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March 2012 Dr. Vern

Posted in Features on March 1, 2012
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Contributors: Dr. Vern

No matter how crazy the world may seem today, things have been worse. For example, I still scratch my head trying to make sense of December, 1988. First “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” reached the top of the music charts, and then lawn darts were outlawed. These were big, heavy darts, designed to be tossed at targets arranged on your lawn. The ban had something to do with putting large, dangerous projectiles in the hands of children, but what could go wrong? There may have been the occasional sibling designated as the target, not that I would know anything about that. (Editor’s note: That would explain the bull’s-eye T-shirt that my family gave me.) It took an amazing level of hypocrisy to ban them (I’m back to talking about lawn darts, not siblings). If the government is so eager to protect us, why are cocktail napkins still legal?

Seemingly brilliant ideas often magically appear after a few too many drinks. These thoughts deserve to be forgotten by morning, but cocktail napkins defeat this delicate safeguard. Consider the square headlights on the early Jeep Wrangler. I suspect that the design staff had a drinking game to see who could create the most hideous concept. It should have ended there, but a cocktail napkin was probably within easy reach. A quick sketch was made, everybody had a good laugh, and more drinks were poured. Sadly, the napkin was rediscovered the next day. Nobody remembered it had been a joke. The rest, as they say, is history.

In a similar vein, I suspect a previous owner of my ’63 Willys wagon was likewise a heavy drinker. My wagon’s original engine was the overhead cam Tornado—an exotic and fairly powerful motor for its day. An innocent and unsuspecting cocktail napkin probably bore the brunt of the idea to swap in a plain, vanilla Chevy V-8. On paper, or should I say on napkin, the swap may have seemed relatively simple. In practice, though, it was another story. Every last detail seemed to be jury-rigged.

In defense of this barstool engineer, at least he was good at recognizing problems, even if not so with fixing them. Consider the cooling system, which requires good airflow through the radiator. That’s “through,” as in entering the core on one side and then exiting on the other. It seems that our friend thought it best to furiously swirl the air near one side of the radiator without actually drawing anything through, which might have inadvertently created an actual cooling effect. Real engineers, the type who tend not to drink while designing, would use a radiator shroud to direct the airflow. Meanwhile, my poor wagon was left with the fan sitting naked on the front of the V-8 a fair distance from the radiator. Instead of a pesky shroud, wishful thinking was used to draw air through the radiator.

More cocktail napkins apparently entered the picture, as a battery-killing electric fan had been added as a stop-gap measure. Although the fan was very noisy, on the plus side I could pretend I was piloting a hovercraft. Making sure there were no cocktail napkins anywhere in sight, I made my own plans to keep the belt-driven fan but add a proper shroud. Building a shroud is quite the undertaking, with all sorts of angles and curves in a complex, 3-D shape. An ordinary man might flinch, but whenever faced with a problem, I always ask the following question: Can I use this as a cheap excuse to buy more tools?

For cutting sheetmetal, I’ve grown weary of wrestling with tin snips, jigsaws, and so forth. It was time to get a sheetmetal shear, which is not something found in most home workshops. I’ve always thought you can tell a lot about a man by the tools he owns. Hopefully my theory is wrong, because that would mean I’m cheap (actually not a surprise to those who know me) and am from China (quite the surprise to my parents). I once belonged to the tool elite, looking down at knock-off imports. I’m also old enough to remember duck-and-cover exercises in school in case of a Soviet nuclear attack. (Bear with me, this ties together….) Looking back, I was never sure of the emergency drill’s purpose, other than to arrange our bodies for easy cleanup after the radiation eventually subsided.

The Soviet threat is gone, but now the trendy thing is to worry about an attack from China. This never bothered me, because I assumed their nuclear weapons were built like their tools. When it came time to insert the launch keys, I doubt they’d fit, just like the chuck key on my $4.99 drill. When trying to open the missile silo doors, the motor would overheat and melt down, just like on my $5.99 grinder. That was a few years ago, but maybe it’s time to revive duck-and-cover because Chinese tool quality is so much better now. I also used to feel guilty about the American workers who lost their jobs because I bought cheap imports, but now you get a little card with names and addresses for sending care packages, so that’s good.

Well, it’s time to wrap up this column. This month’s idea magically came to me late one night when I was out on the town. I wanted to write it all down before I forgot, but I knew enough to avoid cocktail napkins. Thank goodness for 24-hour tattoo parlors.

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