me to his assistant Kevin. The lab equipment was rather industrial I thought. There were several triple beam balances under glass covers and other strange pieces of equipment under a sort of large range hood. The whole lab had this whole smell like an old freight train yard. “What do you test here.” I inquired. “We test coal.” Pat said. “Coal? Why do you need to test coal?” I asked rather naive. “Well, coal comes in all kinds of different grades; steam coal, coal for making steel and a host of other uses. Coal has a certain amount of sulfur in it. If it has too much, then it isn’t good for certain customers who may need coal with a low sulfur content. Customers overseas buy coal by the rail car and each car has to be tested to be sure that it is of the type that they agreed to pay for. It’s sort of like making sure that the diamond you buy is of the highest quality and not one with occlusions and discolorations. One train car load of coal can cost easily $100,000, so the buyers are willing to pay us to test each car load that they buy.” Pat explained. “Boy, I never thought of coal like a diamond. I thought all coal was the same, just black chunks.” I admitted rather shyly. After the nickel tour, I was taken into the back room where there were small glass containers of coal grains, about the size of ground coffee. All of the containers had labels with numbers on them. I was taken to a coffee mill and told that I would be hand grinding the coal into an even smaller powder. Pat had handed me over to Kevin to show me how to do my first task. “You take this bottle that has a sample of coal and pour it into this old coffee grinder.” It was a square wooden coffee grinder that I had seen in antique stores. “You grind this by hand until you have ground the entire bottle, you then pour it back into the bottle and place it over here for the lab.” Kevin instructed. I began my work, grinding and grinding and grinding until my arm was about to fall off. Boy was this antiquated or what! This was my job for the first few days. After Kevin and Pat felt as though I had payed my first dues, I was taken into the lab. The odor I had smelled when I first arrived was explained to me. It was coal being heated up and turning into coke. “This is the Geisler Plastometer. This device slowly heats up the coal in a small metal crucible which is inserted into a container of molten lead. A stir rod which turns, as the coke starts to form, stops the stir rod and the point at which this happens is recorded hear on this graph that is attached to the plastometer.” Kevin explained. Your job is to clean the old coal that has turned into coke from these small metal crucibles.” Kevin said. The container that had the coked coal in it was hard to remove. They gave me a knife and then I was to polish it with a round wire brush. Well, this was my second chance to pay my dues. Now I was beginning to see why this job did not require any experience. After a few weeks of grinding coal and cleaning out metal coked crucibles, I finally met the manager, Mr. Shepard. Mr. Shepard was an old school kind of guy who felt that unless you paid your dues and did so with a great attitude, you were not worth talking to. I didn’t see much of Mr. Shepard. I wanted to pass all of these duties so that I could do some of the other tests and not just grind and clean. I actually enjoyed working in the lab, even if it was as a lowly lab rat. One day after arriving at work, Kevin told me not to put on my lab jacket. “They are short a man to pulverize coal in the collection building and they are looking for a “volunteer”. A “volunteer” I thought. That’s a strange way of assigning you to another building. “You see, Mr. Shepard believes that you should jump at the chance to volunteer to cover in the pulverizing room. It’s rather strange, but he doesn’t assign people, he offers the “opportunity”.” Kevin explained. “What does the job entail?” I asked rather curious about why “volunteering” was such a big deal. “Well, you are in this small room, you wear a respirator, three layers of clothes and coat your hands and face with Vaseline.” Kevin said, looking at me for a reaction. “Vaseline? What the heck? Three layers of clothes. What kind of job is this that someone would want to “volunteer”?” I asked with a shocked and rather incredulous look on my face. “Well, it’s Mr. Shepard’s way. Do you want to “volunteer”?” he asked. I looked at him, still shocked, but didn’t reply. He waited for my answer long enough to where I was starting to feel uncomfortable. “Sure, why not.” I finally said. “Well, go in the locker room and make sure to put on three layers of clothing and grab a respirator. I’ll meet you outside.” Kevin said with a grin. After putting on three layers of clothing and grabbing the respirator, I met Kevin outside. It was June and already 90 degrees with about 80% humidity. Three layers of clothing wasn’t feeling good right now. “Let’s go to the collection building and I’ll show you what to do.” Kevin said as we walked down the street headed for a big metal building. In the building were a bunch of guys standing around these larger containers of coal. I think that Rufus was black, but I wasn’t sure because of all of the coal dust all over his face and hands. “Rufus, this is Gill, he will be your backup to pulverize.” Kevin said. I waved a hello to Rufus as Kevin escorted me into this tiny dark room. The room was about 8′ x 8′ and was lit by this small fluorescent fixture on the ceiling. There was coal dust all over the walls, ceiling and the floor. The ceiling was only about 7′ tall and there was NO air conditioning. On a small workbench was a machine that looked like a sausage grinder to me. “Well, it’s time to grease you up like a pig at a county fair.” Kevin said with a smile. “Take a big handful of this Vaseline and smear it over all of your hands and face. If you don’t put it on thick enough, the coal dust will actually soak into your pores and it will be next to impossible to get it out until it finally decides to come out with your perspiration.” he continued. “Now, take this cotton face mask and cover your face as well as put on these rubber gloves. Next, put on the respirator.” he concluded. I could barely breathe. I felt like my face and hands were coated like a baby’s bottom and with three layers of clothing, in a metal shed with the sun baking the roof, the sweat started pouring off of me, soaking my clothes one layer at a time and I hadn’t even started to work. “The first thing that you do is to take one of the sample bottles here and place it next to the pulverizer. Then, take this air hose and blow out all of the remaining coal dust from the previous sample that is in the pulverizer.” Kevin instructed me as he took the air hose and blew out the pulverizer with high powered air. The blast of air blew the coal dust all throughout the small metal shed. Where just a few seconds before, I was able to see everything in the room, the blast of coal dust created a thick black fog that made it so dark that I could not even see my hand in front of my face. The fluorescent light was no help whatsoever. It took a good 30 seconds for the air to clear before I could make out the glow of the fluorescent light. “Now that you have the pulverizer clean, pour the new sample into the grinder and flip this switch. It will grind the coal into the size of granules that we need in order to test it. After you grind it, pour the newly ground coal back into the sample bottle and place it in the completed bin here. That’s about it. Shampoo, rinse and repeat. Have fun!” Kevin said as he walked out the door and closed it securely. What had I gotten myself into? Look at all of those sample bottles. Oh well, I better get started. I can’t imagine what that fine coal dust would have done to my lungs if I had not worn the respirator. The sweat was running down my back as I pulverized the next sample. It must have been over 100 degrees in that small room. After 3 hours, I was finally finished with all of the samples. I opened the door and the first thing that I did was to rip off the respirator and the cotton face mask. Next, I pulled the latex gloves off of my hands. The perspiration that my hands had produced filled the fingertips of the latex gloves. “Hey brother, looks like you have joined the hood!” Rufus yelled across the building. I had no idea what he was talking about. The walk back to the lab seemed like a long one. I was drenched in sweat and still wearing my 3 layers of clothing. I walked in the back door to the changing room and slowly took off the first two layers. When I went into the bathroom to wash my hands, I looked in the mirror. I looked like a raccoon. Except where the respirator was on my mouth and nose, my entire face was black as coal, no pun intended. No wonder Rufus said what he did. I took the hand soap and tried to clean my face and hands. I looked in the mirror, not a bit had been removed. What the heck I thought! How will I ever get this stuff off. I walked into the lab and Kevin looked up from what he was doing and just smiled like a Cheshire cat. “Welcome to the club!” he exclaimed. “How in the heck do I get this stuff off?” I asked. “Well, the only thing we have found that works is to go home and scrub yourself with Lava soap.” Kevin shared. Kevin told me that I was done for the day and to go home to clean up. Now, I knew why the guys from the collection department looked the way that they did when they would come into the lab. Did these guys get all of this stuff off of them each day I wondered. After I got home, the first thing I did was to take off my coal colored clothing and shoes. I was surprised to see that the coal dust had actually gone through my socks into my feet. I turned on the water to the tub and took the rough bar of Lava soap and started to scrub with a wash cloth. After about 30 minutes, I figured that I had gotten most of it off, but when I looked in the mirror, I realized that I had only touched the surface. I scrubbed and scrubbed with that rough soap until my skin was red. It took almost 3 days for all of the coal to work it’s way out of my pores. Kevin explained that I should have put the Vaseline around my eyelids as well, the more the better. Eventually, I was able to actually perform some real experiments in the lab. I actually created several automatic procedures and tools to eliminate the archaic way that they cleaned crucibles and ground the coal. I configured a motor on a stand that connected to the coffee grinder so that this process was not performed by hand any longer. If there was a way to automate or simplify processes, I would invent something that would help. Mr. Shepard liked to do things the old fashioned way, but Pat and Kevin love my inventions. From time to time, they still needed “volunteers” to pulverize coal and found out that if I did not “volunteer” first, then I would be seen as a loafer and would be sent back to cleaning equipment. It was a hard and dirty job, but I did enjoy working in the lab and coming up with ways to improve our daily tasks. I also realized that a job title, fossil fuel analyst, means more to people than what they actually do. Eventually I had to leave because they barely paid more than minimum wage at the time and I got tired of going home to eat potted meat sandwiches, which was all that I could afford at the time. Titles are nothing I realized, it’s what you do that matters and if what you are doing makes a difference in others lives.
“No problem mom and dad, have a good time.” I said as I wondered where my parents had left the car keys. I was 15, my parents had left for the afternoon and I was left home to practice the piano. My parents had taken my mom’s car and left my dad’s VW Beetle in the driveway. I knew the keys were somewhere in the house, I just had to find them. After a few minutes of scrounging around the house, I found the keys to the bug. I asked my brother Drew, “Hey, let’s take the Beetle out to the fields for a spin?” Drew said, “Sure, why not!” My dad’s bug was a rather sick green/blue color, not a great color but one of VW’s more popular colors of the day. Before we fired up the bug, I told my brother, “You know, this car would look a lot cooler if it had wide tires.” I figured out that if you took the wheels of the VW and then flipped them over, they would still bolt to the axle, but then they would stick out from the body looking like you had big fat tires. Methodically, we took each rim off of the bug, flipped it over and re-bolted it back to each axle. Man, did it look cool. We both jumped in the bug and I fired her up. We headed out of the driveway, down the road on the way to a local farm. This wasn’t my first time driving the bug. I had negotiated the whole clutch, gear thing earlier. This time, I didn’t grind every last tooth off of my dad’s 4 speed transmission. We were heading to a local farm that had huge produce fields with sandy roads in between each row of freshly grown kale. I headed for the fields, flying through the roads, sand spinning up from our reversed wheels, laughing and hooting and hollering like Luke and Bo from Dukes of Hazzard. There was a curve in the road in the middle of the kale patch, and because the roads were pretty much pure sand, the curve had a steep bank around the outside edge. I told my brother Drew, “You know, instead of going AROUND the curve, I can use the curve as a ramp and jump it.” Drew said, “That would be cool, but then you would land in the middle of all that kale.” I replied, “Yeah and we would create a huge kale salad!” I turned the Beetle around and headed back about 100 yards. When I felt that I had enough room to accelerate, I floored the bug. The back tires spun sand high into the air as I shifted into second gear, then third gear. Just as I was shifting into third gear, the curve was dead ahead. We hit the curve, went straight up and over the banked corner, flying up into the air, high over what would soon be on many people’s plate for dinner. BAM, we hit the kale patch hard, the reversed wheels grinding into the fenders as we slid what seemed to be at least 40 feet. The front hood of the bug flew up blocking our view and the front eyeball headlights popped out, somewhere in the field. The tire iron and all of the tire changing equipment lay all around the crash site. We had plowed up a 3′ wide swath of kale at least 40′ long. We jumped out of the car, laughing and catching our breath. “Boy, was that fun or what!” I said. Drew was laughing so hard he couldn’t answer, but suddenly his laughter stopped as he pointed across the kale field. “Look!” he said. About 100 yards away, a brown Ford Bronco was heading like a bat out of hell in our direction. “Oh crap!” I said, “That must be the guy that owns this field!” Suddenly we jumped into action, throwing the tire equipment into the front hatch of the bug. We threw the headlights in the back seat, slammed the hood and tried to start our squashed Bug. The Bug almost acted as if it knew that it had just been used and abused and refused to start. Finally, the engine returned to life. I shoved it into first gear and floored it. Instead of it spinning sand like before, it slowly limped forward, but the more I pressed on the gas, the slower it seemed to go. We were doomed. The brown Bronco slid to a sand flying stop in front of us, blocking our way. Out jumped a very angry man, screaming at the top of his lungs. “What the hell are you doing! I’ve been watching you the whole time. I am going to throw you jerks into jail. As a matter of fact, I’m going to make sure you are buried under the jail! Look what you have done to my kale!” Oh boy, what was I going to do. I had taken my parents car without their permission, was driving without a license, under age and now I had torn up this farmers field. I knew I would end up in the slammer. My poor brother had just come along for the ride. How was I going to explain to my mom and dad that Drew was in jail too. I had to think fast. I had gotten us into this jam and I had to get us out of it. “My brakes went out!” I declared. “Bull-crap!” the farmer said. What was I going to do? I suddenly remembered that in the very front, under the hood of the Beetle there was a brake reservoir and that the last time I had checked, the top cap of the brake fluid reservoir had a crack in it. “Look, I’ll show you.” I said to the farmer. I popped open the hood of the Bug and pointed to the cracked top of the brake fluid reservoir. Sure enough the hard landing had caused brake fluid to shoot up through the cracked top and spill over the area. “Hmmmm” he said. “I guess maybe that could have caused the brakes to fail.” I agreed quickly, “Yes sir, we could have been killed!” He took off his weather beaten ball cap and scratched his head as if he was trying to figure out whether to believe us or haul us off to the pokey. “Ah hell, get in your car and get the hell off of my property!” he shouted. “Yes sir, no problem. Thank you sir.” I said as I jumped in the car, almost wanting to hug this big grumpy farmer. My brother’s eyes were about as big as saucers as I looked in the rear view mirror where he was sitting. We started the Beetle and headed home. It was a very quiet ride home. We arrived home and I figured we better quickly turn our dune buggy back into the family car. Drew said, “You got me into this, you change your own tires!” as he headed into the house. Slowly I turned the Love Bug back into the Slug Bug. I looked under the rear hood of the car where the engine was and discovered that all of that sand that had been flying up from our spinning tires had gotten into the carburetor. It took quite awhile to clean out the carb, but finally I had my dad’s car running fine before he got home. Eventually, my parents arrived home and asked the usual, “How was your afternoon.” Drew and I both replied, “Oh, you know, just another boring day in Nansemond County.”
I moved to Estes Park CO this past August, but this isn’t the first time that I have been acquainted with the word Estes. Back in the late 60’s, man was reaching toward the stars and every kid had the dream within themselves to do the same. It was the perfect time for the model rocket company Estes to flourish. Estes model rockets were originally produced in Denver CO before moving to Penrose CO in 1961. Our local hobby shop sold Estes model rockets. These weren’t just rockets that you built out of plastic and displayed on a shelf; these were balsa wood, plastic and cardboard core rockets that you loaded with a real gunpowder rocket engine and launched from a remote launch system. The exhilaration of taking the time to build a beautiful bird then take it to the nearest open field and start the countdown to launch. Upon ignition, the engine ignited rushing your rocket to 1,000’s of feet into the air, reaching apogee then releasing the parachute to glide to a soft landing. This was the era of Alan Shepard, Neil Armstrong, Gus Grissom and the other 4 of the Mercury 7 team. Living in Nansemond County left a boy a lot of time to daydream. We didn’t have malls and theaters to keep us distracted. As I could save up my allowance, I built several of the Estes rockets, but I was getting bored with the single engine design of the rockets I was building. It was time to build something unique. It was time to build a much bigger rocket with a cluster engine. The largest engine that Estes made back in my day was the new D engine. I wanted to build a 42″ tall rocket with a cluster of 3 D engines. It was going to take that many of the new powerful D engines to get my rocket off of the ground. First, I had to find a cardboard tube large enough to form the main body of my rocket. I rummaged around in my dad’s garage. After searching for a while, I found an old cardboard tube that used to hold a special film that my mom used in her art work. It was the perfect size. Now I had to fashion fins and a nose cone. That was not going to be an easy task. I had to use lightweight balsa wood, but it had to be shaped to the perfect size. Shaping a cone is not easy, especially when you don’t have many tools. Somehow I was able to whittle the pieces down to the correct size and then sanding it with many sheets of sandpaper. I had to then build some sort of engine casing that would hold all 3 of the D engines. Scrounging again around the house finally led me to the freezer. A frozen orange juice concentrate can fit perfectly inside the body of my rocket. I then took the 3 engines, glued them into the orange juice can and slid them into the base of the rocket body affixed against the engine bulkhead. Now I needed a shock cord for my nose cone and parachute assembly. More searching led me to my mom’s sewing drawer where I found a piece of elastic for waistbands. Finally, I had all of the parts assembled for my first home-made bird. I took a can of silver spray paint to finally give my rocket the “official” look. A few carefully placed decals displayed “USA”, just in case it went into orbit and whoever found it wanted to know which continent it was launched from. Launch day arrived one beautiful June morning. That day our maid, Claudia was there. Claudia was more like a part of the family than domestic help. I brought the rocket out of the garage and she said, “What you gonna’ do with that thing?” as she started her trademark laugh. “I’m going to launch my rocket today. Will you come watch?” I asked. Just then my mom came in the room asking if today was going to be the day that I tried to launch it. “Yep, can you give me a ride down to the Eberwine field? I don’t know how much space I will need and they have a big field.” I grinned. “Ok, get your brother and let’s go.” she agreed. The drive to the field seemed to take forever, but we finally arrived. Launching a rocket wasn’t like launching a bottle rocket, you didn’t light a fuse, you used a remote launching system. I had constructed my launch pad out of an old 6×6, bored a hole in it for the exhaust and then used an old pole as a guide rod. As we got out of the station wagon, I carried my rocket and launch pad to a level spot in the field. I carefully attached the igniters to the engines, then ran the wire back to the car. Back in the 60’s we typically would use the car battery to provide the power for the igniters. “Ok, stand back!” I shouted as I counted down. 10, 9, 8 all the way to 1, then I pressed the ignition button. There was a great whoosh of smoke and fire. The rocket slowly lifted off of the launch tower only to reach about 100′, then the parachutes deployed and it was over. “What the heck!” I said as I ran to go get my rocket. I turned over the end of the rocket only to find that two of the engines had not ignited. What I had seen was the result of one rocket engine. Claudia just shook her head and my mom gave up a whoop thinking that this is all it was supposed to accomplish. “No, no, it didn’t work!” I complained. “It was supposed to go a lot higher.” My brother just shook his head as he walked back to the car.
The next week, my grandfather from Alaska arrived to visit. This was his first visit to VA and I was so proud to have my Alaska grandpa in town for the next planned launch. I removed my orange juice can rocket cluster and replaced the spent rocket engine with a new one. This time, I made sure to carefully install the igniters while the rocket was in the garage instead of in the field. “Hey grandpa, would you like to see me launch my rocket?” I asked. “What’s that? A rocket? Are you going into outer space?” he kidded. “No, I built this rocket and I want to see if it will work this time.” I explained. “Sure, let’s give it a try.” he said. Again, my mom, brother and now my grandpa climbed into the Ford station wagon and headed again to the Eberwine field. After setting up everything like before, I told everyone to stand back and started the countdown. 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 IGNITION! I felt a lump in my throat, waiting for something to happen, then WHOOSH! All three engines ignited simultaneously forcing smoke and fire out the hole of the launch base. Then the engines thrust the rocket up immediately past the launch tower, streaking up towards the clouds. Higher, higher it sped as it reached apogee. It glided for a few seconds, then the ejection charge popped the nosecone of the rocket out allowing the parachute to unfurl. The rocket, only a small speck slowly glided back down towards the ground. I ran in the direction of the descending silver tube almost able to catch it as it landed in the field across the street. Cheers erupted from my grandpa, mom and even my brother Drew as they couldn’t believe that this assembly of household finds had defied the powers of gravity, even if only for a few moments. I came home that day feeling like Robert Goddard, the American rocket inventor. Now I had the bug. My next rocket project was going to be bigger and better than ever. I quickly found two old carpet tubes, one larger in diameter than the other, one being the booster and the other the second stage. This rocket stood taller than our two-story house. I decided to work on the payload section by leaning out the window of our second story bathroom window. My rocket was doomed to never see the launch pad. You see, I had reached the limit of what was commercially available in rocket engines. Combining three D engines was not recommended and I had pulled this off with my silver bird, but I would need an engine that would produce at least 1,500 lbs of thrust and that was something that was not just sold over the counter at your local hobby shop. I tried formulating my own gunpowder, but without the proper combustion chamber and nozzle, there was no way to make an engine. I tried using sheets of copper and forming a nozzle, soldering the nozzle to a pipe, but when it came to test fire the engine, the solder simply liquified under the heat of the gunpowder and my nozzle fell to the ground resulting in a smoking, stinky flame of goo. I was probably fortunate that the nozzle had fallen to the ground. I probably would have ended up with a pipe bomb and then not able to type this story. My rocket days were over, at least for 20 years. I did pick it up again later as an adult, but the realization that this wasn’t a cheap hobby nor one for the garage was becoming very clear. Neil and Buzz would have to go to the moon without me. NASA didn’t call to ask for my help either, but my mom was calling me to take out the trash. Yep, I was back to earth.