I Loved Lucy

AWJ sent a link to Trampled By Turtles doing “Lucy”:


Not denying, not quite accepting
Deep & going deeper
Not hopeful or hopeless
Going on living


Sep 4, 2014

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The Black Bus Explodes – Rebuild

I had rebuilt the engine in the black van when we lived on Avon Road a year or so earlier. I put in a high performance camshaft & had a few thousandths taken off the height of the cylinders to increase the compression ratio. That required taking a similar amount off the top outer edge of the pistons to prevent interference. I could have purchased high-compression pistons but that was too easy. Did my modifications contribute to the burned piston? It seems reasonable to think that they did. OTOH, I had driven it for a year without a problem, including moving from Watertown, MA to Troy, NY – which meant several trips over the Berkshires fully loaded. 

The manual I used was, “How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive: A Manual of Step-by-Step Procedures for the Compleat Idiot” by John Muir. More Zen than Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance - it’s a philosophical treatise as well as a practical repair manual. 

That VW engine was a horizontally opposed 4 cylinder (a boxer). The block/crankcase is in two parts (left and right) with the crankshaft and camshaft sandwiched between them. There is no oil pan. The only way to replace the crankshaft and cam bearings is to split the case. OTOH, the cylinders are individual castings and can be removed and repaired or replaced fairly easily. 

I pulled the engine and tore it down, a fairly easy job and one that I had done before. Apparently, I had brought most of the parts I’d need (pistons, bearings, gaskets, etc.) and bought other things locally. I couldn’t have used standard pistons with my modified cylinders so I must have replaced the cylinders, too.

I installed the new bearings in the case, put the crankshaft (with connecting rods installed) and camshaft in one side of the case. I put the  two halves together with sealant between the halves (no gasket because it had to be metal-to-metal contact to maintain clearances). I hand tightened the case bolts and then snugged them up with a wrench. Everything looked good and the crank and cam turned nicely. I torqued the case bolts and checked again. The crankshaft wouldn’t budge! I backed off the case bolts a bit and the crankshaft turned beautifully again. Retorqued – same problem. Ugh.

I split the case to look for the problem. It took a while but I found one crank bearing shell with a round shiny spot on the side facing the crankshaft. Hmmm. To keep the bearings from spinning in the case there are dowel pins in one side of the case that fit into a recess on the back side of the bearing shell. The dowel for that bearing was sticking out just a little too far and was pushing the bearing tight against the crank journal. I don’t remember now what caused the problem, either all dowels weren’t the same and this one belonged in a deeper hole, or the dowel was in upside down, or something. I was elated to have found the cause of the mysterious problem! Once I found the problem it was easy to fix. 

I put the case back together, torqued it all down – everything turned smoothly. Ahhhh. I installed the cylinders and heads, the cooling fan/generator combo and the associated sheet metal. I got the engine back in the van and bolted up to the transmission. Almost done! 

There is a helical gear that meshes with the camshaft and drives the distributor. You drop this gear and its short shaft down into a hole in the case. The distributor goes into the hole and engages the top of the shaft. 

from Keep Your VW Alive

I put the gear/shaft into the hole and when the helical gear meshed with cam gear it rotated out of position – ack! In that position I couldn’t get the distributor to fit. I couldn’t get the gear/shaft out, either. I tried. I tried everything I could think of. Everything. I realized the only way to get it out was to pull the engine and split the case – again.* I had worked all day and most of the night. I was so close to finishing. I cried, not just a few tears welling up in my eyes, I really cried.

I think I stopped, disappointed and exhausted and went to sleep. I had brought a sleeping bag. The office was heated so I unrolled the sleeping bag there and went to sleep Friday night/Saturday morning.

I woke up slowly. There was someone else in the office. At first I was scared. Then I realized that a woman had come in on Saturday morning to do some work and was sitting at a desk only a few feet from where I lay. How could I let her know that I was there without scaring her to death? I spoke, she screamed but somehow we got through it without her dying of a heart attack or calling the police.

I pulled the engine, tore it all the way down, again, and put it back together, again. I put it in the van and connected all the hoses and wires. I turned the key and it cranked right up, what a relief!

The only ordeal left was to figure out all the costs (excluding the tears, though they were actually a gift) and figure out who owed what. No one was happy with the outcome, but no one cried, either. See Henry’s story for a bit about that.


*After I wrote this story I bought a new copy of John Muir’s book. I’m guessing I gave my original away when I sold the green 1969 van, my last VW. It was silly to buy a manual for a vehicle I don’t own, but I did it anyway. Browsing through the section “Changes and New Ideas,” on page 457, I found the solution I needed 40-some years ago! The trick requires a special tool – see below. Let me know in the comments if you want the details.

The Special Tool


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The Black Bus Explodes – PT’s Version

About 1970, the Z-man and Banana-head borrowed my 1962 VW van to move some furniture. I explained all about not running it too long at full throttle and high revs… what can you expect from a 40 hp air-cooled engine pushing a big square box?

They called me from the road, said the engine was still running but something happened. They said it sounded funny and was blowing a lot of oil out the exhaust. That wasn’t good. I asked a few questions. Z-man admitted to driving at full throttle and high revs for an extended period. It sounded like a burned piston (it had melted a hole in the top). I told Z-man he could drive it a few miles to Banana-head’s uncle’s garage but be sure to keep oil in it ’cause it will blow a lot of oil out through the hole. He didn’t. I think those old VW engines only had about 2.5 quarts of oil in the crankcase.

You wouldn’t believe how complicated it was to determine how much responsibility each of us had for the mess (where “responsibility” = $$). Z-man was at fault for not following instructions (twice) and because he was driving. Banana-head was at fault because he made Z-man do all the driving and because some of the stuff they were moving was his. I was at fault because I had rebuilt the engine and made a few “modifications” to increase the compression ratio and which may have contributed to the problem. And then there was the problem of deciding how much damage was done before they called me (one burned piston – which wouldn’t have required a complete rebuild) and how much was done afterward.

It probably took more effort and time to figure out who owed what than it did to rebuild the engine. I think the final accounting wasn’t settled for several years. From my perspective today, we vastly over-worked the accounting problem. But at the time none of us had much money and it seemed important to get the costs apportioned correctly. What would you expect from two engineers from RPI (whose motto is “Knowledge and Thoroughness”) and an economist? 

Rebuilding the engine was a nightmare.

See Henry’s Version for a different take.


The graphic of the people on the bench filled the left side of the van. Credit for the original goes to an artist in Cleveland, who painted it on the side of a building about 1969. Thanks to KT for bringing a poster of the graphic to Avon Road and helping to paint it on the van.

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The Black Bus Explodes – Henry’s Version

It must have been in 1971 or 1972. My purpose was to take periscopes from the Albany area to Montgomery. This was an ET&T mission implying some liability for Paul. Thinking about it now, I’m hard pressed to see why it would be important to do that at this point. Perhaps Paul and Gloria had just moved from Avon Rd and the scopes were a bulky nuisance. That would make it early 1971. My recollection is Z just joined the trip as a chance to see his family in Walden, but the furniture idea does ring a faint bell.

In the post-debacle discussions to assess responsibility, I think Z was the victim of my short tenure at law school. One of the three or four cases Paul and I both remembered was Victoria Laundry which relied on the second rule of Hadley v Baxendale (which both of us are still fond of quoting to the other every couple years). The second rule of Hadley v Baxendale is that, in breach of contract, one is not liable for unexpected damages unless he has “special knowledge.” I was innocent because it was well known that I knew nothing about cars, but Z was an engineer and should have known better*. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing – no one mentioned that this didn’t seem to be a case breach of contract or knew that some legal scholars found the second rule absurd. Oh well, as they say, if your only tool is a hammer everything looks like a protruding nail.

So Z was judged harshly for continuing to drive and also bore responsibility since the trip was half for his benefit. Paul and I shared responsibility for the other half of the trip and I bore some blame for the poor decision making. Paul took another hit on the theory that it was partly the van’s fault–it was old and s__t happens.

I’m not sure, but I think it came out 1/2 for Z and 1/4 each for Paul and me. I have a vivid (but perhaps false) memory of Z schlunked over at the table in Elnora after our grueling meeting saying “I’m getting screwed.” It was painful for me to see Z so dissatisfied and Paul being very unhappy too, mainly due to the laboriousness and frustrations of fixing the van, but I think also at Z’s reluctance to acknowledge responsibility. I don’t think any of us saw any humor in the situation at the time.

The final tally was not completed until 1978. My recollection, which might be wrong, is that final figures for parts and labor were slow in coming in. The math resulted in a rebate for Z (he had paid an estimated amount before leaving for Syracuse in ’72), so I sent him a check including interest with an accounting. It gave me great pleasure the two times I heard him tell, with relish, of his amazement at receiving the rebate (with interest!). To his further credit, I don’t recall him ever saying anything about the settlement after the awful shlunked-head incident.

As bad as I felt about Z, it’s still true that the most haunting image of the incident is a despondent Paul hunched over, or maybe the supine version of hunched under, the van in the lonely darkness of a Wallkill warehouse.

*Note by PT: See my version of the story where I state that “I explained all about not running it too long at full throttle in a lower gear…” That was the “special knowledge” that rendered him liable.

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Family as Fairytale


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Alive Until We’re Dead

We’re alive until we’re dead, I know that. Sometimes death happens suddenly, but sometimes there is a significant transition. Who knows, I may be in transition for the next 20 years, but I sense a general cultural resistance to admitting the reality of the dying phase – unless you’ve got a certifiably fatal disease like metastasized cancer (“life,” though universally fatal, doesn’t count).

“You’re fine, just get new lenses in your eyes, a new hip, a new shoulder, a 5-way heart bypass, dopamine replacement medication, serotonin reuptake inhibitors,…” Can you feel the denial?

Reincarnation is the ultimate organ replacement plan but even that requires that we die first.

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Beyond the river
Beyond conclusions
Beyond optimism
Beyond love songs
Beyond progress
Beyond questions & quests
Beyond failure, shame & regret

Written at 16th Annual NC Men’s Spring Gathering
Chestnut Ridge Camp, Efland, NC

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