Sunday, November 19, 2006

The Glowing Letter

I recently received an e-mail containing such glowing words of praise I could not answer it immediately. The writer was a woman, obviously perceptive, no doubt beautiful, young, wealthy and well educated. She had discovered the file of my articles maintained by Richard Kurtz and wrote to praise my wit, wisdom and tenacity in extravagant, but wholly justified, terms. In her eyes I was a cross between Albert Schwitzer, Aristocles and Wrong Way Corrigan, with a dash of Hercules thrown in. The outrageously complimentary letter had me strutting about the shop, shaking back my mane of golden curls with various body parts puffed up, jutted out and generally getting in the way of things.

I’m planning to make the run to Inuvik with the other crazies but recently discovered the astronomical price of gasoline as you climb toward the top of the planet. I’m financing the trip from my mad-money budget and the thought of paying nearly four bucks a gallon for fuel had me sweating bullets as I tried to figure some way around it. The Glowing Letter helped. I applied my wit, wisdom and tenacity to the problem and came up with a design for a pair of saddle tanks I could strap under my 1965 bus that would allow me to travel a thousand miles without refueling, the idea being to do so with a load of low-cost fuel.

I didn’t need 155 pounds of steel for the tanks, which should only weigh about forty pounds each, but when you buy scrap steel you’ve got to take what you can get. Forty-one bucks at two-bits a pound.

Sixteen gauge hotrolled steel sheet is tricky stuff to handle on a windy day and getting it into the roof rack was a real chore. Then I thought of the young woman’s letter and the bit about Hercules. I tossed the steel onto the rack and drove outta there.

When you make stuff out of sheet steel the whole secret is in the design of the welded joints. Being fuel tanks, the design was even more critical. Accordingly, my design incorporated a number of joggles and offsets and overlaps and baffles, all held to very close tolerances.

I didn’t have the shear or the brake or the press needed to make such artistic shapes and none of the local shops were willing to tackle the job, saying my tolerances were too tight and the whole thing overly complex. About the fifth time I heard that I started to get discouraged but I remembered The Glowing Letter and pressed on.

I finally found a shop to shape the steel. They immediately knew what I was trying to do and praised my engineering genius as they stood around watching me hump the steel off the roof rack. (Their insurance didn’t cover manhandling steel.) But once I got the material onto their fork-lift, they took over. Beautiful shop. Their last contract had been some hush-hush stuff for NASA. Unfortunately, their shop rates were still in orbit but since they were the only people who appreciated my design and understood what I wanted, I went ahead and pony’d up the bucks.

That was just the start of it. Having procured and transported the steel, and having had it sheared and folded and joggled and offset, I then had to lug it all home, make up a couple of jigs and get busy with the welding, which was pretty tricky in itself, since 16 ga. likes to warp from the heat. But I kept thinking of The Glowing Letter and finally figured out the proper gaps and angles so the seams drew themselves into perfect alignment as the welding progressed.

Of course, the tanks leaked. I marked the leaks with crayon, ground down the welds, did it over. And over.

After only thirty or forty hours of welding, I had my tanks. Beautiful things and no leaks at all. But testing them for leaks had left a haze of rust on the inside. I had to buy four gallons of sulfuric acid and fill the tanks with water and add the acid and seal them up and roll them over and over and over as the acid etched the interior of the tanks.

It was messy work, and risky, too. I got some of the acid on my boots and ruined them. Perfectly good boots, less than twenty years old and just getting broke in good. Then I thought of the young woman. I wondered if she had large breasts. I decided she probably did. I made a note to buy some new boots, perhaps something a bit more elegant than my sturdy boon-dockers.

Neutralizing the etchant came next, after a half-hour of running-water rinse. To keep the etched metal from rusting, I mixed soluble oil with the neutralizer. When I drained the neutralizing solution the soluble oil clung to the metal. I mixed up two gallons of sloshing compound then discovered I needed a couple of gallons of solvent to strip off the soluble oil before pouring in the sloshing compound that would seal the interior surface of the fuel tanks.

I haven’t mounted them yet. There’s still some tricky bits with the vent lines and the filler neck and the plumbing to the electric transfer pump, for which I’ll need to design a fail-safe circuit so it can’t over-fill the regular fuel tank. But that will have to wait until my budget recovers.

Last night I was going over the bale of notes and receipts amassed while working on the tanks. The numbers seemed kinda high. Depressingly high. I pushed them back into the file and checked the e-mail. There was another message from the young lady. I still hadn’t gotten around to answering her first message and this one was even more complimentary. I read it, all wrapped up in a warm fuzzy glow.

She also mentioned that some blue stuff was dripping from her engine that had her husband totally baffled and which the Volkswagen dealer would only look at for an incredible sum of money.

Blue stuff? Husband? MONEY?

Faintly, far in the distance, I heard the sound of laughter. I snatched up the bundle of fuel-tank notes and ran the figures again. I’d spent over three hundred dollars to save forty bucks. So much for wit and wisdom.

I re-read the woman’s first message. My long blond surfer-god hair vanished, leaving me as bald as before. I read the second message again. By the time I finished, my Herculean physique was hanging over my belt. I fired off a snarling note telling the woman to stuff a sock in it, the only Volkswagen’s I knew anything about were air-cooleds. And I obviously still have a lot to learn.

-Bob Hoover (1995)

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