Sunday, July 24, 2011

It's Not Junk

There's a cut up piece of sheet metal that would look like trash to anybody in the world, but I keep it in my toolbox. To me and my father, it's not garbage at all. No, it represents a memory of a shared experience. How two non mechanics put a motorcycle back on the road with improvisation and stubbornness. But I'm getting ahead of myself here.

Back in 2003, I was riding an '81 or '82 Yamaha XJ650 Maxim. Great bike. Small, but comfortable and powerful enough to power me and camping gear down the road to a rally at 85 mph or so. It wouldn't go any faster than that, though. I know, because the speedometer stopped at 85.

I'd had a little trouble here and there with the taillight going out on me. I messed with it a little, but I'm no mechanic, and definitely no electrician. Our brother, Gypsy Trippple Nippple once told me about automotive electrical systems: they have one “lever” - “Leave 'er alone”. I tried to stick to that philosophy when I could, but I also didn't like the idea of being rear ended because of a nonworking taillight. So I fiddled, I checked fuses and wires, and found nothing. Couldn't trace a broken wire, a short, nothing.

I was going to the Aardvark rally, hosted by the San Antonio chapter of Gypsy MC, and had an independent motorcyclist pull up next to me at a red light to tell me my “red light” wasn't working. Thanks, dude. Figures. Well, he rode next to me to the rally so I wouldn't be invisible from behind, since the sun was already down. I parked the bike at the gate, registered and paid my way in. Got back on the bike. Turned the key. Got curious. Looked back. Whaddaya know? I had a taillight. Huh. Well, problem solved. For now.

Next afternoon, the problem was back. I'd noticed while I was on the poker run that if I put pressure on the key while it was in the ignition, it would affect the taillight. So, I broke out the tools, pulled off the lens, pulled the bulb, checked the wires. Again. Thinking about the key situation, I started messing around the ignition switch area. Various people stopped to help, and/or to give helpful advice. Oh, wait, I meant “helpful” advice. The quotation marks are necessary, because free unrequested advice is usually worth every single penny. Anyway, Gypsy Mr. P.M. stopped and offered some actual helpful advice, but being a Harley man, wasn't familiar with the Yammie. Wizard and Aquaman, of the Knight Riders MC, both long time friends and brothers, stopped and helped for a while. The only thing we figured out was that there was some play between the ignition switch and the dash housing around it. The switch moving around was what was causing the problem, as far as we could tell.

Well, the problem actually got a bit worse, and once in a while I'd lose both taillight and headlight function. Not a huge deal. Well, during the day, anyway. Problem is that I ride day and night. Having figured out that if the ignition is pushed all the way forward, things tend to work okay, I started looking for a way to keep my headlight on. I tore up a business card, folded it and wedged it into the gap. Perfect. I went days with no problem. Eventually, the paper would compress and stop working. I started picking up matchbooks wherever they were offered free just so I'd have some cardstock to “fix” my problem.

I'd been planning a bike trip from San Antonio to Atlanta to visit Mom and Dad. Now a sensible person might have postponed the trip or even gone in a car instead. A person with a better budget might have put the bike in the shop to get it fixed first. Had I paid for the repair, I couldn't have afforded the trip. I'd already canceled trips home on the bike in the past, so I didn't want to do that again. Besides, I figured I'd just check the taillight at gas stops and I knew how to metaphorically Band-Aid it to keep me going.

It all went great, until I got alllllmost to the Louisiana state line. The day had been sunny, hot-but-not-too-hot, light traffic. Great day for motorcycle travel. Then, BAM!! Suddenly, all traffic came to a screeching halt. The “not-too-hot” became “too hot” as it took nearly an hour to go one mile. Finally, I saw an exit. I needed gas soon anyway, and I saw there was also a Waffle House restaurant at this exit. I grew up eating at Waffle House, but at the time there were none in Texas west of Houston, so I thought I'd fuel up, get something to eat and maybe wait out some traffic. Sitting at the counter, talking to a couple of locals, I found out the traffic was due to a lot of road construction. I was in for at least ten miles of this crap. Ten hours for ten miles? Hell, I could walk faster. One of the guys suggested an alternative route that, as luck would have it, started on the state highway that the exit we were sitting at was for. He said it would take me way out of the way, but at least I'd be moving and would probably make better time anyway. He also said it would be a better ride than the interstate. He was right on all counts. Interstate highway riding can numb the mind with boredom, and this was a fairly scenic route. I looked at the route on a map days later and it probably added close to a hundred miles before putting me back onto I-10, but I bet it was still hours quicker than staying on 10 would have been.

It was also starting to get more interesting in other ways. I was hitting rain here and there. Nothing bad, but I did get wet. As did the cardstock holding my ignition in place. Good thing I'd stocked up before leaving San Antonio, eh? Picture me packing for my trip: Clothes, check. Tools, check. Helmet, check. Spare helmet, check. Book, check. Rain gear, check.

Two dozen matchbooks and assorted business cards, check.

Then things got interesting. Not only were the lights doing their little trick, now, once in a while when I'd hit a bump in the road, the ignition would cut out and the engine would die. I'd reach up and slap the key and it would come back on. Odd, eh?

After dark, the rain got bad. Then it got worse. Then it got “oh my god” bad. I wasn't making much progress, only going about 45 mph due to limited visibility. It was after sundown, and it was really, truly. Raining. That. Bad. I was stopped for gas and a cup of coffee to wake up and warm up. A Sheriff’s deputy happened to stop by and told me it was really getting bad on the interstate: wind was picking up, rain ruined visibility, and there were wrecks all over. He told me there was a motel at the next exit, about 10 or 15 miles east. I decided to take his advice.

The next morning, I turned on the Weather Channel to see what I should expect out of my ride for the day. Wow. Turns out the night before, several tornadoes had touched down in the area. Guess my decision to stop for the night was the right choice. I also had a mixed bag for the ride to Atlanta. 400 miles of rain, sun, rain, sun, rain, sun. Oh well, at least it wasn't all rain, right?

Well, I spent that Sunday of Labor Day weekend, 2003 riding to Georgia. Pull over to put on the rainsuit. Pull over an hour later to take off the rainsuit. Pull over and shove fresh cardstock into the ignition gap so I can keep riding. Yup, interesting day, it was.

I got to Mom & Dad's house. It had been years since I'd been there, but I grew up in that house, never moving. Every single time I walk in that back door, it takes me back to childhood and the sense that I'm Home. With the capital H. I can't see myself moving back to Georgia, but there's just something about the house you grew up in, isn't there?

So, once I'm settled in and rested and all, Dad and I talk about the ignition issue. The next day, we decide to tackle it head-on. Like I said in the beginning, neither of us is a mechanic, but he grew up in the Depression. Suffice to say he's practical minded and knows how to improvise. We took the ignition out of the bike entirely and found the problem. I guess it had been too faint to see before, but had gotten bad enough to be visible. There was a hairline crack running along the side of the switch housing, almost the entire length. Hmmm....there could be the location of an intermittent short, eh? I bet that just might even be worse in the rain.....

We called the only motorcycle salvage yard around. I'd already had experience in the past paying for new ignitions from dealers, and that just wasn't an option. Not to mention the bike was only a couple years from being an antique, so most dealers wouldn't even have the part, anyway. It turned out they didn't have an ignition to fit my bike. Not exactly, anyway. They did have Yamaha ignitions, which meant the wire connections would match up. The catch was that the only one they had was from a dirt bike, and was physically quite a bit smaller than mine. Well, it wasn't going to let rain water in, or vibrate and short out, so I took it.

Dad and I got to work. There was no way this pencil thin ignition switch was NOT going to rattle around the hole where it went in the dash. The dash was smooth, so I couldn't zip tie it, either. Dad took a look at the whole arrangement, told me to hang on a minute and walked away. He came back with a piece of sheet metal left over from some home improvement project or other. We held it over the dash of the bike, made some measurements, and went to the workbench, aka the picnic table on the deck in the back yard. We drew a pattern onto the metal, and drilled out mounting holes where we'd measured the mounting screws needed to go. When the tin snips turned out to be too dull, Dad was not to be defeated. He went and got a flat head screwdriver and a heavy hammer and chiseled out the piece we needed. He even chiseled out the hole for the ignition switch with that screwdriver/hammer combo. The edges and the edge of the hole were left a little jagged. Only so much smoothing out you can do with a hammer and improvised chisel.

We took it over to the bike, connected all the leads to the ignition, and put the sheet metal in place. It wasn't pretty, but it was better than pretty: it worked. Damn near perfectly. It took me around Morrow (the Atlanta suburb I'm from), took me to my grandparents' house in northeast Alabama, and took me from their house all the way to Austin (just over 800 miles) in one day. Our improvised repair lasted longer than the rest of the bike, even. I wound up selling the bike a few years later, but I kept our sheet metal dash. I consider it an heirloom now. It's the time my non-motorcycle riding, non-mechanic Dad and I put a near-antique bike back on the road.

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