Saturday, November 18, 2006

Minding Your Own Business

Growing up in a small central California town during World War II had a curious effect on my age. If you were big enough to do a thing, you were expected to do it, how old you were wasn’t a consideration. That rule saw me driving a tractor when I was eight and piloting the Model-T into town on errands, a feat that made my older cousin David wild with envy for he couldn’t crank the T-model, nor was he tall enough to reach the pedals. He assumed the role of co-pilot. I was a big kid so the cranking and driving fell to me. I didn’t think it exceptional, it was the natural order of things.

A typical chore was picking up chicken mash at the feed store or repair parts from the Ford dealer. Once we carried home an irrigation pump from the machine shop where it had been fitted with a new impeller. The pump was so heavy the front wheels of the Model-T came off the ground when I crossed the railroad tracks. Naturally, we had to back up and try it again.

Such errands never involved money. Back then, the economy of every small town ran largely on trust. Everyone knew my grandfather, who paid his bills promptly the first of each month.

When running such errands we were always admonished to ‘mind to your business.’ As my grandfather’s agents we were duty-bound to make no side trips and to offer no rides, other than to ladies burdened with packages. We couldn’t even buy ourselves an icy Dr. Pepper unless the necessary nickels needed to do so were provided along with our instructions.

We were told what had to be done and left to get on with it. Our ‘business’ was to make a safe, successful trip to town and back. And we took our business seriously, aside from catching a little air now and then.

After bringing home a rebuilt or repaired part, the next step was to dismantle it in order to clean it. New, ready-to-use parts were rare things during the war and even those required cleaning since the cast iron was usually coated with protective grease. Aluminum parts were unheard of. Like the chrome-based green dye on packages of Lucky Strike cigarettes, aluminum too had gone to war.

The need to clean a part before installing it remains valid today although many aluminum parts are wrapped in protective paper instead of being coated with preservative. But a heavy preservative similar to Cosmoline is still used to protect new sets of Volkswagen cylinders & pistons and it must be removed before the parts can be used.

About twenty years ago I saw a fellow rebuilding a Volkswagen engine at a local garage. He was plucking cylinder assemblies right out of the box and slapping them on the engine. No cleaning. No inspection. Thinking he didn’t understand, I pointed out the need to clean them and was told to mind my own business, along with an ear-full about the hundreds of VW engines he had built and his many years of experience. The fellow was perhaps twenty years old, half my age at that time. The garage is no longer in business.

I was reminded of the incident today as I was scrubbing a new set of forged Mahle pistons destined for Bob Polys’ engine. The pistons and other parts are going to the balancing shop tomorrow and it’s important that every trace of the heavy preservative be removed. And there was a lot of it, more than the usual amount. It looked as if one of the pistons had been dipped in the stuff. A mere rinse in the solvent tank didn’t begin to remove the gummy tan grease, it took a lot of scrubbing with a fiber-bristled brush and running a bore brush through the oil scraper holes before it came clean.

Free of the heavy grease and blown dry with compressed air, the gram-scale showed only a few tenths difference across the set of four pistons, close enough for a regular repair. But the two-liter Polys engine will spend much of its life above five thousand rpm so the pistons will be matched to a tenth of a gram. A tenth of a gram of aluminum, not grease.

Had the pistons not been cleaned, the heat of running and the constant spray of oil from the journals would eventually remove the heavy coat of Cosmoline. But in the case of the piston with the blocked oil scraper holes, I doubt if the engine would have broken in properly.

I’ve already posted an article about jugs, explaining the need to scrub the cylinders and paint them, and to clean the pistons and rings, even though the parts are brand new. But having led the horse to water, the rest of the job depends on the horse.

The growing popularity of the Internet is causing many Volkswagen owners who have never heard of the various VW-specific mailing lists to discover the archive of my articles maintained by Richard Kurtz. Sometimes they’re happy with what they find. And sometimes they are not.

Recently, a fellow purporting to be a mechanic happened across the archive and took me to task over the ‘Jugs’ article saying many of the same things I heard from that other fellow twenty years ago. (This fellow referred to my continual emphasis on attention to detail as ‘anal retentive’ which shows he knows even less about psychology in general and the theories of Sigmund Freud in particular than he does about auto mechanics.)

This fellow’s main complaint seemed to be that he had not seen any of my suggestions in the magazines or manuals. I’ve no idea what manuals he’s been reading but when it comes to ‘magazines’ I can make a pretty good guess.

My response was to direct him toward a source providing the same information. Although I couldn’t find a reference to painting cylinders in Tom Wilson’s excellent “How to Rebuild Your Volkswagen Air-Cooled Engine,” I notice the engine pictured on the cover of the book has painted cylinders. And on page 132 under the heading ‘Clean Parts’ Mr. Wilson says what all competent mechanics say -- scrub the jugs. “Such parts are shipped with dirt-collecting grease and oil, and are never cleaned at the factory with engine assembly in mind. That is your job.”


Free advice being worth exactly what you pay for it, when it comes to overhauling Volkswagen engines if you’ve never done one the wiser course is to seek the widest possible range of opinions. And when someone offers an opinion, they should be willing to support it in the form of additional references and so forth. A few questions will be enough for you to tell if the person’s opinion is based on factual experience or second-hand information, perhaps gleaned from one of the VW-specific magazines, whose primary business is selling magazines rather than overhauling engines.

Automotive engineering is a mature technology with a relatively narrow range of acceptable procedures for doing any given job. As you gather opinions on how best to do something you will see that experienced mechanics and engineers tend to do a given task in one particular way and will offer a sound, well-reasoned justification for their chosen method. These are people who know their business. No one can properly teach a subject they have not mastered themselves.

In that regard I think it best to use magazine articles only for their illustrations and to discount their textual content unless it can be verified by other, non-magazine related sources. Because when it comes to engine overhauls, magazine writers and editors can surely teach us all a great deal about selling magazines.

When you overhaul an engine you are the Mechanic in Charge; the success of the job is up to you. You may be a programmer, farmer or accountant but for the duration of the job you are in the Engine Overhaul Business. And it always pays to mind your own business.

- Robert S. Hoover (1995)

Guns and Common Sense

A Geezer's answer to Newbie questions

Originally posted on: rec.guns Date: 1997/07/09

Dear Newbie,

The size of the hole you can make with the weapon you carry for self-defense has very little to do with the realities of carrying a concealed weapon. The thing -- whatever it is -- is a chore and a responsibility. It is uncomfortable to carry, tends to rust or corrode and will eventually fall out of your belt at the supermarket bringing you instant fame, however brief.

If you ever have to use it, the odds are you'll miss, which is embarrassing but not necessarily bad -- there's a lot of paper-work, hit or miss but more when you hit.

Despite conventional wisdom to the contrary, having to use your personal weapon is never combat, which implies a certain degree of order, it is survival, usually under conditions impossible to foresee, including the strong likelihood the other guy will be more heavily armed than anything you are willing to tuck in your belt, day in, day out, for years at a time.

Your personal safety in today's society has far more to do with the state of your mind than the specifications of what's on your hip.

As to the specifics of your questions, ask your local range-master to let you fire a number different handguns using a variety of loads. What works for some may not work for you. But the odds are, you will find a five-shot .38 caliber stainless-steel revolver having a 2" barrel the most practical weapon to wear. The reasons have more to do with logistics and practicality than ballistics and stopping-power.

-Bob Hoover

Flying On The Cheap - Instruments

Recently a fellow discovered my post about flying on the cheap (Oct 2001) and got so excited he had to give me a call. Although he wasn't quite ready to begin building, my article convinced him to take the plunge. As his first step toward building an inexpensive flying machine he'd purchased the first of the instruments he planned to install in it.

A clock. One that cost nearly $200.

I stared at the telephone for a minute. The guy was still yammering away as I gently hung it up and went back to work. In terms of flying on the cheap, two hundred bucks is enough for a fuselage or a set of wings. Common sense is remarkably uncommon stuff in the world of aviation.

Flying on the Cheap means VFR-Day; the epitome of fair-weather flying. No IFR timed turns nor precision descents into the murk. And the odds are, you already own a perfectly good clock for that kind of flying. In fact, it's probably strapped to your wrist right now.

The same is true with regard to your altimeter. VFR-Day you can see the terrain. Your only need for an altimeter is to ensure vertical separation and avoid the bureaucratic wedding cakes and for that you don't need a precision instrument. A cheap 2" altimeter - - the kind from J.C.Whipme that reads fifteen thousand feet in one turn of the dial is more than good enough.

Ditto for your Magnetic Heading Indicator, which most folks call a compass. A good car or small boat compass, such as the adjustable jobbie made by Sherrill, costs less than ten bucks. (*) Accuracy-wise, once you swing the plane, remember east is least and fill out the correction card, the Sherrill is about as good as a B-16 although its card is marked only in ten degree increments. Most aviation compasses are marked every five degrees but here again, we're talking Flying on the Cheap and VFR-Day. You're not Lindy hopping the pond nor heading for thirty seconds over Tokyo, you're slip-sliddin' your way over to Joe's to shoot a few landings, getting in your ten hours a month so aren't a hazard to the rest of us.

If your inexpensive home-made flying machine has a strut-braced wing you may not even have an ASI in the panel, falling back on the simple air speed indicator Wilbur made for the Wright 'Flyer.' (And if you don't know what that was, you should.)

Which isn't to say that flying on the cheap means flying on the stupid. See that fishing vest hanging on the back of the door? That's my Flying Costume. No silk scarf nor sheep-skin jacket but it does happen to include an inexpensive GPS unit, the Lowrance Air-Map 500, along with an Icom IC-A4, a cheap 'ramp' radio. Not rock-bound; a modern, programmable 720 channel aviation communications unit. Since flying on the cheap often means flying without an electrical system, each unit is complete with its battery pack and external antenna. And if you'll take a closer look at those Harbor Freight ear-muffs hanging by the vest you'll see it's actually a Flying-on-the-Cheap head-set that works jus' fine, thanks - - even though they cost me less than twenty bucks.

The point here is that poking around southern California under VFR-Day conditions does not mean equipping your aircraft for a full-stop at LAX. But neither should it preclude that possibility. Indeed, going anywhere in southern California under visual flight rules mostly means keeping the hell out of everyone's way. That dictates the need for good lights, good communications and knowing where you are at all times. That's where the GPS unit comes in. It can tell me my altitude and ground speed faster and more accurately than I can figure it out for myself, even a whole panel full of expensive dials, an E6-B and forty years of experience.

Alas, as soon as you mention radio and GPS it sounds as if you've torpedoed the whole idea of flying on the cheap. But unless you live in one of the square states, having GPS and comm capability is the reality of General Aviaition in today's America. Not because you need it to get where you're going; you need it to keep from becoming a hood ornament on some Part 135 hot-rod whose arrivals and departures from local airports has a lot in common with FEMA following a hurricane.

Trust me here, you really do need the GPS, and once you have it you can toss about a thousand bucks worth of steam gauges in the trash. But if you have a seriously bad day, you'll still need to get the bird home. That's where the car compass and altimeter comes in handy. And like I said, you've already got a clock.


(*) American Science & Surplus

Bootlegging Butts

Veedub heads need new guides now & then, especially for the exhaust valves. If you’re tooled up for it pulling the old guides is a piecea cake. Core-drill the buttery soft bronze guide, slide the heads into the oven, heat slowly to 450 degrees Fahrenheit then pop out the cored guides with a properly sized drift and one well-aimed blow of the hammer.

Putting in the new guides is a bit more difficult. Volkswagen used a 500 degree interference fit, chilling the guides a lot and heating the heads just a little so as not to stress the cast aluminum. You can do the whole job at home if you chill the guides with liquid propane (outside the shop, please; just turn the tank upside-down and open the valve. Liquid propane! [It would be a good idea to dress for the occasion] ). But a slurry of dry ice is handier, especially when you’re doing more than one pair of heads and I was doing four. Pairs. Meaning eight heads. Which is thirty-two guides.

I don’t have any means of storing dry ice but it’s available less than ten miles away in Oceanside, California. I gave them a call to make sure they’d have some on hand the next morning then arranged things so that once I got back to the shop I could do the guides without wasting any time.

The next morning I loaded the first batch of heads in the oven, tossed the ice chest in my ‘65 VW bus and motored off toward Oceanside.

No DRY ice. (But lots of the other kind.) Sorry. Come back in an hour.

So much for calling ahead.

The ice plant is just down the road from Oceanside Airport so I moseyed over to the local pilot’s hang-out for a cuppa coffee. And ran into D-Day. Not the date, the person.

D-Day and I go back to the late sixties when we were involved in dropping slurripy silvery-red shit on what came to be known as the Sweetwater Fire. D-Day is about twenty years older than me and drove a B-24 for the Fifteenth Air Force during doubleyew-doubleyew-two, after which he did a stint with Matson (the airline, not the steam-ship company) and ended up with Pan-Am, back when there was a Pan-Am, from which he eventually retired, moved to Alaska and drove airplanes for Eskimos. Until his wife got cancer.

D-Day usta be pretty well off, financially, being a Certified Hero, retired ATR and all the other Good Stuff. But the cancer took better than five years to kill his wife and when it was done, so was D-Day, financially speaking. That’s when he got into running Bulk Cargo, as in bales of America’s Favorite Herb. Alas, when it comes to smuggling, private enterprise simply can’t compete with the U. S. Government so D-Day bid farewell to Mina and dropped out of the game.

D-Day was over in the corner with some guys I don’t know but he spots me and his face lights up and we’re banging shoulders and shaking hands and telling each other we’d heard they were dead and laughing about it. But not the other guys. Until D-Day introduces me as the Other Bob Hoover and proceeds to tell them about my famous Eight-Point Roll Done Wrong at Merced back during the Johnson Administration (not Andrew, the other one) and ends up with: “He’s okay,” lasering the group with a Significant Glance. Which makes me feel pretty good, seeing as how D-Day helped God invent air and really knows how to drive an aeroplane.

So we’re sitting there playing ‘Remember When’ and the other fellows thaw out a bit and begin talking amongst themselves and it takes me about two seconds to realize the subject is Bulk Cargo, Transport of, and D-Day is sitting-in as a kind of Technical Advisor at which point I take a scalding gulp of coffee, squeak, ‘Is that the right time?’ and I’m, like, GONE!

D-Day follows me out, his frown turning into a smile when he sees my old bus and sez, “You still driving that thing?” Which is what’s called a rhetorical question, meaning I just keep jingling my keys and trying to look late. He peers into the bus and says, “It’s not what you think.”

I join him in peermanship. We’re both gazing through a side window at a .50 cal. ammo can in my cargo bay, right next to the ice chest. “What’s that?” I says, as if I’ve never seen an ammo can before.

“It’s tobacco, not Mary Jane,” he says.

Mary Jane? I haven’t heard that in years. But I’ve heard of tobacco. Tobacco is not a controlled substance in the accepted sense, nor is its transport illegal if you’ve got the right paperwork in hand. Or even a reasonable facsimile there of. Then the penny drops.

California is about to join the other Idiot States by imposing a rapacious four-dollar a pack tax on cigarettes. I look him straight in the eye. “Walk away from it.” He gives me a strange look that makes me think HE thinks I’m a nark. Which makes me laugh. “Seriously,” I said, “You’re dealing with a bunch of morons. Walk AWAY.” The look of suspicion vanishes, replaced by earnestness. And I realize he’s going to educate me, mebbe cut me in on his sure-thing. I want to laugh but don’t.

“The new tax is going to be about four bucks a pack,” he explains. “That’s forty bucks a carton! That means sixteen hundred a case and that’s more than for a key of grass. It weighs more but...”

“Two grand,” I interrupt him. He’s gotta be close to ninety but he is so totally green when it comes to bootlegging butts that I can’t help but laugh.

He frowns. “What’s two grand?”

“The tax on a case of butts. It’s fifty cartons to a case, not forty.” He starts to say something but I’m still having fun. “And a case is about two and a half cubic feet. Fifteen kilos; about thirty-three pounds.” I give him a big shit-eatin’ grin as I open the door of the bus and climb in. Engine fires; purrs. We appreciate the sound for a minute.

“You already into this?” D-Day asks me.

“Nope. But everybody else is, from the Lavender Hill Mob to the Mexican Mafia.” I nod toward the diner, “They’ll eat your pals for lunch. Maybe literally. Dime them, at the very least.”

“They’ve thought of that,” he said. “With flying...”

“D-Day, it’s dumb,” I interrupt. “When they bust you, which your supplier will see to, if you’re not connected, they’ll take the plane too.” The last shot struck home. I can see he’s coming around but still has doubts, so I forge ahead. “The bad boys use trailers. U-hauls. One-way stuff. The only thing they might need a plane for is flying the drivers back to the warehouse. You’re on the wrong end of the system. You’re just mules and even then, you can’t carry enough to make it worth while; you’ll only see mebbe half a buck a carton if you’re lucky. You’d do better flipping burgers.”

Over his head I can see that forty dollar bubble shrink to four-bits. “That can’t be right,” he sez.

“Maybe not,” I shrug. “But close. There’s counterfeit tax-stamps to be printed and applied, and once the butts are delivered there’s the local warehousing and distribution with lotsa phoney paperwork along the way to ensure deniability. Mules are at the bottom of the pile. And the supply of mules is virtually unlimited. Hell, even the penny-anti players can move more butts than you guys ever will by just stuffing them into tourist’s RV’s in return for picking up their gas bill.”

That brings back the frown. “Howz that work?”

“Gas station, truck stop or what-ever. Out of a truck and into the RV. Same routine once they’re across the state-line.”

“I’ve never heard of that,” he admitted.

“Not just RV’s. Even campers are good for a couple of cases. North Carolina to Michigan...” I shut my door. “They been doing it ever since Michigan brought in their three dollar tax. And not just there. Bootlegging butts is old news. New York, New Jersey... any State dumb enough to pass a law that guarantees a big profit from a little crime, kinda like the Eighteenth Amendment. They’ll probably spend more trying to enforce the law than they collect in new taxes. Even when they pop someone the courts are so overloaded that first-offenders usually get off with a warning, especially when it’s a serviceman or some retired couple who thought they were just helping out the nice man at the gas station.”

He’s starting to smile. “You sonofabitch!” The sun was rising, truth about to break. “You’ve BEEN there!”

“Something like that.” Free weekends in the Big Apple just for delivering a truck for the friend of a friend. Long, long ago, in a galaxy far, far away, back when I was stationed at the Pentagon. Come to think of it, I was pretty green myself back then. I smiled back. “I gotta go get some ice. Come by the shop; we’ll talk.”

I left him there, an old man with a thoughtful look on his face.

I got my dry ice, fumed my way home, did the heads, went back to work on the prop I’m carving. D-Day called just after supper. “Whatcha know about RV’s?” he asks in a cheerful voice. “Not Van’s; the kind with a bathroom.”


Tracking the Elusive Tracing Paper

Got a call the other night from a total stranger who identified himself as a fellow resident of northern San Diego county and a homebuilder too, who lives up near the Pala Indian reservation which puts him even farther out in the sticks than me.

He's trying to track down some tracing paper. He's apologizing fifteen to the dozen but he's not a draughtsman and he's bought these plans for a thang called an RW-20 and he'd like to try making some ribs but the rib drawing spans several pages and he's never done this sort of thing before and he feels really silly about calling me because a minor detail like tracing the rib drawing has blown him right out of the water before he's even gotten started. Help?

I was smiling. (Okay, I was laughing my ass off.) But I know what he was going through. The mere idea of building an "AIRPLANE" in capital letters with quotes around it. And the fact all the experts say to trace the drawing so as not to destroy the original, as if ten years from now some inspector was going to insist on seeing the original drawing and would chop off your head if you couldn't produce it.

"Grocery store," I told him. "Baking section. Look for ‘parchment paper.' Use a new Sharpie ink pencil."

High Stammer burbled out of the telephone.

"Regular pencil won't work because the paper is treated with some sort of anti-stick stuff but a Sharpie works fine. Or you can use waxed paper. Waxed paper makes great tracing paper but nowadays most folks don't carry those narrow-lead wax pencils you need to write on the stuff. Ink pencils work fine on waxed paper but you have to clean the tip now and then."

The phone is gurgling... never thought... never realized.... never dreamed of using...

"Or you could just drop by the shop and borrow my rib jig. It's for the RW-19 but the dash-twenty uses the same airfoil. That is, if you're using five-sixteenths stock. If you're making the ultralight wing with the quarter-inch stock, it won't work.. I think I've still got the router templates for the nose rib around here somewhere too. Hello?"

The phone had gone ominously silent. Then a lady came on the line. "Who is this?" she demanded. "And what have you done to my husband?"

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

Truth is, I haven't used real tracing paper since the late 1950's when it was replaced by frosted acetate and later by frosted Mylar. And I haven't done any T-square drafting since I stumbled upon a copy of DeltaCAD on the remand table at the CompUSA store in Escondido. Nine bux. Cheep.

DeltaCAD is a soopersimple 2D drafting program just a tad above a T-square & triangle and at least as easy to use. Now I do all of my lay-out work inside the computer. That means I get to make all of my mistakes on the display screen instead of on metal. Ditto for rib drawings - - or any other part of the airframe. I have to get it into the computer to begin with but that's an arm-chair sorta chore, something you do in increments whenever you have a little spare time.

But lotsa folks still copy the drawing of a rib onto tracing paper using a good old fashioned #2 yaller pencil. This message is mostly for them.

If you've got a bright enough light you'll find that plain white shelf-lining paper works perfectly well to make a tracing. Sliding glass door makes a pretty good light-table. Bounce sunlight against the back of your drawing, you can even use brown wrapping paper.

-Bob Hoover

PS - I wasn't foolin' about the rib jig. Roger Mann, the designer of the RW-19/20 (the -20 is a two-place with SBS seating; the -19 has a narrower fuselage with tandem seating) uses a very interesting wing with a fixed slat and Junker-type ailerons as well as an ingenious long-travel oleo-pneumatic landing gear strut made out of the front forks of an off-road motorcycle. Innovations of this sort are of interest to me so I bought a set of his plans and studied them, going so far as to make a short practice wing using his airfoil, strapped it to the top of my 1965 VW bus and ran it up & down Highway 395 to see how it worked. Which was good, except for that nice man from the California Highway Patrol... who eventually let me off with a warning.

The Pee-Chay Catastrophe

Fellow called me last night. The sky was falling, Martian's were attacking New Jersey and his daughter was getting married to a registered Democrat. He didn't say none of that but you could hear it in his voice - total panic.

Did I have any Spruce, he asked.

Yes I do, as a matter of fact.

Real honest to gawd aircraft certified Spruce? He asked

Sure. Whatcha need? I ast him.

Would I, could I please oh pretty please sell him just a little teenie tiny bit?

Hell, I'd give him some, if he'd calm down and tell me what he needed.

It's for a corner block, he sez. He's scratch-building one of Roger Mann's designs and he's got the fuselage side all laid out and the parts cut and the glue's already starting to foam and he forgot to cut a piece of corner blocking and doesn't have any spruce left and he can't buy any more until the second mortgage goes through and his Dream Machine will be ruined if he can't find some Spruce right now!

When I stopped laughing I told him, So use a hunka fir. Or a piece of pine.

Long silence. Then, "You... you... HEATHEN!" And he hangs up the phone.

In this fellow's defense I gotta say he's been getting monthly injections of coffee and donuts at the local EAA chapter so he tends to be a bit irrational.

The corner block over which the fellow was so het-up is an isosceles triangle about two inches high and maybe one and three-eighths across the base. It is three-quarters of an inch thick. That's about one cubic inch of wood, folks.

A cubic foot of aircraft spruce weighs about 28 pounds so a cubic inch weighs around a quarter of an ounce. Make the part out of pine it'll weigh about the same, make it out of fir it'll weigh maybe three tenths of an ounce... mebbe nine grams.

So the newbie was getting all het-up over .05 ounces. Not half an ounce, five-hundredths of an ounce. Two grams. He could save ten times that much by blowing his nose before each flight.

Yeah, okay - weight is important. But so's reality. I happen to know this particular newbie plans to include a number of ‘improvements' in his airplane such as full IFR panel... when he doesn't even hold a PPL. Odds are, his airframe will come out about thirty pounds heavier than the designed empty weight, not only from his ‘improvements' but from the fact he doesn't know any of the thousand tricks that allows you to build ‘light.' Building light is a habit but one most homebuilders never acquire since their life-time accomplishment is usually limited to one airframe.

As for substituting fir for spruce, a corner block is a means of distributing what would otherwise be a concentrated load by increasing the gluing surface between the load bearing members. It helps the load ‘turn the corner,' reducing the stress on the junction between the longeron and the connecting member, be it vertical or diagonal. Since the load is concentrated in the outer-most fiber of the material you could drill at the centroid of the corner block and it wouldn't even notice. Fir happens to be stronger than spruce. So long as the corner block has the same height & base a small lightening hole at the centroid would not cause any loss of strength. By the same token, a slightly larger corner block of pine - with a small lightening hole - would give equal strength because of its increased gluing area, but a larger block might change the stiffness factor of that portion of the fuselage (although it would not in this particular case).

The real message in this posting is the fact that while Sitka spruce - Picea sitchensis - is some really lovely wood, that's all it is... wood. Some of its characteristics make it the optimum choice for use in aircraft but its present price and availability has made it grossly impractical for use in most newbie's puddle-jumpers. In fact, wood that is perfectly suitable for the typical light airplane can be found in almost any lumberyard.

And right about there everyone jumps up with their hair on fire and starts chanting "Heathen!" as they dance around the donut machine. (Some Chapters make their own. They call them ‘Homebuilt Donuts.')

Before you whip out your bastinado didja know that back in the Day when the government usta certify wood for aircraft there are ‘aircraft' certification specs for just about any wood you can name? Douglas fir, Western white pine, hemlock, sycamore, cypress... (The USDA got out of certifying aviation-grade lumber in the 1950's. What passes for a 'certification' today is just the retailer telling you the stuff appears to meet the old government specs.)

Spruce is beautiful stuff to work with but there are thousands of board-feet of perfectly good lumber from other species of trees lurking in your local Home Depot or Lowes. The trick is knowing how to tell good lumber from bad. And since you're here, I might as well tellya....

Start by defining wood in quantified terms. It's density will tell you how much it weighs and all else being equal, lighter wood is better than heavier wood. Experience has shown that the most suitable characteristics are found in wood having a certain minimum of growth rings per inch, with twelve being a fair norm. Experience has also shown that wood having a straight, uniform grain is better than wood which does not. The orientation of the grain relative to the particular stick, spar or stringer is also significant. Diagonal grain is only useful when the piece is to be cut up into triangular corner blocking. In all other cases you want the grain to be either flat or vertical to within ten degrees or thereabouts. For aircraft use we try to find wood with a minimum grain run-out of one inch in fifteen. The strength-to-weight ratio for wood reflects its density, which reflects its water content and varies slightly from one type of wood to the next but the optimum strength-to-weight ratio for all softwoods clusters near a moisture content of fifteen percent. The strength of wood is usually defined with three values, one reflecting is compressive strength, the second its strength in tension and the third having to do with its bending or shearing strength.

You can determine grain count, orientation and run-out by visual inspection. Density is determined by calculating the volume of the piece in question then weighing it. Determination of moisture content is done by baking sample pieces and weighing them periodically. When they stop losing weight you may assume they as dry as they can get. Comparison of their dry weight to their original weight will tell you the approximate moisture content.

To determine the strength of a piece of wood, you break it under controlled conditions. One method is to fasten a test piece sixteen inches long and one quarter inch on a side over a fulcrum having a radius of two inches so that fourteen inches of the stick extends outward. The inner end is fastened to the frame of the test jig. A fitting is attached to the stick two inches from the end and weights are suspended from the fitting until the stick breaks. (If you prowl the archives of the Forest Products Laboratory you'll find a Technical Report describing this testing procedure and others, including some pictures of the machines they used.)

All of which means less than nothing to the guy trying to build an airplane on a budget because he doesn't have the background that will allow him to interpret such data in terms of lumberyard pine and fir.

The truth is, 99% of wannabee homebuilders have never had their hands on a hunka aircraft spruce. Any talk of substituting locally available materials is wasted simply because the average homebuilder has no means of comparing the materials that are locally available to those of certified aircraft quality. Oh, he can measure the run-out and count the growth rings and it doesn't take a rocket scientist to recognized a barky edge, knot or pitch pocket. But any mention of tensile strength or bending stress is akin to chanting Eye of Newt and Toe of Frog because even though he's literate enough to follow a set of airplane plans, the average homebuilder is no more familiar with structural analysis than he is with the fourth act of Macbeth. (Now there's a Pop Quiz for all you airplane builders :-)

But we can fix all that. Call up Aircraft Spruce and order a grab-bag of spruce cut-offs. It will cost you about twenty-five dollars. When it arrives, study it. Count the rings per inch. Measure the run-out. Lookit the grain orientation. Now go down to Home Depot or your local lumber yard and start looking for the same stuff. When you find some, cut yourself some sample sticks and break them. THEN DO THE SAME WITH SAMPLES OF CERTIFIED SPRUCE.

Now you've got a standard of comparison.

In most cases your Home Depot pine won't test out as strong as certified spruce. So try it with fir. Douglas fir will typically test out stronger than spruce for the same size stick but will weigh a little more and is usually harder to work with, since it likes to split.

With that data in hand you'll be able to make an informed decision. Fortunately, there's not much thinking involved in corner blocking. If you make - and then break - some sample blocked corners comparing spruce to pine or fir you'll need laboratory-grade instruments to detect any significant difference in strength.

Ribs, stringers & longerons are a different matter.

If you want a real confidence builder, make up a couple of ribs outta certified spruce, rig a jig and test them to destruction. Then do the same using pine or fir. Or both. But be prepared for sticker shock.

Stick-rib the size for a Cub (i.e., 63 inch chord) you need mebbe ten foot of stick stock per rib and a Cub's wing (i.e., about 35 foot of span) needs about two dozen ribs, plus your ailerons and whatever. Smaller wing is no guarantee you'll use less. Lots of smaller wings use closer rib spacing, meaning more ribs, so that even if you need only eight foot of stock per rib you might end up using the same amount of stock for the smaller wing.

If you use certified stock you're probably looking at fifty to seventy-five dollars for a bundle of quarter-inch sticks. Buying wood from Home Depot and ripping it yourself, you're probably looking at seven to eight dollars.

That savings (ie, more than 90%) also applies to your longerons, although it's lot harder to find suitable stock of sufficient length.

Yeah, I know. Sacrilege! The hills are alive with the sound of newbies crashing into them when their sugar pine ribs turn to flinders.

I doubt it. Back when the world was young and so was I, my dad showed me how to build what he called ‘stick-ribs.' (*) He cut up a 2x4 for the sticks, showed me how to mix the glue (five .45 cal shells of powder to two shells of water. Weldwood ‘Plastic Resin,' aircraft certified from the local hardware store), then turned me loose to ‘make ribs.' I made three. The first took me all day and was an awful thing. The second one took only an afternoon and came out pretty good. The third took me mebbe an hour and was a thing of beauty. After the three ribs had cured for a few days my dad rigged a testing jig and we loaded the second rib with cans of bird shot, fishing sinkers and even hunks of scrap iron until the thing broke and spilled BB's all over the floor.

The 2x4 was probably pine or hemlock; I know it wasn't Douglas fir. It took better than three hundred pounds (!) to fail a rib built by a nine year old kid with zero experience. That's about six g's for the typical light airplane at 1200 pounds gross. Truth is, if I hadn't had so much trouble with those damn teenie-tiny nails, the thing probably would have taken another hundred pounds.

(* - He also showed me how to build routed ribs, metal ribs and riveted ribs, with several variations of each. No telling what you'll find inside a wing, he said. But if it's broke they'll expect you to know how to fix it.)


About six hundred years ago in a little ravine on an island in the Alexander Archipelago, a pair of seedlings sprouted. In 1998 they got cut down. One of them was a Sitka spruce, eight feet through the butt and a hundred sixty feet tall. The other was a Western hemlock, six feet through the butt and a hundred thirty feet tall. Both had grain as straight as a die. Both averaged sixteen to twenty annual rings to the inch. The spruce ended up as certified for use in aircraft construction and you can buy a piece of it, one by six by eight feet for about ninety dollars. The other tree got its heartwood turned into molding and window trim, while most of the sap wood became 2x4's and ended up at Home Depot selling for a dollar thirty-nine each.


So what's all this mean in real terms? Set of ribs for a big wing? Made outta 5/16" fir instead of 1/4" spruce? Maybe three pounds gained and forty dollars saved. No big deal. But the real meaning is more significant in terms of the survival of grass roots aviation because those seemingly insignificant economies add-up to safe, reliable airplanes that any youngster can afford.

If you can afford ninety dollars for a one-by-six that's been anointed with an inspector's stamp, go for it. Quality spruce is lovely stuff to work with and it'll save you having to learn anything. Personally, I plan to go on being a heathen, picking the stacks for the occasional lost soul, hoping to convert them to the true religion of Aviation.


Science Fiction

Allowing a bit of tom-foolery on the Transporter list on Fridays has become something of a tradition, even though the list(s) have only been around a couple of years. Traditions happen fast in America :-) Reading the recent pro’s and con’s of fuel injection versus carburetion triggered a flashback. The war was over, the town suddenly flooded with veterans. My dad and I went to the barbershop, which happened to be attached to a garage on one side and a gas station on the other. It was a popular hangout for returning veterans.

The flashback involved an argument between some of the vets at the barber shop about the superiority of American weapons versus German weapons, especially aircraft and their engines. The fact the Daimler-Benz engine in the Messerschmitt Me-109 -- and other German aircraft -- used fuel injection was cited by one of the men as a principle reason for our victory -- carburetors were better than the ‘new-fangled stuff’. The conversation didn’t stop there. It touched on the merits of self-starters on cars, elevators versus stairs and a host of other topics, all stressing the superiority of well-proven, old-fashioned technology over the hazards of all this new-fangled stuff. My dad didn’t join in the discussion other than to nod now and then.

Walking home with my dad I asked if that’s why we won the war --because the German’s used fuel-injected aircraft engines. He laughed and told me that wasn’t really what they were talking about. The German engine was at least as good as the Allison or Rolls-Royce. That astounded me. It sounded vaguely disloyal but I knew him to be a wizard mechanic -- if he said a thing was so, you could take it to the bank.

What they were talking about, he said, was wanting to come home and find everything the same. But everything had changed. It was the changes that made them talk like that.

I didn’t understand. Later in life I came to understand a good deal about engines. But my dad was talking about people, a subject I’ve yet to master.

Change is a constant. For the young, without a frame of reference, change is the normal state and is readily accepted as such -- whatever is new is inherently better than whatever is old -- new things and new ideas, at least new to youth, are quickly adopted by the young as their reality. But after we’ve lived for a time -- once we’ve established a frame of reference -- we begin to see that many changes are not new things but merely old things wearing a new coat of paint -- someone keeps stirring the pot, the same old. potatoes come to the top and sink again. Old potatoes are always ‘New!’ or ‘Improved!’ according to the people who sell them, and eagerly gobbled up by the kiddies because of it.

In time, we come to realize another constant in our lives is people trying to sell us old potatoes. Discovering we’ve been duped often leaves us bitter. When we reach that point we begin to view new things -- and all forms of change -- with suspicion. We cleave to what we know. What was shining and new and instantly embraced in our youth becomes the good, old-fashioned stuff of middle-age. It is our security blanket, a bulletproof vest against the missiles of a changing world. It is also the seed from which grows the tree of ignorance.

The wiser course is to test new things against our store of experience, adopting what is good, discarding what is bad but always with tolerance. Some bad things will always be wildly popular among our youth simply because they lack the frame of reference defining those particular evils. Merely telling them something is bad does little good -- it lumps us with the sellers of old potatoes. There are some lessons each generation must learn on their own, a Rite of Passage between childish play and adult responsibility. Each generation must eat its share of old potatoes.

So what does all this have to do with fuel injection? Not a lot. But it has much to do with Fridays and this list and keeping our wits about us as we edge along the cliff of life.


By their nature, carburetors are a compromise, providing the optimum fuel/air ratio across only a narrow range of air-flow and manifold pressure. Attempts to resolve this problem lead to carburetors of blinding mechanical complexity.

From an engineering standpoint, when it comes to internal combustion, gasoline fueled engines, the ideal is one carburetor per cylinder. Fuel injection advances you toward that goal. Fuel injection utilizing electronic controls capable of sensing the engine’s state and feeding-back that data to the fuel-injection controller comes very close satisfying the requirements for optimum engine efficiency and performance.

As for the Science Fiction part of the title, that’s just an old potato I threw into the pot :-)

-Bob Hoover

On-Board Spares

All Volkswagens came from the factory with a rudimentary kit of tools as standard equipment. At the dealer each new vehicle was usually gifted with a spare fan belt and complimentary set of spare fuses. Up through the early 1970's it was not uncommon to find these things, untouched and even unopened in many cases, in older Volkswagens at wrecking yards. The tools were unused because the owner had no need of them, thanks to the presence of a Volkswagen dealer in almost every town of any size. Times have changed.

While there are still a few Volkswagen dealers around most of them sell other brands of automobiles as well. Seeing ‘VW’ on a car dealer’s sign today is no assurance they even have a Volkswagen on their lot, VW parts in their storeroom or a mechanic on staff with more than a passing familiarity with an early air cooled veedub.

“You don’t see many of these nowadays,” he says as he opens the engine hatch and stands looking, mystified.

Of course, you see it every day. The only one mystified is the mechanic. Today, your best mechanic is you.

So we carry our own tools... as Volkswagen intended. And carry a few spares, too. The most important spare on board is a new fan belt, for the engine’s cooling system depends entirely on that belt. And the electrical system, too.

One belt. So we carry a spare. Or two.

Fuses are good. Older bugs and buses need only the two sizes -- eight and sixteen amps -- and most of us have learned the wisdom of using the better quality Buss (brand name) GBC-type over the original Bosch or Siemens fuse, with their exposed strip of fuse material.

We tend to not carry the things for which we already have two, such as headlights, tail-light bulbs or wiper blades. But the thoughtful do. And think a bit more, wondering ‘What do I have just one of that might keep me from getting home?’ and in their thoughtfulness add a throttle wire and clutch cable to their load.

Those of us with buses and those who yearn for empty places squirrel away a remarkable assortment of spare parts, often neatly packaged and fastened securely in the engine compartment of our boxy beasts. That lump is a carb, overhauled and ready to run, the one over there a fuel pump, this one a distributor, points gapped, waiting to fire and in doing so, carry me on my way. An alternator or generator is a bit much but not so the bushes for either, or brush-holder with in-built regulator for the latter and regulator for the former, a spare often carried bolted near the first, a regulator-in-waiting needing only the quick transfer of connections.

Volkswagen has no interest in we owners of antiques -- they can’t survive selling fuses and belts, especially so since the fuses they sell are antiques themselves -- the GBC’s are better and the belts cheaper at that place down the street.

Carrying on-board spares adds a bit of weight to the load but prevents the deadly wait on the road, when the nearest clutch cable is in Portland. And you are not.

So carry a few. Well packed and preserved so they won’t go bad. Nor will their prices grow as they surely will if you leave them on the dealer’s shelves. An on-board spare is here, right now. Portland is a Cascade Range away, an hour’s drive or two-days walk and walking is illegal in much of modern-day America, especially if it’s paved.

On-board spares are smart in the same way a Ph.D. is smart who never calls himself ‘Doctor’ and looks at things with quiet, knowing eyes. ’Ron,’ he says as he shakes your hand. He has contributed to man’s sum store of knowledge and is satisfied with that. He’s on a Journey and needs no one to celebrate his ego.

On-board spares are like that -- part of your Journey. Others turn back, drop out, give up.

But with on-board spares you’ve got what you need in your kit and drive on, promising to replace it when next you can. Being smart isn’t the same as being wise but carrying on-board spares is both and says much about the person who does so. Your casual “I’ll be there,” is taken by others as sterling, that you’ll do what you say, because you always do. For some of us it is not a celebration of ego to say we are as good as our word. We think, we plan and carry out those plans. We allow for the unexpected. And we carry a few spares on-board. ’I’ll be there’ becomes not an expression of ego but merely a statement of fact.

And if you think this only about cars, you’ve missed the point :-)

-Bob Hoover (1995)

Positive Things & VW buses

A recent thread asked for positive examples of the benefits of VW bus ownership. That is the sort of question that reveals far more than it asks. On the surface it appears to be a simple request for information, to which I’ve responded in the first part of what follows. But peering deeper into our navels we’re liable to come upon a lint-ball we’re unwilling to touch.

Those of you who have seen my 1965 bus know it is not a thing of beauty. The paint scabrous and pie-bald. One reason for its rough appearance is because the bus is in constant use, there is no time for cosmetic things.

Tasked with a 900 mile trip several times a year plus an occasional longer jaunt -- more than 1,500 miles to attend the Big Sur outing, or hauling a ton of Portland cement to the top of Mt. Palomar, the bus is expected and required to do all. And it does.

The simplicity of the engine’s design makes it amenable to modification, allowing incorporation of modern technological benefits not available when the vehicle was manufactured, such as electronic ignition, a full-flow oil filtration system, a better cooling system and more reliable electrical components; it now uses an alternator rather than a generator and runs better for it.

The bus handles better than it did when new, thanks to better tires and a stronger suspension system. Most importantly, the bus gets better gas mileage, requires less maintenance and is more reliable. Because of its age the cost of insurance is low, as is the annual license fee and it does not require the biannual smog inspection expected of younger vehicles, although its emissions are an order of magnitude less than those allowed by law.

My bus has not had an easy life and I am at least its fourth owner. It has suffered from collision and all of its major mechanical components have worn out through its years of service. But as things wore out, they were repaired, overhauled or replaced so that today only the front axle assembly and chassis are original as-manufactured parts, and the front axle will be replaced before I set out to drive to Inuvik, a few oceans away.

All of these things argue for the positive aspects of bus ownership yet to the mainstream of American thought, my bus and I are examples of failure. The bus contains not a single molded plastic cup holder. It has neither carpeting, air-conditioning nor stereo. Indeed, it has no radio at all and incorporates none of the supposedly necessary features common to modern vehicles designed for the lazy, thoughtless and immature.

My bus has neither buzzers nor chimes nor even a light that springs on when I open the door. All of that falls to me. If light is needed, I must turn it on. I am responsible for my own safety, and for the safe operation and maintenance of the vehicle. In a society were no one is ever at fault, the buck stops here.

And therein lies the message and the only valid answer. Why do I own and drive an old bus? Because I can.

The reliability -- the honesty and functionality -- of anything is nothing more than a reflection of the person in charge. My bus. My responsibility. If it craps out, it’s my fault. No excuses. This applies equally to every aspect of our lives because we have the capacity to shape our lives and determine our own destiny.

You are the person in charge. You may accept or deny your responsibilities.

The evidence indicates most have chosen denial.

The purpose of this list is not to preach the obvious but to illuminate the obscure. Unfortunately, in the modern age the obvious is often obscured and not by chance alone. If the logic of that is unclear it’s good evidence your life is not your own.

-Bob Hoover

The American Way

Speaking as a mechanic, I know from first hand experience that the predications of automobile dealers and mechanics on car owners have kept pace with the systemic dumbing of America. Here in California automotive interests bribed our elected officials to gut the automotive division of the Office of Consumer Affairs; we now have two (!) investigators to handle complaints. The population of California is about 30,000,000.

The bribes were all legal, of course -- campaign contributions and the like.

The official word regarding the staff reductions is that they are part of a State-wide economy move. This at a time when the staff of other consumer protection agencies are being increased. Besides (the legislators argue), the State office duplicated the functions of various city and county offices. Sure they did.

When we have a headache we don’t think of cancer, we pop a couple of aspirin tablets and the pain goes away. Until the next time. But the problem of dishonest dealers and mechanics is only a symptom, the disease is more subtle and far more pervasive. Unless the root problem is dealt with, complaints, civil suits and letters to the editor are about as effective as treating cancer with aspirin.

One reason I own older Volkswagens is because I can maintain them forever, no dealers required. I would rather have the work done by an honest, courteous dealer but I haven’t run into one of those in more than thirty years. If my family is to enjoy the benefits of personal transportation I feel I’ve no choice but to become my own mechanic. (Lucky for me I are one.) I would also like to own a newer car but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that the fair market value of the typical new car is from 67% to 73% of its price, according to Kelly’s Blue Book. And insurance companies use the same kind of creative accounting, having one evaluation to calculate your insurance rates, another when settling a claim. This is ‘good business.’ It is taught in our business schools and its sharpest practitioners receive million dollar salaries and Man of the Year awards.

But it is neither fair nor ethical. With the bulk of Americans mechanically challenged with changing a flat tire, their options in personal transportation are limited to a choice between cancer and polio.

Up to this point a lot of people -- possibly a majority -- will agree with me, offering a verbal pat on the back for being the last of the red-blooded Americans with greasy fingernails. But that misses the basic message which is simply that the system doesn’t work. And what lies ahead is definitely dangerous territory.

I’m also prepared to shoot mad dogs and kill my own burglars. This is not a Ramboesque decision, it is an absolute necessity if I wish to ensure the safety and security of my family. This unpleasant choice has forced upon me by our hi-tech mega-buck public safety system that has an average response time of about thirty minutes, if they show up at all. Becuase our courts have ruled that public safety organizations are not obligated to respond to any specific call, only that they provide a uniform level of response to the public as a whole. They’ve also ruled that personal protection is the responsibility of the individual

Everyone please note: Wandering around my property at night may be hazardous to your health.

Far fewer Americans will agree with this latter position but for the area in which I live it is as valid as the need to do my own auto repairs and for the same reason: The system doesn’t work. The only question is, how long before this situation becomes the accepted norm for a majority of Americans.

-Bob Hoover

The Forever Car

A recent thread (Methyl Hydrate) about fueling your car with alcohol to squeak by an emissions test touched on the morality of violating the spirit of a law intended to provide a healthier environment. The comments circled the mountain but failed to climb it. The real question has to do with the fact that transportation is a necessity of modern-day life and the role government plays in supporting that collective need. But before we can appreciate the ‘morality’ of something as arcane as gasoline versus alcohol we need to understand the fundamental basis for governments, for without that understanding the question of morality with regard to observing a rule imposed by government can have no foundation.

Governments don’t form themselves, they are formed by people in order to gain some advantage, usually to enhance their welfare by forming a group large enough to accomplish collectively what they can not achieve on an individual basis, such as defending their homes. The paradox of government is that the individual must always give up certain personal freedoms in order to enjoy the collective benefits.

The sad thing about governments is that most evolve into parasitic bureaucracies that eventually kill their host. Our founding fathers recognized this flaw and tried to insure against it by stressing certain ‘inalienable’ rights. Once it takes on a bureaucratic form government will eventually become so large that it must prey upon the people who created it in order to survive. Instead of being the servant of the people, government becomes their competitor and eventually, their adversary. but recent history shows all of those rights have been abridged by our government whenever it feels threatened.

The fact remains that we can not earn our livings nor enjoy our ‘inalienable’ rights without access to transportation, it is a collective need. In recognition of that fact we have used governmental powers to foster transportation, from the earliest canals to the latest space flights. Public transportation was very much a part of the overall plan, up until the end of World War II.

When I was a boy the light-rail system of southern California was one of the finest in the world. You could travel by streetcar from Riverside, California to Newport Beach, a distance of nearly a hundred miles for about seventy cents and every metropolitan area enjoyed the use of a similar system. The corruption that lead to the demise of that magnificent rail car systems is a matter of public record and serves as an object lesson for anyone foolish enough to trust an elected official. Or the morality of large corporations. Even more chilling is that having successfully raped the southern California light rail system, the same corporations and agencies repeated the process all across the country. Government and industry acted in concert to destroy an invaluable public asset, replacing it with a few buses and the concept of ‘personal’ transportation. Their motive was greed. Public outcry lead to investigations. and even a few trials in which corporations and government officials were found guilty of a variety of crimes. Their typical punishment was a warning, the maximum fine $5,000. What was good for General Motors was good for America. And to hell with the Americans.

In the nearly two generations since that time the public has been carefully trained to respond to the Pavlovian need for ‘personal’ transportation, squeezed into a succession of smaller and smaller boxes-on-wheels, brainwashed into believing they are doing the right thing. Today, the average American driver is firmly convinced that miles-per-gallon is the major factor in the cost of getting from here to there.

It’s all bullshit. Very carefully thought-out bullshit.

Personal transportation is a luxury, the cost rapidly approaching one dollar per mile. The major portion of that cost is spent buying your box-on-wheels, financing the money used to buy it, for insurance, licensing fees and other taxes. Fuel, oil, tires and maintenance makes up only about eight percent of the cost of personal transportation. Miles per gallon -- and emission standards -- are a bureaucratic joke.

The dollar-per-mile cost of personal transportation is nothing more than a monstrous scam. Car manufacturers, banks, insurance companies and the legions of politicians they have bribed are all parties to this scam. And you are the scam-ee. (Okay, it wasn’t a bribe it was a ‘political contribution.’ If you’re addicted to a diet of bullshit perhaps calling it chocolate pudding will make it taste better.)

The unfaithful stewards who have screwed the American public for so many years are haunted by the thought of old Volkswagens that cost only pennies per mile to run and seem to last forever, or by anyone bright enough to keep their car for five or ten years. Fortunately for them, most Americans aren’t very bright and our concept of history involves what we had for breakfast.

Want to guess what happens if you drop out of the dollar-per-mile cycle by keeping your vehicle for five or ten years?

Economic disaster, at least for the current crop of bean-counters. According to Consumer’s Union, people who drove the same car for ten years or more realized a ‘hidden’ income large enough to buy a new home. In the ‘worst’ case their hidden income was large enough to buy a new home and put two kids through college. This news did not play well in Detroit. Or Washington.

The late John Muir of “...Compleate Idiot” fame awakened me to the Forever Car theme more than thirty years ago. The intervening quarter-century has seen no change in the personal transportation scam or the fundamental ignorance of our society. Nor in the arguments such things engender. Most discussions about the benefits of keeping a car forever are quickly sidetracked by bean-counters who attack the figures, show them to be fallacious in a particular case and plaster that conclusion across the entire argument.

The deeper implications are never discussed and the typical car owner, bombarded with a constant barrage of slick propaganda, chooses the easy way out: they buy a new car every few years and dive back into the tube.

Want cleaner air? Get rid of the cars. Emission standards are akin to trying to cure cancer with aspirin. Want to drive for a penny a mile, own a nice home and put your kids through college? Keep your car forever.

Now, did someone mention morality.

-Bob Hoover


Beans are good food. When just sprouted you can eat the entire sprout raw. You may also eat the bean and its pod without cooking when it’s still green. Mature beans are allowed to dry, winnowed then stored. Like all naturally grown food, unless treated with radiation or some form of preservative, beans contain the seeds of their own destruction in the form of fungus spores and microscopic insect eggs. The eggs will eventually result in moths or some sort of beetle but the development of the larvae – the generic weevil – is slowed by cold weather, meaning you can usually count on beans to get you through the winter ... assuming the ones you store are from that fall’s crop.

Unfortunately, a dry bean is a virtually indigestible lump of starch. Grinding them into a coarse flour makes them a bit more digestible but the best way to prepare beans is to cook them and therein lies a tale. And the reason for this article.

Boiling a bean will soften it but it is still little more than a pill of starch and your guts will have a hell of a time getting any good from it.

To prepare beans for cooking you have to wake them up.

To wake up a bean, you soak it in water. The water activates the bean’s chemical engine. It thinks it just got planted and uses the water to begin converting its storehouse of starches into sugars and other good things.

Soak the beans long enough, they will sprout. If you’re showing symptoms of scurvy, eating the sprouts will help, although I think sprouted wheat has more Vitamin C. And you can forget all that ‘MDA’ bullshit. The Minimum Daily Requirement for Vitamin C varies wildly among individuals and even then, reflects only the amount of ascorbic acid needed to suppress the symptoms of scurvy. Suppression of symptoms is a different matter entirely from ensuring good health. If this point isn’t clear it may help if you compare the amount of water needed for survival to the amount needed by someone doing a hard day’s work in a warm climate. Lay quietly in the shade, you can survive on as little as a quart of water per day. But you’ll need at least a gallon a day to get by in the desert and up to five gallons per day if you’re doing heavy labor.

The MDA/RDA bullshit is similar to that quart-a-day figure. The MDA for ascorbic acid is based on a bell curve from data compiled in the late 1930's under one of those WPA make-work programs. By modern standards the test-population was not only too small it was seriously skewed. Bottom line: don’t put too much faith in it.

Sailors know about this stuff. The Chinese figured it out (and wrote it down) about 1100 BC. Native Americans (indeed, Native Anyone) also understood our curious failing – men and hamsters are the only creatures that can’t make their own Vitamin C -- and incorporated a number of antiscorbutics in their traditional ‘primitive’ diet. Western sailors finally figured it out in the late 1700's, largely from their contact with Eastern sailors. Ditto for miners, prospectors, trappers, explorers and so forth, from their contact with indigenous peoples.

But as I said, bean sprouts aren’t a very good source of vitamin C. Dried berries would be a better choice since the vitamin C doesn’t do any good unless people are willing to eat it. Dried cabbage flakes, onion flakes and even tomato flakes are good sources of vitamin C. Cheap, too. Unfortunately, dried vegetables don’t lend themselves to tasty dishes in the quantity needed to prevent scurvy. With dried berries you can feed them to the crew at every meal and be greeted with cheers.

But let’s get back to the bean.

Soaking a bean wakes it up. Waking it up triggers a chemical change. Among the several changes resulting from that on-going chemical alteration is a change in the way the bean tastes. The flavor of the bean varies according to how long it is soaked before cooking.

The older the bean, the longer it has to soak before the changes kick in. Once the chemical change begins, it proceeds at a slower pace in older beans.

Every variety of bean has it’s own signature flavor; Small Northern White beans taste uniquely different from Pinto beans and so forth. And as you might suspect, the range of flavor variation that results from soaking varies according to the type of bean. For some, the variation is subtle, for others it’s so extreme that people will insist you’ve doctored the pot with spices.

As foods go, beans are pretty smart. They’re versatile, nutritious, come in a shape that is easily packaged for transport and are simple to prepare. But preparation must take the bean’s unique characteristics into account. If you just throw them in a pressure cooker and nuke-til-soft you’re liable to have mutiny on your hands.

-Bob Hoover


Why? Because I thought everyone knew how to bake biscuits. Turns out, I was wrong, big time. So here ya’ go. But first, let me clue you in about flour.

All fish aren’t the same, other than being fish. Same is true for tomatoes, chili peppers, women, dogs and pick-up trucks. Wheat, too. Lots of varieties of wheat. Some wheat has more starch, others have more gluten, some have a higher water content, some got a bigger kernel.

Different wheats produce different flours. Nowadays they mix them all together, try to convince you this All-Purpose crap is just as good as honest Bread Flour or Pastry Flour. It’s not, which you can prove for yourself if you can get your hands on the Real Thing. Trying to make good biscuits outta All-Purpose flour is like trying to make planked salmon outta sardines.

So if you wanna bake biscuits, go find yourself some real Bread Flour.

And some lard. And some salt. And some baking powder.

Most folks use cow’s milk for mixing if they can get it. Not the skimmed stuff, real milk. Of course, if you can’t catch a cow or don’t know how to milk, you’ll have to use something else. Out at sea, you can mix up instant milk. Tastes like hell but it’s okay for cooking. Or you can use water. Or even beer if the crew is hungry enough.

Ready to make some biscuits? If you’ve got an oven, go turn it on. Hot; up around 450. If you’ll be using a Dutch Oven you should have started the fire about an hour ago. I never had much luck baking biscuits in a pueblo oven; too cool or something. But a Dutch Oven will work fine. Fishing, prospecting or just traveling around, I generally use the Coleman stove because it’s faster.

Batch of biscuits is four big handfuls of flour, big pinch of salt and a palm-full of baking powder. I like Clabber Girl but Calumet works okay. (Durban, Loreto or Vancouver, they won’t know what the hell you’re talking about even if they speak a little English. But the local chandler will know what works, can usually give you a list or even buy it for you, plus his usual bite of course.)

That’s all the dry stuff. Throw it in a bowl and mix it up. Use your hand. If you been out for a while the flour will usually have some weevils. You’ll have to sift them out if the crew is college boys or picky sorts but weevils won’t hurt you once they’re cooked.

Lard comes next. Two scoops-worth. Use your first three fingers as the scoop. Squish it into the flour with your hand. Squish it good; the flour will be kinda crumbly if you do it right.

Now you can add the milk. Or beer. Or whatever. Little at a time, starting with about one glug, which works out to about as much as you can put in your cupped palm. Moisture and heat activates the baking powder, which generates carbon dioxide, which makes your biscuits fluffy. But you don’t want too much moisture or the biscuits will come out tough. Just Right is when the dough peels away from your hand without sticking; too wet, it’ll stick.

Flour your cutting board and flop the dough onto it. Knead it with your palms and fold it back, then turn it end for end and do the same, then flip it over and do it all over again. Now pat it out and use a tin can to punch out the biscuits.

If you’ve got an oven, put your biscuits in a big iron skillet or on a cookie tin or whatever and stick ‘em in there. Hot oven, should take about a quarter of an hour.

Dutch oven should be just about too hot to touch before you put in the biscuits. Pack them in the bottom, put on the lid, rake some coals off the side and sit the oven over the coals, then put about one pie pan’s-worth of coals on the lid. How long depends on the wind and the weather but south of sixty, ten to twenty minutes is about the norm.

Back over on the cutting board you got that Swiss cheese looking mess of dough. Knead it into a ball then take something round and roll it out thin, like a pie crust. Grab a lump of butter and smear it all over the dough. Sprinkle some sugar on the butter and some cinnamon onto the sugar then roll it up like a tortilla. Slice the roll into little wheels and bake them along with the biscuits.

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

Wacky as all that sounds, it has produced superlative biscuits for more than half a century, afloat and ashore, from the arctic to the tropics. There’s a bit more to it of course; experience counts for something. But the basic message is that making biscuits isn’t rocket science; anyone should be able to whip up a batch of biscuits from scratch. Preparation of food is mostly common sense. Unfortunately, common sense is a remarkably uncommon commodity in modern-day America.

If all you’ve got is All-Purpose flour, go ahead and use it. But you’ll be shooting yourself in the foot. Oh, it’ll make a biscuit. Or a pie, cake or whatever. But it isn’t the right flour for any of those things. (Makes good pancakes, through.)

Don’t want to use lard? Then use something else. But privately, if it’s the first time. I’ve used everything from seal blubber to coconut oil. Some things work better than others; lard’s the best shortening for biscuits.

You’ll note that all of the measurements are relative to the cook. I’ve learned to do without cups or teaspoons or ounces because as soon as you become dependent on such things you’re screwed when you don’t have them. But you’ve always got your hands and your senses.

Can’t boil water without a cookbook? Then get acquainted with Fannie Farmer. She’s been telling Americans how to prepare good food for more than a hundred years.

Bob Hoover


Since Old Man Foster died back in ‘66 the place next door has fallen on hard times. His son came over from Borrego and sold off about half the acreage and moved into the house but he was a barber and we already had two in town and it’s not that big a town, or at least it wasn’t back then. He finally had to sell out and move. I never got to know him. They was only here a couple of years and I was in the Navy then and it didn’t help that I sported a beard, then and now. Barbers have a natural dislike for beards.

After that, the Foster place really went to hell, first bought by a bunch of hippies who were going to live off the land, except none of them knew a thing about farming nor much about work, spending most of their time talking about things they didn’t understand which was just about everything, and smoking funny-smelling cigarettes.

They lasted about two hungry years, the last one living mostly out of our garden.

Then there was the rock group, flush with cash and eager for a place in the country where they could play loud music day and night. It took about two years to sue them into silence.

Three times. The third time the judge slapped them with a fine so big they decided it was time for another World Tour and left one night without even saying good-bye. Or locking the doors. Or paying the fine.

Our next new batch of neighbors were quiet as the grave. Sorta stand-offish. Lots a coming and going, always at night. Lotsa UPS deliveries of chemicals and laboratory apparatus. Then the ether exploded and put their speed-cooking chemist in the hospital and didn’t do the house much good either. Me and the other neighbors put out the fire; we’re in the country and it was all volunteer back then. Don’t know what happened to the owners. They dumped their buddy at the door of the Emergency Room and kept right on going.

After that the place stood vacant for a couple of years, slowly going to ruin.

It got broke into by wetbacks who let their cook-fire get away from them and burnt off the west end of the back porch before we could get it out. They was cooking up one of the neighbor's prize Nubian goats. We’re all afraid of fire up here on the hill, what with no water to speak of the closest help some distance away. After the second fire we started taking turns checking on the place at night, chasing away the lovers and the wetbacks and the what-nots.

That’s why I throwed down on the new owners with a shotgun, I thought they was burglars or Messicans or some damn thing. It was only loaded with bird-shot so I snuck up good and close before I announced myself. He just about had a heart attack and she peed all down her leg when I shouted “Hands up, you mother lovers!”

Strange car, middle of the night. It seemed. the thing to do. Except I didn’t say lovers. But they got my drift. The For Sale sign went up about six months later, right after the coyotes chased their cat up a tree and ate it. City cats never believe how well a coyote can climb.

The School Teacher Family was nice enough. Man and his wife, both teachers, one little boy about six. They wanted to get to know us and we was willing but the spiders got in the way.

I’m no naturalist but I’m naturally curious and we got some really strange spiders up here on the hill. There’s a big green one with brown spots that makes these beautiful webs, some as big as a bed sheet, nets her dinner then eats it along with the web... then spins herself a new one. There’s another spider looks pretty much the same except she’s mostly brown with green spots, makes a web about the same size. But damn if she don’t patch her web instead of eating it. No kidding. She nets her dinner, wraps it up, hauls it off, then comes back and patches the hole in the web. Damnedest thing I ever saw.

That got me curious as to which is the better strategy, a new web or a patched one, so I started watching those guys real close. The spiders hide-out during the day but you can tell one web from the other because the Patcher always has an odd number of radials in her web while the Eater’s web has an even number of radials.

Each time I’d find a new web I’d figure out who it belonged to, measure the web then come back after dark and measure the spider, keeping track of which kind grew the fastest.

I was hunkered down in the weeds counting the radials of a new spider web I’d discovered when Mrs. Teacher and the boy comes down the drive. I was keeping track of the radials using a mechanical pencil as a pointer, counting my way around the clock of the web as they drove by. Real slow. Heads turning. I gave them a friendly wave and a nod but kept on counting. Some of them webs have nearly a hundred radials and you’d be there all day if you lost track.

The Teachers put up the For Sale at the end of the school year but it wasn’t until they’d gone that we learned they hadn’t seen the web, couldn’t see it from their drive. But they had a nice view of me taking a crap in the bushes while conducting an invisible orchestra, or at least that’s what they told the neighbors. And that I was a Peeping Tom, creeping around at night with a flashlight.

Funny thing is, the other neighbors never doubted them for a minute, not since I clipped the top of the eucalyptus doing a slow-roll over the house in a biplane a couple of years before.

The next batch of neighbors were into horticulture in a big way, growing America’s favorite herb on the back of their newly acquired property, or trying to. I had to show them how to break down ‘dobe soil with acid, helped them get the mulch just right. They lasted about two years. Four crops. Number Three was some primo shit. Or so I heard. Then came The Raid, with helicopters and SWAT teams and insane German dogs and more Deputy Sheriffs than a John Wayne movie.

So what’s this got to do with Volkswagens? Well, it’s like this... We got some more new neighbors, haven’t met them yet but we sent them a Bread & Butter note like we always do, welcoming them and inviting them over for cocktails some evening; their option.

Gave them our private phone number in case of trouble; call the Sheriff, they don’t hardly bother unless there’s shooting involved. But one of the talkative neighbors had already been there, giving them the history of the place and of their ‘strange’ neighbor with the airplane in the yard and all the antennas on the roof. We weren’t expecting to hear from them any time soon.

So I’m laying under this Karmann Ghia that has a bad CV. Got its ass hiked up on jack stands and my legs are sticking out from under. I’ve got the joints all cleaned and go to mark them and I can’t find my white stencil pencil, which is what I use for marking. Snuck in the house and borrow a bottle of my daughter’s nail polish and used that. Neat little ‘L’ on the left axle, little ‘R’ on the right, with perfectly painted little arrows and alignment marks.

It’s not easy, using nail polish laying on your back, holding the bottle in one hand, brush in the other and trying to keep things neat. Sure enough, I got a piece of black gunk on the brush and can’t get it off. Can’t put it back in the bottle or my daughter would kill me. Shuffle out and get all greasy in the process; I’m not using the creeper. Sit down on a sawhorse and try to clean the brush. Bottle’s in my left hand, brush in my right, big greasy thumb right there when I’m looking for something to sorta skim the brush on. Used my thumb nail.

Nail Sticks ‘Pearlescent.’ Real pretty, sorta pearly white. Makes a good marker for CV joints. And it went on my thumbnail neat as anything, nice smooth coat.

I had to just about paint my whole thumbnail to get the black booger off the brush but I finally got it. Looked up and there’s the new neighbor, jaw hanging down to here, eyes sticking out like a couple of boiled eggs.

He didn’t say nothing but you could tell what the damn fool was thinking. So I fanned-out my fingers like a girl, blew gently on the thumbnail and put on a second coat.

At supper my wife asks: “What’s that all over your thumbnail?”

“Met the new neighbor today.”

“Oh gawd,” she sez real slow. “Not again.”

-Copyright 1995 -Robert S. Hoover-