Saturday, March 12, 2011

Failure, Compounded, Then Rectified

This one goes in the "couldn't leave well enough alone" file.

I work for a "legacy airline" (that moniker alone deserves its own post) and once a week I am paid to fly to Honolulu and surf. For the average land-locked beach bum, this would more than suffice. Afflicted as I am with a reach that always exceeds my grasp, I hatched a plan to improve on this routine: buy a car on the island, equip it to hold a "quiver" of different surfboards, and drive myself, during my 24-hour layover, to wherever the surf was best.

From April to October the surf on Oahu's South Shore is consistent and world-class. With a bicycle or a good pair of slaps, you can ride or walk to most of the better spots in less than an hour; one of the best is literally across the street from my hotel! From November to March, however, the action is all on the North Shore, from Haleiwa Town to Pupukea and Laie, home to famous spots like Pipeline, Sunset, and Rocky Point. The North Shore is about an hour's drive from "Town," which means Honolulu, and although you can load a bike on the rack on the front of Da Bus, you can't bring your surfboard! So you need a car.

And I found a car—a 1995 Dodge Caravan, described in its Craigslist ad as a "North Shore surf rat van," and that's exactly what it was. I rode the bus to the Foodland parking lot in Pupukea and met the owner, Aki, a haole, who was moving back to Alaska with his island wife and blond kids. The van was as promised: banged up, rusty, sandy, surf racks on the roof, a 140,000-mile piece of crap. But it started, drove, stopped, and had a great stereo, and seemed to be worth the $800 asking price, so I bought it and drove back to Town with my bike in back. ("Hey, honey, the cruise control even works!")

I set to work making the rat van my own: I ran it through a car wash to see if the up-country red dirt would come off (it didn't), tore out the middle and rear seats to make room for surfboards, and scrubbed the interior down with Simple Green. I had the windows tinted black to keep the contents concealed. I signed up for monthly employee parking privileges at Honolulu Airport. I filled it with gas and oil, and covered two gaping holes in the roof with Bondo and aluminum flashing tape to keep the rain out.

Every time I returned to the island, new generations of ants emerged from the dash. The van had a funky smell (maybe it really was a rat van) and when I stepped out of it, I smelled funky too. Various dashboard warning lights blinked on and off, but the thing ran and ran and got me to the North Shore and back half a dozen times. I tried to install a surf rack in the back, and failed. On my last trip to the North Shore, the transmission shifted into "limp mode" (meaning it stayed in 3rd gear all the time) and wouldn't come out. I nursed it back to Town and Kevin at Aamco Transmissions eventually determined I needed a whole new tranny—to the tune of $2400 or $3100, depending.

Even I know you don't put a $2400 transmission in an $800 van. The car would have to go. My conscience wouldn't permit me to sell the van to anyone outside of the dismantling industry. After a call to, some beefy guy showed up with a tow truck and a hundred and forty bucks and I watched him hook up the rat van and haul it down Koa Avenue, and as it went I felt weight literally lifting off my shoulders. Because, while the van offered the freedom to roam the island looking for waves, it also meant sitting in traffic trying to get to the airport. The van provided a rent-free place to store lots of surfboards and a bicycle, but I never stopped worrying about someone breaking in and stealing my stuff. Above all, the van required expensive gas (the average in Town is $3.75 a gallon), a place to park, additional insurance, and ultimately a costly mechanical repair that I could not afford. It turned my layovers into work time—and the greatest irony of all, I actually surfed less when I had the van.
My version of making a Van Gogh.

This morning I got up before dawn and walked down Kalakauwa Avenue to the little beach in front of the Aquarium. I carried my new 9'2" longboard and a towel. I paddled out to a spot called Publics, and my buddy Allen was the only other surfer out. We shared waves for 30 minutes before a couple other friends joined us. Just offshore a pod of humpback whales lumbered east towards Molokai. Nearer to us, but just out of reach, green turtles popped up and down. Butterfly fish twirled beneath my feet in the clear water above the reef. A little bump of a wave sprang up, an unpromising 2-footer that I almost let go. It threw more lip across the reef than I expected, hollow and clean on the inside, and it turned into the wave of the day! I stayed out a couple hours, then walked back down the busy sidewalk to my hotel. No car, no problem. Rectified.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Old Saw

Many ideas for home projects originate with my wife. These tend to be projects that answer an immediate or longstanding need, such as benches to match the kitchen table or "floating shelves" for the living room—practical, useful items that, if completed, would improve her home situation in some way. Because these projects can't be driven on the road, and have no relationship to surfing, yard ornamentation, attracting wild birds, or any of the other qualities that will move a project up the list, it's tempting to leave them on the back burner.

I have a wise wife, however, and she knows that if she suggests a project, the contemplation of which requires the acquisition of some new power tool, and if she doesn't object too strongly at the purchase of this tool, she stands a much better chance of someday seeing a finished shelf or bench or re-modeled bedroom in her house. I'm not sure what led to the perceived need of a table saw, but I'm sure I greased the wheels a little bit by explaining all the things I'd be able to build for her if I had one.

It's been a long time since I walked into Sears or Home Depot and walked out with a brand new tool, other than small hand tools. Sometimes I scour the pawn shops, but their prices are high and their quality is hit-or-miss. I get my big tools second-hand, on Craigslist. I bought this table saw last year from a middle-aged gentleman in McKinney, Texas, for $125. Before loading it in the back of the car, he turned it on and cut several pieces of lumber for me. He sent along a heavy stack of blades and the original Craftsman manuals. Seemed like a good deal.

Early 1980's Craftsman table saw. $125 on Craigslist.
It took three of us to get the thing out of the Jeep and into the barn. When I turned it on, it sounded just like a table saw should—a smooth accelerating whir with steely top notes of high-speed spinning metal teeth. But when I laid my first piece of wood across that blade, the workpiece jammed between the fence and the saw blade, stopping the blade and smoking up the whole shop. I tried smaller stuff, changed the blade out, squared up the fence—no good. Whatever the looming project that prompted me to buy this saw, it was put on hold while I tried to figure out what was wrong.

"When in doubt, read the instructions." Good advice—but it usually takes an hour of fruitless tinkering before I heed that advice. I eventually learned from the manual that the saw blade itself can be manipulated in three axes: up and down, left and right through the vertical axis, or left and right through the horizontal axis. The first two adjustments are routine, allowing the woodworker to make deep or shallow cuts or to rip an angled edge onto the workpiece. You make those changes using adjustment wheels. The third adjustment is supposed to be permanent. It was this last angle that was off. The rear of the blade was closer to the fence than the front of the blade, which I discovered using a t-square. Correcting this angle required that I loosen the six bolts holding the entire blade trunchion, nudge the blade into alignment using a mallet, and re-tighten all the bolts. The next piece of wood slid through the blade like a hot knife through butter. Fixed!

...or left and right this way.  This angle was the problem.

You can move the blade up and down...

...or left and right this way...