Get Up….And Go

vauxhall

For a couple of years during our teens, my brother worked pumping gas on the weekends for the snake-oil salesman who owned a local garage. I stopped in one summer Sunday to shoot the shit, and noticed a pile of tires with bright yellow chalk markings of NFG on the sidewalls.  In all my small-town naïve innocence, I asked, “What does NFG mean?” “Haw, haw, haw!!  Oh, you know what NFG means!”

Even these years later, the arrogant stupidity of that non-answer still irritates me. If I ‘knew’ what NFG meant, I wouldn’t have asked what NFG meant.  A couple of years later, when I got out in the cruel, cruel (and often foul-mouthed) world, I found that it meant No Fucking Good.  Why didn’t he just say so?

One day he accosted me. “Whaddya doin’ next Saturday?” “Why?” “Wanna make 25 bucks?” That was the equivalent of a half a day’s wages.  Rather suspiciously, “Doing what?”

A couple of times a year, he would go to a used-car auction outside Toronto, bring home some lemons vehicles, fix them (almost) up, and sell them at a profit.  Oh, he wants another driver.  It’s reasonably safe, and almost legal.  I could use a little extra spending money.  Sure, why not!?

Five of us met at the garage at O-dark-600. He piled us all into a big old Mercury sedan.  He drove, with two guys in the front with him.  Remember those big old boats, where three could ride in comfort on the front bench seat?  Not ‘safely’ though, ‘cause they didn’t have seatbelts.

Two other gullible suckers and I rode in the back. Off we set for a 100 mile, 2-hour drive.  The car auction began at 9:00 AM and we arrived with time to spare.  Mr. Snake-Oil went inside, but, since we weren’t registered buyers, we had to remain outside.

We wandered around, bored, talking to each other and other teens who’d come with other dealers, searching for washrooms and maybe something to eat or drink. At noon, he came out, all smiles.  He’d bought five cars – one for each of us.

We made sure that they all started and ran, and had enough gas for the trip home, and formed up our little convoy. Since I’d previously owned a Morris, and currently owned an Austin, I was assigned a four-cylinder Vauxhall sedan, similar to the station-wagon my Father had recently owned, while the rest got 6- and 8-cylinder Fords and Chevies.

With the chief turkey buzzard leading the parade, we headed for home. I was in third position.  When we reached the 60MPH speed limit of the highway, we quickly sped up to 65/70….all except me.  It seemed that, no matter what I did (not much), the best I could do was 50/55.  Number 4 soon passed me.

A mile down the road, “the best I could do” suddenly dropped to 30/35.  Number five pulled out and passed, and Tail-End Charlie was breathing down my tailpipe.  Then, the wee beast speeded up again, if you can call 50 MPH, speed.

Another mile, and it faltered again. Soon I was number 6.  In a day before cell-phones for emergencies, I wondered what would happen if this thing died all together, as the last of them disappeared over a hill, a half a mile ahead.  I thought about just pulling it off to the side, and hitch-hiking back.

After a hundred miles of this, I finally nursed it home. As I pulled in, he yelled, “Where the Hell have you been?  Did you get lost?  The rest of us have been back for hours.”  25 – 30 minutes, maybe, but, gee thanks for keeping an eye out and worrying about me Boss.  “What the Hell kept you?”

I explained that I just couldn’t get any top-end speed, and that it would die off every once in a while. I said, “It feels like I was driving on three cylinders half the time, and the other half, only on two.” “Oh, you just don’t know how to drive!”  I took my $25 undeclared cash earnings and left. ‘See if I ever do that for you again.’

About a week later, I pulled in to gas up my Austin, and he swaggered over and stuck his head in my window. “Remember that Vauxhall you drove for me?”  I’d been trying to put it out of my mind, but, “Yeah?” “Know what I found?” A llama in the trunk?  Bubble-gum in the ashtray?  A complete set of Encyclopedia Britannica?  “What?”

“When I was working on it, I found that one of the spark plugs was welded closed, and one of the ignition wires from the distributor was loose. If it got bumped, there was no power going to that plug.  It was like it was running on three cylinders half the time, and only on two, the other half.”

Do I get a free tank of gas for diagnosing the problem for you? Of course not!  Not even a thank you or an admission that I was right, much less an apology.  What an arrogant, self-centered asshole.  When I went back to school after moving here to Kitchener, I met his then-divorced wife.  She couldn’t stand him either.  Later, his brother was elected President of the United States.

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Book Review #14

spacehounds-of-ipc

Edward Elmer E.E. (Doc) Smith is arguably the father of the Space Opera genre of science fiction.  His protagonists are the biggest, strongest, fastest, smartest and bravest.  I didn’t use the term ‘heroes’, because he didn’t write them like that.  They might simultaneously be all of the above, but there was always a touch of, “Shucks Ma’am, ‘tweren’t nothin’!”

In one book, the lead captured a rival who had kidnapped his fiancée, and attempted to kill him. At one point, he armed the rival with two .45 caliber automatics; so that they could fight their way through a roomful of someone else’s armed thugs.

Later in the book, the rival warns aggressive underlings not to try anything against him, “Unless you can sneak up behind him with a cannon. He was the one who kicked the door in, and still got off three shots before I fired once.  He was shooting 4 to my 3, and hit every time, where I missed once with my left.”  Even his Japanese valet was described as, “Chain lightning on greased wheels.”

Smith strongly resembled his characters. He got the nickname ‘Doc’ honestly.  He was a food engineer who worked for years for Kellogg’s of Battle Creek.  Aside from his prolific writing, when he wasn’t formulating breakfast cereal that would stop teenage boys from masturbating, he developed a process to get materials like powdered sugar and sprinkles to adhere to donuts and muffins, later giving rise to the likes of Krispy Kreme and Tim Horton’s.

He was a friend and mentor to Robert Heinlein. A line could be drawn from Smith, through Heinlein, up to Gene Rodenberry, who gave us 50 years of Star Trek space opera.

Some of his characters had ‘perception,’ the ability to ‘see’ when eyes couldn’t. Heinlein asked for help in buying a used car.  Doc took the wheel for a test drive.  At one point, he hunkered down and put his ear to the door post, to listen for any suspect vibrations.  He drove several miles without seeing the road, and Heinlein swears he must have had ‘perception.’  He okayed the car, which lasted for years.

The book: Spacehounds Of IPC

The author: E.E. (Doc) Smith

The review:

This is one of Doc’s earliest sci-fi stories, and the one that he was most proud of. It was originally released in 1932, and then re-released again in 1947.  The paperback version I have is from Ace Books, and sold about 1965.

This is the book where he developed what he would use in later series. All space action takes place within the Solar System.  Gravity on space ships is provided by acceleration or deceleration.  No scientific usage was, or has been, proved impossible.

This is where he first wrote of ray-cannons, deflector shields, tractor and presser rays, guillotine planes, and the absorption of attackers’ weapons output and eventually cosmic radiation into massive capacitors, for re-use. He describes a 10-foot flying lizard-being from Jupiter’s South Pole, which became an interstellar race in his later Lensman series.

Like several other authors, he was terribly prescient about technology. This 1930s book describes hand-held walkie-talkies, electronic calculators, computers and direct-beam radios (albeit with vacuum tubes), and view-screens that he identifies as televisions.

It’s a soft, nostalgic look at science and society of almost a century ago. It’s all black and white – us vs. them – good against evil.  The language is upscale technical, and archaic, even for a coot as old as me.  Nothing is OK (or okay); everything is ‘all-x.’

Even among fellow-scientists, relations are somewhat formal, and a young, unmarried couple, stranded alone on Ganymede for six months (but with no guarantee of ever being picked up) managed to keep their hands off each other. Not at all like Captain Kirk, who couldn’t keep it in the Galaxy, much less his pants.

Not as a suggestion, but merely as a question from Jim Wheeler about whether I ever re-read books, I have dug out and am reading stories I first read 40 and 50 years ago. The passage of time has not only changed Society, but matured my outlook and opinions about many things.  Some of them have been quite….interesting.