Sunday, April 28, 2013

"We Drove That Car As Far As We Could, Abandoned It Out West"

In 1993 I moved back to America from Europe to get married. I had been living there for three years with my girlfriend, but she had tired of Europe and wanted to come back.  If I'd had my druthers, I would have stayed there. But I was in love and so I came back too.

When we married, her parents gave us $2000 and we decided to buy our first car together. We had each owned cars before, but we had sold them before moving to Europe where we didn't need them. We needed one in America. Since we couldn't afford reliability, we decided on promise instead. Older restored American cars had caught my eye but they were still out of our price range and we knew we'd have to compromise. And compromise we did. A newspaper ad (this was 1994--no craigslist) offered a 1963 Ford Thunderbird in Greeley, CO. We made an appointment and went to see it.

The car was over 30 years old then but had only had two owners. It had been stored in a barn for years, but showed lots of sun damage. I didn't care. That's what project cars are for. Thinking back, what must have been going through my head was that I could blend ingenuity and curiosity with need. Plus I carried the absurd notion that I was helping fix-up a part of America's past.

The seller got the car started and that was enough proof for me that it still had life. Prophetically, the car made it home the 30 miles or so--but just an hour later it had two flat tires. We took it to a local shop the next day and got four new tires all around--the tire guy saved us the best looking old one as a spare. We figured new tires on a 30-year old car was a reasonable investment.

Now the 1963 Thunderbird was a nice design. Here is what ours might have looked like new:

Detroit stylists had conceived the design as a convertible. Of course ours was a hardtop. but I didn't mind so much. Colorado wasn't exactly convertible weather much of the year. The one thing I was wary of was rust. Thankfully, Colorado doesn't salt their roads and the car checked out free of rust.

After the tires, the next item I deemed essential was the windshield washer reservoir (later, I found that virtually all the plastic parts--moving or not--had deteriorated and need replacing. In those days, the washer reservoir was essentially a bladder under the hood off to the side. A small "aquarium pump" sent fluid to the nozzles which squirted the windshield. Those were the early days of Internet marketing and I was pleased when I found a vendor in Arizona who sold remakes of the vinyl originals. I ended up sending them quite a bit of money over the years. The new bag looked like this:

That shiny new accessory on the dirty old Bird looked like a Fendi bag on a bag lady. Of course I also had to replace the little electric pump as well. I spent that spring and summer fixing all kinds of little things throughout the car.  I bought the wiring diagram (a factory schematic) and later on -- a shop manual. I replaced a power window motor and its switch, the cigar lighternot a cigarette lighterthe 1963 Thunderbird was a gentleman's car afterall. I even bought a replica owner's manual to keep in the glove box. I was stylin'.

My wife suggested that we make a cross-country road trip in the Bird and I had been invited to give a talk at the Berkeley Chemistry Department. I didn't think the front suspension was roadworthy and so I took it in for its first "big repair" which amounted to a front suspension overhaul: idler arms, ball joints--the whole works. My mom and dad visited early that summer from Wisconsin--my dad wanted to see what I had foolishly bought into. I remember him chuckling and telling me that he too had fallen for such a Thunderbird but had returned it to the dealer when he realized just how bad it was on gas mileage. There was something else weird about that visit. My dad was showing symptoms of what seem like a constant sinus infection--like a cold that wouldn't go away--except that it was summertime.

My folks had been to our wedding in Denver the previous fall but they wanted to see more of Colorado and so we went on a road trip further west to Mesa Verde, Four Corners, Monument Valley, and the Grand Canyon--all places very close geographically but separated by chasms of culture and epochs. My wife didn't come along because she had recently started a new job and wanted to save her time off for our California road trip later on. We took my dad's car because my T-Bird was still entirely too unreliable. For me, that vacation reprised the family road trips I knew and loved as a child. I may have suspected, but I didn't know then--that it would be our last.

Later that summer my wife and I hit the road in the 'Bird. She dolled it up with makeshift seat covers and a boom box stereo. The car only came with an AM radio which still worked and actually out-performed the boom box--for AM reception--in the desert. We took I-80 from north of Fort Collins, CO to Berkeley. That old car could move at a jaunty clip! We made it to the coast with no problems. I gave my talk--a triumph for me because I met the author of a famous 1950's paper on equilibrium isotope effects. I came to challenge his dogma, preaching my own brand of their causality. He listened politely and said he enjoyed my talk. Afterwards, we cruised the Bird up and down University Avenue before heading down to L.A.

From Berkeley, we headed back over to I-5 to get to Los Angeles. We had previously done the scenic route down the coast and we were kind of in a hurry.  I had noticed that the car was using oil but there was no visible smoke in the exhaust. The car made it fine down the "Big Valley," consuming a quart or two of oil. By the time we got to the The Grapevine--the relentless climb over the mountains from the San Joaquin Valley into the L.A. basin, the Bird began to falter. We barely made it up that long steep grade. The Bird began seriously consuming oil. Going uphill, exhaust leaked through the heating duct into the interior. We could see and smell it. Slowly and surely, we made it up and over that mountain. The car was fine on the other side, going downhill just fine.

In L.A., we stayed with friends and took the car to a shop in Long Beach. The mechanic laughed when he gave the verdict: "blow-by." That is a mechanic's term for a motor whose pistons are so worn that they no longer hold compression. The gases just vent around the piston rings, sometimes leading to ring failure. That explained the oil consumption because the oil gets blown through too. But still no blue smoke.

We went camping on Catalina (I wrote about it a bit back here) where they don't even allow cars and I was happy to be rid of it for a while. After Catalina, we visited my wife's sister who lived in Costa Mesa in Orange County. We were all sitting there in the living room when my mother telephoned from Wisconsin. Her voice was nervous but steady as she said "Bruce, your father's tumor has come back. You need to come home now."

So we left the Bird in Costa Mesa and flew back to face reality. Months later, after he died, I paid to have the car trailered back to Colorado. I wasn't going to give up that easily. I ended up rebuilding the motor and got the thing running well again. We used that car for years--our kids even remember it, though I sold it several years ago--for $2000.

Here it is, where it sat in California for several months, waiting for me to get back to it:

 The '63 T-Bird was wider and lower-slung than today's cars. 

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Space Station #5 (1973)

I always thought that song was eminently crank-worthy. But geez, what a horrific story about his suicide (link).  Don't look if you can't undo such knowledge.


Thursday, April 25, 2013

Look Behind The Face

"You got a face with a view" is a line in a Talking Heads song (see previous post). Another blogger was inspired by the same David Byrne phrase: link. I'm not so hooked on the E.M. Forster nuance (though I did enjoy the filmed version). "Face with a view" also pinged my brain 30 years ago when that song first came out.

It seems that "face" and "view" express a sort of grammatical/real world reflection.

Face or facie, is a replacement word in English. Like so many other names of body parts, face replaced the Old English ondwlita or andwlita (which survived briefly in Middle English as anleth). Given the Norman Conquest, we might look to French to see a deeper meaning of face, but the French gave up the use of face for "front of the head" in the 17th century and replaced it with visage (older vis), back-formed from Latin visus "sight" derived from the Latin verb videre. Of course view derives from videre as well.

Now vision and view also mean sight and there is a parallel Germanic etymology behind the word sight. In modern German, das Gesicht means face (in which you might see the root Sicht, cognate with the English word sight = view). But there's an even older German word, Antlitz (used only poetically these days much as we'd use visage). Antlitz in turn relates back etymologically to the Old English andwlita. What a strange circle. It's like looking at a face in the mirror.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Stop Making Sense (1984)

From Jonathan Demme's Stop Making Sense (1984):

I adore the floorlamp stage prop. And who among us didn't fall in love with Tina Weymouth?
Home is where I want to be
Pick me up and turn me around
I feel numb, born with a weak heart
Guess I must be having fun
The less we say about it the better
Make it up as we go along
Feet on the ground, head in the sky
It's okay, I know nothing's wrong, nothing
I got plenty of time
You got light in your eyes
And you're standing here beside me
I love the passing of time
Never for money, always for love
Cover up and say goodnight, say goodnight 
Home, is where I want to be
But I guess I'm already there
I come home, she lifted up her wings
I guess that this must be the place
I can't tell one from another
Did I find you, or you find me?
There was a time before we were born
If someone asks, this is where I'll be, where I'll be
We drift in and out
Sing into my mouth
Out of all those kinds of people
You got a face with a view
I'm just an animal looking for a home
And share the same space for a minute or two
And you love me till my heart stops
Love me till I'm dead
Eyes that light up
Eyes look through you
Cover up the blank spots
Hit me on the head

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Play Me (1972)

I can't find my concert ticket stub from his show in Madison in the mid to late 70's but I was there.

Monday, April 15, 2013

How Air Separates Water And Goes Boom

Fertilizer bombs typically use ammonium nitrate, NH4NO3. Bombers use it because the stuff is so ubiquitous and so plentiful.

Wiki draws a pretty picture of ammonium nitrate, which partially reveals its explosive potential:
Don't skip over that structure--it's a work of art: two very different nitrogen atoms separate elements of hydrogen and oxygen. On the left, four hydrogens surround a central nitrogen while on the right, three oxygen atoms surround a central nitrogen. There's an unbalanced symmetry. Those H's and O's would love to get together and quench, making water, leaving the naked nitrogens to couple, making N2 which is essentially air. The chemical structure of ammonium nitrate is a depiction of air separating water.

We never hear about spontaneous explosions of ammonium nitrate. Why is that? An old word from the Greek called stoichiometry answers why. Try and balance the chemical equation of NH4NO3 making N2 and H2O:

             NH4NO3  =>  N2  +  H2O

Look easy? I gave up. The reason is that the hydrogen to oxygen ratio is inherently 4 to 3 on one side and 2 to 1 on the other. No amount of tweaking the coefficients will balance that reaction. The stoichiometry just doesn't work.

This brings up just how fertilizer bombs do work, because they do make air and water from ammonium nitrate. There is always a little admixture of carbon (typically fuel oil) but charcoal would work too. The carbon combines with the "excess" oxygen present in NH4NO3, making CO2. This trick even has a name: cf. detonation vs. deflagration

Here's a question for any munitions experts out there: were ANFO's involved in Boston? I've heard that the differing sounds of detonation versus deflagration are diagnostic.

A second question is technical: is it possible (in theory) to isotopically label the nitrogen in manufactured ammonium nitrate and thus, after isotopic analysis of air samples at the bombing site prior to mixing, identify the source?
[Added]  Well this breaking news should cause a spike in ammo and food prices. The report says that water sprayed on NH4NO3 made it explode. That may actually have been heat from the fire or could have resulted from of what's called heat of hydration when a dry salt suddenly mixes with water. Some salts suddenly mixed with water actually make the water colder.

Ammonium nitrate (AN) is not known to chemically react with water in an explosive way. However, if heated it reacts explosively:

             2NH4NO3  =>  2N2  + O2  + 4H2O

Now that reaction really produces a sky-full: nitrogen, oxygen, & cloud.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Empty Pews At The Church Of Truth


Read more: link

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Kermit The Frog*

Peace Frog lyrics were Morrison's own, culled from unpublished poetry/verse entitled "Abortion Stories"
There's blood in the streets, it's up to my ankles
She came
Blood in the streets, it's up to my knee
She came
Blood in the street, the town of Chicago
She came
Blood on the rise, it's following me
Just about the break of day
She came and then she drove away
Sunlight in her hair
She came
Blood in the streets runs a river of sadness
She came
Blood in the streets it's up to my thigh
She came
Yeah the river of red down the legs of the city
She came
The women cryin' red rivers of weepin'
She came in town and then she drove away
Sunlight in her hair
Indians scattered on dawn's highway bleeding
Ghosts crowd the young child's fragile eggshell mind 
Blood in the streets in the town of New Haven
Blood stains the roofs and the palm trees of Venice
Blood in my love in the terrible summer
Bloody red sun of fantastic L.A. 
Blood screams the brain** as they chop off her fingers
Blood will be born in the birth of a nation
Blood is the rose of mysterious union
There's blood in the streets, it's up to my ankles
Blood in the streets, it's up to my knee
Blood in the streets, the town of Chicago
Blood on the rise, it's following me
I linked the YouTube version of Peace Frog that also includes Blue Sunday because on the vinyl edition of Morrison Hotel they ran smoothly together. The latter song is a love ballad juxtaposed with the horror of Peace Frog.

Friday, April 5, 2013

David Stockman Saw Something Nasty In The Woodshed

Cold Comfort Farm (1995) is such a hilarious movie. I miss talking about it with you.

Need You Now (2010)