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If you’ve been reading for awhile, you know that a whole LOT of my stories have something to do with my cars in some way, and this one does – albeit peripherally.  It has to do with friendships, Saabs, and cookie jars – and it’s a very honest story.  When I started writing it, I didn’t know where it would go – and then I realized it had a second part – so I wrote that – and the two parts together gave it almost a synergy… So having given you that as an intro – allow me to introduce “Dirty Fingernails, Paint Covered Overalls, and True Friends”

My first car was a 1965 Saab 95.  3 cylinders, two stroke, just like an outboard.  At the time, I was learning so much – and there was so much to learn about it (translation: I knew so little about cars at the time) that for every hour I drove it, it’d take about that much maintenance, or more.  Eventually I got it to be relatively stable – but even so, it was a challenge to own this beastie.

One Saturday, as part of the routine at the time, I’d yanked the engine out of it (yes, “yanked” – you could do that with this car – take all the bolts loose, then grab the exhaust manifold in the right hand, the fuel pump in the left, do the hokey pokey, and yank the sucker out – really). I’d then fixed something on it it, and put it back in, and then driven the car to school on the following Monday.

At the school I went to at the time, a community college – we had a huge cafeteria with round tables for about 10 people, and a pretty regular group of us sat at this one table between classes to study, hang out, have lunch, chat – whatever.

I remember that Monday. I reached across the table for a pencil or something and someone saw that I still had grease under my fingernails that I just hadn’t been able to get completely out from the Saturday before – and this gal just absolutely freaked, then almost threw a pair of nail clippers at me and then went off on telling me that I needed to get new clothes and look better.  This went on for a bit, and it was clear that trying to get a word in edgewise wasn’t going to work at all, so I let her rant for a while.

A really good friend took me aside and tried to help.  He’d known me longer than they had, and tried to kind of help or smooth things out a bit by offering to take me to a fairly upscale clothing store – and I remember thinking,

“…and just WHO is going to pay for all this stuff to make me look acceptable in their eyes?”

I remember thinking they were incapable of seeing through the grease far enough to see why it was there.  Not that I wanted to go to school dirty, but if you’ve ever worked on a car, getting grease under the fingernails is part of the process, and getting it out takes a little longer.  I know now that there are things that can help with that, but I didn’t then.  I also knew at that time that none of them would be able to do what I did – I’d gotten to the point where I could have the engine out in half an hour (well, 32 minutes) – from the time I shut it off to the time it was in the bed of my dad’s pickup truck – and I thought to myself that if I had a skill that would cause a little dirt under my fingernails to remain, I’d take that skill over “looking good for someone for whom that was the defining characteristic of whether I could be their friend” every time.

I left that table that day and never went back.

I studied in the library, not in the cafeteria…

But based on that experience, I decided to try something.

I dressed like crap for a quarter.

On purpose.

I wore old clothes.

I wore overalls I’d painted my Grampa’s barn in (trust me, the barn wasn’t the only thing that got paint on it)

I wore the boots I’d been wearing when I painted the barn (they’d started out black, they now looked like a negative of a leopard… that was an oops…)

I mean, I worked at looking crappy.

If it was nice, unstained, and untorn, I didn’t wear it.

Did I have nice clothes?

Yup.

But that wasn’t the point, at all.  I was going for the seriously crappy look, and I did absolutely everything on purpose.  I wanted to prove something.

And honestly, it was pretty lonely for a bit.  I remember that it was hard to do what I was doing, but I was stubborn enough to do it – and I kept at it.

A few weeks went by, and I found some new friends at the library who were pretty cool people, and who didn’t really seem to give a rip about what I wore, they were just cool folks, so I hung out with them.  I remember one gal, Bonnie, was just gorgeous, and I was just stunned that she’d even be seen with me, but she didn’t seem to care, and it was really, really cool to see that these people didn’t care what I wore, or whether I had grease under my fingernails or not, they just liked me for who I was.

At the end of that quarter, I felt my point had been made, so at the beginning of the next quarter – I dressed a bit nicer – just because by that time, it was getting old, even for me.

And they noticed.

I remember Bonnie asking me what was up, and I told her – and the rest of my new friends. They were kind of surprised that they’d been unwitting participants in an impromptu social experiment, but I was honest with them.  And they now had a friend who they knew, and who they liked, and who also now dressed a little more respectably, and I had friends I knew didn’t care about my fingernails – and – here’s what got me about that…

In that first group, nobody seemed to care what it took to get my fingernails like that – not that I wanted them filthy – but there is zero chance that anyone sitting at that table could have done what I did with a car – any car, much less a 1965 3 cylinder, two stroke Saab…

And that’s what made me mad.

It’s like they were looking at me like a cracked cookie jar.  And they only saw the cracks, not the cookies inside.

Years later, I tried another experiment at another college, and it was almost the same experiment – from the other side.

Some of you guys reading this out there might get this.  Just like in any college, you end up with a lot of friends – male, female, whatever.  The university I went to had – well, far more than its share of nice looking young ladies.  I remember being very shy about talking to them – and at the same time remember feeling quite bad about the – oh – how do we put this politely? – I was feeling rather bad about the feelings this “red blooded American boy” was having about these “red blooded American girls.” – Those feelings tended toward the whole objectifying the young ladies end of the spectrum, and I just didn’t like that in myself.  So I thought about it for a bit, and realized that there was actually an inverse relationship between how well I knew the gals and how “red blooded” I felt about them.  It was almost linear:  The better I knew them, the more I thought of them as a human being and friend, and the less I thought of them as – well, objects.

So I tried to figure out how to solve this problem.  I mean, each of these gals was someone’s daughter, someone’s sister, etc…  And while I was just as full of hormones as the next guy, but I just didn’t like objectifying them that way.  At all.

And I wondered…

How could I stop thinking about all these nice looking young ladies in these inappropriate ways?

…and then I remembered…

I didn’t think of the girls that were my buddies that way…

What if…

And so – I remember picking one gal rather specifically (the gal I was most terrified of because she was the most gorgeous of the bunch, and therefore, I figured, totally unapproachable) – I’d chat with her in the foyer of the building before class (and was late to class more than once – heh – in fact, I remember one time, I’d just told her I had to get up to get to class and saw the whole class trooping down the stairs – I’d missed the class entirely…Well, I was majoring in communication at the time, and by golly, I was communicating… : )

…not that the prof saw it that way, mind you, but still…

One thing led to another, and Yolande and I became friends, nothing more than that, that had never been my goal, we simply became friends.  And while the fact that we were now friends didn’t change the fact that she was drop dead gorgeous one whit – it did change something in me.  I saw her as Yolande, my friend, instead of seeing her – and thinking of her – in ways that would make her feel uncomfortable, and me feel ashamed.  I haven’t seen her in years – but I still remember how well that little experiment worked, and how much fun that friendship was, a friendship that wouldn’t have started had I not wanted to be, as we used to say back then, “just friends.”

And what’s interesting is these two stories go together…

In the first – people were distracted by what they saw – because they didn’t like it, and didn’t bother to look past it to see what was inside.

In the second – I was distracted (oh, Lordy was I distracted – but… I digress) by what I saw – not because I liked it, but because I liked it in ways that I really shouldn’t have in that context – and just like the first one, I didn’t bother to look past the outside to see the person inside.

It’s kind of funny – this story also answers the question one of my college buddies once asked about “Why does Tom constantly have all these gorgeous women around him?”

Well…

Some were buddies to start with just because I just liked them…

And some ended up being buddies because I wanted to just like them.

It ended up being a serious win-win… : )

But it taught me a huge amount about people.

What they looked like, whether it was good or bad, gorgeous or plain, didn’t necessarily translate into what kind of a friend they’d make.

And it taught me to take gentle chances – because often, I found, the people I was scared of talking to wanted a friend just as much as I did.

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So based on Greg’s comment on last week’s story about me ‘embellishing’ things – I just had to put this story up.  It happened in August of 2010, and like a lot of my stories – it started out as an email to a friend, in this case, one who’d told me to go out and do something fun that weekend.

It involved Greg.

And he gave me permission (well, actually, told me I had to) write this story.

So without too terribly much editing, here’s the story/note I wrote to my friend who wanted me to go do something fun, and come back with pictures to prove it…

==

I had a fun morning – went to see the Blue Angels down at the Museum of Flight.

I chatted with my buddy Greg for a few hours in the parking lot of the Museum until the coffee we’d drunk earlier at Randy’s needed a place to go…

But I’m getting ahead of myself…

Greg and I had been sitting in my ’68 Saab, sharing stories, and watching the planes at Boeing Field.  One of the stories involved something that had actually happened about 50 feet from where we were sitting right then, it was a story of me talking my way onto the only flying B-29 in the world, but before that, successfully badgering a newspaper photo editor I didn’t know,

…for a paper I’d never seen,

…into holding space on the front page

…for a picture I hadn’t taken yet,

…from a plane I had never been on,

…and was quite literally trying to talk my way onto.

We laughed, and Greg kept talking about my golden tongue and how I could talk my way into anything – using that B-29 as an example.  I needed the laughter.  I’d been feeling a little down about a lot of things, wondering about life and stuff, and recovering from some recent surgery, and Greg’s a very good friend, and did a lot of listening, and a lot of encouraging, for which I’m grateful.

Eventually, the coffee we’d had earlier needed to be dealt with, and since it was still raining, we just drove down toward a row of Porta Potties at the far end of the parking lot.  As we did, we looked around and noticed we were one of only two cars in the formerly crowded lot. We saw that the other car was parked beside the Porta Potties we were heading for, right next to this canopy kind of a thing with a sign on it that said something like “SR-71 Pilot and Author”.

That got us talking about SR-71’s, (there’s one in the Museum of Flight) – and I told Greg about this one mission – the only one I could remember reading about right then, in which one of the pilots had flown from England to Libya, and on the way back out, the plane just flew faster and faster – and they had to hang a left to meet their tanker out by Gibraltar. They did (when you’re flying Mach 3+, that takes a bit of geography) – and the pilot pulled the throttles back over Sicily – and still ended up overshooting the refueling tanker over Gibraltar… (note: if my math is right, that’s about 1,100 miles of coasting – you can read the story here.

We stopped, Greg got out to take care of his stuff, and I took a second look at that sign, “SR-71 Pilot and Author”.

It was still raining, and under that canopy was a fellow, sitting in the only dry chair in the parking lot, surrounded by a bunch of empty, wet tables, all of whatever he was selling was gone – he was just sitting there with his feet up, talking on a cell phone.

Alone…

In the parking lot.

In the rain.

Hmm…

SR-71 pilot?

Well heck, I figured that there couldn’t have been too many of those, I wondered if he knew the guy who’d done that Libya flight Greg and I’d just been talking about.  So while Greg headed off to take care of his business, I approached him – and he motioned he’d be off the phone in a minute, so I waited, and while I was waiting I saw the name on his banner – “Brian Shul.”

Hmm…  I had no idea who Brian Shul was, but it seemed like he must be that SR-71 pilot – or maybe know him.

He ended his call.

“Are you Brian?”

“I sure hope so, been signing his name all day.”

“Say, I was just telling my buddy here about an SR-71 pilot who did a mission out of Libya and ended up overshooting his tanker out by Gibraltar… “

“That’s me.”

“… and I was wondering if you happened to know who that pilot might be…”

“In fact – the whole story’s in my book, would you be interested in a copy?”

My mind was already several sentences past that last one before it came to a screeching halt and processed what I’d just heard.

“He… you… that pilot – waitaminute…”

I had no idea that I’d actually stumbled into one of my own stories – and turned around to see Greg, who’d heard that interaction as he was coming back, and saw his jaw do what mine must have done just seconds before, which was to simply obey the law of the acceleration of falling objects and hit the pavement of the parking lot in just under a second.

You see, one of the things we’d been talking about was how Greg thought I might have embellished some of my stories – and about how easy it can be to do.

But the funny thing is – if I tell a story – well, I tell a story… I don’t think I embellish it, I just tell it. (often they simply didn’t need embellishing, they just needed to be told well).

We talked with Brian for a bit.

I shook his hand.

I bought his book.

He autographed it for me.

Greg took a picture of him and me – beside my very definite “sub-sonic” Saab, because I needed proof to show a friend that I’d done something fun that weekend.

And the funny thing is, Greg and I both learned something that afternoon.

We learned that you never know when you’ll stumble onto – or into a story, and it had become very clear that I didn’t need to embellish a dang thing on this one, because no matter what anyone asked, it was absolutely true that at the very moment I was telling Greg the story of the SR-71,  the very pilot of that plane in that story, was sitting not 100 feet away, under a canopy, in the rain, on the south end of the parking lot at the Museum of Flight, right next to the Porta-Potties.

Supersonic Pilot meets Subsonic Saab

Coincidentally, in the picture above, Brian and I are standing next to my Saab 96, built in 1968. The plane Brian was flying (tail number 960) in the story I was telling Greg, is now down at the Castle Air Museum, right next to Castle Air Force Base, where my dad was stationed, back in 1968.

If you’ve been paying any sort of attention, you’ve picked up on the fact that old Saabs have been part of my life since before I could drive them.

The Saab in this story is a red 1967 Saab 96 with an 850cc, three cylinder, two stroke engine in it.  (this is the same car you might have read about here).

When driven gently, the engine, with 7 moving parts, would sound almost as smooth as a turbine.

Of course, if you drove it ‘un-gently’ it sounded like an army of chainsaws.

I was more familiar with the chainsaw sound, to be honest, and just loved the way it sounded when I drove it like that.  It was a contemporary of the original VW Beetle, and kind of like the Beetle, had what they called ‘unibody’ construction – meaning there wasn’t a steel frame to put the car body on.  The VW’s body was bolted to the floor pan, I believe, with 13 bolts, the Saab’s was welded.  The idea on these two was that the car body was built strong enough to essentially *be* the steel frame.

Now because of this, the Saab pretty much operated under ‘Vegas Rules’ – those being “whatever got in the car, stayed in the car” – which meant it required cleaning out every spring after a typical wet Washington winter to the point of taking EVERYTHING out of it and letting everything down to the steel of that unibody construction dry out so it didn’t get moldy or rust or anything like that.

One of the things I noticed one of those times was that at the front of the floor pan, about where you might put your feet, were three holes about two inches in diameter, with stamped metal plugs in them.  The right one was rusted. Both good and bad, it allowed water to drain out, if you were lucky, but also explained the fairly constant wet spot on the floor there.

I figured I’d fix it before fall, and just left everything to dry for a while.

Meanwhile – well, some years back, actually, the pastor of our church had taken us four wheeling, he called it “Stump Jumping”.  I was young and didn’t know if I could do something like that, but he reassured me it was okay to strap myself into an itty bitty Jeep with an ‘ever so slightly’ modified 307 cubic inch V-8.

I also didn’t understand that one of the basic tenets of four wheeling the way he had in mind was to drive like a freaking lunatic.

Wait a minute…

Driving like a lunatic?

I could do that.

And off we went.

Now before we go on, you must know: There were two types of roads on Fort Lewis:

1.       The kind that had been surveyed, graded, paved, and marked by professionals, and had speed limit signs to keep you on the straight and narrow, so to speak….

2.       The kind that were made by a teenager driving an M-60 tank, were ungraded, unpaved, and most definitely weren’t marked (though it’s hard to keep a tank’s passing a secret).  They didn’t have speed limit signs, because the roads were so rough that a sane person didn’t need them.

But we’re not talking about sane people now, are we?

So in doing our four wheeling, there was this one road, out on Fort Lewis, (it’s still there, but flattened out considerably, and they’ve built quite a bit up  around it in the years since this happened) that was smooth enough so you could actually get up to about 40 miles an hour.  At the end of that smoothness was this wonderful “yump” – where, if you were driving sanely, it would fling you up in the air kind of like going over a hump on a roller coaster.

If you were driving a Jeep, or driving insanely, you gunned the heck out of it, caught some serious air, and kept your hands inside the vehicle while you thanked God for seat belts and roll cages.  Anything not fastened down started doing its own little Zero G spacewalk wherever it wanted to.

It’s what you saw during your personal Zero G “Thank God for seat belts” moment that took your breath away.

We’ll get to that in a bit.

Now the roads I was mentioning came in one of two stages: dusty, or muddy.  Rarely did you get one of the roads in that perfect condition between the two, and on this particular stretch you had that little yump that would get anything airborne (heck, if you hit it right, you could get a semi-truck flying)

But there weren’t any semi-trucks on this road.  In fact, while there was evidence of them, there weren’t even any tanks. But it was that evidence that told me so much…  See, those tanks were driven by young men not much older than teenagers, and when driven “properly”, they caught air too.  All 60 tons of them.

You’ve heard the phrase, “what goes up, must come down” right?

That goes for flying 60 ton tanks as well as it goes for anything, so when all that flying armor came back down, still traveling 20-30 miles an hour, the earth moved.

In fact, there was a depression a foot deep where those tanks had landed – about 100 feet long, and about 20 feet wide.

Really, the earth moved.

Now the Saabs of the vintage that I was driving had been used in Rally racing, driven on roads not much different from the logging roads familiar to people out here in Washington, (or tank roads familiar to people growing up near Fort Lewis driving in places they maybe shouldn’t have been driving).  I’d seen pictures of them catching air, driving on two wheels, flipped over on their roofs (yes, really) and they were just more fun to drive right on the edge that way.

Well, given that, one day that summer I decided it’d be fun to take the Saab out to where we’d been four wheeling– or ‘stump jumping’ those years earlier – and do a little ‘rally practice’ and see what would happen if I took it over the same ‘yump’ that we’d gone over with the Jeep.

I figured I’d hit the yump, just like I did in the jeep, catch air, just like I did in the Jeep, and land and rumble through that 100 foot by 20 foot depression, just like I did in the Jeep.

It’s just that when we did it with the Jeep, the road was dusty, and dry, and there was a depression, and when we hit our little Zero G moment, what we saw was a dent in the road to land on from where the tanks had hit.

When I was did it with the Saab, it was after some wet weather, and there was no dust.  The road was damp, and when I hit my little Zero G moment, what I saw ahead of me stopped my heart cold.

Instead of a dent, I saw a puddle about the size of the Pacific Ocean.  Seriously – that huge dent in front of me was now filled with close to a foot of water, it was more than a puddle.  In the brief moment I had, I thought I saw a ‘no fishing’ sign at the edge.  It was just enormous.

The thoughts that blasted through my head right then were fast, frantic, and mostly useless, but they gave me one, and only one option.

I was easily 3 feet in the air at the time of those thoughts.  At that altitude, the wheels, and all they symbolized, were less than useless.

Not good, well, not bad, but it affected all the other decisions that followed.

Steering to the left or right at that moment to try get out of the puddle would have made those front tires into rudders when they hit the water, and landing with the wheels aimed anyplace other than straight ahead would have been more than a touch dramatic and likely rolled the car.

In a foot of water.

Not good.

Hitting the brakes, while useless in the air, would just mean I’d get stuck in the puddle once I landed.

Also not good.

So if left was no good, and right was no good, and slowing down was no good, what option did I have?

Yup…

My only option was to hang on and ride it out.

So I did, and I floored it, just before I hit.

But I wasn’t out of the woods, literally or figuratively, yet.

Now as I hit the surface (and Lordy, “hit” is exactly what it was, this was not a gentle landing), a number of things happened…

The engine screamed, the wheels spun, and the hydrological equivalent of Mount Vesuvius erupted inside the car.

See, that little plug that I was going to fix that spring, and didn’t, chose that moment to give way, and a two inch jet of water shot straight up from the floor, blasted the carpet and floor mats out of the way, kept going up behind the glove box and radio, and continued on inside the windshield on the passengers’ side, all the way up to the roof and the sun visors.

Of course, I was trying to keep the car under control at the time, so didn’t really have too much time to process that little event, but Vesuvius in the car…

Hmmm…

It took a long time for it to dry out after that one.

But it did.

And in the drying out phase after this little event, I found the plug, saw that it was pretty rusty, but given that I didn’t have any others, put it back in and smacked it with a hammer, figuring that would make it stay.

Insert ominous music here…

Later that year, in the fall, I went on a date with a young lady who shall remain nameless.  I just know that I did my best to be a gentleman. I knew her parents were missionaries in the Philippines, and wrote them a note asking about her favorite things.  And one Saturday, I tried to make a day of making some of those favorite things happen.  I took her to her hometown on the Olympic Peninsula, I tried to do some of the things her parents had told me she liked, and I found out that no matter what I did, she was clearly upset.

I had no idea what was wrong.

One of the things I’ve learned over the years is that most men simply want to make the women in their lives happy.  So in this case, I’d spent weeks talking to her parents and friends to find out what she liked, so that I could do just that, make her happy…

For whatever reason, she didn’t want to be happy, no matter what I did.

I was stumped.

By this time it was evening, and the weather outside was cold, and wet, and even though I had the heater on full blast in the car, the atmosphere inside was absolutely frigid.  As we were driving from her hometown to mine, for some reason I went a slightly different way, and ended up on a road I seldom used.

And as I came around a curve on this unfamiliar road, in the rain, there must have been a plugged up storm drain, because in front of me I saw something I’d only seen once before through this windshield.

I saw a puddle.

A big puddle.

But I saw it at the last second, and realized that…

If I tried to swerve now, my unhappy passenger would be even unhappier.

If I hit the brakes, she would be unhappier still.

…and then, in a flash, I realized that given how bad things were, it really didn’t matter what I did, so I held on and floored it.

And our hydrological equivalent of Mt. Vesuvius erupted a second time in the car, only this time there was a passenger in it.  In fact, there was a passenger’s foot just to the left of Mt. Vesuvius, and the water shot straight up and caught her between her leg and the jeans she was wearing.

She was instantly, and I mean *instantly* drenched.  I’d say ‘from head to toe’ but her pant leg funneled most of the water someplace else, and only a little of it got to her head.

Ooooh Lordy… If I thought she was mad earlier, I hadn’t even come close to seeing mad.

Given where we were, I took her to my folk’s place, where she dried off, and then took her back up to Seattle, where she lived.

It was a very quiet ride.

A library might have been quieter, except for the sound of a two stroke engine and dripping water.

Not surprisingly, it was our very last date.

© 2011 Tom Roush


The other night I was driving home and was pretty much blinded by some headlights.  The weird thing is – these headlights weren’t in front of me, they were behind me.

As those of you who’ve read my stories before know that I drive a 1968 Saab 96.  The ones that came from the factory that year had a mirror on each door and one just above the windshield.  The ones built earlier had the mirror actually mounted on the top of the dash.  The fellow who rebuilt the car before I bought it put the dash of a ’67 in there, complete with mirror, so now I have a car with a total of 4 rear view mirrors, and I was driving home, at night, in the rain.

It was not hard to see what was behind me in this car.

On this evening, in heavy traffic, a rather wide car had managed to find, and stay in, “the sweet spot” behind me where his left headlight was reflected through my drivers’ door mirror, and his right one was reflected off my passenger’s door mirror, and he was far enough back to where he was hitting at least one of the inside mirrors with both headlights.

Anyone looking at me at the time would have seen two round spots of light (one on each eye) connected with a rectangular one on my face.

It was, if you can imagine, bright, and with all that light in my face, I had to concentrate pretty hard to keep from having what was behind me blind me from what was in front of me.  Squinting didn’t work – if I squinted enough to make the lights tolerable, I could barely make out what was in the wet darkness in front of me.

Not good.

The next day, I was driving someplace else, and was able to just drive – it wasn’t raining, it was daylight, and I, while being aware of the mirrors, wasn’t blinded by them…

Hmmm…

Something made me look at the size of the windshield, and compare it with the size of the mirrors.  Now even though those mirrors were much smaller than the windshield – the night before they’d gotten most of my attention, in large part because those headlights from the car behind me were positioned just right, and it really was hard to see out the front.

I started thinking about this whole thing with mirrors and windshields and why they were useful and when…

And I was kind of surprised and fascinated by the whole ‘aha’ moment that I came up against…

See, the thing is – most of our lives, okay, all of our lives, we’re traveling through this dimension called  time, if you will, forward.  My personal vehicle for this travel happens to be an old, simple one that works… it’s not fancy, it’s not fast.  It’s loud and occasionally obnoxious, but it – well, it works (we could be talking about the Saab or me – up to you to pick that one out 🙂 –  and the thing is – let’s say I’m driving someplace… I’m going to spend most of my time looking out the front of the car – to places I haven’t been to yet, to places I’ll get to in the future.  I can’t do anything about what’s happening in front of me, but I can prepare myself for what happens once I get there.  This could mean I speed up, or slow down, change lanes, or even get off the freeway for a little bit.  Bottom line is, what’s on the other side of the windshield is important, and like it or not, can affect my life in both good and bad ways.

I did some more thinking…

There are times ahead when there will be signs of accidents that happened before you got there.  I’ve seen it before – where I see a long skid mark heading off the road to make a huge dent in the guard rail.  That person was lucky, the guardrail kept him or her from going through it.

There will be times ahead when there will be accidents, there will be flashing lights, highway flares, sometimes there will be tow trucks, ambulances, and police officers.  As hard as it is not to gawk, I’ve learned to be careful as I drive by so I don’t become a statistic.

There will be times, I’ve learned, when I won’t get any warning and end up having to swerve, or slam on the brakes, or squeeze through someplace just in time to avoid some major calamity…

You get past it, and while you’re still focused on what’s on the other side of the windshield, you do sneak a few peeks back in the mirror, to see if there’s something you can learn from what you’ve just been through.

Sometimes that’s easy to see, like with those skid marks and a crashed car.

Sometimes it’s easy and important to stop and help.

Sometimes you get there and it’s clear that there’s nothing you can do – either because others are already doing it, or because – well – because you’re too late.

At some point, some of you are going to realize I’m talking far less about cars than I am about life – and that’s where I had my ‘aha’ moment, when those mirrors really had more to do with learning from the mistakes, or lessons, of my past than they did about driving down a rainy highway at night.

I learned that if I paid attention to events like this, it gave me a chance to learn from the mistakes of others without having to make them myself.  That doesn’t mean I actually did learn immediately, but it was a start, and that was a good thing.

Sometimes, things behind me – like the car that was behind me at the beginning of this story, seem so bright and so important, that I have a very hard time focusing on what’s ahead of me – be that when I’m driving or in life.  I find myself focused on what’s behind me because it just seems so important at the time…

“Why didn’t I do this?”

“Why is this happening?”

“What can I do to get away from this?”

Driving faster to get away from those headlights wouldn’t have done much good, it wouldn’t have been safe to go much faster – I was going about as fast as I really dared to go under those conditions.

And the fact is, I had to keep driving…

But just like in driving, when you need to take a rest, so in life you should do the same thing.  Take that time to look back a bit, in your “mirrors.” –

If you made mistakes, learn from them.

If you hurt someone, make it right and ask for their forgiveness.

If you’re the one who was wronged, learn how to forgive.

And sometimes, the person you need to forgive most…

…is you.

So how’s all this fit with that whole size of the windshield compared to the size of the mirrors thing I mentioned earlier? Well, I think the windshield’s bigger because you’re heading forward, car, life, whichever.

The mirrors are there to help you learn from what you went through.

Both are necessary, but spending too much time looking forward means you don’t learn from the lessons of your past.  Spending too much time looking back (like at the lights of that car behind me) means you can’t move forward with any confidence or accuracy.

So – this Thanksgiving – take the time to pull over, to stop and look back, using the “rear view mirrors” at the past year, be thankful for, the things you’ve been blessed to get through, but also – remember it’s behind you.  There’s nothing you can do about whatever smooth road or total wreckage there is back there.

The only thing you can do is hold onto the steering wheel as best you can, whether that’s of your car or of your life, and drive carefully.

Take care, folks, happy Thanksgiving…


No – not the kind of transmissions you’re thinking about.

These transmissions are  4 speed, on the column… That kind of transmission.

I had some car trouble one day back when I was going to school at Fort Steilacoom Community College (now called Pierce College).  It was payday, (I’d gotten my work study check of $124.96 – gad, WHY do I remember this stuff and still can’t remember where I left my cell phone?) – I got home, planning on cashing it – when my dad, who’d had a 1966 Saab 96 Sport and loved it until it turned into a Flintstone Mobile (the floor rusted out and you could see the road going by through the hole), called me over and read me this ad in the paper.

Saab 96. Runs. 100.00

and a phone number.

Now even back then (about 25 years ago) this was a touch on the cheap side.  But also even back then, Saabs were a lot like Lays potato chips – you couldn’t eat just one… – (you needed another one for parts to keep the first one running) so I called the guy….

“Hey, I’m calling about the Saab you have in the paper…”

“Oh, yeah… Strong engine… STRONG engine…”

Um…. Okaaay….

“Can you tell me a little bit about it?”

“Well – the engine’s got a lot of power.”

Right… got that.

Understand at the time, I’d been used to driving a 3 cylinder, 2 stroke Saab that, as I mentioned in another story, was clearly the result of an illicit liaison between a Sherman tank and a chainsaw, so more power was always better – but there was something about how he was describing this power that piqued my interest enough to realize a couple of things.

  1. He was telling me things he didn’t realize he was telling me.
  2. I was going to have him tell me the rest without him realizing he was doing it.

“Which engine’s it got in it?”

“The V4… Strong engine… STRONG engine….”

I was beginning to see a pattern here…

I asked about the body (I mean, if it’s full of dents, that doesn’t change how it drives, but it sure changes how it looks, bodywork is expensive, and it told me a lot about how well they’d taken care of the car… or not)

And I asked about the glass – in large part because I wanted to know if they’d rolled the car.  The way he was talking – this was a distinct possibility – and so I wanted to check. The thing is, I happen to know that if you roll the car, you’ll likely scrape one side, maybe scrape the roof, but if you hit the roof, there’s well north of a 90% chance that you’ll end up with a diagonal crack in the windshield.  The car’s got a built in roll cage, so it’s not like it would have been toast – but it was information I wanted to know if I were to buy the car.

It was a simple equation… one roll equals one crack, so… innocent sounding question, but the answer would have told me a lot.

You can see what happens when you roll a Saab 96 by watching this little video:

The Saab is – well, you’ll figure it out… trust me.

So depending on how you do it – you can just muff up the body a little bit – but bottom line, that windshield is going to get cracked, so I asked about it.

“Oh, the glass is good, no cracks.”

Okay…

Then he went on about that strong engine again…

Eventually I determined that the body of the car appeared to be good, but the right door might have some issues.  Okay, whatever.

And then, out of the blue – he says, “Oh, by the way, first, second and reverse are gone.”

“Gone?”

“Gone.”

Rrrright…

“STRONG engine… Stroonng engine…”

Gotcha

So… a 1968 Saab with what is very clearly a strong engine, a horked out transmission, good glass…  Well heck –

“Oh, and there’s this banging noise…”

“Banging noise?”

“Yeah, there’s this banging noise when you drive it.”

And he’s still driving it? Heck, it’s only got two gears left…

…and a “banging” to me is the sound of sheet metal.

A “banging noise” is in the higher frequency of sounds.

It is a cheap sound.

A “thunking noise” is not sheet metal.  It is the sound of something internal, like bearings, or worse yet, gears.  It is in the lower frequency of sounds.

You do not want to hear thunking.

It is an expensive sound.

“Banging?” – I press him a little bit on that… eventually it becomes clear that I need to go see this thing.  I mean – for a hundred bucks, the engine’s worth more than that…

So I do a little more asking – kind of a last confirmation of the condition of the body, and he finally pops out with something he’d clearly forgotten.

“Oh, there’s a hole in the driver’s door.”

Right… I can immediately see how easy this would be to forget…

So I’m thinking – given where I grew up (near Fort Lewis or other military installations my dad was stationed at), the hole would be about 3/8 of an inch in diameter, and at the center of a little dent….

I’m thinking it’s the standard military issue bullet hole, I mean: “Hole, comma, bullet…. one each…”  Simple to create, simple to fix.

But just to be sure, I ask, “How big is it?”

So while I’m confidently expecting to hear, “Oh, about 3/8ths of an inch.”

I actually hear, “Oh, about the size of a man’s hand…”

A man’s hand…

What on earth?

Turns out his buddy’d been commuting down to the tideflats in Tacoma with it, and ran a forklift through the driver’s door and one of the tines did indeed make a hole… about the size of a man’s hand… in the driver’s door.

So I got the address of the place, and as dad and I drove out there to find it, we noticed that this was not a neighborhood of manicured lawns and well-tended gardens.   It was more a neighborhood of dead grass, faded plastic toys, and rusting cars.

We found the car sitting in the back of a house that was clearly being rented by a bunch of guys who were associated with some kind of motorcycle club.  The names Harley and Davidson were nailed, sewn, welded, or stapled to just about any object available.  These guys were – how do you say this…

… well, my son once said that while some of his friends had made nasty comments about rednecks, he had absolutely nothing against them because they were so ingenious and so ridiculously practical.  You’ve seen the picture of the redneck whose air conditioning broke in his car, but he happened to have a generator and a house sized window air conditioner handy.  So he bolted the generator to the trunk of his car, mounted the air conditioner in the right rear window, and then, when it was hot, he’d fire up the generator, fire up the air conditioner, and grow icicles in the car.  Not “cool” – but definitely cool.

These guys were the same way.  If they could make it work – it worked.  You’ll see this in a minute.

So my dad and I drove out there, and sure enough – it was a V-4, not a 3 cylinder like my other Saab.

(whoa, cool!)

In fact, not only was it a V-4, but it was a “De Luxe” – (that meant it had a tachometer)

Woohoo! This was looking like it could be fun…

After a bit of looking around, I noticed all the body work on the car was good, just like he said on the phone.

Except for the passenger’s door, which was scraped up pretty bad.

I noticed that all the glass in the car was good, just like he said on the phone…

Except for the windshield.

Which only had one crack in it…

A nice… big… diagonal one that went from top to bottom.

The stories the car was telling me were just a touch different than the stories the owner was telling me.

But I watched, and looked, and after he started it up – I listened.

Oh… my… gosh…

It sounded WONDERFUL.

The three cylinder, two stroke engine in the other Saab sounded like a swarm of seriously irritated hornets.  Powerful? No.  If you heard it, you might look around because you were sure a tree was being cut down by that chainsaw you were hearing.

But this thing – it idled beautifully, had a low rumble, almost a dual exhaust kind of a thing – a little ‘blap blap’ from one side kind of synchronized with a blublap from the other side…  Oh, it was cool… You just didn’t hear that out of a Saab of that vintage… It sounded almost like a couple of gentle Harleys… (Come to think of it – the Harleys had what they called a V-twin engine… the Saab had a V-4 = effectively two V-twins end to end)… But what on earth had they done to this thing?  In fact, how the heck could this thing sound so wonderful?  I knew what kind of exhaust it had… two headers – joined in the front by something Saab had called a ‘resonating chamber’ – and a pipe that went back under the passenger’s side of the car – exiting just under the right…

Rear…

Taillight…

Except it wasn’t there.

If it isn’t clear from what we saw earlier, it turns out these were a bunch of Harley bikers – and after a little chatting, the stories the owner was telling me started to match the stories the car was telling me.

I remember asking, “Has it ever been rolled?” – and later thinking, “How often do you ask the owner of a car you’re about to buy “IF” it’s been rolled – wouldn’t it be obvious?

Well – with this car – it could be done.  Not often, and not without consequences, but it could definitely be done.

What started off as a “Nope, never been rolled” turned into a reluctant “Well, once, a bit…” when I told him the stories the car was telling me.

And then, since we were telling stories, he told me the story about one of their excursions determining precisely HOW strong this engine was, driving up this dry riverbed, they rolled the car and got a bunch of gravel in the engine compartment and broke the motor mounts while cracking the windshield. In doing so, they also blasted the crap out of that original exhaust system.  In fact, there was nothing remaining of it.  But fixing it would have been expensive, and one of the things about redneck ingenuity was that if you could make it work, you would make it work.  And so they’d attached a piece of flex tube down from each of the exhaust manifolds – one on either side of the engine – and they went under the car just like the normal ones had gone, but instead of that resonating chamber, they went back about two feet.

And stopped.

There were a couple of little baffles screwed on the end and that was it.

It was the shortest, smallest, simplest “dual high performance exhaust” I’d ever seen.

I asked if I could take it for a test drive, he agreed, so I got in, fired it up (oooh, that sounded nice) – hit the clutch, and put it in first, let up on the clutch – and….

Nothing.

Engine didn’t slow down.

Gears didn’t grind.

Car didn’t move.

Nothing.

I tried second.

Nothing.

Reverse…

Nothing.

Holy cow…. what the HECK had they done to this transmission?

I shifted it into third, and got it moving, very slowly, and there was this low frequency ‘thunk… thunk. thunk’ that happened with a little jerk about once per tire revolution

Hmmm…

A thunking sound, not what you want to hear – but I managed to accelerate, gently and found that if you drove it fast enough – that thunking sound indeed became a banging sound…

…the sound of a transmission beating itself to death.

So I did the only thing I could possibly do under the circumstances.

I bought the car.

And started it out slowly in third gear –  with the banging –  made it to fourth, and drove the thing home, with dad following me.  Every now and then you could smell gear oil.  This was, to use a technical term, “bad.”  Gear oil is supposed to stay inside the transmission (with the gears, hence the name).

I took the engine out, took the transmission out, and realized the ring gear (part of the ring and pinion set of gears in a gearbox) was missing more teeth than a hockey player.  I found six of them in the bottom of the transmission casing.

Of the ones that were left, forty-six were damaged, all with various cracks or chunks out of them.  Bottom line, that gearbox was in dire need of dental work – which simply wasn’t happening…

It was toast.

But that engine… oh man…  Strong engine…. STRONG engine…

In fact, on top of everything else, the “rolling the car” physics experiments the previous owners had done proving this whole “STRONG engine” concept broke the starter off the engine block.  Note: The starter is bolted on to the engine through a hunk of cast steel about an inch and a half think. This hunk of cast steel had been broken off… and with redneck ingenuity, had been welded back on.

Very… strong…. engine.

By the time I had it all apart – someone gave me another one, ironically, a 1968 Saab 96 Deluxe, with the words, “Here, you can have it if you’ll take it away.”

Um… okay…

The car, however, had one minor issue.

No engine.

In fact, no transmission…

In fact fact… nothing under the hood… at all.

So now I had two Saabs sitting in my parent’s back yard, one with nothing under the hood at all, and one with a STRONG engine, with no way to use the power.

Hmm…

Speaking of power, it was clear it was time to call on some higher power, and so I did the only thing I could at the time.

I prayed.

Now understand that this wasn’t the kind of prayer that was filled with “Oh Lord, it is I, Tom, thy humble servant, beseeching thee for a four speed synchromesh transmission that yea, verily, and forsooth, worketh in my Saab…”

No….

Not the way I prayed….

Ever have a kid whine at you? a kid who really, REALLY wanted something? The kind that was pestering the living crap out of you to the point where you just wanted the noise to go away to the point where no matter what it was, you would give it to them just to shut them up?

That was me:  “God, can I have a transmission? Can I? Can I? Can I? Puleeeeeeeze can I have a transmission?”

…oh, one more thing… “Amen.”

I have to tell you – I have never, ever heard so much nothing coming back from a prayer of any kind.  I mean, even the “God bless Mom and Dad and…” (insert requisite list of friends, relatives, pets both living and dead and so on) seemed to get more of a response than this – even if it was just an echo.

I mean, there’s quiet, there’s silence, and then there’s that stunned silence you get when you’ve heard something totally unexpected and simply can’t think of anything to say.

I think God was up there going, “Are you for real?”

And then… Oh Lordy… He had a sense of humor.  Now the thing was, I didn’t have any other options here… I’d priced out VW transmissions at the time just to get a sense of what a transmission cost, and they were running in the $375.00 range.

I didn’t have $375.00.

I also didn’t have a transmission.

And I had a pile of Swedish steel in the back yard with that fool strong engine, and my parents at the time were pondering things like “How did we get into this mess?” and “How do we get out of this mess?” and “Where do we put this?”…

Right next to a duck, maybe? (you may have to have read ‘They don’t shoot on Sundays’ to get that one)

So I was praying, literally doing that, “God, can I have a transmission, can I can I pulleeeeeze?” thing, in large part because I didn’t know what else to do…

I’d looked for transmissions, and they were rarer than Sasquatches in Singapore.

No Saab transmissions anywhere.

Also, No Answer.

I kept at this for six months.

No answer.

Then one day, the weirdest thing happened.

I was praying – oh let’s get real – this wasn’t praying, this was pestering….

It seemed like God finally got tired of me whining about this fool transmission, and out of the silence I’d experienced for months came this message, so loud, so clear, that I looked around trying to figure out who’d said it.

“One’s on the way.”

“Huh? What? One’s WHAT’s on the way?”

“One’s on the way.”

Uh…

Wait – Fedex?  UPS? I mean, if you’re sending me one, can I have a tracking number or something?

Apparently God didn’t find that one amusing…

“One’s on the way.”

I’m not sure who I could have talked to at the time, but I felt this urgent need to request permission from someone to get weirded out just a touch…

On the other hand, I was praying, for Heaven’s sake (pardon the pun) – what should I have expected?

And then there was that silence again…

I mean, I heard nothing…

Not even a cricket…

I wasn’t sure what to do for a while there.

And then one day, one of dad’s Saab buddies, a fellow by the name of Clark Duncan, came out, totally unannounced, and said, to me, “Hey, wanna go Saab Hunting?”

“Huh?”

“I heard there were some out near Wilkeson and Carbonado, wanna go?”

Wilkeson and Carbonado are two towns close to Mt. Rainier that were – well, not quite in the middle of nowhere, but you could see it from there.

“Um… sure….”

So we went.

There were no Saabs out there at all. So we headed further out – and – well- you’ve heard of the boondocks?  Depending on what part of the country you’re from, past the boondocks is what’s known as the pucker brush, past that is the toolies.  We were on the border of toolies and whatever’s past that.  No one knows for sure.  They’ve never come back to tell us.

And out there, (apologies to Douglas Adams), there’s this wrecking yard… A Wrecking Yard at the End of the Universe…

It was called “Double I Wrecking.”

I mean, this was like any standard issue junkyard, and it came with the standard stuff…

Big Fence…

Check.

Gravel…

Check.

Lots of old metal crap…

Czech. (just seeing if you’re paying attention)

Oil on the ground to the point where it’s either congealed or in rainbows in the puddles.

Check and check…

Oh, and mud.  Have to have the mud.

And puddles…

And cars.

Check… Check… Check…

What are we missing?

Oh – Animals… That standard assortment of vicious animals that keeps people out of the junkyard…

Except whoever ordered this junk yard didn’t check that box.

There was clearly another box labeled “other”

…and the grizzled old fart who was ordering the junkyard chuckled and  wrote in “Geese”

Now if you were to think of something that guarded a wrecking yard – or a junk yard, what type of potentially living organism would your mind conjure up?

I mean, you could come up with something mean, like a pit bull, or a Doberman, or a Rottweiler… Heck, any junkyard dog could work.  You could go one better and get Leroy Brown.

But the person who was filling out the checkbox on the “Standard Junkyard Order Form” had found the box marked “other” and filled in the blank.

When Clark and I got out of the car, we didn’t see a pack of dogs, we didn’t hear an ominous growl, heck, we didn’t even see Leroy.  We were attacked by a herd of wild freaking geese.

Have you EVER been attacked by a herd… herd?… flock? …a bunch of geese?

I mean, they don’t growl, they hiss. They’ve got these long necks that you could grab, but – there were so many of them! Which neck do you grab? It was like trying to wrestle with a plate of spaghetti.

While we were standing there flailing our arms at these necks, looking just exactly like the sissies we were, someone came out of the made to order shack and called them off.

That was the weirdest thing.  I’ve heard people say “Call off your dog!” – but “Call off your geese?”

For that matter, the question of, “Geese can be trained?” popped into my mind, I mean, the only term I’d heard about what you do with a goose was cook it.

And the gooses – er – geese – obeyed… they waddled back through the gate into the junkyard.

Waddled.

And it was a threatening waddle, too, I might add.

Clark and I just stared at each other for a minute.

“Were we just attacked by a herd of marauding watch-geese?”

We couldn’t believe it…

We followed the geese in – daintily stepping around little landmines they’d left behind, and found real humans to talk to.

Now by this time in my search for a Saab transmission, I’d learned that you didn’t just walk in and ask for them, because often the folks working there had no clue what they actually had in their junkyards.  If you went in and asked, “Hey, you got a transmission for a 1968 Saab 96 with a V-4 engine in it?”

They’d just say no.

So over time, I had learned how to ask for things, and how not to ask for things, and in the Wrecking Yard at the End of the Universe, I heard myself say,

“Hey, you got any old Saabs around here?”

If he said no, we’d thread our way through the geese and their landmines again and leave.

If he said anything else, we were in.

“Whatchaneed?”

Ding!

We’re in.

“Well, I’m looking for a transmission for a ‘68 96.”

“Hmmm… the one I’ve got doesn’t have a transmission in it – just has the engine.”

(note – that’s not possible – to just get the transmission out you either take the engine out – or you cut the car in half, but I wasn’t going to be so rude as to tell him he didn’t know what he was doing in his own junkyard, so the transmission had to be there.)

“You mind if I go out and take a look?”

“Sure, help yourself”

…and he gestured in a direction that used up roughly a quarter of a standard compass.

I averaged that out and headed in that direction.  It turned out this had been a station wagon (a Saab 95) – that someone had made into a pickup truck with a welding torch, so everything behind the driver’s door was pretty messed up (read: gone),

I popped the hood, and sure enough, everything under the hood was still there, and I mean *everything*.

And behind the engine in there was a transmission….

I was elated, I was thrilled, I was –

oh…

Confused…

I had no idea what to do now that I’d found it.

I was so used to there NOT being transmissions that I don’t know what to do if there was one…

Um….

I pondered the significance of this situation as I walked back to the “office” with its fake grass for the carpeting…

I mean, I was thinking, and clearly God was up there, kind of chuckling, wondering what I’d do now that He’d dropped a transmission in my lap…

“Well,” thought I, figuring that if a chat with God could result in a transmission, maybe another chat with God could help me actually get the dang thing.

“I know the VW ones go for about $375.00… Maybe I’ll offer him $75.00.”

“Nooooooooo!”

I ducked.

“Uh… don’t offer him 75?”

“Don’t say anything”

Okay, this was now officially weird… First off, I wasn’t quite used to ‘hearing’ God like that – so my weirdometer was getting pretty close to pegged on this.  But regardless, somewhere in the standard negotiation tactics I figured there had to be something about talking… I mean, how do you do negotiations without talking?

So I went in and just tried to tell the guy behind the counter what I’d found, trying to figure out how to tell him that he’d had no idea what he was talking about – but doing it politely, said, “Well, it’s out there, and it does indeed have the transmission in it.”

“Oh, really?!”

“Yup, it’s there… checked it myself…”

All the while I’m thinking – it’d be easier to take the engine and the transmission out – it’s three bolts – disconnect the shifter, the exhaust, and various hoses, and just yank. Used to take me 32 minutes to yank a 3 cylinder engine – I knew how this worked.  It would come out…

So I asked, “How much you want for it? Engine and transmission?”

“Engine AND transmission?”

“Yup”

“Can’t take it out today”

“Don’t care, I’ll take it out.”

This confused him.

“Can’t guarantee the engine’ll run.”

I didn’t care, the engine was just in the way of what I wanted, the transmission.

“Don’t care, I’ll fix it.”

This confused him more.

Most people visiting the Wrecking Yard at the End of the Universe wanted the parts they purchased to work…

This person didn’t care…

This was very strange.

And then he said something that I only much later realized was something Alex Trebek would be familiar with, as it was phrased as a question

“Sixty dollars?”

“Sixty dollars…”

“Engine and transmission?”

“Engine and transmission.”

“Done deal.  I’ll be back tomorrow.”

I was stunned.

I rode home kind of in a daze – and sure enough, went out there the next day and yanked the engine and transmission out, paid the gentleman $60.00 and brought it home.

I took the two apart, bolted the STRONG engine to the $30.00 transmission, put them in the free car that I’d been given if I’d take it away, hooked the rest of the stuff up, and started it up.

I drove that car for 17 years.

Until…

One day…

As I was leaving work – the transmission made this pop, and then a low frequency ‘thunk… thunk. thunk’ that happened with a little jerk about once per tire revolution

I’d heard this before.  Many years before, and I knew what it meant.

It was not good.

I thought I might be able to make it home – but work was 17 miles from home, through some pretty awful traffic, and some steep hills.

I gently accelerated, and the thunking noise turned into a banging noise, and that $30.00 transmission – after 17 years of work – gently let me know that it didn’t have anything left to give.

Interestingly enough, I was now in the very same position I’d been in many years earlier – lots of power from that “STRONG Engine” and no way to get it to the ground.

I called around and found out that it would cost 1700.00 to rebuild it.

A friend heard of my plight – and said, “Hey, I know of another one that’s for sale up north… I think it’s the same year – same color even…”

I went up there to look at the car.  It was indeed the same year, and the same color.  It had been this lady’s first car – she’d bought it when she was in college, and when she left home – she left the car in her dad’s barn. He retired, and needed something to do, so he had the engine rebuilt.  And he had the transmission rebuilt, and then one day, after he’d gotten so much fixed and done, he called her over from where she lived, 12 miles away, to give her her old car back.  With a father’s pride – he handed her the keys to her car – and what had been his project for the last few years.

But she’d grown past it – and so she drove it from Snohomish to Everett and put a for sale sign on it.

And for $1900.00 I got a car with an engine with 12 miles on a full rebuild… and I’ve driven that car for the last 11 years… When I got it home – I looked at the vin number – and something looked very familiar…

All but the last digit on the VIN number were identical.

I popped the hood of the original one – xxxxxO.

And went back to look at the new one… xxxxx6.

So in the end, two cars that must have been made on or about the same day, but six cars apart, by the same people, had been acquired about 20 years apart, were once again sitting next to each other, in my driveway.

Now not all of my prayers have been me pestering God like this, nor have they all been answered like this – (wait, maybe there’s a lesson there, huh?) but this one was kind of special… and now, with apologies to Paul Harvey, you know the rest of the story…


One of the things I’ve done for years is tell my son stories about – well, I call them “Stupid things that Papa did when he was little” stories.  The goal of these was in some ways to make sure he realized I was human and could make mistakes, but also that if you looked at something just right – no matter what it was, you’d find some humor in it.  And… hopefully… a lesson.

I’d always figured I’d had a relatively quiet childhood, but the other night, I was telling him one of these stories, and his jaw dropped,

How did you survive to be old enough to breed?”

Of course, me telling him the story as history, and then him repeating it back to me as stupidity, made for some incredible laughs, as well as lessons on what not to do, and precisely how not to do it…

So with that… A Saab story.

­Over the years, I’ve owned a small herd of Saabs, and I’ve learned that you cannot have a Saab without having a story to go with it.

In my case, I’ve come to the conclusion that the stories far, far outnumber the cars, but that’s okay.  As long as the Saabs last, the stories last longer.

When I was growing up – I had a 1967 Saab 96 with a 3 cylinder, 2 stroke, 850 cc monster of an engine.  Monster?  Monstrette? Monstlette? – Beats the heck out of me what you’d call it – this was in the days when the high school car to be seen in was a Chevy Camaro with a 350 cubic inch V-8 engine.  Anything less and you weren’t part of the “in” crowd…

My car had a 3 cylinder, 46 cubic inch engine.

A two stroke.

You mixed the oil with the gas.

Like an outboard.

Oh, I wasn’t part of the “in” crowd. I was so far from the “in” crowd I couldn’t even see it.

The car was built with an integral roll cage so strong that one of the ads they used to have on TV showed them rolling the car down a hill – sideways, and then having a guy drive off in it.

It was like driving the result of an illicit liaison between a Sherman tank and a chainsaw.

So I had some friends who also drove some cars that weren’t Camaros (heck, given what I was driving, NONE of my friends had Camaros) – one was a buddy who drove a 1965 Dodge Dart, and since his dad ran the local propane dealership – that car ran on – you guessed it – propane.

So my buddy Bert and I would, as teenagers the world over do, spend weekend evenings driving aimlessly, burning oil and gas (in my car) or propane (in his) – and one day, he mentioned to me this railroad crossing, that if hit at the right speed, would get you airborne.

Now on this particular crossing, that was advisable.  The rail bed was several feet higher than the road bed, so the pavement climbed steeply up to the rails, crossed them, then went down the other side.

Sherpas guarded this crossing.

Now given that trains weigh more than cars, the rail bed had actually sunk quite a bit – so crossing over meant climbing up to greet the Sherpas, then going down into the rough no-man’s land that was the rails, climbing back up from the rails to the top of other side, then finally back down.  It was kind of like crawling over the crater of a volcano.

It could tear the suspension out from under your car if you did it slow.

If you did it a little faster, you’d sail right over the crater that was the tracks, land on the other side, and it would be this wonderfully gentle jump.

We didn’t do it just a “little” faster.

Oh, one additional piece of information here is that this road ended up at a T intersection, and you have to imagine that the arms of the T are sagging a bit, as the top part of the T was in the middle of a curve.  Big picture what this means is that it was a blind intersection.

You will see this material again.

So my buddy Bert tells me about this railroad crossing – and how, if you cross it “juuuust right” you catch air.   Not just the “oh, we’re flying over the volcano” air, but “Wave bye bye to the Sherpas” air.

Okaaaay…

Then he suggested that he and I take the Saab out there that evening and jump it. (and, given the adventures he and I had already had in the Saab, this suggestion was not out of the ordinary)

So we headed out there.

Something to remember about country roads is that in the summer they’re often paved with ‘poor man’s asphalt’ which consists of a mixture of oil poured on the road followed by lots of gravel  Eventually, enough cars drive over it , and enough of the oil evaporates that the oil and gravel slowly transform into pavement.  Until that happens, it’s just a bunch of very loose, light colored rocks, each one looking for its own personal windshield to hit.

We headed out 507 heading south, hung a left on 336th, and I accelerated to get to the crossing.

Whee.

It wasn’t very exciting – in large part because I couldn’t see much of it (it was getting dark), and I wasn’t going fast enough, Bert assured me that hitting the ramp from the other side was much, much better.

About that “going fast enough” bit – from the intersection to the crossing is 528 feet.  The acceleration of a two stroke Saab, while it sounded like the engine was absolutely screaming, was not what one would call head snapping.

So we headed further up the road, up a hill to a spot where I could turn around.

Now Bert had said that to land properly after jumping the tracks, you had to hit the gas just as you hit the ramp up the crossing, to lift the front end off the ground.  That might have worked with his rear wheel drive Dart, but the front end of my front wheel drive Saab wasn’t going to go up when I hit the gas, it was just going to go faster.  Not by much, but still, faster.

He wanted me to hit the tracks at 60 mph. (Please note: the fact that the speed limit’s 35 is completely irrelevant here.)

So I came roaring (such as one does with a 3 cylinder engine) down the hill toward the , – well, the engine wasn’t roaring, it was screaming, it was the pavement that was roaring with the noise of the tires on that gravel.  I made it up to 60, and instead of seeing a road in front of me at the place of the crossing – that white crushed gravel in my headlights –looked like I was driving straight toward a white wall… I’d slowed to 50, and Bert wanted me to hit the gas to go faster.

I left it at 50, and we did, indeed, hit it.

The car, and the seats, rocketed up and hit us like airplane ejector seats.

The roar of the pavement was gone, many feet below us.

And the sudden silence, as we found ourselves floating up against the seatbelts, was deafening.

We waved at the Sherpas as we went by.

We looked across at birds that had been flying overhead.

We looked down at our houses – both of them – four miles in either direction from where we were.

We could see airplanes in the pattern at McChord AFB.

We looked at each other, not fully comprehending that we had both become passengers in a physics experiment.

Oxygen masks dropped from the ceiling.

“Have we hit yet?”

“I don’t think so.”

And then we did hit, and all the roaring came back, along with the sound later identified as my freshly rebuilt exhaust system plowing a furrow into the road.

And we bounced.

Zero G Silence.

And hit again.

Three times, and by the time the wheels stayed on the pavement long enough for the brakes to start being useful, that T intersection was getting awfully close.

I stood on the brake pedal.

Now the Saabs of that era had a rudimentary antilock brake system.  They were designed so that if you did what I was doing (standing on the brake pedal) – after so much pressure had been applied – a check-valve under the back seat wouldn’t let the back brakes take any more, and all the rest of the braking would go to the front wheels.  The logic of this was that if the back wheels locked up, the car could spin (anyone ever having done a handbrake turn knows how this works).  In this case, I stood on the brakes till the FRONT wheels locked up, let go, stood on them again, they locked up again, stood on them a third time, but by now the stop sign at the intersection was getting awfully close – and I had to turn right or left.

Straight forward was not an option. There was (and actually still is) a large tree on the other side of the intersection.

The stop sign whipped past, I spun the wheel to the right.  Bert says we went up on two wheels.  I don’t know, I was hanging on to the wheel for dear life, and all I knew was that while for the last few seconds had been all about deceleration to either stop before crashing, or slow down enough to make the turn, now it was literally a race for our lives in acceleration, because we had no idea what was coming up over the little hill from the left side of the T intersection.  Whatever it was, could have been a motorcycle, could have been a logging truck, or anything in between, it would have been doing at least 55 mph – the speed limit on 507 there at the time.

Since we were so blatantly running a stop sign without even the remotest chance of actually stopping , any other traffic would have had no warning of the little red jellybean of a Saab suddenly appearing  in a cloud of blue smoke in front of them.  As hard as I’d been standing on the brake pedal before the stop sign, I now tried to shove the gas pedal through the floor, to get every one those 850 cc’s and 46 horses to keep us from  becoming a hood ornament  on a Kenworth.  I didn’t take my foot off the gas or look back till I’d redlined it in third, and then I could breathe.

Bert and I stole a glance at each other in stunned silence, the only background noise being the unbelievable roar of the two-stroke through a pavement-modified exhaust system.

Nope, our parents were not going to hear about this one, not for a long time.

But while I was writing this in an almost entirely Right Brained (creative) kind of way, the old Left Brain started getting curious – and started pestering me until I really got to thinking about the whole thing, the bouncing three times, the hitting the brakes three times, the “have we hit yet? …. I don’t think so…” and started to do some math.

The distance from the Sherpa guarded railroad crossing  to the intersection to is  a little over 1/10th of a mile.

According to Google Earth, it’s 628 feet.

I was going at least 50 mph when I hit it.

That’s 73 feet per second.

That meant that from the moment we launched past the Sherpas, I had just under nine seconds before I was going to arrive at that stop sign. (628/73~=8.6)

The crossing was so steep that it bottomed out the suspension and squashed the tires, which then helped launch the car even higher than the road angle itself would have.

I’ve calculated about how long it took to say that “Have we hit yet?” bit – and it seems to average about 3 ½ seconds.  At 73 feet per second, that would have put us about 256 feet past the Sherpas when we hit.  Timewise, that seems about right.  However, we need to factor in the ballistic trajectory into the whole thing, which cut almost 100 feet off that range and translated it into a number I could hardly comprehend.

According to the formula for a ballistic arc, which this was, if I had a 73 foot/second velocity at an angle of 45 degrees, we’d end up with a range of 167 feet.

I’m using the formulas here to do the calculations – and the only variables I know for sure are the launch speed (50 mph = 73 feet/second = 22.35 meters/second) and the time it took to say ‘have we hit yet? … I don’t think so…” (about 3 ½ seconds) – that leaves us with a launch angle of about 45 degrees, which seems hellaciously steep, but combining the slingshot effect of the suspension and tires, plus the absolute craziness of the actual railroad crossing (which has since been repaved to be far, far gentler) – is the only thing that comes close to fitting.

We’ll also end up with a height of 12.74 meters – which, if I can believe it (and I’m perfectly willing to have someone correct me)  translates into about 41 feet.

Holy flopping cow…

That meant we had 461 feet, or just under 5 seconds of barely controlled chaos left from the moment we hit the ground before we’d get to the stop sign.

But we bounced three times.  The noise of that first hit was so great we thought we’d broken all the windows.

Call it a second and a half in the air for the first bounce, a half second for the second one, and a quarter second for the third one, that’s 2 ¼  seconds in the air again – haven’t touched the brakes yet, but no gas, either.  We’ll say I was averaging 45 here, – that’s 66 feet per second – that’s another 115 feet.  Add to that the two times I was on the ground – we’ll call that about 2-3 car lengths each – that’ll end up with another 45 feet.

Add those together and you’ve got about another 193 feet gone before I could even think of hitting the brakes.

Unless something miraculous happened, I now had 167 feet, and just over 4 seconds, before I was going to slide through the intersection.

I hit the brakes – hard.  The front wheels grabbed for a split second, then locked up on the gravel and started sliding.

I let up and hit again.  They started sliding again, but I’d scrubbed off a little bit of speed. I let up and hit a third time, felt the wheels lock up and at that point I was at the stop sign, still doing at least 25 mph, but locked up front wheels don’t steer worth a dang, so I let up on the brake, spun the wheel, jammed it into second, and simultaneously realized, as the engine started screaming, and the broken exhaust roared to life, that second was too low a gear to be in. I got up to 32 mph (the top of the range in second) and went to third, floored it for a bit, and only then checked the rear view mirror to confirm that we were safe.

It is only now, more than 30 years after the fact, that I understood why we never found the marks on the road left by the exhaust system.  We were looking about 100 feet short of where we actually landed.

So I started this by mentioning that I’d had these “Stupid things that Papa did when he was little” stories I told my son.  There’s more, lots more.   I’ll be writing them down as I can.

Take care – and no, just in case anyone thinks about doing this – I don’t recommend it.

If any one of a number of things had gone wrong, (losing a tire on landing, a car in the intersection, brakes not braking enough) I wouldn’t be here to write this.

I find myself wondering what would have happened if I’d just said no.  (Note: multiple teenage males, “no” is not an option…sigh…)

But 41 feet?

Oh… my… gosh…

Telephone poles aren’t that high!

Be safe out there…

Tom Roush

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