I dislike working on vehicles. That might not be a strong enough statement. Whenever I'm under a rig, dirt falls in my eyes and down my neck. Knuckles get scraped. I inevitably kneel on a piece of gravel or a nut—I’ve had surgery on both knees, and kneeling hurts without kneeling on something. And working on a vehicle parked outside at Fairbanks in January, no thanks. The worst frostbite I have experienced was antifreeze running across my forearm at thirty-eight below zero. A decade later, I still have scarring from that mistake. So I cheated when it came to solving the electrical problems of that pickup I bought after Kristel's Pontiac was vandalized on Kodiak. I took out the distributor for the CD module and put in a distributor using points. No more blown CD modules, and I can live with burned points, with having to have a spare set of points in my toolbox. I didn’t try to find the short in the all-blue-wire wiring harness constructed in a high school auto shop class.
In forty years of driving well-used vehicles, whether initially purchased new or bought used, I have walked very few times. I have routinely driven around the country and up and down the Alaska Highway with vehicles having nearly two hundred thousand miles on them. [As a text addition, in May 2016, I again drove up the Highway in a vehicle with more than 200,000 miles on it: a Chevy van with 290,000 miles on its odometer.] But I have usually inspected them more closely than just kicking their tires before purchasing them.
Unfortunately, after Kristel's car was vandalized on Kodiak I had to buy a rig that day, and I had to buy it with what I could borrow from a former employer. There wasn't much shopping and there was no inspecting. Selection was extremely limited: one well-rusted 1975, F-100, Ford Ranger. My choice was take it or to stay on Kodiak. The last ferry of the season sailed the following morning. So I purchased a pickup I wouldn't have considered buying if I had been on the Mainland.
The pickup's engine was supposed to have been rebuilt shortly before I bought it, but rebuilt by a student, high school auto shop. It might have been. The problem was, again, the truck had been rewired all with blue wire, and somewhere in its doubled electrical system were multiple shorts that knocked out CD modules, which was why the truck was for sale. Owned by a gas station mechanic who had spent months working on it in a service bay with testers and adequate lighting—and being unable to solve its problems—the truck became a problem for me that I, too, was unable to solve easily. It needed a new wiring harness, but the pickup was of a series for which only Ford supplied harnesses, making a new harness nearly as expensive as the truck was valuable.
To be honest, the pickup's cab had a nice interior.
I know a little about mechanics, and quite a bit about theory. I know enough to know why I don't like working on vehicles. One reason I didn't mind working on outboards and chainsaws was I could put them on a bench. I could get them apart without standing on my head, and I could clean their parts in a bucket. But once I realized why the pickup was for sale—this was after I put a second CD module in it—I would have stood on my head and rewired it if it hadn't been January in Fairbanks.
That January wasn't nearly as cold as the previous year when daytime highs didn't reach fifty below for weeks, and the radio station out Farmer's Loop regularly had seventy-five below high temperatures. (These were not wind-chill temperatures, but dead air temps.) But it still wasn't a good month to work on a vehicle outdoors.
I was living with three daughters in graduate student housing at UAF's Yak Estate. No unit had a garage. So rather than trace the electrical short in forty below temperatures through yards and yards of blue wire under the truck's dash, I changed distributors and installed breaker points. Yes, I cheated, all the while knowing the short would cause the points to burn more readily than they should. But points don't leave a person stranded alongside the road like a fried CD module does. With points, I can always limp into an auto parts house somewhere.
Someone once brought a four cylinder, 36-cubic inch Mercury outboard into my Kenai shop. The little Mercury had electrical problems that no shop in Southcentral Alaska had been able to solve. The motor's reputation preceded it, but those old forty horse Mercurys are good engines. Its owner didn't want to give up on it, and I hated to turn away work even when I should have. But rather than waste my time searching for what I knew other good mechanics hadn't been able to find, I converted its electrical system to that of a Chrysler engine using similar Phelon-made breaker points. This meant installing a Chrysler wiring harness and other components. The motor ran fine. The customer was both surprised and pleased. My reputation was enlarged. But I pitied the next mechanic who has to puzzle out what I did for I didn't tell the customer how I made his engine run.
But I suspect the mechanic who installed those yards of blue wire never thought about who would come behind him. I doubt that anyone is that cruel deliberately.
The pickup had another problem that wasn't obvious in January: it vapor locked under a load when air temperatures were above freezing. I grew to hate highway construction delays—
There are, I believe, construction workers who, like their fathers, have retired after a career of repair and resurfacing the road between Northway, Alaska, and the Canadian Border, a distance of ninety miles. They tear-up a few miles here, then there, then manage to spend all of one summer in grading those few miles, only to, the following summer, tear-up half of what they did the year before due to frost heaving or an experiment to see if a different paving mix will hold up better or just because they need the work. So daughters have followed in their fathers' footsteps, and their daughters will follow in theirs as they stand beside freshly turned gravel and swat mosquitoes and hold cars and motorhomes at bay with an octagonal red stop sign given to them at birth. And some of them will remember that damn pickup of mine and remember me pouring cold water on its fuel lines to get it to again start only to have it stop a half mile down the road where the next flagger waited with malice.
I knew what was happening; I didn't know why. Everything seemed stock. No parts were missing that I knew-of. The carburetor was complete and worked as it should. The cooling system kept engine temperatures down. There seemed to be no reason for that pickup to vapor lock, but obviously there was a reason, one I didn't find until after I returned to Fairbanks from Idaho in 1992—the insulation block under the carburetor was made of the wrong material. It was of aftermarket manufacture, and while it might have worked on a different engine, it didn't on that early 390 which was supposed to be a stock 360, another little detail I learned while sitting alongside the road fifty miles west of Burns Lake, B.C., but that is getting ahead of myself.
When I returned from Ohio summer of 1991, where I had carved for two weeks, a one year fellowship to Idaho State University in Pocatello was awaiting acceptance. But accepting it meant my daughters had to move from Yak Estate, where we had lived for three years. The only apartment they found wouldn't allow pets, meaning that I had to take with me their fifteen year old cat, a Maine Coon tom that hated to travel: he knew that no cat belonged in traffic, especially not where vehicles passed on both sides. He didn't get to be fifteen by playing in the road.
Nevertheless, early Tuesday afternoon two weeks later, leaving Fairbanks in my rearview mirror and with a bag of fifteen McDonald hamburgers on the dash, I started down the Highway, Alaska-speak for the Alaskan Highway, that ribbon of summer construction on which motorhomes follow one another like trooping elephants, with trunks grasping for tails. My biggest concern was whether this troubled Ford pickup would get me down the road. I left in Fairbanks another 1975 Ford, a F-100 Custom, which had seen years of use on a Farmers Loop homestead and which I had purchased for parts; it had a crunched corner and no charging system when I got it. I might have driven it instead of the Ranger if I hadn't already disassembled most of its front end.
Summer days in Interior Alaska can be downright hot, especially with side windows rolled up when stopped for road construction: I couldn't open a window or Chucky, my daughters’ cat, would have been gone. As it was, he only settled down when I gave him bites of hamburgers from the bag on the dash. And every time I stopped and let the engine idle for even a minute, it vapor locked. To restart it I had to get out and wet everything down around the carburetor, all the while being careful that Chucky didn't escape the cab … I had a cat carrier for him, but after letting him out of it the first time, it would have been easier to stuff Garfield back into that carrier. Maine Coon cats are large enough they get their way unless all-out war is declared.
It is roughly three hundred miles from Fairbanks to the Border, a tenth of the distance to Pocatello, but far enough for me to develop a strong dislike for octagonal red signs. It took twice as long as it should have taken to drive those three hundred miles, and it took all of the water I had brought along for both the pickup and for Chucky. But I crossed the Border a little after midnight and felt like I had the worse of the trip behind me. Chucky had somewhat accepted his fate, and I didn't expect as much construction through the Yukon, which already had in place its regulation that vehicles have to run with headlights on all the time.
The pickup's blue wiring nightmare also affected its headlights, which while not seeming brighter than usual (an indication of high voltage) burned out much too quickly. I avoided using its headlights as much as possible, and as the morning lightened I approached Beaver Creek. I thought about ignoring the lights on regulation. Perhaps I should have. But the longer a fellow tries to be law-biding, the harder it becomes to ignore rules and regulations; so I didn't turn my lights off when I no longer needed them to see.
It is also about three hundred miles from the Border to Whitehorse, then two hundred seventy to the turn for the Cassiar, the road I began using in 1983 and which I think saves time. I lost one headlight during the day, but I didn't know it until darkness caught me on the Cassiar. But one headlight is enough to see to drive. However, when four hundred miles down the Cassiar and a fellow loses the second headlight, driving becomes more problematic.
In 1991, northern British Columbia wasn't so developed that a headlight could be bought just anywhere. There were, at that time, four gas stations in four hundred seventy miles. The nearest one was across the Skeena River at the other end of the Cassiar. From past experience, I knew it only stayed open until ten or so.
I hadn't driven without headlights since I was at Oregon Tech and had a 1960 Simca, an abomination the French identify as a car. But I wasn't sleepy. I didn't want to stop where I was. I knew that if I kept going in the dark with no headlights, I might just make it to the Skeena River before that station closed. I was only fifty or so miles away. There wasn't any traffic on the road. So I kept going. Slow at first. But after a few miles, I was driving forty, forty-five miles an hour.
In those fifty miles, I met three oncoming vehicles. And after being thoroughly blinded by the first one, I pulled over and stopped, and covered my eyes before the second one and third one passed. I knew then how blinded a spotlighted deer was. When a person's pupils have dilated open far enough to see to drive forty-five miles an hour without lights, that person doesn't see anything for minutes after getting flashed in the eyes.
I arrived at the Skeena River about twenty minutes after the station closed. People were still inside, but not interested in opening up to sell me two headlights. And I might have continued down the Yellowhead Highway without headlights if a Mountie hadn't suggested I not. Evidently a vehicle driving without lights had attracted someone's attention.
Sitting there in the cab at the junction, not a bit sleepy and with a cat that wanted to relieve itself outside, with what I thought were eight hours to kill, I felt like turning around and heading back to Fairbanks. It was, perhaps, only the prospect of again fighting a vapor-locked engine that prevented my return.
But after a half hour of unsuccessfully trying to convince Chucky that he really didn't want outside, I remembered I saved one headlight I had removed from the other pickup even though its low beam was burned out. When I save the headlight I had set it on the seat of this pickup, and I wondered where I might have stuck it. The most logical place was behind the seat.
Sure enough, there it was.
By the yardlight of the gas station, I replaced the driver's side headlight, and adjusted its high beam low enough I wouldn't have to dim. And I was off. On a highway with a centerline. Not far behind my tentative schedule. With a cat willing to ride as long as the pickup was moving. But I felt like I was seventeen again, not forty-four years old. I began to wonder what had happened to all of those years when I should have started a career, bought a house and settled into being “American.” Why was I alone with a cat in the dark hours of an August morning in the middle of British Columbia, driving with one headlight that I feared would burn out at any minute, with a pickup load of books and now ten rifles instead of six? An invitation had been extended to remain in Ohio. I could have stayed in Fairbanks. But no, I was headed for Pocatello, Idaho.
I called Ohio shortly after I crossed the border into Washington, spoke longer to the museum curator than I should have from a gas station phone booth and confirmed that I intended to be in Ohio over Christmas break. But as I stood in that phone booth, my concerns were more about the pickup vapor locking than about a relationship.
My tentative schedule had me arriving in Pocatello Thursday evening. I had a Friday afternoon meeting for incoming graduate students to attend. But thanks to a day of again stopping for construction and fighting to restart the pickup, it was ten p.m. before I reached Twin Falls, still a hundred miles from Pocatello. I had had enough. Chucky had had more than enough. It was time for a shower and bed, and after having listened to Tom Bodet advertise Model 6 for years in Alaska where the chain has no motels, I spent a night with them at Twin Falls.
My intention had been, when reaching Pocatello, to rent an apartment and buy another truck, used of course. But I didn't find any place in Poky, the localized short form of Pocatello, in which I wanted to spend the next couple of years; I didn't really want to be in Pocatello to begin with, but then, there really wasn't anywhere I wanted to be other than at Dutch Harbor. I didn't have the means, though, to buy another boat and return to fishing. Besides, that would have been going figuratively backwards. This American culture into which I was born exerts pressure to continue going forward, whichever way that is. Traditionally, forward in our informing metatext has been westward. But when there is no more west, then the only direction left is up.
Instead of renting an apartment, I bought a house in a small town twenty miles south of Pocatello—it was less money than a new pickup—so I was still driving that 1975 Ford pickup from Kodiak when Christmas break approached.
I didn't know quite what to expect when I headed for Ohio that second time. The museum curator was single as was I. We had common interests in history, especially that of Colonial America. She had helped with the down payment of the house I bought. For both of us, it was investment property, but we shared financial interests even though the amount was small. But she was a functioning alcoholic and I am a non-drinker. There were more differences: the Sabbath, holy days, clean meats, others. She wasn't someone with whom I should become involved. Nevertheless, she had, when I was there in July, expressed her desire to quit drinking, to change her circumstances. If I could help, I wanted to. But the aunt and uncle my brothers lived with after Mom committed suicide were both functioning alcoholics. Neither one ever truly wanted to quit; they only wanted to keep their drinking at a level where they could continue to function. They were typical of the functioning alcoholics I knew, and living in the rainy grayness of the Pacific Coast, I knew far more alcoholics than casual drinkers.
The pickup had continued to give me problems all fall. On a return trip from Portland in November, its alternator quit in the middle of the night while I was going up King Hill, between Mountain Home and Twin Falls. A state trooper stopped to see what was wrong while I was changing alternators by flashlight. He was very surprised to learn that I had a spare alternator with me. I didn't feel like telling him I had two more used alternators under the passenger seat as well as a spare battery, a used starter, a new volt regulator, several headlights with only their highbeams still working, a complete engine gasket set, the front brake rotors from the pickup I left in Fairbanks, new front pads, and an assortment of belts and hoses, most used. I doubt he would have believed me.
I should have rewired the pickup, but I needed it to drive the twenty miles into Pocatello four days a week. Then there was deer season, and I hadn't hunted mule deer for almost twenty years (I wasn't impressed with Idaho's management of its Southeastern deer herd). Elk followed. And finally, it was time to research and write seminar papers.
During the last weeks of the semester, I had to write supposedly intelligent papers about Dickens and Derrida, but my mind was on whether that pickup would make it to Ohio and back. I wasn't worried about the weather. After years in Alaska, icy roads were what a person drove in the winter. And the more ice, the fewer would be my vapor locking problems.
A major winter storm passed through about when I handed in my last paper. I didn't notice the snow as, again with a reluctant Chucky, I left Idaho about dark Thursday evening. I hadn't driven east of Wyoming since 1969 when I went back to see relatives while Americans walked on the moon. I didn't know I would pass Cabela's before they opened that Friday morning. If had known, I would have delayed my departure. I could have waited until they opened, but the Freeway across Nebraska had been closed during the night due to ice, and while the road seemed like normal winter driving conditions, that phrase Alaska's Department of Transportation uses to describe all road conditions from skating rink ice to bare pavement, I didn't want to linger and risk Nebraska officials again closing the road for the storm that was behind me.
I reached Omaha late Friday afternoon. Fog clung along the Platte and the Missouri and was spread at least as far east as Chicago. Air temperatures were below freezing. I-80 was slick, very slick. But I didn't think it was too bad until I started passing tractor-trailer rigs on their sides, the contents of their trailers scattered like snow geese decoys on the Freeway's icy shoulders, white from the frozen fog.
Once in Iowa, the fog thickened. Visibility wasn't two hundred feet as darkness pushed my headlight beams back against themselves. I began to look for somewhere to spend the Sabbath; I would have preferred being off the road an hour earlier, but in the fog and on Omaha's hub road system, I was past exits before I saw them. Keeping going seemed preferable to truly being lost.
That rusted Ford pickup had seen much worse ice and fog on Kodiak. I once started down Rezanof after a week of single digit temperatures followed by a night of rain. Water was sheeted and flowing across at least one inch of absolutely clear ice. I knew I couldn't have kept the Ford I was then driving on the road if I went down Mill Bay. I had hoped Rezanof might be better, but I couldn't stop once I was over the crest of the hill: I slid right over the top and started down, with no stopping, no slowing down, no changing my mind, and not much steering. So when a car started up Rezanof hill from the bottom, spun out and turned sideways in the middle of the street, I couldn't have avoided hitting it if seven fellows from the Chevron station hadn't slipped and slid their way past gas pumps and pushed that car out of my way as I sailed past, no more able to stop than the space shuttle when entering the atmosphere.
Nothing in Iowa was that kind of slick.
But the points had burned on my run through Wyoming and Nebraska, and once in Iowa, they were now wanting to stick as I held rpms down and continued on, afraid to go slower or faster. I had lost another headlight sometime during the previous night; so in addition to everything else, I couldn't see even what I should be seeing. If, however, I stopped the likelihood of someone driving into my taillights was high as I continued to pass exits before I saw them.
I wondered what I was doing as I drove farther into the darkness. I thought about Jack Kerouac looking for it and finding it in a Mexican whorehouse. The roadtrip can always be a metaphor, but I wasn't looking to find anything. I told myself I was headed for Ohio to spend time forging iron, but I was really going back to resolve a conflict between image and reality. I was traveling because remaining in Idaho was too much like reliving the year I was seventeen when I lived on poached venison while attending Oregon Tech with Bob Fieber and company. The stipend that goes with Idaho State's doctoral fellowships isn't large. Each tank of gas was half again more than I spent for a week of groceries. I could only afford Motel 6 or its equivalents whenever I stopped. And I wondered why Kerouac and company raced back and forth across the country.
In the fog and darkness, I couldn't see which motels were at what exits so I kept going, feeling more guilty and more foolish with each passing mile. The rigidity of years of strict Sabbath observance warred with the weather, which should have caused me to stop but was causing me to continue on. The nature I found creeping around in my stories—the natural world that occupies the place of Peirce's Thirdness, bridging Determinate and Indeterminate characters rather than the eighth position in a three circle Venn diagram--was pushing me towards Ohio when I should have been remembering the God that prescribed rest. And the slickness of the Freeway wasn't giving me much time to think as I had to pay close attention to the vehicles around me, mostly semis with drivers from fair-weather states.
I was through Des Moines before I knew the city was off in the fog to each side of me. But past Des Moines, there was less traffic on the freeway. However, visibility also lessened. I couldn't tell if I could see a full car-length in front of me.
I kept waiting for the one headlight to burn out. It was relatively new. I had replaced it on the trip to Portland. The other was one I had replaced in August. But it had enough hours on it that its low beam could go any time.
Somewhere in the middle of Iowa, I passed a lighted sign reading $23.50 single. Fortunately, the exit looped back around to some factory outlet stores and a McDonalds. Chucky had acquired a taste for McDonald's cheap hamburgers; perhaps they reminded him of mice. At any rate, I bought a bag of six burgers and I rented a room. I wrote the following piece while in that room:
AFTER DRIVING ALL NIGHT & ALL DAY
I'm now somewhere in Iowa, alone in a motel
on a snowy evening four days before Christmas.
On TV, two fellows talk of hogs: April futures
are too low. Commitment today means red sales
of two-fifty a head, and the late news
shows Chicago's gridlocked tollways
shimmering like tinsel trees.
Stay home, I'm told.
The camera pans the city: towers like
so many concrete angels look down on strings
of headlights & taillights driven into one another.
Cars hang from guardrails like imported glass
balls from frosted boughs.
The freezing rain's supposed to stop
by morning, but tonight trucks lie stunned
like sows on their sides, suckled
by blue & yellow strobes of patrol cars.
The Soviet Union is no more,
its empire crumbling as the Tsar's had.
The Cold War has been won the announcer declares,
but I'm too tired to care.
I still face another day of driving east—
I wonder what the freeway will be like tomorrow.
The fog lifted a little about midday checkout time. I wasn't in a hurry to leave, but I had no reason to stay. After filing the points and regapping them, I bought another bag of burgers and continued on through another couple of hours of Iowa, then into Illinois as I wondered how much compromise is possible before compromise becomes an excuse—I was falling timber, if the Kenai Peninsula's stubby white spruce can be called timber, next to Nikolaevsk when Solzhenitsyn flew to Alaska to again hear Russian spoken after the Soviets exiled him to the West. His pilot waggled the wings of his Lear jet as it passed low directly overhead.
In high school I read Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Pasternak, so when the translation that Solzhenitsyn detested of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was first released I obtained a copy. In the Russian writers, I heard voices I seemed to recognize, found characters like the people I knew, read stories I had heard told albeit with different settings and different names. So when I found copies of First Circle and Cancer Ward, I read them before starting on the English translations of The Gulag Archipelago.
The Solzhenitsyn I met through his prose, a man the age Dad would've been, expressed aloud a morality I know but was then hesitant to express to others. To this day, I detest so-called evangelical witnessing. Giving a ready answer to an asked question differs greatly from asking, Do you know the Lord? So despite my reading of Scripture differing some from his, Solzhenitsyn was the literary figure with which I most came to associate why I can not compromise with evil but must always resist it. His life was enough of a witness.
Dad wrote a line in a censored letter that was, during the War, published in his hometown newspaper: "We might think things are tough in the States, and that we are being mistreated, and at times falsely led" (Bluffton News-Banner 11 Aug 1943:3.). Who thought F.D.R. and company might be falsely leading us? The implications of the text of Dad's censored letter was that Dad did … Solzhenitsyn spent eight years in the Gulag for a lesser comment made in a private letter. So, yes, evil exists. It has throughout recorded history, and it will still exist tomorrow. And while we have been mislead and falsely led at times, we as a nation didn't, in 1975, want our shortcomings told to us by a Russian exiled to this land of liberty. Nevertheless, those shortcomings needed mentioned then as they do now. I always thought of my life as having more meaning than a search for it that leads to a Mexican whorehouse.
There is nothing evil in love, in two otherwise unattached people becoming intimately involved with one another. Of course there isn't. Ask anyone … but Solzhenitsyn.
It was after midnight when I arrived at the curator's home. She was waiting for me; had friends over, had a little marijuana, and quite a few beers. Both she and her friends were stoned—
I play chess, used to play at a fairly high level. One evening when fishing halibut out of Dutch Harbor, I stopped by a friend's cabana, the localized name for the WWII-built housing still occupied by the community's yearround residents. The mayor of Unalaska was there as was the state representative and several others I now don't remember. Two chess boards were set up on a cable spool four feet or so across. I was asked if I wanted to play. I didn't need a second invitation.
Before long I was playing both boards, the mayor and one of his friends my opponent on one board, the state representative with a lot of help my opponent on the other board. A lot of pot was being smoked by everyone except myself and the state representative. Everyone was having fun. Nobody seemed to be getting hurt. But nobody could beat me either. And there were some good chess players in that room, better players if sober than myself.
So there in the curator's one hundred eighty year old kitchen, with her and her friends stoned, I became the party pooper. I didn't smoke pot when I was in college at sixteen, seventeen, eighteen; I wasn't going to start at forty-five. I had already compromised with myself more than I was willing.
I liked the curator. She was, is a very nice woman. I know her alcoholism troubles her, but I wasn't then the person to help her.
The moralism that alienated Solzhenitsyn from our enlightened Western culture, the moralism that separated him from young Russian intellectuals when he was finally allowed to return, the moralism that my Separatist ancestors carried aboard the Mayflower—that moralism caused me to stay in Ohio long enough to change front disc brake pads, points, and the one headlight before returning to Idaho.
That pickup didn't quit giving me problems just because I left Ohio as a party pooper. Rather, on my return trip from Pocatello to Fairbanks in June of the following year, it continually vapor locked without overheating as I encountered another season of road construction. It was so frustrating that to escape the vapor locking I stopped for a day at friends who live along Kluane Lake, Yukon Territory. Joel tore the carburetor apart, which I had also done, and didn't find anything. But while he had the carburetor off, he noticed the insulation block, then rummaged through a van full of used parts until he found a block he took off a Ford a decade earlier. They looked the same, but weren't of the same material. The one he had removed was of a fibrous material. We put it on, and I had no more vapor locking problems.
But in the middle of the night about forty miles east of Delta Junction, the carburetor backfired and the engine quit, but restarted. Only when it started, it ran really rough like it was out of time.
I nursed the pickup another ten miles to the turnoff leading to where muzzleloaders were, five miles off the Highway, holding the state rendezvous on the Delta Buffalo Range. There, the pickup died and wouldn't restart, no matter what I did. But I knew that Charlie Bierman, the muzzleloading smith for DownUnder Guns, would be at the rendezvous; Charlie was also a good mechanic. And I could spent a night or two in his camp if I needed.
I had to walk those five miles. It was daylight by the time I reached the rendezvous site. Campfires were lit, and coffee was on.
The engine was thirty degrees out of time, something neither Charlie nor I could explain. But after retiming it, the engine ran fine all the way to Delta, where after another backfire, it was so far out of time it wouldn't restart.
"It looks like your timing chain is jumping," Charlie said before towing the pickup the hundred miles into Fairbanks.
After buying a new chain with gears, I pulled the timing chain cover. The chain appeared fine. Nevertheless, I replaced it. But the engine still wouldn't start. It wouldn't stay in time to fire more than once. So I pulled the distributor, which also looked fine. The gear on the bottom of the shaft was tight. However, I couldn't see into the rollpin that held the gear in place—the rollpin had sheared. Replacing the rollpin at Delta would have saved a hundred mile tow.
Then in late February, 1993, when forty below outside, I had the pickup idling while getting ready to head for campus when Kori, my youngest daughter, said, "Dad, something is wrong with the truck."
I left the kitchen, and sure enough, I heard the knock of a broken piston, a sound I have heard many times in two-cycle engines. I turned the engine off, then sat in the cab staring at the dash, not knowing exactly what to do, feeling a little defeated. I couldn't afford the pickup to die right then. Kori's car was down, its rear engine seal leaking almost too bad for it to be driven. And I had never replaced missing parts from my other Ford pickup.
My biggest hope was that I hadn't heard what I thought I had so after that initial wave of defeatism ebbed, I restarted the engine. It sounded fine. Nothing seemed wrong. And I thought perhaps the cold had caused it to do something screwy although I knew what I had heard.
I drove that pickup through March and April, then I again loaded it heavy with things. I couldn't afford Fairbanks housing on what I was making as adjunct facility—I had been carving and helping to teach woodcarving in the Native Arts Studio for the UAF's Art Department after I returned to Fairbanks. I didn't return to the English Department. Perhaps Idaho State had injected too much Derrida.
My intention was to return to Idaho where I still had the house twenty miles south of Pocatello. It wasn't much of a house, but its payments were about what I would pay for a storage unit in Fairbanks. So Kori and I started down the Highway.
Fifty miles west of Burns Lake, descending a little hill on compression, number eight piston let go entirely. The engine knocked and rattled as only engines with broken pistons do. I stopped and pulled plugs until I could determine how bad was the damage, which seemed limited to just number eight. So leaving its sparkplug out to reduce strain on the piston, I drove into Burns Lake, the engine roaring and clanking.
In the Lower Forty-Eight, tort laws would have created liability for whomever helped me continue on if anything less than completely rebuilding the engine was done. We have become such a litigious society that we can't cobble together a patch job … I knew that Ford 352, 360, and 390 engines used the same diameter pistons. I also knew the truck would pull itself around on seven good cylinders, and on six if need be. All I needed was to slip another piston in number eight cylinder to keep fuel from diluting the crankcase oil. I had helped my stepfather rebuild a four cylinder Cat stationary engine that had run for years with two rods disconnected. So all I could afford at Burns Lake was to replace number eight piston with another used piston. I had a mostly complete gasket set behind the seat. I just didn't have a piston or a place to work.
A garage that serviced local loggers put the pickup in one of their bays. They had a set of rods and pistons from a 352. They wanted fifty bucks for a piston, twenty-five an exhaust valve to replace the one that bent. Altogether, that cracked piston in late February cost me two hundred dollars in May, and only delayed me a day. I can't complain. And number eight cylinder began to fire before I reached Prince George.
The pickup ran another eight thousand miles on that short rod before I retired it. That was far enough for Kerouac to have found it.