12 December, 2009

'Tis the season to be... jolly?

Just in case you didn't know, winter is upon us. Last weekend I was beginning to believe this whole "mild winter" crap we've been hearing in this part of the world. However, earlier this week the shit hit the fan and winter came on strong and swift. We got a shit-load of snow one day, but the temperature wasn't low enough to bitch about. As usual, I spoke too soon. The day after we got all the snow I went out on a service call (more on that in a bit) with the temperature hovering around 25 to 30F. If you don't live in a part of the world where it snows I'll explain something about it. A snow storm is akin to a rain storm in a way except for the fact that it's cold and nobody is running around in shorts. The humidity goes up a little, there's cloud cover and there's a slight haze hanging in the air. Well, while I was working this particular service call I suddenly realized that the sky had cleared and the wind had picked up. The only thought I had was "Oh shit!" Around here when the sky clears it means that it is going to get really, really cold. On top of the drop in temperature the wind chill factor made it seem colder yet. The next day I was at a rest area off of the interstate on a service call and the combination of low temperature and wind chill was just brutal. I'd work for five minutes, warm up in the service truck for five minutes, work for five minutes etc. I've never experienced winter in a place where it doesn't get cold. I keep telling myself that if I moved away I'd miss the snow, and it's a true statement for the most part. Lately I've been wondering if I'm not crazy for thinking that. Winter was always something I could deal with until I became a diesel mechanic. Having to work outside in this crap totally sucks. Throw in all the other stuff I bitch about on this blog and winter is a bad thing. The worst winter service calls are the ones where it's not only cold outside, but the job at hand doesn't allow me to keep moving. Changing tires, brake chambers, brakes etc. helps keep me warm due to the physical activity. Standing in one place or laying on ice underneath a trailer becomes a bone chilling event. I don't know how I managed to finish the service call at the rest area. I couldn't concentrate on the job because I could only think about how freakin' cold it was.

Now for the service call I promised to write about earlier. We got a call from a large trucking company asking us if we could run a service call for them. They told us the trailer had a leaking brake chamber. OK, not a problem. The foreman handed me a chamber, the paperwork and off I went. I found the driver and his rig in the middle of a Wal-Mart parking lot with big piles of snow all around. I got out of the truck and started filling out paperwork. Once the paperwork was done I took a quick look under the trailer and what do I find? A brake chamber completely torn off, dangling by the air hoses that attach to it. I look further and see a torque rod broken cleanly into two pieces. Then I turn around and finally see the boulders underneath the trailer with tire tracks leading to them. Putting two and two together, I realize the driver had cut a corner thinking he'd just roll over the snow bank a little. Well, the snow bank had a nasty surprise inside. There was no way I'd get that thing fixed that night because the job required parts that would have to be ordered. I have no idea why this driver thought about going through that particular part of the parking lot, but after speaking with him I knew he was a noob. Even though I couldn't fix the trailer that night, I had to get him out of the way. Being late in the evening the parking lot was almost empty so there was plenty of room to get this guy through the lot and off to the side. But, first I had to get those boulders out of the way. "Hmmm, how am I going to move those things?" A chain wrapped around the rock and attached to the service truck worked, but I couldn't figure out how to get the rocks out of the way. Then like in the "when a door is closed, a window is opened" thing, I see a couple of guys getting into their pickup truck and their truck had a snow plow on it. "Excuse me, sir. Would you do me a favor and push those rocks into that snow bank over there?" That was one more problem solved. That turned out to be the easier part of this service call. Trying to work with "junior" to get his truck moved made my brain hurt. I'd tell him to leave the brake buttons pushed in and wait for air pressure to reach its maximum before trying to move. He'd do exactly as instructed, but when the air pressure peaked, he'd pull both brake buttons out which set the parking brakes. He'd then push them back in and try moving the rig. After a few rounds of this I finally told him "Do not do anything unless I specifically tell you to do it." I was thinking that an experienced driver would know what I was telling him to do without having to give step by step instructions. But then again, an experienced driver would never have tried to go through this parking lot. I finally get the driver and his rig way off to the side of the parking lot and start making a list of parts that will be needed to repair the trailer. Called the company back and let them know what was going on and that it would probably be early evening the next day before we could have the trailer repaired. I fully expected to be back the next night (Thursday night) to complete the job, but it was not to be. We had to wait until Friday for the torque rod to come in, the catch being that I had to meet the parts guy in another city to get the part. Heck, I don't mind getting paid to drive. I meet the parts guy and get the final part on my list then head back to where "junior" left the trailer. I was thinking how the job might be an ass kicker, but at least "junior" wouldn't be there to bother me. He was still there. A normal company would have had the driver drop the trailer and head off to pick up another load, but not this one. "Junior" had been at that Wal-Mart since Wednesday afternoon because his dispatcher told him to stay put. Totally ridiculous in my opinion. The job took awhile, but it wasn't as bad as I had expected. There wasn't even any wind so I actually was nice and toasty most of the time. After completing my work, I woke up the driver and told him to start the engine (truck had an APU to keep him warm without running the main engine) and let air build until the air dryer popped. He asks me "How will I know when it pops?" I did a mental forehead slap and somewhat sarcastically said "It will make a 'PPSSSSSSSHHHHHHH' sound." No air leaks, parking brakes released... "Alright, buddy. You're good to go. Have a safe trip." I'm really disappointed with the quality of drivers being put behind the wheel these days. I've come to enjoy doing service calls for the salty old owner operators because they know so much about their job and their trucks.

21 November, 2009


I can't stand weddings anymore. How could anyone get excited about a wedding these days? Don't get me wrong, I have no problem with marriage, it's just the "show" that I can't stand. The typical bride thinks she's going to have the wedding she's dreamed about since she was a little girl. She'll want it to be all her own, better than other weddings, but it usually ends up being just like the others. There will be a small army of bride's maids and groomsmen who usually look less than interested in the whole dog and pony show. The bride's maids have to purchase their dresses, which is stupid, and the groomsmen have to rent poorly fitting tuxedos. A night or two before the event there's usually a rehearsal. I don't know why. I'm surprised that there's anyone out there that doesn't know how things go. Everyone's at the church/local garden/backyard early. There's a lot of milling around after changing into dresses or tuxedos until the photographer calls people up. This is the time when the wedding party gets their photos taken. Groomsmen lined up on either side of the groom, holding the groom off the ground, lined up with one hand in a pocket etc. After the routine groomsmen shots, the groom is shooed away and the bride is brought down. Same routine, different spouse. Lined up either side, lined up hand in pocket, bride on best man's knee... the groom is doing something similar with the bride's maids during this time. Pre-game photos done, the wedding party lines up outside the sanctuary with the last bride's maid and last groomsmen at the front, maid of honor and best man at the end. The first pair walks down the aisle and when they get half-way down, the next pair starts down the aisle. The pairs split when they reach the front and go off to their respective sides. Repeat until the maid of honor (henceforth referred to as MOH) and the best man (BM) are in place. The groom walks out on cue from the minister and waits awkwardly until the ho-hum organist starts the wedding march. The bride and her father then walk down the aisle. The bride cries and gives her father a peck on the cheek and a hug before she's passed off to the groom. The bride and groom take the usual spot on the top step, in front of the minister and the MOH will pass her flowers to the gal behind her so she can straighten the mile long train on the bride's dress. The minister starts his monologue. The next hour or more is nothing but songs, communion (if applicable), lighting of the unity candle, more monologue, another song, exchange of vows (which are mostly a joke these days), the presentation of the newly minted husband and wife, then the exit which is just the entrance reversed. After everyone exits there's the three hours of sitting on your ass waiting to be called for the standard wedding photos. The bride and groom with every possible combination of wedding party and/or family. Ahhh, but it's not just bride, groom, wedding party and family waiting around. The guests are outside wondering when the hell the bride and groom will be coming out so the damned bubbles can be used. OK, run of the mill photo session done, bride and groom exit church to be showered with bubbles. Bride & groom, wedding party, a couple of kids and some family members get into the limo/bus/old car/carriage... whatever, then head to at least one bar just long enough for the best man to get a beer and have a few sips from it before everyone is rounded up to leave. "Son of a bitch! Couldn't even finish my beer!" At long last, everyone arrives at the place where the reception is being held. But wait! We haven't come to the end of this script yet. By this time, the only thing the people in the wedding party want to do is just sit down and relax, but noooooo. Wedding party pairs up yet again, bride and groom at the end of the line, and the pairs are announced as they enter the hall. The bride and groom, obviously, get the biggest round of applause as they enter. Finally at the head table, the wedding party gets to sit down and eat some sort of food that has been prepared in bulk (unless you're lucky and get some home cooked buffet chow, but it's rare). The minister provides a prayer and dinner is served. Though blinded by incessant use of flash from the photographer, dinner is started. Then comes the round of toasts *groan* in this order. BM/MOH, bride, groom and then the bride and groom's parents. Champagne and other booze is consumed until the cake cutting is ready to go. Bride and groom both grasp the knife and slice off cake for themselves, pose for the photographer and then they may or may not shove it in each others face. After the cake walk is done the DJ, who until now has been outside smoking while his "dinner music" CD/playlist runs, comes in to start his bride and groom dance. This is followed by parents dancing with bride or groom and the groomsmen dancing with their respective bride's maids after that. Depending on the DJ, the next thing will either be the dollar dance or the bouquet/garter toss. We'll go with the toss in this example. The single women (a few girls thrown in for the "cuteness" factor) gather while the bride is spun 'round a few times. The bride tosses her bouquet over her shoulder causing the single women to look like a pack of wild dogs going after a fresh kill as they scramble to catch the bouquet. Then the single men are begrudgingly pulled away from the bar or the outside smoking area to gather for the garter toss. The bride is placed upon the BM's knee, the DJ spins the beaten-to-death striptease music and the groom sticks his head up the bride's dress to remove her garter with his teeth. As with the bride, the groom is spun 'round and then tosses the garter over his shoulder. The single men (with a few boys in there for "cuteness factor") make a half-hearted attempt to catch the garter and, unless the garter happens to land directly on some guy, it will fall to the floor only to be scooped up by one of the boys because they have know idea what the whole process means. Next up is the "dollar dance" segment. This is usually the time when the wedding party, who has been bored out of their skulls until now, starts perking up. Some of it has to do with the booze that's been consumed and some of it has to do with the fact that they know this is their last "duty" in this three ring circus. The bride and groom are placed on the dance floor, usually in front of the DJ's booth, and guests line up. Women line up for a dance with the groom (with the occasional guy mixed in there for laughs) and men line up for a dance with the bride (with the occasional woman in there for laughs). The BM takes the dollar bills from the women and limits the amount of time they have with the groom and the MOH is doing the same thing over by the bride. Finally, the dollar dance comes to an end and everyone breathes a collective sigh of relief. Obligations to the bride and groom done, the wedding party splits up to socialize with the people of their choosing. The people not crafty enough to know how to escape it, will have to suffer the "chicken dance" and the "hokey pokey" sometime during the night. Usually early enough so that the old people can either watch or participate. The rest of it is just a typical night at a bar, but in formal wear. Guys looking to score with the good looking single ladies and fat/ugly ladies trying to break out of their shells enough to (maybe) score with some drunk groomsmen. There might be some people passing out, or there might be an angry drunk to spoil things. The night finally winds down and everyone goes their separate ways, hoping that the marriage they just witnessed is one that will buck the odds and last. The BM and MOH might wind up back at the church getting the b&g's shit together and cars moved where they need to be. All the while realizing that despite the bride's planning of every minute detail of her wedding for three years in advance, nobody had thought of how to get gifts, clothes, vehicles etc. to the proper places. Luckily(?) the over-achieving, annoying, obsessive-compulsive, batshit-insane friend of the bride (who's bitter about not having been the MOH or even a bride's maid) starts barking out orders. The MOH and BM ignore her and go about getting things done. It's 02:00 after all, and everyone's tired and possibly grumpy.

Think I've been in a few weddings? Trust me, it's been more than a few. I'll never be in one again, that's a fact. A good friend called me a couple of years ago and said he was getting married. I was in his first wedding and was placed at the end of the line. At least the gal I was paired with was smokin' hot. Anyway, he called me not long after I had been through yet another wedding as best man. I was thoroughly sick of weddings by then and when he asked me to go out to California for his second wedding, I told him that I didn't have any vacation time left and was about to explain that I couldn't afford the trip when he hung up on me. I wasn't too concerned. I hadn't exactly seen him much the previous five years and I don't remember him returning my emails or phone calls. I guess I was an on-demand friend at that point. Besides, I honestly don't think I could have faked my way through another wedding.

17 October, 2009

Safety Is #1... or not

My week of being on call is winding down and I only have another fourteen or so hours left until the next guy takes over. I just had a call from one of the larger companies and the dude wanted to know if I could "help him out." This person had a truck broken down on the side of the road because a set of wheels came off the trailer. It sounds terrible, but it happens quite frequently when people don't maintain their equipment and drivers don't do pre-trip inspections like they're supposed to. Anyway, I was starting to think about how I'd have to tell him the trailer would be stuck until Monday when he says something that shocked me. He asked me to go out there and chain up the axle so the driver could get to his destination. His destination was four hours away! Uh, no. I'm not going to do that. I was told that there was only about 12,000 pounds in the trailer and that he's had this done before. WTF?! I told him that I'd chain up the axle to either get the rig off of the road or back to our shop for repairs, but no further. I could just picture my boss's insurance rates going up and the costs related to a lawsuit if the thing crashed and, you know, killed a busload of nuns or something. Besides, any DOT official would have to break out a fresh violation booklet if that trailer should get pulled off into a scale. I can just hear it now. "So, who chained up this axle and let you go?" The cops would let us take the trailer to our shop for repairs, but wouldn't ever let it proceed down the road. I can't believe the dude who called me actually thought we'd do that sort of thing. It's just fucking crazy! After I refused to do something so stupid, the jerk asks me if there's anyone else in the area that could do that for him. I gave him the name of another shop in the area which I know well. I know the guy who'd be running the call and he's not stupid enough to do it either. But that's not all! The company which called me also has other surprises that I learned the hard way. A vendor can only get paid between the hours of 09:00 and 17:00, Monday-Friday. The last service call I did for this company (it was about two years ago) was on a Saturday afternoon. I was on hold for an hour and a half before I actually talked to someone and got paid. I had to keep scratching out the total and adding on more time. They got billed an extra $135.00 for the time I was on hold. That was under the old rates, it would be a lot more expensive now. The dude who got me set up with a com check was some mechanic in one of their shops and he sounded totally worn out. He was the only person there and I think every department, from corporate on down, kept transferring the phones right down the chain until it got to the person I spoke with. So, having thought of the trouble with getting paid coupled with the extreme liability concerns, I politely refused. My boss hardly EVER turns work down regardless of how crazy it might seem, but I think he'd agree with me on this one. Besides, I have past experiences to draw from. One time we had a guy come to the shop after one of my coworkers went out to chain an axle after some serious wheel bearing failure. He found out that we couldn't get parts NOW and he wanted to pay for the service call (including the chain) and take off so he could get his load where it needed to be. My foreman at the time said "No, you're not taking that trailer anywhere in that condition. It's not safe." The driver turned into a real asshole and was calling everyone names and threatening us (not wise in a diesel shop). He was outside talking to someone on his cell phone trying to figure what to do. After a little bit, my foreman asked me where the guy was. I told him I last saw him outside. He wasn't there. He took off down the road. With our chain holding up one end of a trailer axle. We knew where he was headed because we always where a driver's headed. If someone runs off without paying or, as in the case of Mr. Angry, takes off with an unsafe trailer, we know what to tell the state patrol. And call the state patrol we did. I found out later that the dude didn't even make it two miles from the shop before he was stopped by the state patrol. It was this experience which led to my decision to not help the moron who called me today. The rig isn't going anywhere. Well anywhere too far. If he had asked me to fix it, it wouldn't happen because I wouldn't be able to find parts anywhere until Monday. If I did chain up the axle, he'd probably have to pull into a scale somewhere along the line and they'd put the rig out of service until it could be repaired. The dude is shit outta luck, plain and simple.

14 October, 2009

It's only a box, but...

"Home is where the heart is." You read it and hear that phrase all the time. You see it done in needle point, paintings, wood carvings, blankets, posters, photographs... So much that we tend to take it for granted and not think about the meaning. Home truly is where the heart is. The house is just a big box. A box that contains and shelters the people you love and who love you, a box that contains "home." I keep reminding myself of this fact because the house that was home, is being sold. I haven't lived there for ten years and have a house of my own, but Mom still lived there and it was always "home" to me. In fact, right now I'm noticing that referring to this place in the past tense is rather awkward. My parents bought this house before me and my brother were born. My Sister and oldest brother were still fairly young when the family moved in. It seems rather rare these days for a family to stay put in one place for very long, but this house was the family home for around 44 years. There's so many things that happened in that house that I can't possibly remember them all. I knew Mom was going to sell the place for quite some time, but it didn't really sink in until I saw the "for sale" sign planted firmly in the middle of the front yard. I hit it with the lawn mower. My Dad passed the lawn mowing duties to me when I was a pre-teen. Being the youngest I was permanently on lawn mowing detail until recently. I'd mowed that lawn for around twenty two years! You can probably understand why I hit the sign in the front yard. It's the only thing that's changed in that yard for a long, long time. I was daydreaming like usual and then *CLANG*, I hit the sign. I just sort of stopped and stared at it. It was swinging on the post a bit as if to taunt me. The family had been fixing up the new house Mom was going to be living in and slowly, a little at a time, she would move things from the old house to the new one. The old house had a lot of boxes sitting around upstairs and some of the smaller furniture was gone, but it still looked like "home." My sister-in-law (a truly wonderful lady) helped Mom sort through all of the "stuff" and helped with packing and moving the smaller things. One Sunday when I was over for dinner Mom presented me with a tote full of stuff. That lady had every report card I'd received, baby stuff, school related stuff and the like packed into this tote. Apparently aside from being "home", the house was also the family archive. Then came moving day. In the space of six hours, the family had emptied our house of everything that was left. Except the garage, but more on that in a few minutes. I was selected as U-Haul driver. Apparently because having a Class A CDL made me the most qualified to drive an F-350 with a square box on it *shrugs*. I also deemed myself "Assistant Move Coordinator." The irony of the situation is even though I didn't want to see my home disappear, I wanted the move done right and as efficiently as possible. I'd reminded myself that the house isn't important, it's my Mother that's important. Though they weren't my Father's dying words, one of the last duties he'd assigned to me was "Take care of your Mother." What he told me has been in the back of my mind since he died and I hope that, in his eyes, I've been doing a good job. So, the night before moving day I started hauling stuff out on my own in my little truck. I wanted the next day to go smoothly with the least amount of stress for Mom. I had to be out of bed by 09:00 on moving day and I was tired right away. Having worked nights at almost every job I've had, getting up before noon is rather difficult. I knew I'd have a hard time seeing my home slowly emptied so I put it out of my mind and turned into a sleepy robot. Load the truck, drive the truck, empty the truck, repeat as necessary. After everything had been moved and the truck returned, I went back to the "old house" (the place had changed designations sometime during the move). I had a garage to empty out. Having been the last of my siblings to have lived there, I knew what was going into the trash pile or the "keep" pile. Once I got to the old house I realized that I was alone. I unlocked the back door and walked in. It was a very, very strange feeling that came over me. Even though everything was gone, my mind was so used to seeing things in the same spots for so long, that I just couldn't grasp that the place was empty. The other senses didn't help things any. The familiar sounds of doors opening and closing, creaks in the floors and steps, the familiar smells... It sounded like home, it looked like home and it smelled like home. "Is it home?" I asked myself. I really didn't know. If you asked me about some of my memories about home last year, I could have pulled a couple of the big ones off the top of my head, but having to think about it, I wouldn't have been able to recall too many. Being there alone, however, was different. As I walked from one empty room to the next, the memories came flooding back. It was almost more than I could take and I started to cry a little bit. The one place on the planet where I always felt totally and completely safe, was now gone. I felt... lost. Then the sun came shining through the windows. During the move, the weather had played its part well. It was cold, cloudy and gloomy. Then, as I was at the lowest point of the day, the sun breaks out. Now, I wouldn't call myself "religious" by any means, but I am spiritual. I'd like to think that My Dad, my brother, my grandparents, uncle Jack and the other family members so important to me who have passed on, were behind those rays of sunshine. They were giving me the support I needed so badly at that time the only way they could. It rejuvenated me and, though very tired, I got what I needed to carry on with the task at hand. I backed my truck into the garage and went back to "robot" mode. Load truck, drive truck, empty truck... I got back to my place at 23:00 that night. The only stuff left were some things my brother could sort out. There's some tool boxes from Dad still there, but those will be removed before the closing date. The following week was a bit strange, but being at work took my mind off of things. After leaving Mom's new place to return the rental truck, I didn't go back. So, I hadn't seen the new place "arranged" yet. This past Sunday, I went over for Sunday dinner like I usually do (the older I get, the more I appreciate a "home" cooked meal) and I finally saw her new house set up the way she wanted it and everything started falling into place. I looked at the kitchen floor, the fresh paint on the walls, the new tile in the bathroom, the familiar furniture and realized that all of the work was done out of love. Not for money, not to collect "loot" from old tool boxes and such. It was MY family working together because we all love each other. As I sat at the counter eating dinner with my Mother, I put it all together. My family is what I love, love comes from my heart and my heart is with my family. "Home is where the heart is."

31 August, 2009

My Dad

I can't speak for anyone else, but for me writing is good therapy. I don't really care if these posts are read or not. Sometimes I simply need to get things off of my chest, and now is one of those times.

When I was 22 my father died after a long battle with cancer. He slipped away peacefully in his own home while he was asleep. The last few days of his life he'd become a little loopy due to the cancer having spread throughout his body and I was preparing myself for the time he'd be gone. One night I came home from work (I was living with my parents at the time) and popped in a movie down in the living room. My aunt and uncle were asleep upstairs because they'd come for a visit knowing that Dad wasn't going to last much longer. My sister had been spending as much time as possible with Dad, but she'd had to go back to work. As I was watching the movie, I heard my Mom get out of bed. She came into the living room and I thought she was going to tell me the TV was too loud. She had that "just woke up" look and in a totally normal voice she said "He's gone." Mom had grown used to the sound of my Dad breathing through the oxygen machine and she woke up because the sound had changed due to Dad having passed away. Contrary to what you see in the movies, there's no instant crying. What I felt was nothing. I was totally numb. I went upstairs to my aunt and uncle that Dad was gone and came back downstairs. By then all the lights were on and I went in to take a look at Dad. Someone had to close his eyes and that someone was me. I didn't want to do it, but I had to do it.

The way my mind handles grief is like a time-release pill. A little bit is broken off, dealt with and then put away. Repeat as necessary. Even though Dad died in 1994, every now and again something will trigger a memory I had buried about that night. Tonight I was watching the show "Without A Trace" and Jack's father died. That show triggered my memory of my Dad's eyes the night he died. I'd always remembered closing his eyes, but tonight I remembered what his eyes looked like. Dad's eyelids were half shut and I could see his grayish-green eyes. It's very true that a dead person's eyes definitely look lifeless. It's that memory, a little piece of the grief, that came out tonight fifteen years later after the event. I thought that I'd "gotten over it" but I don't think anyone ever does. I loved my Dad and having him die when I was only 22 changed me.

After I had closed Dad's eyes I stood up and looked at him for a little bit. I turned around and my Uncle was standing there. That's when I lost it. I grabbed my Uncle and started crying. He hugged me and said "He's in a better place now". I don't know who was making the phone calls, but my sister wanted to be there and was in no condition to drive down and my brother in law would have to stay with the kids. So, I went to pick her up and she was crying almost the whole way back. I don't know how I kept my wits about me. Maybe it was youth, maybe it was because I'd already released some of the anguish earlier... I don't know. By the time I'd returned, the funeral directors were there to take Dad away. They told us that sometimes the family would stay in a different room because seeing their loved one taken away was too painful. Some of my family went to the basement, but I stayed upstairs. I honestly can't remember who else was with me, but I watched Dad's body being carried out. I knew it was just a shell, that Dad wasn't in there anymore. He'd been released from all the pain and suffering. I understood that. I remember the visitation and parts of the funeral service at church, but I can't recall the burial. After that, life was a matter of us learning how to live without him. Every now and then, something will make me think of Dad and sometimes that leads to a bit of crying. Tonight is one of those times.

12 August, 2009

The Borg

The diesel borg is trying to assimilate me. At the shop I work at I don't do much engine work aside from replacing the things bolted to the outside. Coolant pumps, exhaust manifolds, thermostats etc. Every now and again they throw an injector job my way, but those are so few that I have a hard time remembering how to change them. It's fine with me, because I'm not really interested in engine work and I don't know enough about heavy duty diesel engines to do that sort of thing. If I have a decent service manual at my disposal I can do whatever needs to be done, but it takes me a lot longer than someone who does engine work frequently. Things seem to be changing these days. I've been given more engine work and I'm not sure why. Maybe the foreman is getting tired of doing it (he's gettin' pretty old) or they've realized that my neat, clean and orderly working habits (bordering on obsesive-compulsive) are suited to engine work. Last night I was doing a head gasket job on a Cummins M11 and much to my chagrin, I was actually liking it. I guess it's because I'm more familiar with diesels than I used to be. I have no problem tearing into a gas engine in a light truck or car, but I think my lack of knowledge with diesels made me fear having to work on them. Adjusting valves on a diesel is humorous though. Car engines haven't required regular valve adjustment for decades, but the archaic diesels that are installed in big trucks still have to be "tuned up" from time to time. It's a perfect example of how big trucks are "old tech." Speaking of old technology, while I was working on that M11 there was a driver in the next bay talking cars with my foreman. The driver gave the old "I'll work on old cars, but the new ones.... What do you need all those wires for?" I smiled to myself and thought "Oh great another one of those guys." The truck this guy owned was an old and decrepit 1996 Freightliner with a Cummins N14 engine. Which, of course, is all mechanical. I was wondering if he kept clinging to that old clunker so he didn't have to drive something with one of those "new fangled electronic pieces of shit." Back to the engine work. I'm not knocking guys who like doing engine work. Someone who's a good engineman is a valuble asset in any shop. It's just not the thing for me. I never understood the fascination with engine guys. Just because someone can spit out specifications for a few engines doesn't necessarily mean he's good. It just means he has a great memory. But, the guys who get all their specs from memory aren't always right. They do things the same way so often that they think it's not just the right way, it's the ONLY way. For example, the last time I was being punished with a valve adjustment job, before I could find the engine's data plate (valve lash specs are always on the data plate) my foreman spit out HIS specs. By the time he finished his sentence I had found the data plate and *snicker* he was wrong. Now, I know better than to tell him he's wrong so I made sure he saw me writing down what he told me and even asked him to repeat the specs. There's a touch of the "I'm right" disease in our shop and I'm just as guilty as anyone. Nobody wants to admit they were wrong and I learned early in my employment at this shop that it's easiest to salute, say "Yes sir!" and then do the job how you want to do it. This sort of thing happens so often that a former coworker and I would salute each other whilst being lectured by someone who was "right." So, what I did with that valve adjustment was said "Yes sir!" and waited for the foreman to hide in the office. Then I did the job with the manufacturer's specifications. Everyone walks away happy. I guess things like that contribute to me not wanting to do engine work. Because I have to do it their way, and their way might not work well for me. Since I'm a bit of a noob with engine work, I frequently do things the way I'm told to. If I find a way that works better for ME, then I do it my way. In the end, if they'd just provide me with a service manual and leave me the hell alone, I'd probably be happy doing engine work. It's a small shop though, so the politics will always be getting in the way. Maybe I just don't play well with others.

02 July, 2009

Shattered images

Check out this gentleman's blog entry

Click Here

This guy makes Norris style hand planes and his work is top notch. The photos I've seen of his planes show the high standards he has and his quality workmanship. I'd never be able to afford one, but it's nice to day dream about having one. Through another blog I found this toolmaker's blog. I started reading his posts and was marveling at the photos showing how he makes his planes. Then, while reading the post I posted the link to, I saw a photo of him closing some dovetails with a hammer and punch. Scroll down until you see that particular photo. Did you see the size of the mushroom on the punch he's using? Anyone who's taken a shop class in junior high or high school knows that having a mushroomed head on a punch or chisel is a big no-no. When a punch or chisel starts to develop a mushroom you take it over to the grinder and grind a slight taper on the head. It's a safety thing. When a mushroom develops there's a good chance that one of the pieces can shoot off while striking the tool with a hammer. You'll never see a mushroomed head on my chisels or punches. Ever. But I know how much it hurts when a chip flies off of a mushroomed head. A coworker was holding a large punch while I was swinging the hammer and his punch was mushroomed pretty bad. I thought about grinding it for him, but the job would "just take a minute." Well, a chip flew off and hit me squarely in my left thigh. It went deep enough that I had to dig it out. Since that incident I will never, ever use a punch or chisel with a mushroomed head. If someone gets a punch or chisel out of their tool box and it has a mushroom growing on it, I'll ask them if I can grind it down for them and then do it. I only ask for permission as a courtesy. If they say "no" I'm grinding it anyway. Back to the plane maker. After building up a favorable image of this tool maker, I was really disappointed to see him using such a poorly maintained tool. He should know better. I'll bet he doesn't wear eye protection either. Have you ever read a woodworking magazine? They preach safety all the time, but you'll constantly see photos of people operating machinery without eye protection.

28 May, 2009

About biodiesel

I've seen too many discussions about bio diesel that aren't about bio diesel at all. There's a lot of people confusing bio diesel with recycled fryer oil. Bio diesel is processed from vegetable oil (soy beans mostly) and ends up being, for the most part, like petroleum diesel. Fryer oil is a different story. The people burning old fryer oil (it has to be vegetable oil and not animal fat) are essentially burning it as it is. Of course, it has to be filtered properly and there's usually a fuel heater involved. Can fryer oil be filtered and then processed into bio diesel? Yes. Can vegetable oil be dumped straight into a fuel tank? Yes, but keep your mechanic on speed dial and don't bitch when he hands you the repair bill. A diesel engine will run on just about anything that's combustible. It won't run reliably, or for very long without breaking down, but it will run. A diesel will even run on the engine's lube oil. Just ask someone who's experienced a turbo charger failure about that one. If you're thinking that bio diesel is a wonderful thing and the answer to all of this countries oil dependency and environmental problems, you might be wearing rose colored glasses. Firstly, the manufacturing capacity for a major switch to bio diesel isn't up to the task. Yet. Secondly, 100% bio diesel does NOT mix well with winter in the northern climates. It CAN perform well in cold temperatures, but it has to be treated properly. Truckers are used to treating fuel in the winter, so this wouldn't be a major issue in big trucks. The average Joe (and I'm being honest here) won't treat the fuel. Average Joe wants the convenience of pulling up to the pump, swiping a credit card, filling the tank and driving off. Lastly, bio diesel when it appeared on a large scale, blended in with petroleum diesel (B5, B10, B20) it got a bad rap. Bio diesel also has the image of being a "tree-huggin' hippie fuel" (I actually heard a truck driver say this) and not a "manly-man" fuel like petroleum diesel. The biggest problem that I have seen with bio diesel is that the average Joe didn't bother to learn anything about it. Had they picked up a trade magazine or had done some internet searches, they would've found out that bio diesel is an excellent solvent. 100% bio diesel (B100) all the way down to a 20% bio/80% petroleum blend (B20) is going to cause some initial problems for the first few fill ups. Fuel systems using petroleum based diesel are always a bit grungy, especially at the bottom of the tank. Switching over to a B20 or higher blend is going to scrub the fuel system clean. Guess where all of the crap ends up? That's right, in the fuel filter(s) right where it's supposed to go. The catch is that the filter(s) have to be changed more often until the fuel system has been cleaned out (the switch from "low sulfur diesel" to "ultra-low sulfur diesel" caused a similar problem). When you mix alarmingly frequent fuel filter changes with a notoriously technology-fearing group like the majority of truck drivers out there, the fuel itself makes for a convenient scapegoat. The last thing I want to mention is cost as it relates to the people producing their own bio diesel. You can't realistically expect to produce bio diesel at home for personal use and expect to spend less money than you would if you purchased your fuel down at the corner Qwik Stop. At least not until Billy Mays starts selling the "Home bio diesel" kits for $19.99 on some info-mercial. My closing thoughts are these. Bio diesel is a good thing, and I'd like to see more people using it, even if it's only one of the blends out there. The manufacturers of both bio diesel and diesel engines will have to get things working well in cold temperatures without much, if any, involvement from drivers. Reliably. Finally, the general public needs to be educated about bio diesel.

Take a trip to www.biodiesel.org and read up.

18 April, 2009

Buses and claustrophobia

I had to go on a service call Thursday evening to repair a bus that was leaning severely to the right. No mechanic in his right mind likes working on buses. Just look at them. They're so low to the ground that a person can barely fit under it, if at all. Throw in an air suspension problem and the bus is even closer to the ground. I was the only mechanic available in the shop at that time and that meant I got stuck with this service call. We spoke with the owner of the coach and he told us what needed to be done. Apparently they've had this same problem with most of their coaches, so this guy new the fix for it. There's a leveling valve for each side of the bus which, in a primitive sort of way, gives the bus something like independent suspension. Most trucks have only one leveling valve to control all air bags (or air springs if you prefer) and it's adequate for the job. A bus on the other hand, is all about ride quality.

A leveling valve, properly called a "ride height control valve" or RHCV, is a very simple thing. The valve has (mounted to the vehicle's chassis), at the minimum, three ports. One port delivers an air supply to the valve, a second port will supply air to the bags, and the third port is an exhaust port. Sticking out of the valve will also be a shaft to which a lever is attached. Moving this lever moves the internal parts of the valve and either lets air flow to the bags, or exhausts air from the bags. There's also a neutral position that neither supplies air nor exhausts air. So, we have a lever with one end connected to the valve, but what about the other end? The other end is connected to a linkage rod. This linkage rod is connected to whatever axle the leveling valve controls ride height for. So how does it all come together in operation? It's very, very simple. Air bags are filled with, no surprise, air. Air can be compressed and when a load on a vehicle is increased, the air inside the bags gets compressed. As the air in the bags compresses, the chassis of the vehicle starts to lower towards the ground. Now since an axle (axles aren't considered a "sprung" component) will remain stationary and the linkage rod won't flex, as the chassis lowers the linkage rod causes the valve's lever to move, in turn the lever operates the valve. As the valve shaft turns it uncovers (in this case) the supply port allowing air to flow into the bags. Not surprising at all, as air flows to the bags, the air pressure inside the bags increases. As the pressure increases, the bags will raise the vehicle back up to a pre-determined chassis ride height (set with the linkage rod.) Are you confused a little bit? If you are, it's okay. To understand the principles of how a leveling valve works, just go to your bathroom. Seriously. Pull the lid off of the toilet's tank and look inside. Think of the valve inside the tank as a leveling valve and think of the float as the linkage rod. The water in the tank is like the air supply to the leveling valve and think of the toilet bowl as the air bag. Now, flush the toilet. Notice that the float drops as water in the tank drains away. When the float drops, water flows through the valve into the tank. When the tank reaches the full mark, the float shuts off the valve, stopping water flow into the tank. That's how a leveling valve works :) Got it? Good.

Anyway, this bus I was out fixing had a common problem. The owner told me to disconnect the air lines from the valve and look for debris blocking the ports. This would be a simple job if it were a truck, but it was a bus with all of the bags on the right side deflated. It looked like the leaning tower of Pisa, believe me. Guess where the leveling valves were? In between the drive axle and tag axle where there was a lot of room to work? Hell no! They were in front of the drive axle, above some really big air tanks. I thought I'd crawl in between the drive axle and tag axle (the tag is to the rear of the drive BTW) wiggle through some torque rods and be able to get at the offending valve. Nope, didn't happen. I could see the valve just fine, but I couldn't reach it. Hmmm, now what? I called the owner again and asked him how I could get at this valve. His suggestion was obvious, but I hadn't thought of it. Buses, usually, can be raised and lowered manually if the need arises. Sometimes a bus needs some extra ground clearance to clear, oh say, a steep driveway entrance. The driver can operate a valve which bypasses the leveling valve and inflate the bags to maximum capacity. It's not really safe to go down the road like that, but it's okay for low speed maneuvering. Back to the story. The driver raises the bus as high as it will go and as I looked in from the top of the right drive tires, I could see the leveling valve I needed to fix. There was one small problem though. With the bus raised I could fit between the top of the drive tires and the bottom of the bus's body, but disconnecting the leveling valve lines would cause the bags to deflate. If the bags deflated, the bus would lower. Crushing me like a rotten tomato. So, I had to find a way to do this job without ending up dead. I found that I could stack some blocks between the drive axle and the chassis. After doing so, I had to driver lower the bus. Of course with the blocks in place, the bus didn't go down, but the air bags deflated and I still had the clearance I needed to crawl in. Now I could get a wrench on the air line fittings. I couldn't, however, get my hand on the air line fittings. Not a big deal when removing the air lines, but I had to be able to get my hand on them to reconnect the lines. Twenty bolts later I had the fender flare removed and could put my hand on the leveling valve. After disconnecting the lines I used a blow gun to blast the leveling valve's ports and, sure enough, some big chunks of debris came shooting out. Not sure what it was, but it was white so I'm thinking it was pipe thread sealant. I reconnected the lines to the valve and had the driver start the engine to build air. After we had enough air pressure, the driver raised the bus and I removed the blocks I had put in. With the blocks removed, the driver lowered the bus and put it into "travel" mode. Woohoo!!! All of the bags inflated as they were supposed to. I bolted the fender flare back on and had the driver drive around the parking lot to make sure the leveling valve was still functioning. It did and that made me very happy. The service call ended on a high note because the driver paid in good 'ol cash! No comm check systems to deal with, no credit card hassles... cash is always nice. After a handshake and a "Have a safe trip" I was back on the road, heading for the shop.

I started to shake a little bit on the drive back because my fear started coming to the front of my mind. I have mild claustrophobia and being under a bus like I was scares me. Mix in the possibility of being crushed and things border on sheer terror for me. But the job isn't going to take care of itself. Trucks don't bother me because they're an "open air" environment you might say. Not buses. When I face situations like this I would rather be doing just about anything else, but somehow I manage to put my fear aside and scrape up enough courage to get the job done. I'll just have to deal with the fear later. Maybe one of these days I'll have a nice office job...

14 April, 2009

Hand cut dovetails

I spend a lot of free time on woodworking projects of all sorts. I find it relaxing (most of the time) and it's a great way to de-stress after a rough day of fixing trucks. Last summer I started to do more work with hand tools and it has been quite a learning process. I've been concentrating on getting better at cutting dovetails and, for the most part, I'm improving. Slowly. If you go to YouTube and watch videos of a pro cutting dovetails or read about it in a woodworking magazine, it seems to be a very simple process. It is an easy process, but the execution is much more difficult. You'd think that something as simple as sawing to a line wouldn't be very difficult but it is. Another thing that can make dovetails frustrating is not knowing what a sharp tool is. Cutting dovetails with hand tools involves many different skills, and those skills don't come without some practice. For example, the previously mentioned sawing to a line. I thought it would be a simple matter of buying a backsaw, marking a line and then following it. As I found out, there's a lot to learn. It took a lot of practice to finally see that I consistently deviate from the line in one particular way. After more practice I learned how to prevent that deviation. I'm still not great at sawing, but I'm a lot better than I was a year ago. Oh, the saw itself plays a key role. I've found that a Japanese style pull saw (without a back) works well for me versus a traditional western style back saw. There's one style of western saw I've yet to try, but money is short and a new saw isn't in the cards at the moment. In the photo (it's a tailboard) you'll see the tails marked out. The shaded areas are the waste which needs to be removed. I use the pull saw to make the vertical cuts and then use a coping saw to make the horizontal cuts. If you are like me, you would probably mark a line and saw right down that line. That method doesn't make for nice fitting dovetails. The vertical cuts are made on the waste side of the lines and the horizontal cuts are done in a similar fashion, but I leave a little more waste. After the waste piece is cut free, I use a chisel to pare the wood down to the horizontal line (it's called a base line I believe.) Chiseling, there's another skill that didn't come naturally. The biggest problem with chiseling is having a properly sharpened tool. When I bought my first hand plane (a Record smoothing plane) and first set of chisels, I had no way to sharpen them. Hell, I thought they came out of the box ready to go. They don't, trust me. A trip to the "Big Orange Box" for a sharpening stone and I thought I had it made. Nope, not yet. After digging through the stacks of old woodworking magazines, I learned that the back of a chisel needs to be flattened before working on the bevel. The same goes for plane irons. After a few hours flattening chisels and plane irons, my arms felt like Jell-O and my fingers were raw. But, I had flat tools. Next it was on to the bevel. I used the side sharpening method on the bevels because it was easier for me to hold the tool in the proper way. Two hours later I had what I thought were some razor sharp chisels. Any professional woodworker would have declared them dull. I didn't know it at the time, but the cheap sharpening stone I bought (the only one I could find locally) was pretty shitty. I also had a hard time keeping the chisels in position while sharpening them. Mail order to the rescue! I bought a honing guide which eliminated my problems with holding the chisels, but I still had a crappy stone. The chisels were sharper than before, but not much. Last weekend I finally decided to give the "Scary Sharp" method a try and wish I would've done it years ago. It is nothing more than putting various grits of sandpaper onto a reliably flat surface (i.e. plate glass, marble, granite etc.) with spray adhesive. You start with the coarse grit and then work your way through the grits in succession until you reach the final one (2000 grit in my case). The combination of the honing guide, flat glass and the many grits of sanpaper yielded a mirror surface on the first chisel I sharpened. I gave that first chisel the age-old test of trying shave some hair off my arm. Shave it did, and cleanly at that. My plane has also been a joy to use. Right now, all of the skills I've been working on are beginning to come together and are yielding better work. I put the dovetailed box together the other day and it looks very good (for me that is) with only a couple of really bad gaps. Those gaps are because I cut on the wrong side of the line on a pin board. Stupid mistake, but I learned from it. I'm looking forward to getting the box glued together and using my razor sharp plane to trim the joints flush. That will have to wait. I got sick of my workbench racking and squeaking so I disassembled it (I didn't build it) and decided to renovate it with mortise and tenon joinery. I plan on building a new bench in the near future, but reworking my old "squeaker" is turning out to be a good learning experience. But, that's a whole other story.

26 March, 2009

Oh yeah, I have a blog :/

Let's take a look at my blogging activity, shall we? Yep, it was 8 December, 2008 when I posted the last blog. My computer's power supply failed and toasted the hard drive and I lost everything. Including the bookmark to this blog. I guess you might say that I simply forgot about it until now, which is true. I have a lot to write about if you can stand reading a long post. Let's start with the work-related stuff.

Winter at the shop was as expected. Lots and lots of "my truck (circle all that apply): gelled up, won't start, has no power, is stuck, won't build air" service calls. We had some long days in the early part of January and I think my longest day was sixteen hours of constant work. Mostly service calls. I had to climb on top of trailers at the scale, change more fuel filters than I can count, bypass air dryers and other similar crap. I was colder than I have ever been during one of those long days. The coldest day we had showed some of the inefficiency of our shop. The shop's owner doesn't like to give up on a truck with gelled fuel. One of my coworkers spent seven hours on one service call! I'm not sure if I've talked about this before, but I'll describe the fix for a truck with gelling fuel. First of all, diesel fuel has paraffin in it. That's right, the wax. When temperatures get low enough, that paraffin starts to solidify and, of course, solid fuel doesn't flow very well. The first thing that happens is the fuel filter/s clog and the engine loses power. Smart drivers get off the road as soon as possible and try to keep the engine running because even if the engine isn't producing enough power to pull the rig, as long as it's running, it's creating heat. The lucky guys have fuel heaters in the tanks, which is nothing more than a loop of pipe inside the tank which is connected to the cooling system. They work very well, but not all trucks have them. Regardless of whether or not the truck has fuel heaters in the tanks, the fuel is always circulating in a loop. There's more fuel going to the engine than the engine actually needs and whatever doesn't get used returns to the fuel tanks. Now, having been circulated through the engine, the fuel returning to the tanks is warmer than the fuel being drawn from the tanks. This warm fuel helps prevent gelling. So, if the driver can keep the engine running, he stands a greater chance of having fewer problems for a mechanic to solve. When diesel gets cold enough to start causing problems it will become cloudy. You can duplicate the look of cloudy fuel by pouring a beer into a glass (Budweiser, Miller etc. are good diesel fuel colored brews to use) and let it go flat. Once the bubbles are gone put a splash of milk into the glass and stir it up. That's what cloudy diesel fuel looks like. Beyond this cloudy state, the fuel will, quite literally, turn into a gel. Once it's in gel form, don't call a mechanic. Call for a tow truck. Anyway, back to my coworker's adventure. He showed up at the motor lodge where the customer was staying and found a truck that was shut off the night before and the block heater hadn't been plugged in. The driver had put an anti-gel additive in his fuel at the last fill up, and this prevented his fuel from gelling. The fuel, however, was very cloudy. My coworker started "the process" that all of us in the shop know so very well. Fire up the generator, air compressor and run to extension cords to the truck. Pull out the battery charger and hook it up to the truck. Take the extension cords, plug one into the block heater and the other to the battery charger, turn the charger on. Next, put one gallon of "911" fuel liquifier into each tank. Disconnect the fuel supply line from the first fuel filter and stick the blow gun into the line. Blow air into the line, which mixes the 911 and diesel fuel. Reconnect the fuel line, remove the fuel filter/s, fill the new filter/s with straight 911 and then install them. Remove the air filter and stand by with a can of ether (starting fluid. We call it "liquid choke"). If there's enough power in the batteries at this time, the driver cranks the engine and the mechanic sprays a good shot of ether into the intake system. If you're lucky, and the driver hasn't stopped cranking the engine, you'll get the engine to sputter a bit. If it does, a series of short, continuous shots of ether get sprayed into the intake until it starts. If/when the engine starts, the driver holds the accelerator to the floor until the engine starts running smoothly. A cold engine will smoke like a motherfucker until it warms up, but God help me, I love the smell of burned ether and 911. It smells like success! Occasionally we get a stubborn son of a bitch that requires more work to get it running. Sometimes we have to put on another set of fuel filters because the first set got clogged with paraffin. It's not uncommon to change filters again. My coworker did everything I have just described and got the engine running. Barely running. It wouldn't accelerate so he put more additive into the fuel tanks, mixed it up and put on another fuel filter. Then another filter, and another, and another. After six hours of fuckin' around, we towed it back to the shop. Sometimes the only way to get a truck going is to put it inside and warm the whole thing up. My coworker spent the seventh hour of this service call dropping the driveshaft for our tow truck operator. Can you spot the inefficiency yet? If you haven't, I'll point it out. The way all of us mechanics in our shop see it, if the situation goes beyond a second set of fuel filters, the truck needs to be towed to the shop. By the time the second set of filters get put on we're averaging about three to four hours on that service call. Wasting more time by continually changing fuel filters is no better than banging one's head against a wall. Not to mention it's a waste of the customer's money. The service call I just described lasted seven hours and STILL ended up with a tow. That's just stupid. At the busiest part of that day, every mechanic was out on the road and we had eighteen(!) additional service calls lined up. My coworker wanted this truck towed after the second set of filters, but the shop's owner told him to stay there and keep spinning filters on until it ran properly. Think of all the service calls that my coworker could have done if this truck had just been towed when it was suggested. Once this truck was in our shop, it had to sit inside overnight before it would start and run properly. Normally they only have to sit inside for about four hours. It's madness I tell ya! But that's winter for a diesel mechanic. That whole week was rough, but we made it through and made a whole bunch of money.

Since I've rambled on and on about gelling fuel, I'll save the other events of the past months for other posts. I have to hit the sack.