"Love follows knowledge."
"Beauty above all beauty!"
– St. Catherine of Siena

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Lines I Wish I’d Written: The Model T Ford Truck from Cannery Row

I’ve been feverishly trying to finish all the reading I had planned for the year in the past week, and I’ve got a little less than a week to go.  Still I’m not going to get the Mark Twain and Henry James I planned.  But realizing that both of those were longer reads, I skipped over them and went to John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row.  It’s a faster and shorter read.  It’s been ages, possibly over twenty-five years, since I last read a John Steinbeck work.  He’s not exactly my type of writer (too sentimental and too left wing, possibly even socialist) but he really is a fine prose writer.  He deserves the Nobel Prize he won in 1962. 

This is my second installment of this feature, “Lines I’d Wish I’d Written,” and, as a reminder, this presents only writing I really appreciate.  There is no analysis offered here.  Just enjoy it. 

The Model T Ford truck of Lee Chong had a dignified history.  In 1923 it had been a passenger car belonging to Dr. W. T. Waters.  He used it for five years and sold it to an insurance man named Rattle.  Mr. Rattle was not a careful man.  The car he got in clean nice condition he drove like fury.  Mr. Rattle drank on Saturday nights and the car suffered.  The fenders were broken and bent.  He was a pedal rider too and the bands had to be changed often.  When Mr. Rattle embezzled a client’s money and ran away to San José, he was caught with a high-hair blonde and sent up within ten days.

The body of the car was so battered that its next owner cut it in two and added a little truck bed,

The next owner took off the front of the cab and the windshield.  He used it to haul squids and he liked a fresh breeze to blow in his face.  His name was Francis Almones and he had a sad life, for he always made a fraction less than he needed to live.  His father had left him a little money but year by year and month by month, no matter how hard Francis worked or how careful he was, his money grew less and less until he just dried up and blew away.

Lee Chong got the truck in payment of a grocery bill.

By this time the truck was little more than four wheels and an engine and the engine was so crotchety and sullen and senile that it required expert care and consideration.  Lee Chong did not give it these things, with the result the truck stood in the tall grass back of the grocery most of the time with the mallows growing between its spokes.  It had solid tires on its back wheels and blocks held its front wheels off the ground.

Probably any one of the boys from the Palace Flophouse could have made the truck run, for they were all competent practical mechanics, but Gay was an inspired mechanic.  There is no term comparable to green thumbs to apply to such a mechanic, but there should be.  For there are men who can look, listen, tap, make an adjustment, and a machine works.  Indeed there are men near whom a car runs better.  And such a one was Gay.  His fingers on a timer or a carburetor adjustment screw was gentle and wise and sure.  He could fix the delicate electric motors in the laboratory.  He could have worked in the canneries all the time, had he wished, for in that industry, which complains bitterly when it does not make back its total investment every year in profits, the machinery is much less important than the fiscal statement.  Indeed, if you could can sardines with ledgers, the owners would be very happy.  As it was they could use decrepit, struggling old horrors of machines that needed the constant attention of a man like Gay.

Mack got the boys up early.  They had their coffee and immediately moved over to the truck where it lay in the weeds.  Gay was in charge.  He kicked the blocked-up front wheels.  “Go borrow a pump and get those pumped up,” he said.  Then he put a stick in the gasoline tank under the board which served as a seat.  By some miracle there was half an inch of gasoline in the tank.  Now Gay went over the most probable difficulties.  He took out the coil boxes, scraped the points, adjusted the gap, and put them back.  He opened the carburetor to see that gas came through.  He pushed the crank to see that the whole shaft wasn’t frozen and the pistons rusted in their cylinders.

Meanwhile the pump arrived and Eddie and Jones spelled each other on the tires.

Gay hummed, “Dum tiddy—dum tiddy,” as he worked.  He removed the spark plugs and scraped the points and bored the carbon out.  Then Gay drained a little gasoline into a can and poured some into each cylinder before he put the spark plugs back.  He straightened up.  “We’re going to need a couple of dry cells,” he said.  “See if Lee Chong will let us have a couple.”

Mack darted and returned almost immediately with a universal No which was designed by Lee Chong to cover all future requests.

Gay thought deeply.  I know where’s a couple—pretty good ones too, but I won’t go get them. 

“Where?” asked Mack.

“Down the cellar at my house,” said Gay.  “They run the front doorbell.  If one of you fellas wants to kind of edge into my cellar without my wife seeing you, they’re on top of the stringer on the lefthand side as you go in.  But for God’s sake, don’t let my wife catch you.”

A conference elected Eddie to go and he departed.

“If you get caught don’t mention me,” Gay called out after him.  Meanwhile Gay tested the bands.  The low-high pedal didn’t quite touch the floor so he knew there was a little and left.  The brake pedal did touch the floor so there was no brake, but the reverse pedal had lots of band left.  On a model T Ford the reverse is your margin of safety.  When your brake is gone, you can use reverse as a brake.  And when the low gear band is worn thin to pull up a steep hill, why you can turn around and back it up.  Gay found there was plenty of reverse and he knew everything was alright.

It was a good omen that Eddie came back with the dry cells without trouble.  Mrs. Gay had been in the kitchen.  Eddie could hear her walking about but she didn’t hear Eddie.  He was very good at such things.

Gay connected the dry cells and he advanced the gas and retarded the spark lever.  “Twist her tail,” he said.

He was such a wonder, Gay was—the little mechanic of God, the St. Francis of all things that turn and twist and explode, the St. Francis of coils and armatures and gears.  And if at some time all the heaps of jalopies, cut-down Dusenbergs, Buicks, De Sotos and Plymouths, American Austins and Isotta-Fraschinis praise god in a great chorus—it will be largely due to Gay and his brotherhood.

One twist—one little twist and the engine caught and labored and faltered and caught again.  Gay advanced the spark and reduced the gas.  He switched over to the magneto and the Ford of Lee Chong chuckled and clattered happily as though it knew it was working for a man who loved and understood it.

            -from Chapter XI, Cannery Row, John Steinbeck


That makes my mechanical engineering heart go aflutter.  It’s not easy to write about machines and people tinkering with them and still hold the reader's interest. 

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