Motorcyclists are a superstitious bunch.
Starting with the Gremlin Bell.
Gremlins? Really? Nyaaah, What’s Up, Doc?
“Gremlins?!? What a Riot!!!”
I was watching a clip from a new documentary about the Isle of Man TT the other day, and one of the racers — while pulling on his riding gear — was talking about a good friend of his that had just been killed racing at the Isle.
“We try not to dwell on all of us that have died here. They would want us to go on. We ride for and with them that have gone before.”
Heck, I do that kind of thing myself.
So yeah, I may not yet have gotten to the point where I’ve sacrificed small mammals to the Riding Gods, but there have been a few times where things got so serious, I at least briefly considered it.
So when I found myself looking at my tool chest in the shop last night, it’s not at all surprising that it simply struck me how many of the tools in that chest had not originally been mine — they’d been given to me, or willed to me, or had simply appeared out of thin air in mysterious ways.
But I started to think about all the tools that had somehow come to me, and how each of them was somehow a talisman — or transmitter — of the skills of the ones whose hands had held them before me. And that thought kind of swept me away.
I’ve got a ServiceStar knock-off Vice Grips locking pliers that has never looked very good. They didn’t look good thirty years ago when they showed up in my tool box, and they sure don’t look any better now. But scratched into one side of the handle are the letters “NF” which have to be the mark of Neil Feather. Neil is an artist and craftsman of the highest order — a maker of musical sculptures and unique instruments that all demonstrate the maximum possible levels of imagination, creativity, and no small measure of fabrication skill, besides.
When Sweet Doris from Baltimore and I moved to Frederick County those many years ago, we owned a house that had once been a country store — with the store building proper – gas pump island and all — joined to the home’s kitchen with an enclosed breezeway. The store had made a perfect studio and eventually, a florist’s shop for D, but when we first moved in it needed a little help.
It was a block building that had a full grocery store worth of inventory shelving attached to the block with masonry nails. It had been painted that lovely medium GI green that seemed to be so popular in the 30’s and 40s — and after someone had taken down the shelving it really did not present a smooth, attractive surface. Young Me had no skills, and Neal had more than a few, so he came and took up residence for a coupla few days while we crashed some drywall, paint and modern wiring and lighting into the dark beat old building.
After four or five long days mounting lathe to the wall, running romex, and drywalling and compounding the walls and ceiling, we had what appeared to be a brand new building. A few weeks later after the literal dust had settled, I found the vice grips in my toolbox. I remember thinking that if that tool brought me just half of one percent of the skill Neil had in using it, that would be some serious vice grips mojo.
So Neil, I never meant to lift your vice grips, but if you need ’em back, I’ll bring them by.
Upon refection, I have owned two absolutely terrible pickup trucks in my life.
The first of those absolutely terrible trucks was a FrankenTruck — its previous owner had combined the body from one of Chevy’s late 70s diesel pickups — which were do-it-yourself hand-grenade kits — with an older Oldsmobile 350 gasoline engine. I had gotten a smoking deal on it because the previous owner had become indisposed for about 7-11 years in Hagerstown.
And while that general description may sound somewhat plausible, there were a few details that were not exactly well-engineered, like twin gas tanks that had two fuel output lines but only one return line.
That system created some operational complexity that was more in line with a multi-engine aircraft than it was for a Chevy Pickup.
Perhaps to make up for all the ill that truck did me in our time together, it did do me one favor — it introduced me to Russell Mossberg.
Russell is the automotive mechanic. Apart from working as a professional mechanic, Russell races a dirt track car for fun, where things tend to get smashed and broken on the regular, and the ability to perform routine mechanical miracles in no time at all is part of the required repertoire of skill. When I found myself needing to swap an engine — in my second absolutely terrible pickup — Russell told me to bring it to a shop he managed after lunchtime on a Saturday afternoon — after the shop had closed — and we’d have the new one in by dinnertime.
When I’d first purchased Terrible Pickup One, I needed to get it inspected to re-register it, and given the genuinely sketchy paternity of the vehicle, I wasn’t expecting a completely smooth ride.
When I took the truck to the Maryland Inspection station, Russell was The Inspector.
He completed his work around and under the vehicle, and came to me with the Yellow Inspection Sheet on the clipboard.
“I’m be truthful with you Buddy … you bought this truck? Anyway, there’s a list of things that I’ll need you to repair to obtain your inspection pass, and then there’s another list of things that you don’t need to pass your inspection but you need to fix later when you can afford it.”
Russell has never been anything but 100% truthful with me then, or ever, which is a rare enough thing in a mechanic that we should note it with sincere appreciation here.
<Sound of Angelic Choir Up and Under>
Two or three years of FrankenTruck operation later, I noticed a small coolant leak under the left nose – which from my prior GM ownership experience, likely just meant a loose lower coolant hose clamp. As I poured myself over the truck’s fender to reach down to the rear of the radiator cowl, I noticed a flash of something green sticking out from the bottom of the cowling. After tightening the suspect clamp, which had turned out to be loose, I fished my hand down and produced a nice, but clearly shopworn slip joint pliers.
And while it’s theoretically possible those pliers came with the truck when I bought it, since only my hands and Russell’s hands were laid upon the truck since I bought it, those slip joints were most likely Russell’s. Having watched the man at work, and having worked occasionally holding his metaphorical coat, I looked upon these beat pliers as another gift.
If you want magical, mechanical pliers mojo, you should get it from an honest man who looks at 318 Motor swaps the way most people look at making a sandwich.
I don’t know a lot about Vernon Goyot. And truthfully, I think there was a lot that people who thought they knew him well didn’t know, either. At least, based on what I found in his basement, anyway.
Mr. Vernon, as the neighbors and local kids called him, seemed to be a pretty normal, go to work everyday and church on Sunday kind of guy. He had a wife — Miss Dolores — that he loved and a job where he was a printing press and linotype mechanic. He lived in an old neighborhood in East Baltimore — where Sweet Doris’ parents and grandparents lived — where people looked after each other, brought food when you were sick, and supported the survivors in any way they needed when the old ones finally went home.
Mr. Vernon was closer to Sweet Doris’ grandparents’ age than her parents’ age, so, when not long after we were married, Vernon passed away, I volunteered to help her folks clean out the old rowhouse. Real estate agents that know me always joke about me being ‘a basement man’, and this was no different. Old rowhouses tend to have panelling, and this one had substantial little storage closets in the basement accessed though hatches in the panelling. And there were tools everywhere. There was a converted fishing tackle box that contained machinist’s drill bits — a box I still use, though many of the older bits have been sacrificed over time to my projects.
But one box I found was different.
Apparently Vernon had gone to fight in Europe during World War II. One small box – about the size of a cigar box – had ‘Paris’ written on its lid, and amazing things contained inside. The box had a false lid — concealed by a wooden slide. With the slide removed, once could see a woodburned artwork — a nude of a rather well-constructed unclothed woman. A woman who, it appeared, had been created by combining an image of a random nice body with an image of Miss Dolores’ head.
Oh, those crazy French.
But the hidden compartment had other little treasures.
There were insignia that appeared to have been removed from German Military uniforms. There was a very small, easily concealable 7.6 mm CZ Pistol — which had the German Imperial Eagle, complete with wreath and swastika, etched into the barrel inside the shell ejection port. And there was a steel ring — dated 1914 — which was decorated with the markings of the Order of The Iron Cross.
A Soldier’s Souvenir
Clearly, before Mr. Vernon had been punching a clock, and holding down his end of a boring, normal life, he’d had his fair share of excitement. Excitement, that when it was past, got put down into the basement and forgotten.
You Don’t Say, Stanley….
This Awl – from the Stanley Works of New Britain, Connecticut — also came from one of Vernon’s toolboxes. It’s a classic example of a tool made well enough to last and work for several lifetimes. I’ve used this tool for so many jobs, it beggars description. Putting new holes in belts and leather riding gear. Fixing shoes — Starting screws.
It just keeps doing the job without drama. Sort of like Mr. Vernon.
I have, when riding motorcycles, stepped on or nearly stepped on more than my fair share of tools. The drill is almost always the same — running down through the gears coming into an intersection, put foot down, and be presented with a road present.
I don’t know why tools fall out of cars or trucks in intersections, but they clearly do.
Craftsman tools have always been crazy tough. If they proved not to be, one went to your nearest Sears, and they’d give you a new one, no questions asked. As a direct result, I’ve tended to treat any Craftsmen tools in my box with a fair amount of disrespect. This one got stepped on in an intersection more than 20 years ago — it has the name ‘Josh’ scratched – badly – in the plastic handle. I’ve used this screwdriver for a screwdriver, a pry bar, a chisel, a jack handle — heck, if there was an easy way to use it for a kickstarter, I would have. If you’re out there and reading this Josh, you can’t have it back. Given the not quite fatal amount if damage I’ve done to it, I’m not sure you’d want it, anyway.
I’ve got a pair of armored Duluth Trading Company carpenter’s gloves. Like everything Duluth, they’re reasonably well made, and kinda spendy. So spendy, that I wouldn’t own them, except that I nearly ran over them coming into an intersection.
Yet Another New Law of Newton? – The Conservation of Wrenches
I recently had a kind of tool crisis when my prized BMW Motorcycle tool kit was soaked in water and badly damaged by rust. One of my tools that didn’t survive that trial was a cheap Chinese adjustable wrench. It had always served as the bonehead saver – where one needed to hold a nut of the same size as another nut when breaking something loose. When my toolkit had gotten immersed, because the adjustable had moving parts – in the form of the screw adjuster and the sliding jaw it worked upon – those parts had been fused by rust, and it couldn’t be saved. I’ll admit I got a bit verklempt as I tossed something I’d used for 30 plus years into the shop trash.
On my next ride out of the house, I nearly stepped on this BluePoint adjustable wrench. It was slightly larger and, frankly, much nicer than the recently departed — made of tool steel, black oxide plated — a much nicer tool.
I’ve said bikers are a superstitious lot. Believing that The Universe can send you signs — like instantly replacing a destroyed favorite tool — plays right into that.
Mr Vernon was a printing press mechanic. So was my grandfather, Wadi Shamieh.
Or at least he started out that way.
Wadi — who, like many immigrants, went by the anglicized name of William in an attempt to blend and assimilate — came to this country with his mother and eight siblings from an Ottoman-occupied Syria. Wadi’s immigration papers list his occupation as ‘Printing Press Mechanic’.
Upon arrival in New York in the earliest part of the 20th century, Wadi saw a much greater market opportunity in New York’s garment industry and retrained as a sewing and knitting machine mechanic. I’m guessing that his thought process was that a lot of people were going to need sweaters where this book thing was never really going to catch on – a decision that served him well, eventually owning his own business, William A. Shamieh and Sons, and positioning my dad to become a manager and part owner of a knitting mill and garment factory that was one of Shamieh’s best customers.
When I was bestowed a former family car as my first motor vehicle, my dad pulled some of Wadi’s tools from his own tool box and presented them to me. At the time, I didn’t think much of it, but as time has gone by, the apparent power of those tools — and the significance of that gift — has grown in my mind’s eye.
Wadi’s tools reflected his personality and how he approached his work — a man who liked precision — I remember him being a man who spent a lot of time manually sharpening anything with edges. To hear Wadi was to hear the constant shing of his knife blades on the sharpening steel.
Wadi’s tools also reflected the industry of his time — all made in the 19-teens and 20s. His tools are all high carbon tool steel — incredibly hard, incredibly strong — all made in America. The way these tools are made, my grandson could still find himself using them, if by that time anyone fixes anything that doesn’t involve lines of software code.
Cotter Pins Fear Me
These 90 degree needle nose pliers are feared by cotter pins everywhere. They have a long reach, can get into tight spots, and their pivot points are as well machined as engine internals – they have no discernible slop. The number of small, precise mechanisms this pliers has serviced is beyond anyone’s recall. From needlebed cams on Groz-Beckert knitting machines to slide needle clips on my Del’Ortos, if it’s small, I can hold it with these.
We take the concept of a reversing ratchet socket wrench for granted, but before it was invented ratchets only turned one way — and to reverse drive directions one turned the drive handle over and pushed something called a drive plug through to the other side of the ratchet. Wadi’s Walden Worcester drive handle – built in 1928 – is about the toughest ratchet drive I’ve ever seen. It looks like a tool that a guy 10 years younger than Fred Flintstone would have spun. Given that most of my serious wrenching is done on motorcycles, I don’t make frequent use of 1/2 inch drive sockets, but for things like motormount bolts, swingarm pivots, centerstand bolts and telescopic fork tops and bottoms, this one reigns supreme. The Walden is long enough to apply sufficient force, and utterly rigid — it just does the job, drama free.
Built Better Than Tank
I ended up with 8 or 10 of my grandfather’s open end combination wrenches — all in SAE sizes, although one set is dual labelled with SAE on one side and metric equivalents on the back. It isn’t as easy to make a tough wrench as you might think — one that won’t round off fasteners or bend in use. Ask anyone who had a 1970s or 80s Japanese motorcycle with a factory toolkit, it you’re looking for backup.
These wrenches — again, dating from the 1920s — are forged tool steel. As many times as Wadi wailed on them, and I have wailed on them, the working faces of the wrenches have no discernible wear marks after over 90 years of use.
No one taught me how to be a mechanic. Anything I needed to do, I taught myself.
Sure, there were Chiltons, Haynes, and then after the dawn of the Internet, user communities like the Internet BMW Riders, and then eventually Google and YouTube, where you could learn Brain Surgery by watching videos if you were so inclined.
My Uncle Dick – who is a professional mechanic – used to warn me not to take guidance in the mechanical arts from his brother, my father. His appraisal of dad’s level of skills was not flattering.
That these hands have successfully rebuilt motorcycle top ends and had them run better afterwards – swapped bike engines and transmissions — done clutches — changed countless tires and brake pads — changed a sea of oil — makes me think that the gift of hands that can feel and that know — must skip generations.
Either that, or it’s the tools.