1. Limiting Vulnerability
2. Who’s Compromise is it Anyways
3. Restoring a Landcruiser
4. Life in the Slow Lane
5. Cleaning the Mini Blinds
6. Engineering the Weak Link
7. The Gift In The Rocks
8. Arriving in Olancha
11. Tabla Rasa
12. The Legend of Markguyver, Part 1
14. What Frequency Are You On?
15. There Is A Special Place
16. Adulthood, Part 1
17. That ONE thing
18. Malcolm Part 2
19. 1971-The Rite Of Passage.
I got my first 4x4 24 years ago. It only took me three days to figure out that it was capable of going places where AAA wouldn’t come and get me! That’s when I realized it would be a good idea to start learning about auto mechanics.
I had always been mechanically inclined, just not particularly interested in auto mechanics. Most of my early ventures were motivated by curiosity. When it came to trucks though, I would have to say that it was in equal part motivated by vulnerability. As it turned out, I gradually found that the theme of vulnerability runs through many parts of our lives, from our choice of jobs and life partners to where we live, who we hang out with, how much we save, …as well as our choice in vehicles.
While I was working my way thru college, with each new thing I learned, from cabinetry to framing, stucco, plaster, cement and tile work, roofing, plumbing, electrical, etc I felt not only a sense of accomplishment, but a lessened sense of vulnerability to being taken advantage of. I would listen to the older members of my four-wheel drive clubs talking about getting ripped off by contractors or mechanics, and was happy to know that that wasn’t going to be my fate.
I bought my first Landcruiser 19 years ago to use as a rolling laboratory to learn auto mechanics on. It didn’t run, and hadn’t run for a while. I taught myself how to overhaul the steering and the brakes, and eventually fixed the engine. My love of the landcruiser was born of the result. My 68FJ40, which I call Ruftoys, was far from reliable at first, but I had the firm belief, for the first time in my life, that I could fix whatever went wrong with my vehicle. I fell in love with the idea of having a vehicle that I did not feel vulnerable taking anywhere! By the time I had opened my shop in 1990, I was a confirmed retro-grouch. I did not own a fuel-injected vehicle, and pretty much figured I never would. I used my new soapbox to preach the benefits of this Neolithic vehicle that had become my passion.
So when my parents asked me to come look at the new mini-van they were going to purchase in 1993, I passed, reminding them that computerized vehicles could only make you more vulnerable. When their brand new mini-van broke down on the way home from the dealership, fates were sealed! I felt completely vindicated in my position. But facts were facts, and the facts were that my parents were not going to go back to a carbureted vehicle, unless that vehicle could be bought brand new. So we agreed to disagree. And I agreed to smile every time they had to leave the vehicle at the dealership to diagnose a new mystery.
My predisposition against all things computerized even led me to turn a blind eye on the FJ62 and the FJ80. In my mind, they stopped building ‘real’ landcruisers in 1987. To me, the retro-grouch, computers were the essence of vulnerability: everything I had worked to avoid. So a computerized Landcruiser seemed like an oxymoron. And who would own an oxymoron!
Finally, somewhere in the last 10 years, it dawned on me that some people buy new cars on a regular basis for EXACTLY the same reason that I cling to old ones: it makes them FEEL less vulnerable! The media bombards us with images of how the new and improved whatever not only makes life easier, but leaves you less likely to be stranded or hurt, and that is the essence of vulnerability. A chink in my armor.
Then in Feb 2004 I joined the Pirate Bulletin Board. That’s when I got a whole other level of education as to how far people will go to increase reliability and decrease vulnerability. Not just disc brakes, but blingfields. Then billet knuckle arms, Dana axles, cryo gears. And a pervasive infiltration of EFI.
As each new level of upgraded durability was invented, marketed, and its limits met, the mythical search of these pioneers continued. Suddenly, a bone-stock FJ80 and I had more in common than I realized. With only minor suspension and gearing changes they, like I, were much less likely to actually break their trucks on the trail than most of the guys on Pirate! And for the price of a FSM, an ECM, a few sensors and a coil, they could have about the same level of vulnerability as me and my carb kit!
Once I met the owners of the cool 80s at the Rubithon this year, and found out that they were ordinary guys just like me [that just happen to drive very expensive trucks!] I pretty much closed the book on my old prejudices. Now I figure everyone is welcome on the trail, as long as they are prepared to deal with their vehicle’s particular vulnerability. So, to make a short story long, when I saw the Lexus on the cover of TT, that’s why I let it go.
At many points in the evolution of their Landcruisers, owners must stop and consider the trade-offs of modifications that make their rigs more trailworthy, but less street-able. Tires at some point overcome the engine's ability to hold highway speeds at reasonable operating temperatures and fuel economy. Suspensions reach the point where the unfortunate but essential high-speed maneuvers of city driving become perilous. Other more subtle changes, like transmission and axle gearing changes that make it easier to crawl off road, also make the vehicle less comfortable to drive on a daily basis. So for many like myself, the process of modification is effectively 'compromised' by their interest in keeping their vehicles road-worthy.
With the emergence of the newest breeds of machine, the buggy, truggy, or cruggy [as you like], capable of easily conquering obstacles once considered impossible, we are reminded that our otherwise very-cool, very well-built machines are nonetheless now second class citizens in this new world order. Freed from the compromising world of windshields, doors and fenders, these machines articulate, both literally and figuratively, in ways a road-worthy truck simply cannot. Watching and listening to that articulation is like the call of the sirens [a little knowledge of Greek mythology helps here]full of lure and yearning. Some refer to it as the call of the 'dark side.'
Following one of these machines down the trail is like watching a caricature of our own rigs, because everything performs in the superlative, the way things do in cartoons. Engines scream, with little discernable forward momentum from the truck. Axles and springs respond with super-hero speed to overcome all obstacles in their path. Tires bulge and splay beyond belief. In fact, having traded a substantial amount of their sheetmetal for caging, they appear to be able to layover and right themselves with no discernable harm. Before now, that only happened in cartoons! Surely this is the super-world of no fear and no compromise, right?
But have you ever stopped to ask yourself why is it us that takes on this badge of compromise. I think it's really the other way around: the trail machines are the real compromise!
I submit to you that we, the heretofore mischaracterized, have our own lure, our own freedom, that must be championed. That is the ability to raise the windshield, air up the tires, and continue the journey at the end of the trail. While these once proud machines were once able to make this journey alongside us, they must now be loaded on to trailers, strapped, chained and lashed down like Gulliver or King Kong, their freedom compromised. They gave up their headlights, their windshields, their highway speeds and functionality for the glory of the trail.
THEY are the ones that compromised. THEY are no longer able to cruise all the land. And that, to me, is the definition of a Land Cruiser.
When most people think about Landcruisers, the first image that comes to mind is of a multi-purpose, go anywhere, bad-ass four-wheel drive with point-shoot-and don't-worry-about-the paint legendary status. Old-school landcruisers were NOT the definition of style; they were, and still are, the definition of function. Landcruisers represented the outdoors, the outback, and all the places you wouldn't take the family sedan (although some of us did!) In contrast, restorations were about museums, shows, and all the indoor places you would take the sedan. And then the inevitable happened: the restoration craze came to the Landcruiser.
Even though I already owned a Landcruiser business, my involvement with restorations was more or less a fluke. I was perfectly happy with my trail-ready FJ40, and just wanted to have a pickup truck to haul parts in. The fact that I found a removable top swb45 was just a coincidence. The fact that it came to me completely disassembled just meant that I had a chance to paint it before I put it together. The fateful moment was going to see my brother-in-law about a paint job. He worked at a restoration shop that was doing a gullwing Mercedes. When they opened the hood, and I saw factory fresh paint EVERYWHERE, the seed was planted.
In the process of 'restoring' the swb45, I learned a lot about the do's and don'ts. I didn't do anywhere near enough research on parts availability. I cleaned some parts up before I realized they were junk. Once I was finished, the truck was like a magnet for other people interested in restorations, which in turn caused me to learn a whole lot more. Now I would like to start sharing some of what I have learned.
For this, the first in a series of articles about restoring Toyota Landcruisers, I would like to start with what I would call the ground rules. While many people like to think that they are the exception to the rule, and in some cases they are, I have seen some common themes in Landcruiser restoration which help me gauge the potential for success. And believe it or not the most critical component in the restoration process is not the vehicle. It is the owner.
Anyone who has successfully restored ANYTHING will tell you that the most important element in the restoration process is patience. Patience beyond belief. Every component in an assembly begs for attention to detail. In my SWB resto, I spent 3 weeks on just the valve cover! Three more on the lid for the air cleaner! From linkages to hardware, what strikes me most about a restoration is the crisp contrast of well-defined boundaries between one part and the next. These contrasts are highlighted by detail, and that detail takes incredible amounts of patience. And time. In an Internet-driven world, this may drive you crazy; it could also be your ticket to slow yourself down. Restoration work is my Zen.
In direct contrast to the amount of time the project will take is the time you can commit to it. After a full time job, a spouse, children, home repairs and ordinary maintenance, there just isn't a lot of time left for starting, much less finishing a Landcruiser restoration. I distinctly remember one marriage that ended in divorce before the restoration was finished. You almost have to be pessimistic about how much time you are going to have when you try to calculate how long you can afford to have a disassembled rig hanging around. Then, if you progress faster than planned, you can celebrate. At least you won't be disappointed! Over the years I have picked up dozens of rigs from guys who have disassembled them for the restoration process, only to give up 6 months, a year, or even 2 years later, well short of the goal.
Time and patience also play a big part in the next factor: the budget. While the rate at which NOS parts disappear sometimes seems alarming, patience is often rewarded here too. If you can avoid the rush to purchase anything and everything you can think of that might be obsolete by the time you need it, you will often find that there are alternatives. Vendors and enthusiasts alike will often step forward to make and or market reproduction parts that won't cost anywhere near what the last NOS one will. Windwing weatherstrips are a perfect example. Also, parts show up on Ebay and bbs from time to time from people that have moved on to a modified setup, or another vehicle altogether. I have even heard stories of guys that waited long enough and an even better project vehicle showed up! More on this in a later article
Yet another owner-based aspect that must be considered is intention. If you approach the project with the intention of reselling it, your intention will infect the project with endless compromises. Every time you walk back over to the project, those compromises will be there, staring you in the face. I purposely saved myself from this infection by throwing away all the receipts for the truck except the one from the paint shop. I have never counseled anyone to attempt a restoration that considers it an investment. In fact, I will always do the opposite. I know there are people who have made money at this, but I am not one of them. Generally, you can easily put out two or three times what the vehicle is worth in time and effort to restore it. If you intend to restore, keep it and enjoy your cruiser for many years, that's great. Otherwise, consider it a pretty distraction from which you may someday recoup a fraction of your investment.
Which brings us to the next ground rule, and my next theme: NOT EVERY LANDCRUISER IS WORTHY OF A RESTORATION. The whole concept of restoration has been blurred by an endless supply of Ebay sellers hawking professionally-restored V-8 FJ40s. A Model T with a 5.0 or a 351 Windsor is not a restoration just because it still has a Ford engine in it, so why should a modified Landcruiser be. Even an FJ25 with a 2F engine will not qualify in my book for a restoration. I am not saying you shouldn't keep the 2F engine and improve the body to the limits of your abilities. I just draw the line differently on calling it a restoration. Now that I have alienated a good portion of you with a purest philosophy, I have to tell you that even my well-repaired SWB45 is not a restoration in the strictest sense. I cut myself out of this category when I opted to remove the 3 on the tree tranny for a 4 on the floor. Of course I'm too picky. However, if you've ever been to a car show, you know that's what it's all about. Resto is resto, custom is custom.
Likewise, I have had several people approach me over the years for restoration inquiries that have been rather disappointed when I told them that their truck was not a worthy candidate in my opinion because the truck had been rolled at some point in its life. While there may be some who would argue this point, I think that by and large, there are just too many hidden issues in a rollover that preclude getting a good result. These trucks can still produce good-looking daily drivers, mechanically sound and straight. However that is not a restoration in my book either. I have seen dozens of beautiful FJ40s that you could not put a factory hardtop on. Rollovers, each and every one. If you cannot get each and every part that was available for that truck to fit onto it, it is not a resto.
In contrast, I do not think a restorable landcruiser has to be rust free. If you own an FJ40, pretty much all you need these days is a solid cowl. The rest can be found in aftermarket replacement panels. Perhaps I am overly optimistic, but I think the odds are improving for seeing reproduction panels for the FJ45 and FJ55 in the near future as well. On the wagons, I would add door pillars to the non-rusted equation. Beyond that though, restoration returns to the primary element of patience. Tech articles abound on methodology for cutting out and removing rust. I used the angle iron method on my 40 because I knew it was gonna stay a trail rig. I paid a shop to deal with the SWB, painstakingly duplicating the look of the original spot welds on the replaced sheetmetal that had none. Detail.
Looking ahead, I plan to cover particular tools and methods I have found successful in refurbishing old parts, as well as criteria for refurbishing versus replacement. There are also a lot of does and don'ts about the order of things, some of which I learned the hard way, and I would like very much not to see repeated.
For the last 6 or 7 years now, I have had the good fortune to drive a basically-stock FJ45lwb as my daily driver. Generally my commute is 30-40 miles round trip, which is not enough to have any issues with this very well-maintained truck. The F135 was rebuilt and balanced about 10k ago and purrs smoothly at 60mph. I rebuilt and re-bushed the three on the tree tranny at the same time. The manual steering box has zero freeplay and the manual brakes are firm with 1" of pedal travel. Retro cool, fun to drive, and basically in as-new or better condition.
Problem is, I drive this truck EVERYWHERE, and on the longer trips I feel guilty running the F135 over 60mph for extended lengths of time. Probably due to good balancing, the motor has no objections to going 70, and seems willing to give me more. Quite frankly, I've reached that point in my life where I'm more interested in seeing how long things will last than how far you can push them. So I started thinking about overdrives.
Why not get some bigger tires or swap in some 3:70s to drop a few hundred rpms you ask? Simple: 1st gear in the 3 speed is already at its comfort limit launching the truck with 4:11s and 32s. Optimally, I figured it would be nice to pick up a lower 1st gear to appease that never-ending internal dialogue about upsizing tires at the same time as getting a freeway friendly 5th gear.
Once I started thinking 5 speed, I pretty much focused on the New Venture NV4500 and the Toyota H55. The NV has a lower 1st than the H55, which makes it the superior choice for a rig that is going to spend a lot of time in the rocks. My LWB is NOT that rig. It also has a taller OD 5th than the H55 (27% vs. 16%) A buddy that runs the NV in his naturally aspirated Chevota 40 told me that 5th gear bogs his motor below 70mph, which is pretty much the top range I would want to drive my FJ. Since I felt that both 1st and 5th were beyond my useful range, I started to focus on the H55.
I don't mean in any sense to suggest that the H55 is a second choice, or an inferior tranny. The 4:86 1st gear is still very capable for rock crawling, while the closer range between the gears makes the tranny more road friendly. Add to that the fact that it slips right into the 74 and newer bellhousing and is a more compact conversion within the confines of a 6 cylinder FJ40 and its benefits shine. The fact that you can buy a brand new H55 for under a 2k is also very nice.
So I bought one! Then, I bought another one! As good fortune has often had it, once I become interested in trying something new on one of my rigs, one or more of my customers seem to get the same urge. In this case, one of my newer customers (who shares many of my tastes in old school charm) was also looking at more freeway-friendly options for his soon-to-be daily driver. We agreed that he would get his transplanted first, which saved me from myself. You see, I have this tendency, shared by many cruiserheads, of rapidly expanding a project with related 'improvements' once the initial project starts, and basically decommissioning the vehicle in question for, ahem, lets just say an 'extended' period of time!)
[Of noteworthy difference: his 69FJ40 sports a F145 with one of my tricked out Aisan 2bbl carbs, a Downey Tri-Y header and 35"BFGs.]
Once I completed the install, of course I had to 'keep' his truck for a while until I was done with the 'test drives' (insert smilie here). As I had suspected, much like my H42, 1st gear had about the same utility as in an old VW bus: good for about 10 feet! 2nd, 3rd and 4th responded much like a 3speed, right up to the normal highway pitch at 55. Then, the Holy Grail: the extra gear I had been dreaming of reaching for for the last 17 years. Shift, release clutch. Whoosh. Sanity restored!
Still a typical noisy FJ40. Just more like the noise level at 40 mph, which is a lot more livable for me. Motor is a little sluggish, but will still accelerate reasonably on the flats. Push a little, 60. Push a little more: 65. Then, a novelty: keeping up with the flow of traffic IN AN FJ40! Then it hits me: all the noise of 55 is back, but with a vengeance. The motor is back to the same noise level it had at 55 in 4th, but with the added road noise of 70! Arrgh!
Two weeks down the road my H55 is in cold storage while I reconsider. Do I really want to go thru the effort, lose not only my 3 on the tree, but my dash-mounted T-case controls AND cut 2 holes in my virgin tranny hump and factory floormat just so I can go fast enough to finish off what is left of my hearing? Now I am thinking that the venerable H42 may be my answer. It will give me 25% lower 1st, and the smoothest shifting truck transmission I have ever used. Shave some RPMs off the motor with a slightly larger tire. Only one hole in the floorboard; dash-mounted t-case controls can stay! Parking brake can stay! I may even get crazy and design a 4 on the tree adapter!
If I am lucky enough to get one of Ehsan's reproduction tailgates to replace my beaten one, I may get a smooth panel instead of raised letters. If that is the case, I will use it as a base to mount a message sign. My first message is gonna be "My truck is 40 years old. What's your excuse?"
So there I was, standing over the kitchen sink a couple of months ago, washing up from one of those morning adventures we call 'home maintenance.' I noticed that the mini blinds over the sink had built up a pretty good layer of dust and water spots. Since I was already in the 'take care of it' mode, I proceeded to dig out a sponge from under the sink and started cleaning the blinds, slat by slat. A few minutes into my new task, I stopped to consider the cost of a new set of mini blinds vs. my time to clean the ones in front of me. Then I smiled. Then I decided I would write this article!
We've all done this. If not the specific act, then something similar. In the current lingo, it's referred to as cost-benefit analysis. A few years back, it was just cost-effectiveness. In a world driven by a never-ending list of things to do, a limited number of hours, and a limited number of opportunities to pursue profitable activities, we all have to make choices. This is surely a rational basis for making them. So why do we, with our well-trained minds, end up doing these things anyways? My personal 'downfall' as it were is the countless unpaid hours I spend detailing parts on my customer's rigs while they are at my shop. I know there are other things to do, and there is little chance that I will be paid for my time in this pursuit, but I often feel powerless to resist. This at least suggests the possibility that forces other than profit may be at work.
In the Eastern philosophies, there is a saying that some people wash the dishes to get clean dishes, while others wash the dishes to wash the dishes. If you don't see the difference between the two, it's ok. There are a lot of people that don't. That doesn't mean there isn't one; it's just not the way we're used to thinking. It's a Zen thing. The process of 'losing yourself' while performing some task that appears to require only minimal attention is something we all do, or at least dream of doing. Maybe it's when you water the lawn. Maybe it's when you rake up the leaves or when you walk your dog. Or maybe it's when you're driving your truck!
Sometimes we attempt to trivialize this time as daydreaming, but that is truly unfair to what I consider an essential spiritual function. In these tasks, we have all found a medium through which our minds can let go of the outside world a little bit, and we pursue other thoughts. This is the time we use to sort out things, re-examine and review, and make our plans. And yes, sometimes we just daydream too. Getting lost in routine is not the equivalent of Zen, but it is close. And it is very important. If you don't believe me, consider this.
We like to say that we are all creatures of habit. Think for a minute how easily your day can be knocked out of whack by losing time for one of your routines. Let’s say you shower in the morning but you've awoken late and don't have the time. Not only do you feel a little disheveled physically, but you're a little less organized, because you usually organize your plans for the morning while you're performing that routine! Ok, so maybe you don't shower in the morning; hopefully you still get my point. Our minds subconsciously 'carve' out these points in the day where we can take a step back, look at things differently, while we are doing something else. We often don't even realize we've carved out these opportunities until we miss them.
So what does all this have to do with Landcruisers? In my series of articles on restoration, one of the things I consider to be an essential part of the road map to a successful resto is making a list of which parts will be repaired as opposed to being replaced. Beyond the basic questions of availability and cost, I think the opportunity to 'lose yourself' for a few hours in the thoughtful detailing of some intriguing old landcruiser part [vs. just buying a new one] is an essential part of the journey. If you plan to rush thru the job, telling yourself you are just building the truck to drive it, like washing the dishes to have clean dishes, you are cheating yourself out of a wonderful opportunity.
And if that doesn't make you pause, consider this. In my opinion, when you debate whether to repair or replace, there is a lot more to the discussion than just money. How you do anything is how you do everything. How you go about restoring your Landcruiser says as much about you as it does about the truck. Maybe more so. People that don’t know you still know what detail is. That’s why we say the best trucks are built, not bought. We all understand and appreciate commitment. It’s a Zen thing.
[editor's note: I proved my own point by letting the seed for this article germinate in my mind for a couple of months, then composed this article between 4-5:30 am, in the pre-dawn hours before the realities of the day could take hold! Now I think I will go detail a carburetor.]
There is an old saying that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. As owners of vehicles that are regularly called upon to perform serious challenges, we have all in our own time come to confirm the truth of this saying. In fact, if I had to guess, I think it would be safe to say that collectively we as a group have broken enough different components to build an entire rig. While many of our individual breakages come with colorful campfire stories, I would like to focus on one that I witnessed that is illustrative of my point.
About 20 years ago, while I was wheeling in the Mojave Desert with my Chevy club, one of the Blazers in our group broke a u-joint on his rear driveshaft. The break was sudden, but far from dramatic, as the owner had previously installed a driveshaft hoop to limit it's lethal potential. As was my custom, I went over to watch and possibly provide a little assistance, as my mechanical skills were pretty limited at the time.
As I reached his rig, the owner was already pulling a new u-joint out of his spare parts box. Looking in through his open tailgate, I saw that he had a compete extra rear driveshaft mounted alongside his rollcage. THIS GUY WAS PREPARED! Even so, I was not prepared for what I saw next.
As the owner was getting underneath his truck with the u-joint, I asked him about removing his driveshaft and he said "Don't need to." When I looked under his truck I saw that he had mounted a bench vise to the INSIDE OF HIS FRAME! He released the shaft from the limiter hoop, pushed it over to the vise and proceeded to change the u-joint ON THE TRUCK! The odds of being THAT PREPARED were just astronomical and my curiosity was peaked, so I started asking questions.
Very nonchalantly, he explained to me that he had been having driveline problems ever since he tired of the stock motor's inability to motivate his 6" lifted, 36" rubber-clad rig and had replaced it with an LT-1. Then of course the driveshaft problems started. After breaking the best u-joints he could find and having to replace 2 or 3 ruined shafts in the process, he decided to replace them with THE CHEAPEST U-JOINTS HE COULD FIND!
His rationale was that if he made the driveshaft bulletproof, the next thing to go would be either the rear end or the transfer case, both of which would be MUCH MORE EXPENSIVE and MUCH MORE DIFFICULT to replace. Basically, he had chosen to engineer the weakest link in the chain to be the cheapest, easiest thing to replace. Well they say that the line between genius and madness is a thin one, and this guy seemed to me to be straddling it! Nonetheless, in the years since then, I have come to appreciate his philosophy, and have embraced it in my own special way.
When one of my customers brought me an article several years ago touting the benefits of a replacement birfield that was supposed to be twice as strong as stock. I told him that the strength tests that were provided in the article were enough themselves to convince me not to buy it. Incredulous, he asked me why. I proceeded to tell him the story about Mr. Cheapo U-joints. Then I added the missing link.
By that point in my four wheeling adventures I had broken 6 drum brake birfields on my truck [I am now up to 8] and replacing them had become a relatively easy procedure. By contrast, I had seen someone at Rubicon Springs back in 91 or 92 that had broken an inner shaft and had been forced to enlist the aid of gravity to remove the broken piece, i.e. he had to unbolt the axle housing and up end it! Now I know you're thinking pig inners, but keep in mind that wasn't even an option back then. My point is I felt less vulnerable knowing my relatively weak, but readily-accessable coarse birf was the weak link in MY rig. I would much rather replace a birf than a 3rd or an inner.
So there you are. I gave up the mythical search for total reliability. In fact, as far as searches go, I'm not sure I ever made it past square one. I did not engineer the weak link on my truck, but I'm not looking to shift it either.
On a recent hike in the El Paso Mountains, I looked back down from my vantage point into the remnants of a long abandoned mining camp and thought to myself how solitary my old pickup truck looked there. However, as soon as I was done muttering aloud the words “There’s nobody here but me” a smaller voice inside me continued “…and the energy of those who moved the rocks before you.” Smiling, I returned to my truck, picked up a pen and paper and thought ‘Alright then, tell me your story.’ And so it is written.
First there were the listeners. They were not born here, but followed the hum of the mountain to this place. Those who have felt the vibration that hovers near the subsonic need no further explanation. For them, it is enough to say that all who wander are not lost. They who listened moved rocks in search of food, temporary shelter, and in acknowledgement of their humbled connection to this place.
Then came the dreamers. Drawn initially by worldly ends, their recorded failures were both predicted and preserved by a calculating world that knows nothing of the desert’s secret treasures. Each passing year in the life of a prospector brought a reassessment of a life honed, not by magazine ads, but by the flow of the desert seasons. Without the panoply of distractions that portend a lifetime of unanswered questions, they picked up nuggets of circumspection at rates that would mystify our so called academics. The rocks they moved reflect the dreams they lost…and the dreams they found.
Then came the diggers, and the builders of roads. They heard nothing but the hum of the machines that they drove, and that drove them. They followed fault lines and the faulty lines of promoters. They kept their distance from the rocks, using claws and loaders, crushers and sorters, as if time itself were being mined. Unlike the listeners, when their unenlightened quest ended, whether by choice or chance, time ironically left them with a hum that lingered long after their machines fell silent. From them, the Earth took more than it gave.
And finally came the curious. To them, the listeners, the dreamers and the diggers were all legends. Children of the cities, they knew only in the simplest terms that others before them lived for a time in the ‘wilder’ places beyond the night lights.
Now, as then, they come by and large in the machines of the day, down the roads the builders had built. When they pause for a brief look around, they carry the hum of their utility vehicles into the larger mining camps and, with the hum, begin to imagine the steel and men that were forged, tempered and ultimately weathered there. For those who stop for an hour, the hum begins to subside, and they begin to discern the smaller remnants of the dreamers that dot the nearby hillsides. The paths that lead beyond the province of the machine still bear the tin can testimonials of their hunger. And if you look [and listen] long enough, you will notice that every claim has at least one rock large enough for a tired dreamer to sit and reflect on.
If you count yourselves among the curious, and should somehow reach a place like this in your travels, and you should make the fateful choice to walk further yet, know that you will not walk alone: you are wandering into a world where the rocks still talk, your feet still listen, and a part of you still belongs.
There is nothing quite like arriving in Olancha. At 9.A.M. On a Thursday. In December. First of all, it has probably been decades since any one associated the words 'arriving' and “Olancha' in the same sentence. Secondly, for those who only travel the blacktop, 9a.m in December ANYWHERE in the Eastern Sierra only conjurs up images of cold, blustering wind. Since I had not started out my latest adventure with Olancha as my destination, and ended up there as a state of mind, I figure an explanation is in order.
For starters, traveling early on a Thursday morning gave me an extra dose of independence and control over my destiny that leaving on a Friday morning just doesn't give. Taking Friday off is usually associated with calling in sick, trading schedules, or some other sleight of hand. Traveling with the whole of Thursday before you means you've either done double the magic to parlay time, or you are a small step closer to breaking the barriers between work and play. In my case, a BLM meeting in Ridgecrest Wednesday night made segueing into another desert trip all the easier.
The early morning air was indeed beyond chilly by L.A. standards, with a sunrise ground temp hovering at 18 degrees. But driving north into the clear blue eastern Sierra skyline before me, with the low December sun warming my back thru the window of the pickup, I could only be heartened by the weather. As the minutes and miles rolled on, and the warmth of the sun soaked thru the layers of my clothing, the metaphors for my own existance began to swirl in my head. There was not much trace of summer any more, but neither had winter arrived. The way ahead held more wind and cold, but the cold could be shielded against, and the sun was still at my back, encouraging me on.
But there were other metaphors as well. On previous adventures, I had been one of many, and my pace, and the pace of my truck, were never wholly my decision. Now, in the approaching winter, I travel only in the company of my trusty steel steed. Over the years I have developed a sort of sympathetic sense of where it's sweet spots are. And in the early Thursday morning of this trip, there was virtually no traffic on the highway to keep me from reaching or maintaining that pace. At several points highway speeds dipped to 40mph without concern, because there were no outside forces to pass judgment on it. Then I smiled, remembering once again that old adage that 'how you do anything is how you do everything.' In this case, unbound by convention, I let my truck gravitate towards the same unhurried pace with which I try to conduct all my other daily affairs.
And so it was that arriving in Olancha became a state of mind. Not thinking about a destination, but thinking about where I am...and where I am not.
For tens if not hundreds of thousands of years we lived in Nature, and were very much part of it. Really, up until a few hundred years ago, the vast majority of humanity lived a very rural life in which we were very enmeshed with the elementary forces of Nature. Like it or not, we still understood it, and it's terms.
As we 'progressed' in developing 'improvements' in our lifestyle, aka our standard of living, we concurrently developed a mental resistance to our enmeshment, slowly but surely coming to view it as some sort of forced intimacy that, given the opportunity, we would prefer to renegotiate. It is generally accepted that this renegotiation started about twelve thousand years ago with manipulation of plants and water in the Fertile Crescent. We refer to this as the birth of agriculture, the birth of civilization.
Since then, we have embraced each new development, each new artifice, as something that has increased OUR security as a species against the uncertainties of our past existence 'subjected to' the forces of Nature. We considered ourselves to be, step by step, taking control of our destiny. But with each new step, we knew we were also incrementally moving away from an elemental connection, and that at some level, something was being lost for the 'something' that was gained.
There are of course numerous exceptions to this paradigm.
Many of our species still live rurally. We of course do our best to distinguish them from us, starting off by using connotative words like 'exist' rather than 'live'. This one of many methods we use to convince ourselves that there is something inferior about this way of spending time on this planet.
Others have tasted of the tree of 'progress' to some degree while recognizing at some level the hidden costs of the artifice that in one respect serves to further separate us from the innate rhythms of Nature. They have made a conscious decision to only go 'so far', to temper in their own ways how 'citified' they become. We of the cities prefer to cast their lives as also somehow 'lacking'. [It is interesting to note how many descriptors in this essay require quotes to underscore our pervasive value judgements]
Still others have felt a disturbance in the core of their psyche that they have determined has something to do with both the physical and the mental space we've created between Man and mud.They have made a conscious decision to return to a more rural lifestyle. One that is subject to more of the uncertainties of life in which Nature is still a major contributor. But also one in which the sensation of her pulses is not so obscured by the 'noise' we've created in part to drown out the hollow sound of the void that is, generation by generation, slowly widening into a chasm.
And then there's the rest of us city folks who are absolutely sure that we are on the right path for our species, but that with 'appropriate' amounts of equipment, on OUR terms of engagement we can, at pre-selected opportunities, re-engage Nature in this context we have ironically termed recreation.
We proceed by means of machines to mutually-vetted, generally accepted locations to visit something which reminds us of a kinship resembling that of a distant cousin. These meetings can and often are quite pleasant, our telling caveat being 'weather permitting.' Others purposely choose for their allotted time harsh conditions, wanting to remind themselves of the adversarial part of kinship: you can choose your friends, but not your family. Then, having cast themselves as victors in these scripted family reunions, they return to the artifice of the city, to that something succinctly encapsulated by Pink Floyd in the phrase “cold comfort” in the song “Wish You Were Here.”
What is my point? My point is that this whole idea of recreation as we currently conceive it is by and large an aberration, a by-product of our disconnected existence. Not only that, but we are collectively exacerbating that disconnect with the various kinds of machinery we use to engage Nature, both subjugating it in the near term,and degrading it in the longer one.
In my opinion, the best way to start re-creating this primal connection is to just walk more. Walk longer. Walk at night. Walk in the rain. Not with a sense of challenge. Not with a sense of accomplishment.
Walk with a sense that we have always walked. Walk knowing that with each step the energy we have taken from the Earth by eating is being returned to it, and that with each step we are grounding ourselves. Our biology already knows this...and responds to it...favorably.
I have a story I like to tell that I think illustrates an aspect of human personality very well. I call it the story of hats.
On the day we are born, we have two, or maybe three hats to wear. We are a son/daughter to a mother, and a son/ daughter to a father. And being the child to each is very different to being the child of the other. We act differently with our parents individually than we do with them as a pair. And if there are older siblings, you have a hat to wear in their company as well.
Long before you've even grasped that you are committed to this complex juggling act of switching hats between your parents and your siblings, you meet aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents, and find out that all of them have expectations/ hats for you to wear in their company. It wouldn't be so bad if all their expectations were the same. But they NEVER truly are.
So now you're maybe three or four, and you've gone well beyond having a half dozen hats to switch between, and you go out into the neighborhood. Friends! People you WANT to be with, instead of HAVE to be with. I'm not trying to denigrate family by putting it that way. It's just that we have different standards, filters, tolerances etc for those who we have a CHOICE to be around. And so we start trying on more hats. Remember the first time you brought a friend home. The expectations of those two groups are SO different that both your family and your friends have no choice but to tell you you are acting weird! Who wouldn't. It made your head hurt trying to wear both those hats at the same time.
Then there's school. A mind-boggling, mind-numbing and very intimidating smorgasbord of opportunities to try on and wear hats. 'You can't wear THAT hat if you want to play with US'. A sea of opportunity that nonetheless leaves some adrift, others sinking, and still others just looking for dry land.
Assuming you make it through (I was reminded recently that this is NOT a given), there's work, significant other(s), spouses, and possibly even your own children. You KNOW you have to act different when your children are around! The workplace? How often the query: are you my boss or my friend?
So I picked up several dozen of these hats and discarded a few along my way to fatherhood, as did my wife on her way to motherhood. Then a strange thing happened. My wife felt that the motherhood hat was SO IMPORTANT, she took off the wife hat. There was no announcement. She was still there. But she wasn't.
As fate would have it, I am a patient man. I restored a short wheel base FJ45 and took up road cycling for the five years she was 'gone'. When she finally re-opened the closet and took out some of those other hats to try on again, she said to me "I'm surprised you waited." My reply: "You were worth the wait." We have had a lot of discussions about hats since then.
Interacting with various federal and state agency personnel over the last ten years, I have had the opportunity to comment to several of them that it is an unfortunate aspect of their jobs that they never really get to take off their agency hat. Wherever they go, in all social settings, they always have to guard their comments; they never know what will come back to them in their official capacity. Without exception, they are always surprised by my insight. I explain that It is an insight I know all too well: I almost never get to take off the Mark's Off Road hat.
It is one of the aspects of life in the public eye that I had not accounted for when I put on that hat 28 years ago. In creating a public persona, that part of your identity is a double-edged sword. Once you own that hat, you never get to just be one of the guys again. No matter what I do to just blend in, eventually somebody remembers, ' Wait, you're Mark from Mark's Off Road.' I remember having this discussion with Marv Spector after I opened my shop. This shared knowledge was one of the aspects of our friendship. This knowledge made it easier for me to recognize the turmoil @beno went through earlier this year in trying to set boundaries on his enterprise, his new hat.
Now I'm not really complaining about this hat. Most of the time it is good to have something akin to a badge that marks an accomplishment in life, like being a father or a mother. But their are other times where you'd just like to put that badge away. I am keenly aware that one of the only limitations of my friendship with my father is that I never let him take off the dad hat. I think he would have loved to have gone camping with me and my friends, and just hung out at a campfire. But I could never get past the fact that he was my dad, and that I would have filtered everything he said or did thru that hat. It was my weakness, and I knew it.
So far volleyball and road cycling have been my two havens from the almost ever-present Mark's Off Road hat. In both activities, nobody cares what I do for a living. It is a different kind of beast, at least as I see it. It is governed by pack rules. Rule number one: you've got to be able to keep up with the pack, or they'll cut you loose. Your 'reputation' somewhere else doesn't count for anything. My backpacking trips have also been very clear reminders of this elemental rule. Though my companions were pure gentlemen ( as much as drinkers with a hiking problem can be!) the reminder about pack rules was not lost on me.
Interestingly enough, eventually in every setting, I am called upon to help settle something. As a voice of reason, I end up being a counselor, an arbiter, or the verbalized conscience of at least part of the group. Another hat. They are everywhere!
Thanks for reading.
The passing of my mother four weeks ago marks another milestone/turning point in my life. Births, deaths, graduations, marriages, jobs...they’re all on the ‘standard’ list of milestones/turning points you hear and or read about. One of the turning points I don’t see talked about very often is the tabla rasa, Latin for ‘clean slate’ .
What constitutes a tabla rasa to me? When you have an opportunity to enter a situation as a complete unknown quantity, where you have the opportunity to ‘sink or swim’ entirely on the merits of who you are in that moment. Without the baggage of your past. Moving to another state with a new school can be a prime source of such an opportunity .
I have had the great fortune to have a tabla rasa event happen not once, but twice in my life.
When I was 13 my parents moved from Hollywood to the San Fernando Valley. I had to enroll in a new school. I was a precocious youth: I taught myself my first algebraic equation conceptually (without a book) when I was 10. But the school system I was in had already earmarked me as a mostly unexceptional daydreamer.
Sitting with the counselor at the new school to schedule my curriculum, I asked to take geometry. The counselor perfunctorily asked if I had taken the prerequisite class in algebra. I just as perfunctorily lied and said I had. And I was tabla rasa: they did not have my school records to know ANYTHING about me. So they signed me up.
It only took two quizzes for the geometry teacher to be certain enough of my lie to call me on it. I plead guilt, but with the disclaimer that there were no other classes available to transfer me to at that point, and that I was really motivated to learn, or I wouldn’t have lied in the first place. She let me stay.
At the end of the first semester I missed an A by one point; at the end of the second semester I had a solid A. Tabla rasa had given me the opportunity to reach beyond the pigeonhole my previous world had put me in. And I took it.
I didn’t get as far on the sports field, because math geeks just sort of got quickly stereotyped into a different category. Schoolyard rules. But my writing and music talents were also on their way at that point.
During my second year of high school, I answered an advertisement for a summer job in the Conservation Corps. No previous experience required. And another tabla rasa opportunity! Without the ‘box’ of the school system or the schoolyard ‘reputation’ to hold me back, I excelled at EVERYTHING! Armed with my experience from middle school, I knew that I could be anybody; there were no preconceived notions.
I made friends quickly, joined every competition I could, literally won most of them, and ended up being voted the most talented person in the entire operation.
I came home a changed man.
The painfully shy guy that left campus in June entered the high school talent show in September and tied for first place singing and playing the guitar. The confidence I gained from that tabla rasa, that chance to prove myself as a complete unknown, has stayed with me for the rest of my life. And that confidence helped me, a year later, to win the heart of my soulmate of the last 42 years.
[I originally wrote up this first in a series of articles on learning how to think beyond the toolbox and submitted it to 4WDO magazine about 10 years ago. But because the lead story did not involve a Toyota, it never went anywhere. ]
Most legends do not start in a vacuum, but lack a grounding unless or until you give them one. Stories of some of my trailside repairs have been repeated at campfires for years without this benefit until now. Even people with an aptitude for certain things may never discover them without an inspiration to touch off the flame. And so it was for me.
When I first got into wheeling back in the very early ˜80s, I had subscriptions to all 3 of the major off road mags, and devoured them the same way many of you do today. One of my two favorite writers was a salty dog that lived and wheeled out of Baja California. It seemed like on a pretty regular basis this guy and his trusty canine copilot would have some mechanical difficulty, along with an ingenious way of taking care of the problem. Today we have terms like ˜thinking outside the box' and ˜booty fab' to describe the kinds of mechanical wizardry this guy performed. I used to read his columns over and over again, inspired by his can-do attitude and his different way of looking at ordinary things.
By chance, I had my first opportunity to apply the can-do approaches of this desert dog back in 1988 in the East Mojave near Afton Canyon. I had taken a small crew of four or five rigs from our main group back to a 'secret’ set of dunes on the south side of the valley that had been shown to me by an old timer some years before. One of our crew was a nice young fellow I will refer to as Jim. Jim was and probably still is an ace mechanic for a prestigious shop in my area, and Jim had built himself a very nicely engineered and very capable four wheel drive El Camino with a coil sprung Dana 44 front axle.
Jim's ride could have easily outperformed mine, both because he had a big block and I a small one [yeah, yeah, get your mind out of the gutter!] and because his rig weighed about a thousand pounds less than mine, which was loaded with tools and spare parts. Yet dune after dune, I outmaneuvered him: I had 6 years of dune wheeling experience, and he had none. I could tell that his sense of frustration was building with each climb.
Well after a few minutes of running most of it's interior slopes, I took everyone off the backside of the dunes, sliding down what is referred to as ‘stack' sand into the canyon below. Now for those of you who do not frequent the desert, 'stack'sand is just that: sand that is literally stacked as tall as you can stack dry sand without it falling down of it's own accord. It has no surface tension, no compression, no interior density. It's just plain loose.
After we all slid down, I told them that we would have to proceed along the canyon bottom we were in around the base of the dune back to the other side. I repeated to them the stories I had heard of fiberglass bodied, rat-powered Jeeps with porthole lightened frames and paddle tires unsuccessfully trying to climb that dune because of its composition. Well that was about all I needed to say to get ol Jim a hankerin to try it.
Now the other side of this canyon we were in was a hard dirt hill, spotted all over with rocks on the order of six to 12 inches. Nonetheless, Jim started backing his El Camino up this rocky dirt hillside. I tried explaining to Jim that the approach angle was all wrong for what he was thinking, but the rumble of his big block engine must have drowned me out, because just like that, he was off!
When Jim hit the bottom of the canyon, sure enough, that big block had given him the momentum he desired. Unfortunately, he failed to account for the fact that the canyon bottom was not perfectly flat either, but grooved from the many contestants and spectators that had visited this canyon before us. Well he hit the small berm in the middle of that canyon with enough momentum to propel that El Camino airborne, something like the General Lee from the Dukes of Hazzard. His angle of departure was no where near close to the angle needed to climb the face of the dune and, you guessed it, the El Camino went nose first into the dune!
The rear tires made contact a few moments later, and proceeded to shower rooster tails of sand over the car, which was going nowhere fast, as I was yelling over the CB for him to give it up because the front tires were not turning anymore. Good old Jim gunned it one more time, just to make sure it really wasn’t gonna move, then he shut her down and came out for a look. What we found was that both front tires were on the ground at a funny angle that was far from vertical.
After digging around the front bumper for several minutes, we were finally able to ascertain that the Dana 44 front axle had broken in half, cracking the cast iron nodule in the center at the point where the axle tube slides into the nodule. I quickly scanned my memory banks and could not remember any of the old timers in our club having dealt with a problem like this, and there were no old timers with us to ask anyways. I had certainly never encountered ANYTHING this severe before. Nonetheless, based on my years of reading the adventures of my Baja hero, I was absolutely sure SOMETHING could be done. So while Jim the ace mechanic sat there thinking of how he was gonna pass around all his belongings to other members of the group to carry out, and how he was gonna get a trailer out to the middle of nowhere [which is basically where we were], I was sitting there next to him, devising a plan.
After a minute, I got up and said “We're gonna drive this thing out of here.” Then I got everyone busy. We got out a hi lift to raise the bumper and frame to get some working room, and two factory bottle jacks to prop up the two halves of the axle. Then I got the little hand winch-come-along thingy I’d been carrying around in my toolbox for 5 years without ever using and hooked his two trac bars to the two ends of the winch and used the winch to pull the two halves of the axle back together. Next we unbolted the bolt-on axle truss that was on the front of my Dana 44ed K5. [Don't laugh-it was on the truck when I got it, and I never really wondered what it was for, but obviously someone else had heard of this Dana breaking thing before!]
After putting my truss under his axle to hold up the two halves, we took out the floor jacks and the hi lift to test the support. It seemed to be holding ok. So I had accounted for the side to side and the downward pressure. I figured all I had left was to make sure the two halves couldn’t pop up and separate. We disassembled the hi-lift jack and took the main bar and the handle and duct taped them over the top of the axle and wrapped the whole assembly with a tow strap. Oh yeah. At some point along the way, we had also removed the front driveshaft.
It was now about two hours later, and the sun was getting low in the sky, but we were ready for a test drive. The big block wasn't happy about starting up on the side of that slope after resting there for two hours, but eventually she complied, and the El Camino was able to back out of the dune and down to the canyon bottom. We tied a second strap to the front bumper just in case it was needed. In actuality, in the whole 35 mile trip back to base camp, there was only one small section where the El Camino was not able to traverse the terrain under it’s own power.
When we returned to camp, the rest of our group was duly incredulous, and the old-timers were a little disgruntled that we had managed to get ourselves so messed up, and get ourselves fixed again, without any input from them. And that’s where the legend of Markguyver began.
My mother found it awkward that they would occasionally have to let people into the bungalow through the front door early in the day, before it was made back into the living room. So it was decided that one of the windows in the dining room would be made into an alternate entry, and a privacy divider would be made for the front room. Enter our handyman, Malcolm.
I missed the conversion of the window one day while I was at school. When I left for school, there was a window; when I came home there was a door! It was pure magic! I had no idea until over a decade later that window headers and door headers take virtually identical framing. But it seemed very impractical: our house was on a raised foundation, and it was over two feet down from the new doorway to the flowerbed below.
The next day was a Saturday, and I was glued to the handyman’s side (as much as my mom would allow) while I watched him make a strange shaped box out of plywood and put it up against the side of the bungalow. He took a long time cutting these two very odd-shaped pieces of plywood that were on opposite sides of the box. Each one was flat on two sides, and sawtoothed on the 3rd kind of like a B-2 Stealth bomber. Then he mixed up some concrete and poured it into the box. It all seemed so strange.
Sunday he returned and broke up the box and there were STAIRS where a flowerbed had been! I was absolutely AMAZED. Lightbulbs were going off furiously in my 5 year old brain. This was my first inkling that things could be MADE! I just stared at Malcolm in awe. He knew a secret, and I knew right then and there it was my destiny to learn that secret too.
Later that day I also occurred to me that Malcolm knew how to do something that my dad didn’t know.
And Malcolm was black.
The first cornerstones of my ideology are anchored in that memory.
I recently attended a land use meeting regarding the potential site locations of alternative energy projects in the California desert, a topic I have been following with some interest for a while now. At various times during the meeting, the attending public was given a limited opportunity to speak to specific matters that were on the panel's agenda at that point in the meeting. The object of the public comment periods was for the public to provide comments, suggestions, and otherwise help the panel identify issues with the specified topic at hand.
Unfortunately, almost without exception, those who chose to speak during those opportunities used the time to speak to their own general concerns that did not necessarily address the discussion for which the panel was receiving comment. I could see the frustration of the panel over this lack of focus. While I joined the panel in quietly biding time during these monologues, a little voice inside my head was screaming the question, "Do you just want to speak, or do you want to be heard?"
As I generally do, I tried to find a constructive way to deal with my own emotions, but as the speakers droned on, they were drowning out my ability to focus on the discussion until I realized I had to leave. I can't imagine how the panelists dealt with it.
On the drive back to my campsite in the desert, I realized that the public comment issue was not a new one. For decades now, I have heard SO many people say after attending a public land use meeting,"I don't feel like my voice was heard."
As an outgrowth of my trade, I often find myself creating visualizations for things beyond the realm of auto mechanics. In this case, the idea of using radio as a metaphor came to mind. If a deliberative panel has chosen to open up a specific point for public comment, it is akin to having chosen a particular station on the radio to listen to. That being the case, why would anyone choose to broadcast on a different frequency? In other words, if the comments don't address the issues the panel is there to listen to, broadcasting on their frequency as it were, it is almost a foregone conclusion that the message is going to be received as static. To the one broadcasting, their words may well seem clear as day, but they have as much clarity to the audience as when adults speak in a Charlie Brown cartoon: "wa, wa wa wa wa wa wa."
There is a time and a place for everything, and we all need to remain keenly aware land use meetings take precious time from very full lives to attend. Just because it is a gathering of people interested in land use issues, it does not automatically mean THAT meeting is THE PLACE or the time for what we have to say, especially if the message we bring is off-topic. Choosing to speak under those circumstances only increases the likelihood that the need to speak outweighs the need to be heard. And, unfortunately, it may be worse than that.
Speaking "off topic"-broadcasting on a different frequency than your audience is tuned to-often infects the message the speaker wishes to deliver. Sloppy misdirection by the messenger can also detune the audience over time, effectively preventing them from hearing the messenger in the future. If you carry a title, and attend these meetings regularly, care needs to be taken to not become labeled as a broadcaster of static. In other words, not every public lands meeting is an opportunity to discuss every issue on public lands.
Do yourself, and the public who desperately needs your voice to be heard, a big favor and ask yourself before you attend a land use meeting if: 1) that meeting is the appropriate forum for your comments; and 2) whether or not you are willing to defer your comments if the appropriate opportunity doesn't present itself. If you cannot answer these two simple questions in the affirmative, then the chances are pretty good that your need to speak outweighs your need to be heard, and your message will suffer for it.
--The author, Mark Algazy, is a musician, writer, and an outdoor enthusiast who has enjoyed camping, hiking and four wheeling on the public lands of the western US for over 30 years. He is also the 20 year owner of a Landcruiser specialty business, appropriately named Mark's Off Road (www.marksoffroad.net).
There is a special place in every lucky person’s life. Some are acquired, some are found, and some are built. In my shop I have a special place. To everyone else, it is just a couple of workbenches and a shoplight where I go to rebuild carburetors and distributors. In fact, is where I leave the rest of the outside world and go into my own special place where time moves differently. And those seemingly ordinary fixtures are part of the magic.
There is an old jeweler’s workbench that has definitely seen better days. Its old top has long since decayed to the point where it was replaced with one made out of construction timbers. The drawers are filled with little metal boxes of screws and springs and tools that defy description. It was my grandfathers. He was a jeweler who made rings, pendants and chains the old fashioned way, from solid lumps of metal that required hours of bending, filing and polishing to take their shape. He was a craftsman in his time, and a vibrant human being. I like to think that having that bench acknowledges a little piece of him.
The shoplight was my fathers. It was in his warehouse when he passed away. Many years before, my father had told me about an old worklight from his shop, where he had worked alongside my grandfather until he took over the business from him. My grandfather had long since retired and moved away, and the worklight had ceased to function. My father kept the worklight anyways, because it reminded him of a time when he worked alongside his father.
As my father told it, the day that my grandfather passed away, that old worklight started working again! My father asked his manager if the manager had done anything to the light, and he said that he had not. My father felt that, in his own special way, my grandfather had given him a message that he would still be there. So, when my father passed away, I took a light from my father’s warehouse that he had used, turned it on over my workbench, and left it on. The bulbs in that light lasted for many years beyond their expectancy. I would like to think that I know why.
My workbench was a gift that was a long time coming from a very special man in my family’s life, Art Suel. Art’s father was a friend and business associate of my grandfather’s, and Art was a friend to us all. At the time I met him, Art had a workshop in the back of his father’s store where he repaired antiques that his father bought and sold.
One eventful Sunday during my thirteenth year, while our families were visiting in the front of the store, I wandered out back and spied this awesome electrician’s workbench sitting out in the yard. I immediately was taken with the sheer utility of it, green paint and linoleum notwithstanding. I asked Art if he was getting rid of it; he explained, with a sense of frustration in his voice, that he too liked the bench very much, but that he had just reorganized his workshop, and currently had no room for it.
Having discerned that ownership of this nine-foot behemoth was not likely, I ventured an offer to ‘store’ the workbench for him until he had a place for it again. Actually, I said something to the effect of 'it sure would be a shame if a fine workbench like this got messed up sitting out in the rain.' He was greatly humored by my adolescent attempt at negotiations and gave a small wry smile. Then, to my surprise, he agreed to let me “store” it! For the next five years, this industrial-strength green workbench was a fixture of my bedroom in my parent's house, where it served mostly as a place to organize school papers.
My parents dutifully stored it in their garage when I left home, and once my father acquired a warehouse for his new projects [the same one that caught fire in 2016], I casually reassembled the workbench there, the better to assist him in his endeavors. [nudge, nudge, wink, wink!] When I finally had a shop of my own, some sixteen years after originally acquiring it for the ostensible purposes of storage, I wasted no time in moving it to the center of the shop and building shelves both above and around it.
Nine years later, when my father passed, I wasted no time in moving my grandfather’s workbench from my father’s warehouse to my shop. Ditto for the shoplight. Then I called my mother and asked her for Art’s phone number. Art had long since retired and left Southern California for the serenity of the north.
“Art” I said after the initial pleasantries, “You probably don’t remember this, but I borrowed a workbench from you 25 years ago to 'store' it, and I’d like of like to know if I can keep it before I drill holes to anchor it to the floor.” From 800 miles I way, I could see Art smiling, right thru the telephone. It took a moment before he said, “I REMEMBER that workbench!”
I continued. “ I never painted that workbench, or drilled a single hole in it, because I never considered it truly mine.” Art said something flattering about my upstanding character, and said he was just happy to know that I was still enjoying it. We shared a few thoughts about my father, and that was that.
Art Suel passed away yesterday[October 25, 2006], and I just found out. Pausing to let the waves of these powerful memories make their way thru my body, I slowly managed to compose this tribute. May these words give his family comfort.
[I originally wrote this to my son the morning after watching him graduate from high school in 2005, which was as much a turning point for me-as he is my youngest child-as it was for him]
Good Morning! Welcome to the first day of the REST OF YOUR LIFE! I hope yesterday was a good day for you. I had planned to write this last night, but as usual, time ran away and now I have lost some of the thoughts I wanted to share with you. I will do my best to remember.
As the world stretches out before you, you have more choices now than you have ever had before. And more consequences. There will be many choices that call loudly, and many temptations. Many people, myself included, will be watching and listening to what happens next. Remember that all of your friends are in the same boat as you metaphorically, as far as high school ending and the road ahead. So while they may speak with conviction about their choices, they are all pretenders to their roles, armed with dialogue, but with no experience. Their choices are not yours.
Today is as good as any to judge how you will engage life. Will you rise early, and with energy, or slowly, thinking that your day has started with some deficit? Will your first thoughts be of doing something productive, or something fun? Will you make an effort to sort out your affairs, or look for entertainment? Will you take action on a long term plan, or heed the call for the pleasure of the moment?
If you face each of these questions, you will have chosen the chaos that confronts Neo [of THE MATRIX] when he chooses the pill that lets him see reality. Reality is the lifelong struggle to achieve balance out of the stream of choices that confront us daily. The balance is to accept enough responsibility to feel that we have considered the future, while not sacrificing fun to the point that we lose sight of why we take on responsibilities in the first place. Put another way, balance is learning how to enjoy life every day without deferring responsibility to the point that you seal the fate of your future as one who is shaped by events rather than one who shapes them.
I believe that the choices you make in the next few weeks will be reflective of an attitude that will stay with you for the rest of your life. Consider well and wisely my son, my prince of potential.
As I continue my sojourn on this planet, taking the information I have accumulated in 58 years and distilling some knowledge from it, further refining some of that knowledge into wisdom, I have come to recognize a singular aspect of regret in a lot of the people I have met. For lack of a more precise phrase I just call it ‘that one thing’: the thing you never get over, the thing that changes your life forever. And for most, it is not for the best.
Although I had seen plenty evidence of this in my early years, I didn’t really have anything to ‘pin’ this anecdotal information to until 2000, when I saw U2’s video “Stuck In A Moment.” The video shows an aspiring football player missing the game-winning field goal at the end of the championships. He relives this moment for the rest of his life, as you eventually see him, a retired postal worker, making one last kick before walking off an empty playing field.
Once the anecdotes distilled themselves into this concept, the vision of that football player became to me the perfect representation for everyone I’d met that had experienced this. Friends and acquaintances who knew without a doubt ‘that one thing’ that made them miss getting the girl/job/house/life of their dreams. Or perhaps worse, ‘that one thing’ that made them lose it. “For you the blind who once could see, the bell tolls for thee.” [Rush: Losing It]
Bono (the singer for U2) has stated that, among other things, he was thinking of Michael Hutchins (singer for INXS who killed himself) when he wrote the song. And indeed suicide is one of the possibilities happen for someone who can’t get over that one thing. Escaping into alcoholism is another. And even without becoming an alcoholic or a drug addict, I know with sad certainty that I have gazed across campfires for four decades into a sea of faces that reflect some kind of medication against the pain of that one thing.
And let’s not overlook the obvious: medicating with food.
I also know there is a lot of sadness in the world in general. I have come to believe that a majority of that sadness can be traced to ‘that one thing’ that happened to someone, whether by choice or chance. Eventually I turned my focus closer to home and realized that both my parents were victims of this. My father never got over losing his mother at 6. Never. My mother never got over giving up her first child for adoption (even though they’ve been reunited for 25 years now). I literally heard her call herself damaged goods. In contrast, I’ve suffered losses and setbacks aplenty in myself. But for reasons I haven’t taken the time to sort out, I got through adolescence a talented and strong individual who wasn’t afraid to take chances, make mistakes, and just move on. So I don’t really understand how ‘that one thing’ can take so many people down, and keep them down. To my mind, it just seems like a cop out.
It’s like if you’re sure the best thing in your life has passed you by, you’re now a card-carrying member of a club full of people who feel they don’t have to try as hard anymore, or maybe not even at all...because they’re never going to get that one thing back.
Mine is a life of aphorisms; fall seven times, get up eight. That works for me. But for many that one thing is a permanent revolution limiter, a psychological yardstick that says the glass will always be half empty.
Then there are the external gumption busters. My personal favorite from our culture is being told you were born a sinner. Or that you can’t rise above whatever minority status you might have been born to. I suppose if you look around long enough, you’ll find so many rev limiters integrated into the structure and subplots of our culture that failure becomes predetermined. Another song comes to mind: Arc Angels “Too Many Ways To Fall.”
As if there was one right way to live. Noble purpose? Another benign, insidious setup for depression.
What’s my point? I know every one of you has seen the look of ‘that one thing’ in the faces of others as well. And chances are if you look inside long enough, you’ll find an adolescent version of you clinging to some personal ‘thing’ from your past that you’re sure defined you. And chances are you cling to that one thing like a holy cross.
Then remember this: when your aspirations meet your limitations, the one you embrace defines you.
So now here I am, a five year old kid with a quest: I want to MAKE things. First problem: no materials. Melrose Avenue (yes THE Melrose Ave) was a block from my house. And in the 1960s it was ANYTHING BUT a fashionable destination. It was a working class street in a working class neighborhood. Plenty of mercantiles.
I would get shipping pallets that were literally taller than me from the alleys behind Melrose and drag/carry them back to the house. I say drag/carry because there was at least one neighbor between Point A and Point B who could hear me coming and complain about the marks I was leaving on the sidewalk. So I’d struggle to carry the pallet the width of that property before resuming the drag.
Once home I’d pry and pry and pull the thing apart, breaking half the planks in the process. Then began process of getting the nails out. This was REALLY hard for a five year old kid, and a few more boards got wrecked in the process. Then I’d straighten out the nails on the edge of the curb, usually forgetting to check which ones had gotten the points TOO flat from being beaten out of the old planks to be reusable.
Then it was finally time to make something!
The first project I can remember making was a bookshelf for my Hardy Boys detective novels. I didn’t have a tape measure, so I went inside the house and asked my mom to borrow her yardstick. She was smart enough not to trust me with it, but let me bring in one of the planks and measure it. So right then and there I decided my bookshelf was going to be 36” square! Very pragmatic if I do say so myself.
I concentrated very hard on making a straight cut, even took a few practice cuts on some of the broken planks until I was confident enough to try it on the ‘real’ boards. I focused real hard on cutting that board right down the middle of the line and...I did it! I was pretty proud of myself.
Then I used that board to mark the next one, since they were all going to be 36”, right? Then I cut that one right down the middle of the line. And I used each one to mark the next, six boards in total. You see where this is headed?
I nailed the first four boards together, whacking each of my thumbs (I was totally ambidextrous at that point) at least a dozen times. I kid you not, by the time I was six I had permanently damaged the nailbeds of both my thumbs. Maybe five year olds shouldn’t be playing with hammers. But I was determined to learn Malcolm’s secret, the secret of making things.
I was in no way coordinated enough to hold the boards together while nailing. So I pushed them up against the short footing wall of the bungalow and used the house as my backstop!
As soon as I stood the frame up I could see that it was not square. I was puzzled. Then I tried putting one of the two remaining planks inside the frame and it was too short. Well I tried to fool myself that maybe the wood of the frame was just warped, and that the nails would pull it all together if I just whacked it a little harder! Not.
Eventually I took the whole thing apart and stood all the planks up on end. I could see they were all different lengths. But why? It must have taken my five-year-old mind 10 minutes to figure out the mistake of cutting down the middle of the line.
The shortest plank became my new measure, and the rest of the planks were now all recut on the outside of the line, each one checked to make sure my new ‘theory’ was working. Mission accomplished.
My ‘playhouse’ at that point in my life was the overhead storage loft at the back of the garage. It took everything I had to get that shelf up into the loft, but I was darn proud of it. Of course as soon as I tried to load it with books it wanted to fold into a parallelogram. My parents had forbidden me putting nails into the wall of the garage, so I had to explain the whole thing to them in five year old terms before they would make an exception for the shelf.
I was on my way.
As I mentioned earlier in the story about Malcolm, the family handyman of my youth, I knew that from the time I was four, and watched Malcolm make a set of stairs at our house, that more than anything else, I wanted to learn to build things, make things-work with my hands-for the rest of my life. And as I sit here today in 2022, I now see that I have fulfilled the dreams of my youth.
I persevered through a lot of crappy self-starter, no-supervision woodworking projects (mostly shelves) until I was about seven. I was self-entertaining, even if the learning curve was slow. I didn’t know if anyone was paying attention, and I don’t remember particularly caring. Then when I was seven, I got a really big surprise: my aunt and uncle (father’s brother) gave me a junior set of woodworking tools!
A claw hammer, saw handle with three interchangeable blades, hand drill, small square, and a tote-sized toolbox to carry/store my new treasures in! I knew nothing of the competitive dynamics between my father and his brother. All I knew was that someone had noticed me trying to learn a skill. It wasn’t until years later that I came to understand the long heritage of craftsmanship in my family.
Summers were long, and many were the days that my parents would take me in to the jewelry store where they worked rather than leave me to my own devices at home. I watched the employees work, having particular interest in the tools they used, and how they used them. I had already realized that tools were essential to making things. I tried not to get in their way, but I’m sure I was rarely successful. The shop was small, and it had a lot of tools.
When I was 10, my father said he had a job for me. I thought he was joking. He melted down some silver into a small ingot, then slowly ran it through a mill, each time bringing the opposing drums a little closer together, until the ingot became a metal plate somewhat thinner than a 16th inch.
Then he handed me a snuff box which had an inlaid silhouette of a ballerina on it, along with a marker, and asked me to duplicate the silhouette on the metal plate. He said he had a customer who wanted a pendant to match her snuff box.
It took me almost an hour to make a replica of that 1” tall ballerina, but I did. And I was pretty proud of myself. It was a very challenging job, even though I had no idea that it was a ‘job’. My dad wasn’t big on compliments, but he more or less conveyed that it was good enough.
Then he sat me down at HIS workbench, handed me a jeweler’s saw and told me to cut the silhouette out of the plate!
For those of you who are not familiar with jeweler’s saws, the blades are extremely fine, on the order of dental floss. And in 1971, they were as brittle as mechanical pencil lead, which is to say, extremely brittle. Suffice it to say, I broke the blade(s) a lot. I can’t say that I mastered the cutting technique that day. But I can say that before the day was done I, a precocious by of ten, handed my father an exact replica of the ballerina on the snuff box.
(to be continued)
The unexamined life is not worth living-Socrates