Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The 322,500-mile checkup

Every time I see a red box wobbling down the road I wonder if it's the one I drove for about a decade. It was so ungainly and ungraceful that it looked like a sawed-off 4X4 on wheels from the rear and a bad imitation of a Jeep from the front.  That's the only time I think about that old heap these days -- until I got an e-mail note the other day from the folks who in Raleigh who long ago kept it rolling for me.

"Dear JACK,
Based on our records, your 1990 ISUZU TROOPER is due for its 322,500 mile manufacturer recommended service. Click here to schedule your appointment online 24 hours a day or call (919) 872-1999 within the next 30 days..."

It brightened my day. It hadn't really occurred to me that a 1990 Trooper 2 with more than 300,000 miles really could still be on the road -- despite spotting the occasional Trooper that looked mighty like mine.  Well, may one with 250,000 miles, but the way I drove mine -- hauling stuff all around creation, yanking stuck tractors out of the mud and pulling an old 17-foot McKee Craft down to the coast and back time and again -- made me think it would have worn out long ago and put to pasture in some parts yard along U.S. 70.  I traded it in nearly 13 years ago and was happy to be out of it.

There were times when that truck scared me to death.  If you've ever driven U.S. 70 east of Raleigh down to Morehead City, you know there are something like 10 billion stop lights -- okay, maybe only 85 or 90, but it seems like a lot more -- and those lights turn red fast. If you're moving along toting a boat and trailer that are a bit much for your engine, not to mention your braking system, you know what sheer terror is: just when you have coaxed the whole rig up to maybe 50 miles an hour in traffic and you're trying to beat that light south of Smithfield or coming up on Princeton, the light a quarter-mile down the road turns red and you have to stand on the brake pedal while shifting from third to second to first, holding your breath and closing your eyes and hoping you stop before that tanker truck comes flying through your passenger-side door.

That truck was kind of shackley, as some of my friends would say. When a pal and I were planning to drive down to the coast shortly after the devastating floods from Hurricane Floyd, he insisted on driving.  "Why?" I asked. "The Trooper will get us there." And he replied, "Yeah, but I don't know if it will get us back, too."

And it was uncomfortable for some. When Eva M. Clayton of Warrenton was running for Congress in a special election in 1992, I got an interview with her to write a column for The Charlotte Observer on her effort to become the first African American elected to Congress from North Carolina since George White in 1898, and the first African American woman from the state ever elected to the U.S. House. The interview ran late and she asked me to drop her off at a political event. But when I brought the Trooper around to pick her up, she looked stricken and said, "You expect me to get into that thing?" She had on high heels and a nicely tailored business suit, and I had no idea how she would get up into the thing from her perch down there by the side of the road. But somehow she did, and I delivered the soon-to-be-Congresswoman safely to her next appointment.

The Trooper had about 172,000 miles on it when I traded it in during the summer of 2000 on a pickup truck that still, with about 195,000 miles today, is the best driving vehicle I ever owned.    I think this one might well make it another 100,000 miles -- knock wood -- or maybe more, if I baby it along. It has pulled heavier vehicles out of ditches -- including a few weeks ago one big handsome black SUV that probably cost three times as much as the pickup.  But I don't expect it'll be pressed into duty for transporting members of Congress around their districts any time soon.  Out where we live, there aren't enough potential voters for a politician to ever set foot looking for a hand to shake, or a ride somewhere.  Seems like a fair deal to me. 

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Big birds from the tundra

The first time I saw these huge birds that migrate from the high tundra to winter in North Carolina was about 15 years ago, when we were driving across the causeway that splits Lake Mattamuskeet on a frigid winter day. We weren't close enough to hear them, but what we could see was dramatic. It looked like nothing so much as hundreds, maybe thousands, of bales of bright white cotton bobbing on the water way over yonder.

Tundra swan on the edge of a drainage ditch in the Pocosins

In 2002, I heard them for the first time when Joe Albea, producer of Carolina Outdoor Journal and Tom Earnhardt, international fishing guide and with Joe the prime mover behind the PBS series Exploring North Carolina, had me squatting in the dark on the banks of Pungo Lake in the federal Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge.  We couldn't see them clearly but it sounded like a drunken cocktail party or a national political convention out there -- gabbling and hollering and arguing and hooting at one another.  It was a magnificient site when the sun was up enough to make out the many thousands of tundra swans bobbing out there on the dark waters of these ancient lakes in Eastern North Carolina.

Over the MLK holiday weekend we went back out east on an oyster-eating and bird-watching expedition, staying at Lucia Peel's Haughton Hall B&B in historic Williamston and driving out to Mattamuskeet, Phelps and Pungo lakes to see the swans and the snow geese. Haughton Hall is a great place to stay because of its fine breakfasts, good company with the proprietor and her dog, Brown Sugar, and its location near my favorite oyster joint of all time: The Sunnyside Oyster Bar.

But first we drove out to Lone Goose Lodge, an early 20th-century house owned by the Swindell family for, oh, about 100 years.  A.B. Swindell, a former state legislator (as was his father, the late Russell Swindell) loves to show off the historic photos from the days when such luminaries as Gov. W. Kerr Scott of Hawfields visited the lodge.  The day was fast ending but A.B. and Mike Mann -- whom I have known only for the past 40 years of so since our days on Capitol Hill in Washington, where he was a key staffer for Sen. Robert Morgan -- had a roaring fire in a great big barrel and where friends were boiling shrimp and steaming oysters just in from Kent Narrows, Md.  We watched the birds flying back to the lakes from the grain fields where they had fed all day, then gorged ourselves on oysters and various libations which seemed to appear with astonishing frequency.

Saturday we followed the same excellent program -- chasing birds all day and oysters in the evening at the Sunnyside, where old hands like Floyd and Jesse were entertaining customers and shucking the bivalves with the same degree of commotion. The oysters were from the Texas coast this time, but I'll have to say they were fine as well. We were too busy knocking back the sliders to take pictures, so these shots of swans feeding in the fields and looking for landing spots will have to do.
Feeding a field near Pungo Lake

Waiting for clearance from Traffic Control
A few redwing blackbirds were baksing in the early afternoon moonshine

Thursday, January 17, 2013

If you go, take a shovel

Just the other day we were sitting out on our deck, looking over the hayfields at the trees on the yon ridge, watching a curious thing. From here, it sure looks like the faintest of pink buds have swollen on the western-facing slopes of this old 66-acre farm.  We usually don't see the first blush until February.

This is ridiculous, of course, here in the middle month of winter, and on a day when it's raining for the fifth straight day, about to undergo what the weather experts call "dynamic cooling," with a forecast of anywhere from three to seven inches of snow, maybe 10 inches in places.  Or not. Who knows?  We've already had one ice storm, and I've pulled a great big expensive SUV out of a jam after a tow truck blocked his way. Thus it is ever so here in the Andes of the Appalachians.  Well, perhaps I exaggerate, but if you've ever tried to go up or down our particular dirt road when it's frozen hard with an inch-thick glaze that may not melt until August, you understand.  Sometimes we just go sideways and hope for a nice soft ditch.

So when it comes to reading the weather, we have learned to wait just a few minutes.  An old sailing buddy, an Air Force meteorologist who gives mariners at sea a daily broadcast discussion of weather patterns, always used to advise looking out the window first to see what's happening.  If it's raining, he would say, it's probably going to rain.   And so on.

Except up where we live, where our southwestern horizon is no more than a quarter of a mile thanks to the high ridge to our west, we rarely see what's coming unless we look at the weather radar.  Even so, we know that at any given time, we're constantly about 5 minutes from a dramatic change in the weather, just based on what we can see.  It's part of the price you pay for living in paradise.

On the other hand, we're gathering empirical data, thanks to a handy-dandy weather station from another buddy. It's got a little anemometer to clock the windspeed and direction, a barometer, temperature and humidity sensors and a nifty self-bailing rain gauge that since Sunday tells us we've had 3.7 inches of rain.  Seems like 8 inches and about two weeks of bad weather, but who cares? Our leaky pond is starting to fill up again after its waters have receded to about the level of the milk you left in the bottom of your cereal bowl this morning.

With this area in a moderate drought, we're all for precipitation, and a good thing, too. We're fixing, as Southerners say, to get more of it, good and hard, this time of the snow variety. I'm throwing a snow shovel in the back of the car just for a run up the road and into town for some more snakebite medicine, just in case.  You can't be too careful.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

The pipes, the pipes are calling

When I was a boy my cousin Sid became a neighborhood hero when he took a cold steel chisel and knocked a triangular hole in the muffler of his grandfather's Cadillac, which Sid borrowed to drive around town and go on dates.  You could hear him coming a block away, preceded by the throaty growl of that big engine as he came down Cornwallis Drive.  It was a disappointment to all of the younger set  on our block when his grandad took the car downtown to get a new muffler, but I never forgot how that car sounded to a 12-year-old kid who couldn't read enough about hot rods, dragsters and '49 Fords with flathead V-8s.

So it was one day last fall when I realized that the little Diesel engine on our banged-up 4x4 hauler sounded a lot like that Caddy, circa 1958 or so. Just firing it up made booming echoes that bounced off the hills and ridges that rose above our garden, and I wondered if a hole had magically appeared in the muffler to help announce our arrival to the bears, deer, turkeys, coyotes and other critters that traipse around in our rural neighborhood.

I liked the sound of it all -- but worried a little about the Diesel fumes that seemed to envelop the bench seat region.   Got nothing against Diesel odors, understand. We had a 37-foot sailboat with a three-cylinder Yanmar engine that always started and always got us where we were going when the wind died, but there was little drip into the bilge somewhere, and everything had that oily aroma of Diesel fuel. Even our saltines tasted of Diesel. Got so I didn't like 'em if they didn't taste a little fumey.

Just before Christmas I cleaned out the dumpbed of the hauler and raised it on its hydraulic cylinder so I could take a closer look. There was no tailpipe hole.  The tailpipe had separated entirely from the exhaust flange on the side of the engine, so the exhaust was not getting even close to the muffler -- but I was coming up right under the bench seat. I briefly considered buying a wire-feed welder outfit recommended by Popular Mechanics, but I needed to get it fixed fast.  I unbolted the rusty flange and the muffler from its mounting bracket and took them to a local auto shop the other day to be re-welded.  I thought I had marked the flange and pipe correctly, but somehow the welder got it wrong by 3/8 of an inch. There was no way to get the flange over the four bolts unless the whole flange-pipe-muffler-tailpipe rig was to stick up at an odd angle, preventing the dumpbed from closing flat.

I found an online outfit that made couplers that could join two pieces of 1.5" exhaust pipe. When it arrived I sawed the pipe in half a couple inches from the flange, banged on one end of the coupler, bolted the flange back on the engine manifold, then banged the sawn-off muffler pipe into the other end of the coupler and torqued it all down with two hefty muffler clamps so the pipes couldn't slip out of the coupler.

Never was a kid more disappointed than when I started up the engine. It purred relatively quietly, all trace of that menacing guttural roar channeled back into the mysteries of the muffler box.  Well, it's fixed now, and I can hear myself think, and I can get my ice-damaged trees cleaned up and limbs hauled off to the burn pile without having to risk total hearing loss. 

But it just isn't the same.   I was thinking of getting out one of my old cold-steel chisels and a ball-peen hammer and cutting just a bit of a hole in the muffler to make it sound a little better. Nothing over the top, mind you, just enough to let folks know I'm on my way.