Category Archives: Just thinking

Remnants of A Man’s Life

Some modified tools. The Armstrong is third from the right.
Some modified tools. The Armstrong is third from the right.

It caught my eye from a shelf of old tools in an antique store: a cut-down wrench about four inches long, an Armstrong wrench as it turned out; good steel, nice heft and fit in the hand. Half-inch open-end.

It reminded me of tools my father and I cut down and modified decades ago to work on my old 1972 VW Super Beetle. One of them, a 1/2-inch Craftsman box, was for removing the carburetor.

We cut about a third or so off a combination wrench and ground down the outside of the box to fit the pesky 13mm nut hiding between the intake pipe and the engine fan housing. Dad took the ragged edge of the box wrench handle to the grinding wheel and smoothed it off perfectly.

The Armstrong reminded me of that wrench and as I toyed with it absently I started looking at the other items on the shelf. There were about two dozen mechanics tools, wrenches, pliers, ball-peen hammers with wood handles seasoned with sweat, and plastic jars of hardware – bolts and nuts, finishing nails, and other stuff.

Hardware in Jif jars.
Hardware in Jif jars.

It was the perfection and uniformity of the jars – old Jif peanut butter jars that were immaculately clean – that made me realize that most of these items had been taken en masse from some guy’s garage or workshop. Some guy who was probably now in a nursing home or no longer alive.

And I started wondering about that guy, who he was, where he worked. I could imagine him cleaning out those Jif jars, removing every bit of old peanut butter, cleaner than his wife’s dishes, and carefully filling them with bits of machined metal. The jars had labels, applied by the antique seller; the owner didn’t need labels, he could see the hardware and he knew what it was.

And what happened to the owner, what brought all his beloved tools to this store for strangers to paw through? Is this all we can look forward to, that all of our tools and books and special things will someday be found in a place like this? Didn’t he deserve better than this?

The tools.
The tools.

I ended up buying the Armstrong for three bucks along with a sad little Canadian Fuller 1-inch wood chisel that I can sharpen and use around the house. Days later, I learn from a query on Garage Journal.com that the Armstrong is a machine shop or engineer’s wrench, specially made for use with machine tools.

“They’re not good for anything but tightening a nut or bolt on the machine they’re used for,” wrote a respondent. “They’re used so some employees don’t steal them and take them home.” I love that observation.

No matter. The Armstrong and chisel will join that 1/2-inch Craftsman box, one of many tools I can’t bear to part with, tools that Dad gave me, and my Uncle Robert, and Dad’s cousin Cyril in Slovakia, and Wendell’s father, Van, and a few others.

Tools that will inevitably end up in someone’s second-hand store one day. Until then, I’ll use them and enjoy them and sometimes think about their histories. And of the guys who owned them. Even the guys I don’t know.

 

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That Forlorn Little Bike

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The saddest Honda I’ve ever seen was parked alone in isolation, as if the other motorcycles were avoiding it.

I was wandering the service department of Coleman PowerSports in Falls Church Saturday morning, waiting for Linda’s Vespa to get its annual safety inspection sticker. (Usually we go to Crossroads Cycle for inspections, but I was in a hurry and Coleman is closer.)

bike1All bikes, especially older ones, have a story. Maybe that’s why I was drawn to it.

It was a dusty 250cc Honda Rebel, a 1986 model, as I discovered. The official designation is CMX 250, introduced in 1985 and still in production. They’re essentially small two-cylinder cruisers with a dash of Harley style. They’re good entry-level bikes, and you often see them used in Motorcycle Safety Foundation classes.

Oh, but this one has been badly treated – torn saddle, mirrors pointing every which way and surface rust everywhere. Someone had painted the gas tank flat black, giving it sort of a chopper look, and added an aftermarket engine guard.

odometerBut the right-side cover is missing, exposing the glass cartridge fuse block. The rear blinkers are broken, one gone, and both brake levers are curiously curled outward, on purpose for some obscure, ill-advised reason.

There are 5,815 miles on the odometer, pretty low for a 29-year-old bike. The last safety sticker had been issued in 1996. A George Mason University parking sticker on the rear fender expires in 1992. Next to that, a small dealer sticker: K&R Honda, Bellerose, New York*.

I see a bronze fob attached to the ignition key and turn it over; TOYKO TOWER it says on one side, with the reverse covered in English and Japanese writing. This is a memento, all the way from Japan, of the Eiffel-Tower-shaped communications rig in Tokyo.

And yet, at long last, the little Honda is here, sitting hopefully waiting for service.

Linda’s Vespa is soon brought round with a new sticker and I pay the inspection fee.

“I have to ask, what’s the story with that Honda?” I say to the guy behind the counter.

cover2“Oh,” he says, “Guy brought it in wanting to get it fixed up. We looked at it and started adding up what was wrong and the bill got too high. More than it’s worth, probably. He’s trying to decide what to do.”

It’s a common story and probably explains why the Honda has been neglected for so long. As David Snow used to point out in Iron Horse magazine, Japanese bikes don’t seem to hold their value.

One of the magazine’s recurring features was a monthly page on discarded Hondas, Kawasakis, Suzukis and Yamahas found on the streets of New York City. The owners had simply parked them and walked away. You could find literally dozens of them, but never a castoff Harley, BMW, Triumph, Ducati or other foreign bike.

I take my leave, briefly and irrationally considering the economics of buying the Honda and saving it. It would make no sense, of course. Linda’s interested in scooters, not motorcycles, and the Honda is too small for me. Besides, I still have my own restoration project, a 1965 305cc Honda Dream that’s at home.

sideviewSo I left the Honda there, hoping its owner will find the wherewithal to get it back on the road. It obviously holds some good memories for someone; perhaps there is still time for a few more.

* — no longer in business, according to an Internet search. Curiously, it was located not far from Queens.

The Lost Ride

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I started the motor and it rolled into life. We moved, then slipped, years too late, into the sky.

– Michael Ondaatje, “The English Patient”

 

One of the motorcycle rides I always dreamed of was to see my grandmother in Florida.

When I was six, my maternal grandparents, Walter and Charlotte McDaniel, moved from Cleveland to Zephyrhills, a small town not far from Tampa. They were tired of the cold and snow of Ohio winters and wanted the sunshine and beaches of the Gulf.

I remember it was hard to see them leave, since they were going so far away. A few years later my parents started driving us all south to see them in the summer; for a few years it was an annual ritual, packing us in the car, the interminable drive. Dad often drove straight through.

Getting there was worth it. My grandparents lived in a tiny house, roughly 24 feet square, but it was a magical place. Spanish moss grew all over the trees and you could find tiny frogs in the glass jalousie of the screened-in porch. We used to sleep on that porch and wake to the cries of blue jays in the back yard.

My grandparents had a series of small sheds around the property for tools and lawnmowers and such, and we used to play in and around them. We would go to Clearwater Beach, my Grandma’s favorite, the sand like sugar, and it was there I swam in saltwater for the first time. I loved it.

Years passed and Life started crowding in; graduation, college, jobs. My grandfather, a career Navy man, passed away in 1981 but it wasn’t until the next year I was able to get back to Zephyrhills.

It was good to see my grandmother and the way her fierce independence was carrying her along. We went to Clearwater and the salty Gulf. I was studying photography then and shot many pictures of her and the house.

From 1982
From 1982

She took me to the cemetery where my grandfather was buried, and we stood silently over the grave site. She ran her hand over the blank space on the marker next to my grandfather’s name. “Here’s where I’ll be,” she said.

I was with her for less than a week, I think, and then I went home.

A marriage turned into divorce and I moved around the country chasing new jobs. Another Florida trip wasn’t financially possible; I wanted to go, I meant to go, but I did keep in touch with my grandmother through phone calls, letters and postcards.

I moved to Reno in 1995 and re-established contact with my favorite motorcycle-riding uncle in San Diego (my grandmother’s son). Along with his daughter (my wonderful cousin Shannon) we started riding together and began planning our big ride from California to Florida to see Grandma.

She was getting on in years and having memory problems and was living with my aunt’s family in Flagler Beach. But she still loved to talk on the phone.

And we kept making our plans, seriously this time, clearing space on the calendar, prepping the motorcycles, poring over maps to find the best route and I had this vision, you know, of all of us at long last rolling triumphantly to my Grandma’s door.

We set launch for the first of May 2000. Everyone was excited, green lights across the board. And then, 21 days before we were to leave, the phone call came. She had collapsed and was in the hospital.

The mission was on hold. Doctors weren’t sure how long she’d be hospitalized. For a while, she got better. Then everything nosedived and she passed away on April 26.

We went to Zephyrhills, in a mad cross-country dash in my uncle’s car. We got there just in time for the funeral. I put my last postcard to Grandma, written out the weeping night before, in her casket. Shannon put in something, too, but I can’t remember what. My uncle put in a sprig of violets, I think. They were Grandma’s favorite flower.

“She loved your cards,” my aunt from Flagler Beach told me at the service.

That was nearly 15 years ago. I live just outside of Washington, D.C., now and my wife Linda and I go to St. Petersburg every November to walk on the beaches and enjoy the sun and saltwater. We’ve been doing this for 8 or 9 years now.

DSCN0032And we stop by Zephyrhills to see the house I loved when I was a kid. We go to the cemetery, too, and brush sand off the marker if need be. One time I reattached a small American flag over my grandfather. The last time we were there I tightened the screws on one of the date plates on my grandmother’s side.

And every time we drive away from the cemetery, I reflect, bitterly, I admit, that now I have time to go see them, years too late. I realize I’ve visited Zephyrhills more in the last 10 years than I have in the previous forty. I mourn the misplaced priorities of those 40 years and I wish, oh, I wish, that we could have taken that lost ride.

Too Short a Season

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We had our first snowfall a few days ago, nothing special beyond the timing, but the onset of winter depresses me. It’s just getting too damn cold to ride.

We live in northern Virginia, less than 10 miles from Washington, D.C., and we don’t get much snow – at least compared to Cleveland, where I grew up. The riding season is longer here, if the roads are clear and you’re suitably suited up.

Ah, suiting up…like an astronaut on the far side of the moon. Riding in cold weather is a test of one’s manhood, ingenuity and perhaps sanity. I rode to Catonsville, Maryland, yesterday to return a loaner bike, a 2014 Honda CTX 1300. It was a 40-40 ride, about 46 miles with temperatures in the middle 40s.

That’s not extreme in either measure, but I didn’t use my heated Gerbing liner, opting instead to layer up beneath the Belstaff jacket. It wasn’t enough for the Mare Australe but it was okay, though I would’ve been chilled had I gone much farther.

We’ll be seeing cold-weather guys on motorcycles and scooters for a while longer, until serious snowfall. I take heart from them and try to get out myself and ride when it’s chilly. Otherwise, it’s really too short a season.