Saturday, April 2, 2016

Thanking Jack!

As a young lad growing up, I was lucky in many ways. First off, I was raised by parents who were not "hover parents".  Living in a rural area near a 900 acre lake, I had a lot of room to run. I had to earn the things I had, I was not given new things each time I asked.

As long as I had my chores done (and there were quite a lot) I was pretty much left to my own devices until meal times and evening chore times. I could be halfway across Big Swan lake in the canoe I bought with my own $100 I earned, building forts with my friend Craig using scavenged boards and nails, riding his Honda 50 (later he had a Yamaha 80) or hanging out with my "weekend" friends, the kids that showed up each weekend as the parents owned lake cabins on the lake.  

I always was fascinated by anything mechanical. My family moved to the property I grew up at in 1973 when I was six. A house was built, and mostly with hand labor from my dad and a host of others.

 I watched a man with a Cat D4 of fifties vintage (I have a photo) digging the basement, watched Joe Allen and crew do the cement block work on the basement, and watched the carpenters including Howard Roe and Ernesto Valencia nail the boards. Sometimes, they would leave a nail part way out for me to pound in the rest of the way. 

Now most of the lumber? It was sawmilled from trees cut down on the property, skidded out of the woods one at a time with a spoke wheeled 1938 John Deere model B tractor dad bought for $100! The logs were loaded by hand (no giant hydraulic claw like in those hokey logging shows on Discovery channel) on the bed of what I think was a 1940's-1950's truck. 

But that is a story for another blog post- back to Jack!

Among the weekend residents down the little gravel lakeside road with the cottages was Jack Robinson.  I would guess he was in his mid to late 40's, he and his wife were there most weekends from Memorial day to Labor day.  

He was always driving a different car. Being the extrovert I was (still am) I asked why he always had a different car- it turned out he was a body and frame man who worked for a large Buick dealer in the Minneapolis area.  FYI, to any Minnesotan NOT from the metro area of Minneapolis/St Paul, that is called "Da Cities"!

Jack would buy wrecked cars, and fix them in his home body shop. He seemed to do a LOT of Buick Regals and Oldsmobile Cutlasses with Landau roofs. 

Jack also had a vintage 50's fiberglass boat with a pea green 25 Johnson, a pontoon boat with a similar era motor on it, and a garage full of neat mechanical stuff. I would pepper him with questions.  He never once told me to buzz off and leave him alone. He did, however, give me a kick start on what turned in to a career I have spent 30 years at. 

One day he gave me a dented, faded outboard motor. It was a "Firestone" 3.6 horse. Yes, the tire company.  They would sell outboards in the tire stores at one time. The motors themselves were built by another defunct company, Scott-Atwater, and painted pea green with red Firestone script instead of Scott-Atwater gold with green logos. 

Here's a pic I pulled of the net- mine was a bit more faded.

Jack only told me "It used to run" about ten years earlier. I recall carrying it home, about half a mile! It was maybe 30-40 lbs. I would carry it about 50 feet or so, and have to put it down and catch my breath. 

Once home, I plunked it in mom's rain barrel. She used rain water from the roof to catch water for her plants. At least she used to, until some fool contaminated it with oily sludge...

The motor had no rewind starter. I had to wind a rope around a hub and pull. I also found it would not start. Another week waiting on the sight of Jack's car passing our driveway, heading down the lane towards his cottage...  Jack told me how to check for spark. It had none. Then I had to learn out how to remove the engine flywheel. well, I did not do it properly! No flywheel puller, I removed the nut on the end of the crankshaft, and gave it a smack with a hammer! Of course I did not understand how hard this is on bearings or how you can bend the end of the crank, but that Firestone was pretty crude anyway.  

Jack told me how to clean and gap the ignition points (use a matchbook!) and I had spark. YES! Soon the Firestone was roaring away, churning up mom's plant water! Well so much for the plants. I still recall moms disgust as she found her water with about a quarter inch of oily goo floating on top. That mill called for something like a 16:1 mix. 

Well it ran good in the barrel, and I wanted to try it on a boat. I used dad's wheelbarrow to haul it down the lake landing of my grandmas. Down the hill through the hayfield to the little dock. Grandma had a 12 foot aluminum boat down there just waiting for my mill to be clamped to it's transom. 

Off I went! About 200 feet. It seems once moving, it got hot and quit. Another visit to Jack explaining the problem. He asked if it was spraying water from the exhaust.  Well, no! I learned what a water pump impeller was, and fortunately the old Firestone was pretty tough, and not seriously hurt. 

Jack also gave me a tip about a place called Twin City outboard that handled parts for defunct and old motors. This was all pre computer/internet/smart phone days. I had to make a long distance phone call (which I had to OK with mom and dad) and found the part was something like 12 bucks. 

I mailed the cash in an envelope (yes, things were done this way!) and a week and a half later, I got my little rubber part in the mail. Put it together, and a boating we went! Well, not for long. It still occasionally lost spark, I recall buying yet another motor for parts and then could not bear to part that one and had to try getting it going. I also remember making a crude bracket to attach it on a side mount to my Coleman canoe. It did got pretty well going forward, but would not turn for shit. 

I also recall one time I could not re start the thing half way across the lake, and forgot the oars! I threw the anchor (metal coffee can full of concrete tied to a rope) out, pulled myself in the boat to it, then repeated the process until in shallow enough water to dive over, and swim it in pulling the bow rope. 

At some point dad started letting me use his "modern" '74 model 6 horse Johnson with full gearshift. With a 12 year old me weighing less than 100lbs in a 12 foot flat bottom boat, it got up on plane and scooted me along.

Once I had the much more reliable Johnson to use, the Firestone was cast aside in a shed or something, forgotten. The acne and peach fuzz of my later teen years hit, I gained the holy grail of a driver's license, and cars became my focus.

Now 35 years later, I have found that though the cottage and garage are still there, Jack is not. Dad says he sold the place years ago. If Jack is still on this earth, I am sure he would be in his 70's. Dad gave the motors I had to a scrap guy when they sold the home place years ago.

If I could, I would love to go back and thank Jack. Tell him about all the big diesels in boats I work on and how I have gotten to travel all over the place to do it. Tell him how I rebuilt my first car engine on a dining room table in my first apartment. Show him pictures of the gutted hull with plants growing in it I resurrected in my back yard and how it is now a great family boat.     

Jack, I am doubtful you will ever see or read this, but I raise a toast to you (now that I am old enough to legally do so) for the help and inspiration you gave me!

Do any of you readers have someone you wish you could thank from your past?