As I sit here working on the FY2014 budget, I hear a rumble outside my window and when I look out, I see a motorcycle that looks like it has been left outside for a decade to be raped by Mother Nature.
Here in the Pacific Northwest, it does not take much for an unattended bike to turn into a pile of flaking red metal. You see, with any inkling of frost, the brine trucks are out in full force. The roads are covered with the watery goo that soon turns to an ultrafine white powder that will find its way into any micrometer hole or crack and begin its metallic dinner. There is no metal sacred and chrome begins to masticate before the rider’s eyes.
Upon further inspection, I noticed the bike, as chewed up from rust as it appeared, had a beautiful clear coat applied and the upkeep was beyond what most of us perform. It was designed to look that way. It was a rat!
My mind flutters back to 1966 when I started to build my first bike.
There was this little old house on the corner of Payne Street and 8th Street North. The yard was cluttered with old engine parts, tins, wood and just about anything else most people would have thrown out long ago. The house was in need of paint and the yard - what you could see of it - could use a good manicure. There was a ramp that leads to the front door. All of us kids were afraid to go to the door because the old man who lived there would put little kids in a wheel barrow, wheel them into the house and eat them – hence the ramp. He had a vicious dog named Stinky – who in their right mind would name a dog “Stinky”? Those rumours had to be true.
One day I gathered the courage to knock on the door and see if this old “kid eater” would like to become one of my newspaper customers - I needed one more to make a quota. The fall night was cold and the damp air easily penetrated the old clothes I wore. The outside of the house was very dark. As I slowly walked down the path to the front door, I could feel my knees starting to tremble as the old oak tree let out a blood curdling ka-reeeek . “Did I really need new customers this bad?” I thought to myself. “What if he gets me? No one will know that I was even here!”
I cautiously approached the front door and with all the courage I could muster, I softly knocked on it. I thought that if I knocked too loud it would really piss off the kid eater, and if I knocked quiet enough, he might not hear it and I could then say “Oh well, I tried, but no one answered.” and take the easy way out.
Stinky started to bark. Shoot, I forgot about the vicious dog! My legs really started to tremble harder now. I felt like I was going to pee my pants. I wanted to run away as fast as I could, and as I turned to run, the door flung open. Oh my God, this is it! I am going to die!
The old man cursed as the door opened with a loud bang. Stinky was barking, but wait a minute, this was a yapping kind of bark. Just how vicious could this animal be? He jumped up on the door. His tail going so fast I thought he might take flight like a helicopter. Yeah right – vicious my a$$.
The old, short man now appeared at the door. I am sure he heard me gasp. It was true. He was an old man – but then I was only twelve and everyone older than twenty five was old. But there was something really odd about this. He was in a wheelchair. How could he eat people? Surely any one could out run him, and even if he sicced his dog on you, one swift kick and the dog would be well on its way to the moon.
I had never seen anyone in a wheelchair before, so I stood there like someone who had just seen a Martian or something. Finally, the old man growled, “Well?”, and with that I went into my sales pitch, my voice shaking as badly as I.
The old man laughed when I was finished. Looking me square in the eye he said “Took you long enough. Afraid I would eat you or something?” Right. That was it. Kids would hear those remarks and run away at this point. After all, this was the old man that ate kids.
“I have been waiting a long time for a paperboy to come here.” he said. “Not many people have the guts to come up this god damn ramp.” After talking for a short while, he signed the contract and took not only the weekend paper, but the morning paper as well. WOW! I made my quota plus one!!
It was not long and old Charlie and I soon became good friends and on one summer’s afternoon while we were sitting under that scary old oak tree that let out the blood curding ka-reeeek, I looked over at the heap of cast iron carcasses and saw something I did not think belonged there. I went over and picked up an old engine and asked Charlie what it was. He told me it was an old Westinghouse wash machine motor.
“Yeah, right!” I said. “Since when did wash machines run on gas motors?”. Charlie very proudly began to educate me like he would be doing from this day on. It turns out in “the old days” wash machines were outside and since there was no electricity on most of the farms, the wash machines ran on these old motors.
It was a single cylinder, pedal start motor with more rust on it than moss on the old oak tree. I tried to turn it over and it was seized as tight as a bass drum. Charlie just laughed. “That old thing has not run since the war!”.
“Charlie, the war is still on, or haven’t you been reading the papers I have been delivering?”, I retorted, thinking that everyone knew about Vietnam by now!
Again the old man let out one of his many his belly laughs. “Talking about the ‘War of Wars’ – the 2nd War”.
Days went by and I would look over at that silly looking engine and try to imagine it working and running a wash machine. Finally, I got the nerve to ask the old man if he would help me get it running. Again with a belly laugh, Charlie said “If you can get that god dammed thing running, you can have it!”.
I took the engine and placed it on an old tin five gallon pail and attempted to tear down the engine. The bolts were all seized with age and years sitting out in the weather. Charlie began to introduce me to required tools of the trade – penetrating oil, WD40 and a BFH – a Big Freekin’ Hammer. Gradually the bolts came loose and parts were thrown into an old coffee can filled with a concoction of kerosene, vanilla extract and Coca Cola. He said this will eat away all of the rust and lubricate the parts at the same time – “an old farmer’s trick” he would say.
After few days of beating on stuck parts, the old engine was finally apart. Charlie would be testing me along every step by asking what the name of that part was or what its function was. He told me that unless I knew what it did, it did no good to know the name.
We took inventory of the good parts and another of the parts that needed to be replaced. I took the “replace inventory” down to General Trading and had them price up the parts and how long it would take to come in. The man behind the counter started to laugh when I told him the model number of the engine. “They have not made that thing in over 30 years!” But sure enough, Briggs still had lots of parts for the beast.
A week and twenty-five bucks later, I had all the parts that we needed to put that old engine back together. We headed over to the old oak tree and pulled back the musty smelling canvas and exposed a naked hulk of cast iron and steel. That old Briggs was a simple engine – the case, crank, piston, cam, valves, magneto, plug, points and carb. It was not long and the engine was back together and all nice and clean complete with a new paint job that made it look factory fresh.
We fabricated a gas tank out of an old brake fluid can by making a hole in the bottom of it and screwing in a petcock from an old lawn tractor that had also been sitting out in the yard. I tied a piece of old leather around it and tied it to the tree. Charlie found some old surgical tubing that he used on his stumps which we used for the gas line – hey it was only temporary and according to the ‘master’, it should work! I filled the can with gas and put a few drops of fuel into the carburetor, turn on the petcock and kicked the engine over.
Charlie’s face was beaming like a lighthouse beacon as he saw me fire up that old engine. There was a large cloud of smoke as the putt-putt-putt of that three quarter horsepower Briggs and Stratton wash machine motor came to life. He knew something about the future that no one had a clue about.