Thursday, February 17, 2011


I’m a starter and sometimes a finisher of projects, and I’m accustomed to my projects working out. I identify a problem and spend hours designing a solution in my head and on paper. Like this:

Problem: the girls’ bathroom is hopelessly dated and dark. Solution: cut a window in the brick wall and update the floors, walls, and fixtures. Done.
The original plans.
Problem: there’s no flagpole in our yard. Solution: get the neighbor to weld up a 33-foot pole out of oilfield pipe, dig a hole, make a form, pour some concrete, string a halyard, raise the flag. Done.
Problem: I have three surfboards stacked inside a beat-up old van on Oahu and I’m afraid they’ll get dinged while I’m driving, or stolen while I’m surfing. Solution: build a sturdy PVC-pipe rack inside that van. Not really that big a challenge. I did the designing in my head and the drawings on my computer and built the whole thing in the living room (without glue), took it apart, hauled the pieces to Hawaii along with all the tools I’d need, and got to work. Only this time, it didn’t work.
Pre-assembled rack.
It started off well. I couldn’t bring the PVC pipe cement with me because it’s a caustic flammable substance that you can’t carry on an airplane, so I bought a little tin of the blue stuff at Home Depot on Alakawa Avenue. (If you get island fever, go to Home Depot. It’s exactly like being at home on the mainland.) I was up the next morning at the crack of dawn to begin work, parts and fittings laid out and tools at the ready. I parked the van near an electric power outlet (for my drill) at the entrance to the band shell in Kapiolani Park. As the sun came up the howler monkeys, across the street in the Honolulu Zoo, started doing their thing. I started doing mine.

The first thing I had to do was take the front passenger seat out of the van. I’m going to state right here that describing this part of the scheme raised my wife’s eyebrows, a bad omen. Right after I bought the van I took out the middle and rear bench seats and left them at a junk yard on Sand Island. This was to accommodate my bike. My wife thought it foolish to diminish the resale value of the van in this way, said so with her eyebrows, and backed it up with words. I pointed out that this was a surf van not a family station wagon, and the next owner would probably be a surf rat, too. He’d understand. He might even pay more for the convenience of not having to rip out those seats himself, I explained. The eyebrows did not buy this.
Front seat has to go.
But went it did, that seat, with the removal of four big lug nuts from the bottom side of the van. They were stubborn, but a squirt of WD-40 and the big breaker bar I brought along for this contingency spun them right off. With the seat out of the way, I started assembling, or rather, re-assembling, the rack. Anyone who has worked with PVC pipe and cement knows the drill: clean off the pipes and fittings where they are to be joined, then use the little puff-ball applicator attached to the lid of the cement can to dab blue (or orange or black) goo on both pieces, then quickly push the pipe into the fitting with a twist until it bottoms out and you are done. And I mean done—the glue acts in seconds to create a bond that would survive a nuclear blast.
The howler monkeys howled and I dabbed and twisted and joined the pieces until by ten o’clock or so I had the basic frame standing outside the van. Half a dozen people stopped by at different stages to ask what I was doing. To my eye it was obvious what I was doing, but not everyone owns a surfboard or needs a surf rack, even in Hawaii, so I had to explain. And I got lots of compliments and no small amount of advice as to how I might do it better next time. I attached some cross-pieces out of sequence and discovered I could not easily attach the remaining cross-pieces. One passerby studied this problem with me for twenty minutes, proposing boiling water and wood-dowel inserts and whatnot. He really wanted to help! After he left I forced the pieces into place with a hammer. Later, while I was winding bubble-wrap and beach towel remnants around the cross-bars as padding for the surfboards, a jogger suggested I use foam pipe insulation instead. Genius! A tourist couple asked in broken English for directions to the zoo. I answered in broken Japanese, which always sets them off.
Some assembly required.

But I digress. There was a problem with the project.
Back in Texas I had taken a tape measure to the insides of a wrecked ’95 Dodge Caravan to make sure I got the dimensions right, and double-checked the assembled frame in the living room to verify my drawings were right, but the thing I re-assembled in Hawaii did not fit inside the van the way my tape measure and drawings said it would. I had fashioned a rectangular frame to fit inside a rectangular space, but the van’s interior landscape had all sorts of irregular angles and corners and bumps. It was like trying to get a box spring mattress up a flight of stairs; you can see that it should fit, but there’s always one edge that catches on the ceiling or the bannister no matter how you maneuver. The frame just sat wrong inside the van’s big box.
The basic frame.
I went back to the hotel and brought down my 9’2” Chronic longboard—the brand-spanking new one from the Hawaii Surf Factory in Wahiawa, the one I’d be riding at that very moment if this project weren’t taking up my whole day—and loaded it in the van, and drove back to the park. With a real surfboard on the rack and the rack in the van and the passenger seat on the curb and the monkeys howling across the street, the pieces of the puzzle were all in one place and it did not make a pretty picture.
The nose of the longboard bumped the lower accessory column. Moving the tail to the left fixed this, but then I couldn’t fit the bike. I tried sliding the whole rack fore and aft, left and right. No good. Longboard on top rack? The tail stuck out the back and the nose touched the glass. Flip the board upside down? Fins hit the ceiling. Could I re-shape the rack, add fittings here or take a little off there? Nothing would work. My project had failed, and no amount of chopping and re-gluing would save it. It didn’t fit and it didn’t work. Worst of all, it looked like crap.
I got out a saw and cut the thing back into pieces. I almost said “In disgust I got out a saw...” but that wasn’t how I felt. I’m accustomed to projects working out, as I said earlier, and I’ve solved problems more complicated than this. I was actually a little amused that I had measured so carefully, and designed so thoughtfully, and then constructed according to plan a device that proved to be absolutely useless. There was nothing for it. I chopped it up so I could fit it back in the van and haul it to a dumpster.
It all fits now.
It was now two in the afternoon. A small wind-swell was up, and Waikiki was getting the best waves so far this year. Before me and scattered around the parking lot stood a van, a bike, a surfboard, a front passenger seat, a bag of tools, a large pile of white plastic pipe, and odds and ends from the van’s previous owner. I cleaned everything out of the van (for the first time, as it happens) and replaced the items one by one with the goal of not making two trips to the hotel. I stuck the spare seat right behind the driver’s seat facing forward, and secured it against the left side of the van with a seatbelt. I put the  car’s maintenance items on this seat. I leaned my bike against the seat and strapped it in with bungee cords. I laid the surfboard on the floor atop two padded cross-bars from the demolished rack. I loaded all my tools in the duffle and set them next to the surfboard. All this, and I still had room for the piles of chopped-up pipe. Back at the hotel, I junked the pipe and laid my other two surfboards on top of the longboard, all three being now safely bundled in their various travel bags. I dressed for work and loaded my kit bag and roll-aboard in the back, shut the tailgate—and everything fit, with room to spare.
When I return to Honolulu next week, I will lay a piece of carpet remnant the length of the van, under my surfboards. Maybe I’ll put some foam cushion in between, rig a hanger so I can dry my wetsuit from the ceiling. When it comes time to sell the van, I’ll rip out the carpet and re-attach the passenger seat, which will give my wife’s eyebrows a break. I am done. This project—this over-measured, misbegotten, failed, defeated project—is officially over. I’m going surfing.