25 August, 2008

Under the (musical) influence

The people who know me know that I've been a KISS fan for a long, long time. Some of my earliest memories are of seeing the cover from KISS's first album. I remember my brother, Chris, showing me that album cover and telling me who was who in the band and what instrument they played. That was probably late 1975 or early 1976. What allows me to pinpoint that point in time is remembering seeing the ALIVE album around the house. I remember hearing ALIVE being played on the small record players my siblings had and was totally mesmerized by KISS. I literally grew up with KISS. Like so many boys from the 1970s, I had a favorite band member (Peter Criss) and wanted to be just like him. My best friend at the time, Kevin, and I would pretend to be KISS. Tennis racket guitars and all. In those days, kids like me had no idea of the sex, drugs and band disputes. To the kids of the 1970s KISS was, and still is, the definition of rock-n-roll. I can't remember who said this, but it went like this "If I met someone who had no idea what rock-n-roll was, I'd hand them the ALIVE album and tell them 'This is rock-n-roll'." Let's hop in the time machine...

In the early 1980s, I decided I was going to be like my hero and be a drummer. After years of lessons and practice I got my first drum kit and started to practice daily. I'd put on a mix tape of my favorite KISS songs and play for hours on end day after day. In the late 1980s I was in high school and in band. Now, I'm the youngest of my siblings. The next youngest being Chris, who's eight years older than me. By the time I got to high school the whole phenomenon of "KISS-mania" had passed into the rock-n-roll history books. Consequently, when I played in pep band and jazz band, my musical influence came out. Simply put, I sounded like Peter Criss. In the debates of what drummer is "the best" nobody can ever agree. I think it's crazy to think that just one drummer can be proclaimed as "the best." Peter Criss always gets cut down because he's not as complicated as other drummers. It doesn't matter to me, Peter Criss played with a lot of feeling. He also played some pretty crazy stuff. Trust me on that one. When I was learning to play there were some unspoken "rules" to follow and you weren't supposed to deviate from them. Listening to Peter Criss changed that for me and I started to color outside of the lines. One of the other drummers in band was one of the drummers who could play anything. I was impressed with his ability and asked him for help often. But, he was a bit of a snob. Anyway, the kids I went to school with got used to hearing his drum solos and always went nuts when he showed off. Rightly so, he was an outstanding player. He took care of the soloing to get people riled up during basketball games, pep rallies and the like. However, there were rare occasions where he wasn't around and the second string drummer had to fill in. Can you guess who that was? Yep, me. I loved playing in band, but I suffer from stage fright. I was one of those kids who just blended into the crowd and never drew attention to myself. So, suddenly having the band director pointing at me and telling me to whip out two minutes of drum solo terrified me. I was (and still am) horrible at improvising solos, so I did what any musician would do. I drew on my influences. I would whip out riffs that were either direct rips from Peter Criss or, at the very least, in the style of Peter Criss. Since I wasn't playing as fast or as complicated as the snob, I didn't get the same reaction he did. I didn't care. My classmates had forgotten KISS and, for the most part, didn't recognize anything I played. But, I played what I knew how to play and loved every stage-fright-filled minute of it. My senior year, one of the first things I did was to get transferred out of a study hall into the band room helping the director with the freshmen band. A few older band members did this. It was a nice escape from a boring study hall and I got to spend an hour in the band room. For most of the year, I sat either in the band director's office or a practice room talking with a girl whose name was April. She had some problems, but was still a good person. In the last days of my Senior year April thanked me for being non-judgmental and for just simply listening. She still had two more years to go and she said she was going to miss me "... and those crazy drum solos." I still get a good laugh out of that. OK, back into the time machine.

In the mid 1990s KISS had done a session for MTV's "Unplugged" series and the band invited Ace Frehley and Peter Criss to join them for a few songs. My girlfriend at the time was kind enough to tape it for me and even teased me by calling me at work to tell me how good the show was. I couldn't get to her house fast enough. I watched that tape over and over, smiling from ear to ear the whole time. Later on, I was at a friend's farm, working on a car in their garage, when I heard an announcement on the radio. The DJ said that the original members of KISS were reuniting and were going to do a tour. Make up, platform boots, levitating drum risers, pyrotechnics and all. It was one of the few times in my life that I actually yelled out without thinking. Chris and I went to see them in Chicago and it was a dream come true. I was in that arena screaming, shouting and pumping my fists in the air. Not in my wildest dreams did I ever think that I would be able to hear Peter Criss play a solo. In person. I lost my voice from shouting so much. I had been thinking of getting a tattoo for years and could never make up my mind of what to get. I knew it had to be something that was meaningful to me and it had to be something I wouldn't regret forty years down the road. Then, while at that concert in 1996, I made up (pun intended) my mind. It was going to be Peter Criss. Being at a KISS concert, obviously, allowed me to see tons of KISS related tattoos and I realized something. No matter how good the artist, a tattoo of a persons face never looks "right." So I decided it was just going to be Peter Criss's makeup that was going onto my arm. I drew up what I wanted because I wasn't going to "hope the artist gets it right." The reason I got into music, the reason I listen to what I like and not just what's fed to me via Top 40 radio, is Peter Criss. I've had strange looks from people, but I don't care. The black ink on my arm isn't just for show, it's important to me and I'm proud to show it.

Now, in 2008, I'm still influenced by KISS. The reunion tour was awesome and I saw them another three times with my brother. Peter Criss and Ace Frehley were out of the band again and the whole thing became very clownish. Still, I'm proud of the tattoo on my arm and what it represents. I haven't sat down at a drum kit in years and probably wouldn't sound good if I did, but that KISS influence is still there. I have what I call a "mental jukebox" and when things happen to me, certain songs start playing in my head. When I'm with a certain female I know, what plays on the "mental jukebox" is predominantly KISS. I see her and all of a sudden I hear those drum riffs start playing. I'm still under the (musical) influence...

17 August, 2008

Move over or slow down!

Part of my job as a truck mechanic involves going out on service calls. If you're not familiar with the trucking industry, the idea of a mechanic coming to you to fix your car might seem odd. The difference is in towing. If you thought having your car towed is expensive, be glad you don't operate a big truck. Having a tractor and trailer towed can easily run over $600. The cost of a tow is bad enough, but then you have to add on repair costs once the rig is at a shop. Most of the time, the most logical choice is to have a mechanic (someone like me) go to the truck and repair it on-site. It can save money and, this is important in trucking, time. Most of the service calls I do are to parking lots of some sort. Truck stops, warehouses, rest areas and the like. But occasionally a driver simply can't make it to a safe haven and has to pull over onto the roadside. For all involved, the roadside is not a good place to be. Most states have "Move Over" laws which require drivers to move to a lane further away from emergency vehicles. Therein lies the problem. Drivers will move over for police cars, fire trucks and ambulances frequently, but won't do it for people like me. I want to make it crystal clear to everyone reading this that service trucks, tow trucks and tire trucks fit into the "emergency vehicle" category. Simply put, if you see flashing lights of any kind on the side of the road, you need to move over. Sometimes it's not possible to change lanes due to traffic and I understand that, but if you can't change lanes please slow down. I don't mean slowing from 75 mph to 70 mph, I mean slow down to somewhere in the 40-45 mph range. Sometimes I have to be on the traffic side of a truck and having someone whip by at 70 mph just a few feet away scares the hell out of me. The thing that really gets my blood boiling is seeing a vehicle coming towards me that can easily change lanes, but doesn't. I guess sometimes that phone call or text message is more important than the safety of a person on the roadside. I'm guessing that the people who can't be bothered to change lanes or slow down have never been on the side of an interstate highway. I had a close call a few months ago that scared me to my core. I had to be on the traffic side of a truck and was very close to the white line. I'd check for traffic and do my work when no vehicles were coming. I always keep one eye looking up the road so I don't get surprised. So, I see a truck coming and duck into the space between the truck I was working on and the trailer it was pulling. Well, not only did the oncoming truck not move over, it didn't even slow down. It was also dangerously close to the white line. When that truck roared by there couldn't have been more than a few inches between its right mirror and the left mirror of the truck I was working on. I'd say it was about two feet from me. My hat was blown off my head, road dirt got blown at me and I was sure that I'd pissed my pants (I didn't). In the split second that I could see into the cab of the passing truck, I noticed the guy was yakking away on his cell phone. There were no other vehicles near so he could have safely changed lanes, but he didn't. It was a Schneider rig by the way. I take mental notes of the assholes who don't pull over if they can. Anyway, I stayed composed long enough to finish the job and get back to the shop. Then I started shaking. I thought about how easily I could've been killed and it chilled my blood. I called a friend because I needed to calm down and I knew that hearing her voice would do the trick. Since I'm at the end of this little story, I have a request to make of you. I'm simply asking for you to keep an eye out for emergency vehicles on the side of the road and, if you can do so safely, move to a lane further away from the emergency vehicle. If you can't safely change lanes, please slow down. I'd also like you to remind the people you know to move over or slow down. I can't change things on my own, but we can make a difference if we all pitch in. So please, move over or slow down.

02 August, 2008

Pet peeves

Let's start with a question. What is in the air conditioning system of your car? If you answered "Freon", please leave. Let's get this straightened out right now. Freon is DuPont's brand name for their R-12 refrigerant. Anytime I'm doing air conditioning work on a truck someone will inevitably ask me "How much freon did you put in?" or "Is there any freon in there?" My answer is always "none" and "no." It annoys me to no end when people generically refer to any refrigerant as "freon." When those people are mechanics, I instantly question their abilities. Unless you have a vehicle from 1993 or older which has been pampered it's whole life, your vehicle does not, and will not, have "freon" in it. Starting with the 1994 model year vehicles, R-134a has been the standard refrigerant for vehicle air conditioning. In fact, R-12 is not produced anymore. If a 1993 or older vehicle needs air conditioning work, it will probably have been converted to an R-134a system. Don't hold your breath though. R-134a won't be around much longer. Recently, an old classmate of mine from the tech school days showed up at the shop. He's a truck driver now and brought his truck (a very nice Freightliner Classic BTW) to our shop to have the air conditioner serviced. He called later in the evening to find out how his truck was doing and asked to talk to me, since I was the one who worked on it. Long story short, he used the word "freon" and I was a little disappointed. He and I went through the same classes on mobile air conditioning and he had been working at a Ford dealership until he started trucking. Hearing him say "freon" caused me to lose faith in his abilities. If he refers to the engine in his truck as a "motor", all hope is lost.

What's with the poor spelling these days? I'm not wondering about rarely used words, but the more common words. I'm a product of the public school system and never did well in grammar, punctuation and sentence structure, but I can spell common words correctly. Don't think I'm standing on the soap box preaching about the poor state of the English language. I'm guilty as well. I ask people to correct me whenever I fuck up so I can become a better writer. I actually wish I'd paid more attention in school. Maybe it's time to go back to school.

01 August, 2008

The Mysterious "Black Box"

In my line of work as a diesel mechanic, I talk to many truck drivers and I am asked many questions. Almost every conversation winds up being about engines. "Motors" is the word most commonly used, but "engine" is the correct word. Motors are electric. Anyway, I've noticed a trend among truck drivers through my many conversations with them. They're afraid of technology when it comes to engines. I should explain big rigs to those of you unfamiliar with them. They are, by far, old technology when compared to cars and it's been said that big trucks are about twenty years behind cars. I believe it. One example would be the brakes on a big truck. They're predominantly drum brakes. DRUM BRAKES! When was the last time you saw a car that had drum brakes on all four wheels? The late 1960's? Air operated disc brakes do exist, but I've only seen them twice. Once on a motor home and the other time it was a tour bus. What I'm leading to in this post is the technology found on diesel engines. In the mid to late 1990's electronic engine controls were starting to appear regularly on heavy duty diesel engines in an effort to reduce the bad stuff coming out of the exhaust pipe. It was nothing special, but the electronic control module, or ECM (sometimes called a powertrain control module or PCM, it depends on the manufacturer) was almost unanimously not trusted by truck owners and drivers. "Why" you might ask? Because they didn't understand how it worked. Prior to the use of ECMs on diesel engines, the fuel metering was done by a mechanically operated injection pump. Injection pumps are big pieces of metal, make whirring noises and have fuel lines coming out of them. If you've ever heard of someone "turning up" a diesel, they're referring to a mechanical fuel injection pump. What a "mechanical diesel" has over an electronic diesel is reliability and simple operation. Technology-wise, a diesel engine with a mechanical injection pump is on the same level as a gasoline engine with a carburetor on it. A person could understand how mechanical injection worked and could tinker with it themselves a little bit. Fuel is delivered to the pump, the pump distributes the fuel to the right cylinders at the right times and smoke comes out the stack. That's where mechanical diesels are bad. Smoke. For reasons I can't understand, some people will equate smoke with power. They think it's cool to have smoke pouring out of the stacks (usually without mufflers). I see wasted energy and money coming out of the stacks, because that smoke is unburned fuel. I've talked with drivers, who in just a few minutes of conversation, bitched about high fuel prices and then praised mechanical diesels. Umm, I don't get it. I've even heard of people wanting to swap out an electronic diesel for a mechanical diesel. First of all, that's probably the most stupid thing I've ever heard and secondly, if they complain about poor fuel economy now, just wait until that mechanical engine goes into the truck. Moving on. In the early 2000s, heavy duty diesels were equipped with EGR (Exhaust Gas Recirculation) systems to comply with emission regulations. Simply put, EGR systems put some exhaust gas back into the cylinders and is mixed with fresh air/fuel mixture. Exhaust gas will have unburned fuel in it and by putting it back into the engine, that unburned fuel gets burned and isn't wasted. Well, the EGR systems were put on in a hurried fashion to existing engine designs and it caused all sorts of problems. The engine manufacturers were the first to be blamed, then the EGR systems were declared "crap" by the drivers/owners and eventually they figured out the EPA was to blame. The EPA wasn't really at fault, their goal was good, but I think they gave an unrealistic deadline that was too short. After the first couple of years with EGR systems, the manufacturers got the problems straightened out, but the drivers/owners still didn't trust the system even though the car or pickup they drive has an EGR system on it that works just fine. In fact, cars have had EGR systems on them since the early 1970s! The latest thing to spook drivers/owners is the 2007 diesel engines and ULSD (Ultra Low Sulfur Diesel) fuel. First came the ULSD, which was to replace Low Sulfur Diesel at pumps by the fall of 2006. ULSD is not as good a solvent as low sulfur diesel and when it appeared at the fuel pumps, fuel filters started clogging with alarming regularity. Low sulfur diesel will break down a lot of impurities that find their way into fuel tanks. Think of how salt dissolves in water, now imagine if those salt crystals didn't dissolve. That's the problem with ULSD, particulates don't dissolve. Guess where all that non-liquified crud ends up? That's right, into the fuel filter where it belongs. There was a huge problem in the fall and winter of 2006/2007. Our shop was changing fuel filters for customers so much that we went from keeping one each of the most common filters on our service trucks to keeping CASES of the common filters on our trucks. There was a point where we had trouble finding fuel filters because demand was so high. Again, the drivers didn't understand why their filters clogged, they just knew it was because of the switch to ULSD. The filter problem was a non-issue by the spring of 2007, but the effect will last for years. But the fun doesn't end there. Beginning 1 January, 2007, all new production diesel engines were required to meet another new set of emission standards. The engine manufacturers knew of the new standards well in advance this time and were ready for it. So now we have electronic engine controls, EGR systems and *gasp* Diesel Particulate Filters (DPFs). It's an exhaust filter. Particulate matter (i.e. soot) gets trapped in the DPF and every so often the DPF does something referred to as "regeneration." In a nutshell, what happens during regeneration is this. A small amount of raw fuel is injected into the DPF causing the thing to heat up to the point where the trapped particulate matter is burned off. The only thing left is a small amount of ash. The stuff coming out of the stacks is super clean, probably cleaner than a car's exhaust. But, there is a price to pay. DPFs will have to be cleaned on occasion to remove the ash trapped inside. The truck manufacturers have suffered for their brilliance. Since nobody trusts this "black magic", sales of trucks with 2007 engines plummeted. What I hear on my end is this frequent phrase from drivers "... that emissions shit." They don't understand it, therefore it's shit. Even though it's a good thing. Lower exhaust emissions, what's not to love? I'd like to see each person who complains about the "emissions shit" spend a day in a shop with running mechanical diesels. Just starting a mechanical diesel in a shop will instantly fill the place with eye burning smoke. It is not pleasant at all, even with a good ventilation system. If you fear something because you don't understand it, what's keeping you from learning about it? Use Google, read a book, read the trade magazines. Knowledge is power.