Friday, November 17, 2006

Midnight Repairs


He came down the back drive just before midnight on Christmas Eve. I was out in the shop, about to call it a night when I heard the unmistakable sound of a Volkswagen running on three cylinders. Bad valve.

It was an early model high-roof delivery van. Bright red with white trim. He pulled up behind the shop. As he shut down the engine it made that unmistakable tinny rattle of a dropped valve seat. Good thing he shut it off when he did.

There was a barber pole logo painted on the door: "NicEx" A young old-guy jumped out, came toward me offering his hand. He was wearing a snowmobile suit, red & white like the van. I could smell the engine. It was running 'way too hot.

"Fred Dremmer," he said. We shook. He was about my age, mebbe a little more, but young, if you know what I mean – alive. Phony beard, though. It was his own hair but too shiny and perfectly white to be natural. I eyed the get-up he was wearing, took another gander at the door. "Nice-x?"

"Nick Ex," he corrected me. "I've got the franchise for this ZIP code." He looked around, noted the tumbledown appearance of the shop, victim of an earthquake that never happened, thanks to politics. "Are you still building engines?" he asked.

"Not so's you'd notice." It was pushing on toward midnight and colder than a well- diggers knee. His shoulders slumped down.

"But you used to build engines," he said hopefully. I didn't deny it. "They said you offered a lifetime warranty." Actually, I didn't offer any warranty. Most of the engines I built were high- output big- bore strokers. A firecracker doesn't carry any warranty either. And for the same reason. But if I built it, I promised to fix it if they could get it back to the shop. And if the problem was my fault, there was never any charge. So I told him, "Something like that."

"My van has one of your engines," he said. "In fact, I think all the franchisees use them."

"This I gotta see," I laughed. He ran around to get the church-key but I'd popped the engine hatch with my pocketknife by the time he got back. I twisted on my mini-maglite and sure enough, there was HVX stamped right where I'd stamped it. It was one of the lower numbers, a bone stock 1600 I'd built back in the seventies. Big sigh.

"Can't you fix it?" I gave him a look and he shut up. It had just gone midnight, clear and cold and silent. The on-shore flow had increased, bringing with it the charred smell of disaster. About a mile to the west of me a family's house had caught fire and burned to the ground only hours before. Merry Christmas indeed. I straightened up, knees creaking, and went to fetch the floor jack. As I moved away from the vehicle the guy got all excited, plucked at my arm. "Really, it's very important… " I snarled something appropriate and he let me go, stood like a dejected lump in his idiotic outfit. He brightened up when I came back towing the floor jack, a pair of jackstands in my other hand.

"You're going to fix it?" If he was a puppy he would have been licking my face.

"Nope. You got a bad valve." I got the jack under the tranny support and started pumping. "Which ain't my fault, by the way. I built this engine nearly thirty years ago. You've gotten your money's worth and then some." I got the jackstands under the torsion bar housing, went around and chocked the front wheels.

"I wasn't complaining… " he began.

"Well I was," I shut him off. Veedub valves don't last thirty years, especially when they're pushing a van around.

"It always ran perfectly." His tone was placating. And it was Christmas Eve. Or rather, 0015 Christmas Day. "And it never gets driven very much, or so I was told."

I gave a snort of disgust. Thirty years is thirty years and every salesman always sez the thing was only used to take the family to church on Sundays. I got a tarp and my small tool bag, rolled the tarp out under the back of the high-roof, dug out my head lamp, checked the batteries. Dead, of course. Began taking the battery case apart.

"Need some batteries?" He was right there, offering me a 4-pak of new Ray-O- Vac's. Right size, too. I put the thing back together, tested it. "What are you doing, exactly."

"Swapping engines," I grunted. I handed him a ratchet with a 13mm socket and pointed at the rear apron bolts. "Whip'em outta there. And don't lose the washers."

I skivvied under and got the surprise of my life. The thing was clean. As in showroom new. No road rash. No oily residue. Original factory axle boots so clean and new they gave a tiny squeak when I touched them. But no heater ducts. In fact, no heat exchangers, which explained why the guy was wearing a snowsuit.

"Does this mean I can finish my route?" He was bent over, peering at me upside down.

"Not unless you get those damn bolts out, it don't." I was running my hand over the paintwork. It had been treated with some sort of surfactant. It felt oily smooth but left no residue on my fingers and didn't seem to attract dirt. There were steel rails re-enforcing the frame on each side. They ran as far aft as the bumper mount. I couldn't tell how far forward they went. "You do all this?" I shouted as I crimped-off the fuel line. The breast tin had one of my early bulkhead fittings, the ones I made out of brass before discovering lamp parts worked just as well. I popped off the hose. No dribble but I plugged it anyway.

"I don't maintain the vehicle," the fellow shouted back. "They do all that at headquarters. What should I do with the bolts?"

"Put them in your pocket." I skivvied back out, popped loose the battery ground strap, removed the rear apron, disconnected the electrics and removed the barrel nut holding the accelerator wire. I gave it to him. "Keep this with them." I put the little plywood pallet on the floor jack, got it positioned under the engine, jacked it up and pulled that puppy outta there.

Fred Dremmer was impressed. He even told me so. "I'm impressed," he said. Then he said "Happy Christmas." It was 0030 and I was tired. "Balance that," I told him, tapping the top of the blower housing. I grabbed the handle of the jack and used it as a trolley to pull the engine into the shop.

He stood looking around while I dug the spare engine out from under the bench. It was already on a scooter. "What happened?" he asked softly.

"Look down," I snarled. "You'll figure it out."

He looked down, toed the gaping crack that ran across the floor like a lightning bolt, saw the way the shop was sloping. "Earthquake?"

"Northridge. Popped the foundation like a pane of glass." I pulled the engine out into the open, keeping it on the level part of the floor.

"Don't they offer special loans… "

"Only if you're in the 'official' earthquake zone," I laughed. He started making apologetic sounds. "Balance that," I told him. We scootered the spare engine out of the shop.

I had to swap mufflers. His came away okay, thanks to the lavish amounts of anti-seize someone had swabbed on the fittings. It was one of those lifetime stainless steel bus mufflers from Germany or England or some damn place. Cost the earth. He looked around, sat down on the workbench when I nodded toward it. We were out back of the shop, under the shed roof. Plenty of light.

"So what are you getting for Christmas," he asked, smiling.

I just looked at him, shook my head. I work best without an audience. "You want some coffee or something? This is going to take me a few minutes."

He said No; he had a thermos of tea in the van. "Seriously, what do you want for Christmas?" he smiled.

"Not being pestered in the middle of the night would be nice," I muttered.

He just laughed, as if I was joking. "Seriously," he said again.

"You want 'seriously'? Howabout a new house for those folks down the hill?"

He gave me a blank look and I realized he didn't know about the fire. So I told him. He ended up looking as sad as I felt. "What do you think they'd like for Christmas?" I goaded him. I shook my head, "It's mostly bullshit anyway. A birthday party that's gotten outta hand." And the best evidence of that was right there in front of me, some yuppie asshole Yuletide delivery service running around on Christmas Eve in an antique bus. He stood gazing off toward where the fire was. It had been a huge blaze, you could see it good from the house. Hopes and dreams and Christmas trees are all highly combustible.

I finished transferring the J-tubes and muffler to the spare engine and he helped me shift it on to the jack. We pulled it out to his bus and I started putting it in.

"It's unusual to find someone who doesn't want anything for Christmas," he said. I'd given him a pair of vise grips to hold. I didn't need them but I figured it would make him feel useful, mebbe shut him up. Wrong.

"I've got everything I want." I'd checked the splines. Things were lining up good. His seals looked new. I gave them a spray of glycerin so they wouldn't grab the engine.

"That's even more unusual," he said. He was smiling, acting a little antsy but working hard to keep me happy so he could get the hell out of there. About the worst thing that could happen to him would be for me to slow down. So I did.

"People spend too much time wishing for things they don't need." I patted the red high-roof. "I'll bet this thing is chock full of yuppie junk, eh?" He looked uncomfortable, passed the pair of vise grips from hand to hand. "And what about you? I'll bet you're some sort of retired executive, working a little Christmas-time tax dodge to supplement your retirement, eh? Bleached beard with a platinum rinse, funny suit and this oh-so-cute Santa's Helper delivery van, popping up in the middle of the night to trade on an implied warranty almost thirty years old?"

"What are you saying?" He looked kinda angry. The sight was as silly as his costume.

"You wouldn't understand," I sighed. I fished the throttle wire thru the blower housing, plugged the engine back in, started the upper nuts and shanghaied him into holding the wrench while I skivvied back under. Did the nuts, torqued to spec, did the fuel line, checked things over, skivvied back out. With everything installed underneath, I began putting the engine compartment to rights.

"You mean the religious aspect," he said.

"You heard about that, eh?" I kept working.

"Are you a religious man?" he asked softly. I was connecting the generator leads. I wanted to ignore him but couldn't. I stopped, rocked back so I could see his face.

"Yeah," I told him. "I'm religious as hell. And so are you. But the difference is you worship money and I don't."

"And you can tell all that just by working on my van?" He was smiling. He was no longer angry but really cheerful.

"Yeah, I can. You've had some sort of anti-stick powder-coating process applied to the whole undercarriage. That must of set you back some major bucks. But it's not a car- show kinda van otherwise it would be all original underneath. That tells me you did it so you could impress your customers with your shiny, never dirty ride and that tells me you probably charge some big bucks for your Christmas Eve delivery service gig."

That wiped the grin off his face. "Very astute," he muttered. Then frowned. "But if you knew it was all just another Christmas-biz scheme, why are we standing out here in the middle of the night while you repair the engine?"

I laughed at him. "See? I said you wouldn't understand."

I finished the hook-ups, connected the battery, replaced the rear apron, connected the throttle wire, wiped everything down. "Go run the starter for a minute. We gotta prime the carb." He clumped around to the front and got in. I hadn't noticed the boots until then. Or the buckles. Ridiculous.

I held the throttle open while he ran the starter. He held it down for about thirty seconds then came clumping back. "Won't it start?"

"It'll start."

"Shall I do it some more?"

"Not right now." I sat there, loaded a pipe, got it going. He turned out to be a pipe man too. Some foreign smelling crap. I've got Prince Albert in the can. I mentioned that fact but he didn't get the joke. Or mebbe he did. It was about a quarter after one.

"What are we waiting for?"

"For the starter to cool. It'll start now." And it did. Nice steady idle.

I took his credit card and driver's license, did the paper work. He balanced the clipboard on the steering wheel, signed both slips without question. "This is just a deposit," I explained. "Bring back my engine, you can tear it up." But right then I had a premonition I wouldn't see him or my engine again.

"What was it I didn't understand?" he asked softly. It sounded like he really wanted to know.

"Christmas presents?" I motioned toward the back of the van. There was a partition behind the driver's seat that blocked my view. He nodded. "That's what you don't understand." He looked blank. "I get mine all year 'round," I laughed.

"Like what?"

"Like my family." He gave me that frown again and I laughed. "See? You haven't got a clue. A smile from my wife is a better thing to have than any of the crap you've got back there."

The dawn of understanding began to break across his brows. "That's… that's pretty old fashioned."

"Old as the hills," I agreed. "Older than Christmas, too."

Now he got it. "I'm sorry," he stammered. "I assumed you were a Christian… "

"I am," I laughed. "Of a sort. And a Muslim, if it comes right down to it. And a Buddhist and a Jew and Inuit too." And maybe a touch of White Buffalo.

Now he was laughing and nodding. "Okay, I get it. I think." But I didn't think he did. He cocked his head, gave me a thoughtful look. "Yours must be an interesting wish-list."

I smiled back at him. Maybe he really did get it. "Sunsets are nice. A good sunset is a thing to be thankful for."

"Good health…" he offered. I nodded. He was clearly getting it. "Good friends…"

"That's the idea. All that…" I gestured toward the back of the van, "…is just… stuff."

"It's the thought that counts…"

"Yeah, but only if the thought is there all year 'round. Christmas dinner for the homeless followed by 364 hungry days? Gimme a break."

He nodded again, slower this time. "What about the engine?"

"Because I said I would."

That one took him a minute. Then he got it. "Trust…"

"And honor… yeah, stuff like that. Telling someone you'll do something then actually doing it… That's a present of sorts in today's world."

"But… thirty years later…"

"Doesn't matter. What got me pissed was you showing up in the middle of the night. And that silly suit! Do you know you look like Santa Claus?" This time we both laughed.

"But haven't you ever wished for something at Christmas?" he asked softly.

"You mean, like world peace or wishing no one's house would ever burn down on Christmas Eve…"

He interrupted me with a gesture. "No, I meant something personal. A tool, perhaps?"

"I've got all the tools I need."

He kept looking at me. "Never wished for anything? Not even once?"

"Sure," I laughed. "When I was a kid."

"What was it?"

Time sucked me back more than half a century. "A wagon," I admitted. "A 'Radio Flyer' wagon. It was about the same color as your van. Roller bearing wheels. It was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen."

I was five years old. I can still smell the oiled wooden floor of the Montgomery Ward store in the little California town as I knelt to worship the marvelous machine. They had it propped up so you could spin the wheels, listen to the oily purr of the roller bearings. I was sure it could go at least a hundred miles an hour and carry me any place I wanted to go, a magic carpet disguised in steel.

"Did you get it?" The soft question drew me back. Overhead the stars snapped back into focus on the velvet cape of night.

"Take care of my engine," I ordered as I shut his door, stepped away from the vehicle.

He slid back the glass. "Did you?"

"You're going to be late. Wouldn't want to upset all those yuppies." He considered that, conceded the point with a nod. He fired it up and backed cautiously up the drive then went rolling down the hill toward the road.

I slept late. When I stepped out of the shower there was a steaming cup of coffee in my favorite mug. Someone had laid out my shaving tackle. The kitchen was full of smiles and good smells of things to eat as the women prepared our Christmas dinner. My wife gave me a big kiss and a bigger smile. "I almost tripped over it when the kids arrived," she laughed. I had no idea what she meant, gave her a blank stare. She gave me a playful punch. "Fool. It's perfect. I can use it for moving flower pots and carrying potting mix…" Something exploded in the microwave and she joined the fire brigade. I took my coffee out to the patio.

It was parked on the walk under the hibiscus, just inside the redwood gate. A coaster wagon agleam in red. It looked brand new. It even smelled new. Radio Flyer in white script along the side of the bed. The handle was black. The wheels white with thick black rubber tires.

My wife came out, slipped her arm around my waist, leaned her head on my shoulder. "It's beautiful. Where did you ever find it?"

In the kitchen, my daughter overhead her. "He probably made it!" Everyone laughed. Even me.

"Is this what you've been working on? You came to bed awfully late."

I shook my head, sipped my coffee. My great-grandmother was Kiowa. Coffee was 'burnt-bean-soup'. And still is, to me. "No. I think it's a gift."

My wife gave me an odd look. "Who would give us something like that?"

"I don't know. Maybe a white buffalo."

She laughed, hugged me a little harder. "You're crazy."

"Yep," I agreed.

-Bob Hoover
-Christmas, 1998

Madam Meeyamo


I’m not allowed to go to the grocery store by myself. It’s because I get these ideas, like the last time my wife sent me to the store for a loaf of bread.

Have you seen what they want for bread nowadays?

I came home with a hundred pounds of flour and this really neat idea for saving money. When I explained my really neat idea my wife said some rude things, including where I could stick my hundred pounds of flour.

Sometimes my wife or daughter will take me to the store but it’s only to push the cart and I have to promise not to read the labels. Some foods got the same chemicals I use in the shop for cleaning parts but it’s considered bad form to read the labels out loud in the store and especially tacky to laugh at what’s in other people’s shopping carts. So mostly, I don’t shop; it had been a couple of years since I’d been to the store.

But this was an Emergency. Wife called, got me out of the shop, told me to run down to the store and pick up something. So I did.

The store had changed a lot since I’d been there last. They’ve got a big new deli over along one wall and even a little restaurant in the back. And a bank, right up front by the registers. Seriously. A one-man bank, right there inside the grocery store. Next to the florist stand and dry cleaners, beside the Madam Meeyamo Know’s-All Psychic booth.

I wandered around for a while looking at things. A lady back near the meat department offered me some barbequed chocolate flavored tofu. Just across the aisle another lady was passing out samples of Chinese microwave pizza on a stick. They was doing a brisk business, yelling out how pizza on a stick wouldn’t rot your gums like that tofu stuff. The tofu lady fired right back, saying her Japanese tofu flavored with Mexican chocolate was one hundred percent American, unlike that Chinese kack on a stick that was guaranteed to cause constipation.

Truth is, both tasted a bit like cardboard.

What with all the wandering around and reading the labels, damn if I didn’t forget what it was I came for. I tried to remember but all I could think about was the IRS conversion I was working on when the phone rang. I reached for my cell phone and found I’d left it in my shop coat, along with my wife’s phone number which is programmed into the thing. I’d have to go back to the house just to call her. I plodded toward the door feeling pretty stupid.

It was a lot harder to get out of the store than it was to get in. There was a press of people lined up to use the bank. Turns out, a one-man bank, or one-woman in this case, isn’t real handy when a hundred people want to use it at the same time. Come to think of it, regular banks don’t do much better.

I worked my way around the crowd, trying to get out of the store. When I came up against the Madam Meeyamo Know’s-All Psychic booth I happened to catch Madam Meeyamo’s eye. She was an attractive woman in her middle thirties wearing a business suit. I wondered if her name was really Meeyamo.

“Actually, it’s Helen Cates,” she said. “The Madam Meeyamo shtick is a franchise.”

I stood there gawking at her. I hadn’t said a word. I wondered if she’d read my mind.

“Of course I did,” she said with an exasperated smile. “I’m a board-certified psychic and I’ll help you with that thing you’ve forgotten just as soon as I take care of this lady.”

Except there wasn’t any lady. And then there was. She came huffing out of an aisle with a frantic look on her face. “I forgot. . .”

“I know,” Madam Meeyamo said soothingly. “That’s why I’m here.”

“It’s for my niece’s birthday party. . .”

“Is that Ellen’s daughter?”

“No, my brother Bill . . .”

“Karen or Halsie?”

“Oh... ah, Karen, the young one.”

Madam Meeyamo nodded her head, wrinkled her brow and stared intently at the woman who waited expectantly. “I see . . . pink! And a . . . cake?”

“The candles! Of course! I need pink candles for the birthday cake. Oh, thank you!” The woman plunged back into the depths of the store. I stared at Madam Meeyamo and discovered my hair really can stand on end if it wants too.

“Oh, don’t be like that,” she smiled. “Everyone forgets things now and then.” She got that intent look on her face, staring at me like a snake after a bird. “I see . . . thirty-something. Oil? Thirty weight oil!”

“Uh, no, that’s for my bus. I was thinking of picking up an extra case, seeing as I was in town. My wife sent me to pick up . . . something.”

Madam Meeyamo gave me that stare again, her eyes all squinched up. “Rubber pucks? I don’t think we carry rubber pucks.”

“Um, ah, that’s for the suspension I’m rebuilding. Sorry.”

I started to explain that I was a Volkswagen mechanic but she cut me off, patting her brow with a hanky. “You’ve got to work with me here, Robert.”

“Most folks . . .”

“. . .call you Bob. I know. But it reminds you of your Uncle Bob who was an alcoholic and you’ve never really liked the name. Okay? Now try thinking about what your wife wanted you to get.”

I tried. I really did.

“Karmann Ghia? Is that some kind of pasta?” She was starting to get red in the face and a tendril of hair had come adrift.

“It’s my wife’s car,” I said, ashamed at not being able to help her out.

“I’m sensing some hostility here, Robert.” She tucked the strand of hair into place. “Maybe you should call your wife, ask her what it was she wanted you to get.”

I nodded, began edging toward the door.

“The phones are over there,” she nodded toward the deli.

“Yeah, but her number is at the house . . . “

She nailed me with those eyes of hers. “552-1381. And there’s a quarter in your left front pocket.”

“Paper cups,” my wife said over the phone. “Two dozen paper cups. It’s for the punch.”

As soon as she said it, I remembered. They were having some kind of a party at her office that afternoon. So I bought her some cups, dropped them by her office and headed home.

Back at the shop I got this Neat Idea, a kind of Psychic Hotline for Volkswagens, some sort of computerized list where folks could dial in, describe a problem and be told how to fix it. But the more I thought about it the more I realized it would never work. Nobody believes in that psychic stuff.

-Bob Hoover

Glue Wars

Like most conflicts, the Glue Wars are spawned by ignorance. The War begins when someone says they use Brand X glue. No matter what type it is, someone is sure to declare THEY use Brand Y because it’s STRONGER, and anyone who uses anything else is not only a stupid person but probably performs unnatural acts with goats.

All of which may be true, except for the part about the ignorance.

The truth is, all modern adhesives are stronger than wood. Nowadays we don’t select an adhesive for its strength, we choose the glue that most closely matches our particular needs.

Trying to keep your Dream Machine under a thousand dollars? Then you’re probably using Weldwood ‘Plastic Resin.’ At about four bucks a pound and available from most hardware stores, it is the only aircraft-certified adhesive commonly available to all. Of course, you must keep the temperature of the glue-line above 70* Fahrenheit or the stuff will dry out before it can harden chemically.

If you’re forced to do your woodworking at lower temps and can’t build a heat box (*) then you’re probably using one of the many epoxy-based adhesives. The same would be true if your main constraint is limited time, in that you’d naturally select an adhesive having a fairly quick cure. The opposite would be true when laminating a spar or wing-tip bows, where you may need an hour or more to apply the glue to all of the surfaces before you can begin clamping-up. In that case you’d probably select a glue with a slow cure and long ‘open’ time. The message here is that regardless of your situation, there’s a glue that will do the job.

Some builders find the 5:2 ratio of ‘Plastic Resin’ to water to be a challenge. Others find the 10:1 ratio of FPL-16A beyond their abilities and even the 1:1 of T-88 something of a trial. Aerolite is too viscous; Hughes too runny; Excel One can’t be any good because it’s too easy to use (!!). Or their shop is too something to use Brand X (hot, cold, damp, dry, dusty... you fill in the blank). The reasons a builder selects a particular glue are as varied as the builders themselves but once they settle on what works best for them, an odd thing happens.

With one airplane’s-worth of experience under their belt the typical homebuilder becomes an expert on his particular choice of glue, wood and fabric. The sad part is that they often say as much :-)

Unlike stupidity for which there is no cure, ignorance - our normal state - may be altered by access to information. If your total gluing experience has been limited to one type of adhesive, go find another and make yourself some test-blocks. Make a few notes describing how you prepped the surface, prepared the adhesive, clamped the coupons, how long you allowed them to cure and under what conditions. Then break them and record the results. You may use the standard shearing test, like the Forest Products Laboratory, estimating the amount of wood adhesion using a loup having a graduated reticle (machinist supply houses carry such things). Or you can do some scarf joints and use a bending tester. Or both.

Making up glue blocks and breaking them is such a trivial task that most homebuilders consider it a waste of time. But as your notebook grows with information derived from different glues you’ll discover that the integration and comparison of that information yields a wealth of knowledge based on actual experience. All for a few bucks and a little time. Asked to make a prop for a Jenny or repair an ash interplane strut, you’ll know which glue will work best.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

“What’s that on your ribs, resorcinol?” The Instant Expert asks.

To which you reply, “Howabout them Chargers, eh?”

“I only use T-88,” he insists, chin sticking out to here, just daring you to say otherwise.

“That new quarterback seems to be doing okay,” you respond.

“It’s a lot stronger than them other glues,” he says, rather plaintively.

“Didja see what they’re charging for gas out at the airport now? They must think we’re made outta money.”

And about there the Instant Expert mutters, “Best damn glue in the world,” and wanders off toward the coffee machine.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

It takes two to start a war.

Build yourself an airplane. Go fly. Leave the bullshit to the bean-counters.

-Bob Hoover



-PS. Need a heat box? Odds are, you’ve already got one. Cool days, I put glued parts inside my Volkswagen bus. In the winter the temperature inside the bus is rarely less than 80 degrees.

I’ve got a small bathroom off the shop. With the door closed and the light on, the place stays warm enough to cure ‘Plastic Resin’ over night. If the weather is really cold I’ve got a cardboard spray-booth in the shop I can seal up. A light bulb in a recessed ceiling fixture, the kind with a built in thermal switch, will keep the spray booth above 70* on the coldest southern California night. Larger parts, such as spars, ailerons or even an entire wing, can be maintained at glue-cure temperature by covering them with a tarp and putting a couple of lights inside.

Why would you use Weldwood ‘Plastic Resin’ when you’ve got a good low-temp epoxy on the shelf? Because ‘Plastic Resin’ is certified. If you’re doing a repair on a certified airframe, even something relatively minor like mending an aileron, you owe it to the customer (and the next mechanic down the line) to use only certified materials. Check the specs. Most of the adhesives available today are NOT certified for use on airplanes.

Repair or fabrication of a homebuilt is a different story. You’re the Mechanic-in-Charge; whatever adhesive you use is your decision. But don’t fall in love with the stuff. Some wars are worth the fight but glue isn’t one of them.

The Piper Cub That Wasn't


It was olive drab with a big white star on the fuselage and looked like a Piper Cub but wasn’t. I had all the trading cards from Wings cigaret packs and the aircraft recognition silhouette cards they’d passed out at school and I could tell a Mustang from a Messerschmidtt quicker than anybody and a Betty from a Boston better than most but my dad called the Cub an ‘Elfor’ so that’s what it had to be because he was a Veteran and a pilot and a wizard aircraft mechanic and if he said a hummingbird was a B-29 I would of agreed with him.

They brought them home from the Surplus place down near Atwater, one at a time on the hay trailer, towed behind the ‘36 Plymouth because it had two transmissions. This was something of a logistical nightmare because we didn’t have enough 6.00-16 tires to go around and if the hay trailer was on the road, someone’s car wasn’t. But they had to use a rubber tired trailer towed by a car because steel wagon wheels would break up the blacktop and after the war, the CHP disapproved of horses on Highway 99.

My uncle Don had lots of Veteran’s Points because he stepped on a land mine in Italy. If you stepped on a land mine and lived to tell about it the VA would fix up your face so you looked like something out of a horror movie then give you a glass eye to go with your wooden leg. You also get a lot of Veteran’s Points which were good for going to school and buying a house but aren’t worth a bucket of warm spit if you were a farmer and already had a degree in Animal Husbandry from Davis and almost a DVM, which was why he ended up in Italy in the first place, showing guys how to throw a diamond hitch and shoe a mule. I didn’t believe they had mules in the ETO until my dad told me that’s exactly what happened..

Two hundred and fifty dollars and a bunch of Veteran’s Points allowed Uncle Don to buy the lot of five Cubs that weren’t. The funny part is that Uncle Don didn’t want five airplanes, he wanted to raise pigs and for that he needed lumber but just then you couldn’t buy lumber to save your soul. So he greased up his wooden leg and hiked all over the War Surplus Administration yards at Tracy and Stockton and Atwater, measuring crates and checking weights and asking what the minimum bid would be for a Veteran with lots of fruit salad, a wooden leg and glass eyeball.

It just so happened that Piper Cubs came packed in a BIG box, were dirt cheap and not too heavy to haul home on the hay trailer. Except they weren’t Piper Cubs. But the really crazy part of all this is those pigs, because he wanted to raise them near Hilmar, California where the summer-time temperature will make a coal stove sweat.

So they hauled those crates out to the farm one at a time and opened them up and got all us kids and the women too, to help carry out the wings. The wings were covered with fabric, the way all good wings were built back then but these wings had been sprayed with a powerful anti-fungal compound. Everyone who handled the wings started wheezing and coughing and broke out in a rash. Then they fiddled with the crates, which were very well built with lots of strap iron and bolts and stuff, and rigged some shear legs and used the tractor to take the crates apart without busting up the wood.

Uncle Don was happier than I’d ever seen him. With the new face the VA built for him his version of a smile came out as a sneer because that part of his face used to be his armpit. When he first came home from the hospital the only way to know if he was happy or mad was to watch my aunt Muriel. When he’d sneer she’d would smile so we’d all smile too and pretty soon we didn’t need her to interpret. He was sneering all over the place, gimping around and getting in the way as we took the crates apart and pumped up the tires and rolled the Cubs over by the barn where the wings were stacked.

My grandfather, my dad and my Uncle Don worked all though that summer, pouring cement, threading pipe and tearing up those crates. My job was to straighten nails and tamp the concrete after it was placed, making sure there were no voids. Other members of the family came to visit and helped out some and other Veterans too, including a few who looked even worse than Uncle Don. It was a little bit like one of those science fiction stories I was just starting to read where everyone is working just as normal as can be except they looked a little strange and had their own language and were actually building a rocket to the moon, which wasn’t any crazier an idea than raising pigs in that climate. Pigs and chickens don’t sweat but we sure did. Most days it was over a hundred; once it got up to a hundred and twelve and the thermometer is in the shade on the back porch.

They ended up with four long open-sided sheds facing each other two-by-two, far enough apart so you could run the tractor between them on the one side to distribute the feed and go down the other side with the fresno to clear away the muck, which ended up there because the pens had concrete floors sloping that way, shaded by the sheds, with a dished out place that caught the water spray and acted like a pig swimming pool. Nobody had ever seen pig pens like that before. My dad said Uncle Don got the idea in the VA hospital, which gave me quite a scare until I understood what he meant.

After supper my dad would wander over to the airplanes and tinker with them. It took me a while to figure out that he was using pieces off all five to put one of them together. Dad had been in the service longer than Uncle Don but spent most of the war at the Douglas plant accepting airplanes for the Navy and didn’t have as many Veterans Points. He was waiting for the new quota to come out so he could go to college under the GI Bill, which he eventually did.

I’d heard Uncle Don talking to him about how to get rid of the airplanes but they never mentioned putting them together. The airplanes had been in those crates something like six years and when they packed them up they’d used too much of something and not enough of something else and my dad had already declared them ‘not much good.’ Coming from him, that meant kindling wood and scrap iron. Yet there he was, putting one of the airplanes together.

He did it mostly by himself except for us kids to hand him things. I like to think I helped him more than the other kids but the truth is he did most of it alone and in a manner that made you think he had special powers because he never seemed to do anything. But the next time you looked, the plane had grown a tail or a added a wing. I watched him pretty close, trying to figure out how he did it but he’d say, “Hand me that five-eights box,” and when you turned around the wing would be neatly propped in place when it had been leaning on the ground just an instant before.

I was just starting to read real books and had quite a few heroes like Dr. Doolittle or Tarzan. Not the movie Tarzan but the real one; Lord Whats-his-name. That summer I realized my dad was a kind of hero too, not like Uncle Don with his medals or those guys in the books but a more subtle kind of hero who didn’t want people to know that he had these secret powers. It worried me. I wondered if he’d get mad at me for discovering his secret.

After getting it together, the first time he started the engine we expected him to go flying. Instead, he ran it for a while then shut it off and started taking the engine to pieces, rigging a tarp for some shade and using an old door as a table, working on it while everyone else went to church. It seems there was something wrong with the gaskets, or the way they’d preserved it had done something to the gaskets; something like that. After Sunday School I went out to help him. The engine had the same funny smell as the rest of the plane and you’d break out in a rash from handling the canvas bags. He let me scrub the seats with Stryker’s soap and polish the plastic windows although it didn’t help, being so yellow and all.

The alfalfa field next to the house was ten acres laid out two by five. It ran from the road to the irrigation ditch. A dirt road ran alongside the field from our mail box on the county road to a little bridge over the irrigation ditch, giving access to the fields on the other side. The corner of the house was 128 feet from the mailbox, which is something every boy knows because that’s pretty close to the distance between second base and home plate. Back of the house came the yard then the barn and the corral for the cows, taking up about one football field-worth of distance. After that it was clear sailing all the way to the irrigation ditch, about two football fields plus a little more, without any trees or fence posts or powerlines. That became our runway.

The first time my dad flew the Elfor was both a thrill and a disappointment. The thing actually flew which was the thrilling part but he just went straight off towards Turlock, made a big, wide circle toward the east, back down across the river and then back to the farm and landed. I expected him to loop the loop or buzz the house. In fact, I may have gone so far as to tell the other kids that he would. But he just took off straight ahead and flew a big, fat circle and came back, which was the disappointing part. Didn’t even waggle his wings. Some of the other kids sniggered until I looked at them. I was pretty big even then, able to load a bale of hay by myself and even lift a bag of Portland cement although not very high. A bag of cement is 94 pounds; sez so right there on the bag. My cousin David was older than me but he couldn’t lift a sack of cement. Still, I was expecting more from that first flight than just flying in a circle.

When he was putting the thing together he said he would take me for a ride. After he made that first flight I was ready to jump in and go but he taxi’d it over behind the barn and started fooling with the tail then the wheels and after it had cooled off some he began taking the engine apart again. My dad wasn’t a talker but you always knew when he was dissatisfied and he was really unhappy with that airplane, especially with the magnetos. I began to wonder how we managed to win the war.

About two days later he took it up again and this time he took Uncle Don with him. That was a surprise, especially to my aunt Muriel, who started running around like a biddy hen and even crying some.

This time was more like it! He didn’t do any loops but he took it up a lot higher than before and pulled it up until it stopped flying and fell over and the wing flipped around and they dived toward the ground. He did that several times and my aunt got so upset my grandmother had to take her in the house. A couple of times he shut the engine down. Not off; you could hear it was still running, but not fast enough for the thing to keep flying. Then he’d pour on the coal and they’d climb back up and he’d do it again.

Coming back to land, they flew circles over grandpa’s house, which is where we lived back then, and did the same thing over Uncle Don’s house and dived down and flew past us about as high as the roof of the barn. You’d think we’d never seen an airplane the way we were all jumping around and waving like it was VJ Day all over again. After they landed Uncle Don had a sneer that ran from ear to ear and my dad had that look in his eye that said he was pretty well pleased with things in general.

We all went for Elfor rides that summer after the war, all of us kids and all of the grown ups except aunt Muriel and the baby. Some kids didn’t like it but my cousin David and I thought it was prime.

When the people came to drill the new well for the pigs one of the drillers was a Veteran and seemed to know all about Elfors. My dad took him up for a ride and they cut a deal for one of the planes that included using the driller’s truck to haul all the airplane parts out to the airport on East Avenue where my dad put one together for the driller and re-covered it with new cloth and replaced the crazed plastic with clear stuff and painted it yellow with a black lightning bolt down the side. I’d helped my dad sew the skin on an another airplane but I’d never seen one naked before. I thought it was pretty interesting, especially the tools. Fixing all those windows, we’d get to some part of the job that was crazier than a Chinese puzzle and he’d go over to one of his tool boxes and pull out a tool and it would be the absolute custom-made perfect thing for doing that particular job. Then he’d wink at me, fellow members of a secret club. That’s when I knew that he knew I knew about his secret powers. So I stopped worrying about it.

My folks got divorced soon after that. And Uncle Don and his pigs turned out to be not quite as crazy as we thought. The pigs were a Canadian hybrid with a couple of extra ribs, meaning they produced more bacon than other pigs. They were also skinny pigs, if you can imagine such a thing; they weren’t fat at all. That’s because they converted most of their feed into meat instead of fat and because of it, reached a marketable size very quickly. All this just as the nation was coming off rationing when some folks hadn’t sat down to bacon, eggs and an honest cup of coffee in years.

The Elfor sat out behind Uncle Don’s barn with a tarp over the engine. The next fall he built a tin shed to keep the sun off the wings. He would fly it now and then, when aunt Muriel was in town, always with my cousin David or me as his copilot to help him with his landings because of his glass eye. When none of the grown-ups were home David and I would take it out and get the tail up and race it up and down, pretending we were fighter pilots being scrambled for a mission. It was great fun. Until the day we hit a bump and a gust of wind at the same time and found ourselves too high to get it down and stopped before hitting the canal bank.

David and I argued for years over what happened next. It seems we both gave it full power then we both chopped it back. The Elfor banged down like a big bass drum and we got it stopped just before we hit the barbed wire fence. Only trouble was, we banged down in the field across the canal, an awkward triangle of a field that was far too small to fly out of. The cat was very definitely out of the bag because we couldn’t taxi the thing back across the bridge without tearing the wings off.

This isn’t quite the adventure it may seem because the summer before when I visited my dad he’d taken me out to the flying club at El Segundo and signed me up for the primary glider course. He’d drop me off in the morning and I’d spend the whole day waxing wings and playing work-up and getting shot off the sand dunes at Playa del Rey, along which I learned to fly until I could stay up so long that the Flight Master would start blowing his whistle and waving his flag to make me come in. My dad would pick me up when he got out of school and listen patiently as I showed him my log book and described every second of every flight. It must have bored him to tears because I had more than a hundred landings in my log when me & David went dual/solo in the Elfor. (If that sounds crazy, go here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O2e7tXROSnA )

My dad flew up from LA in a borrowed Cub and took the wings off the Elfor along with most of the tail and used the tractor to tow it back to the barn. Then he wailed the tar out of me. When I stopped bawling he strapped me into the back of his airplane and made me show him what we’d done in the Elfor. Then he took me up and showed me how you were supposed to do it. After I did it right about three times in a row he climbed out, reminded me to adjust the trim and walked away. I expected him to look back or to wave or something but he just went on into the house. So I did two touch & goes and a full stop and was kind of surprised to see him standing there, watching me. He helped me tie it down then he cut the tail off my T-shirt and told me to never fool around with the Elfor again. Unless I absolutely had to.

All things considered, I think he was a pretty good dad.

‘Elfor’ of course meant ‘L-4' but I didn’t figure that out until later when I happened across the stacks of manuals that had come in the crates. They still smelled of whatever it was they’d used to preserve the airplanes. The next day I got a further reminder of that summer when my hands broke out with the same rash. Truth is, the penny would have dropped sooner if someone had called it an Oh-Fifty-Eight because I think I had a recognition card for that designation.

Exactly how well Uncle Don did with his pigs depends on who tells the tale but most agree the story begins best with those Piper Cubs that weren’t Cubs at all but Elfors in big wooden boxes.

-Bob Hoover
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