What the hell have I been doing?

(This post originally written Friday 12/17 and not published; it needed editing…)

There’s a one-word answer for it: Working.

See, once that little Gulf of Mexico situation settled down some (at least on our end — there’s still lots of cleanup ongoing), all the jobs that had been back-burnered to make way for the response got pushed back to the front burner… AND a whole large batch of New Stuff that we’re making to help our clients comply with the new (proposed/pending) regulations on top of all that.

Which means precious few of us have gotten much sleep around the office. The continuous work overload (our engineering staff is averaging over 250% utilization right now — we have 2.5 times as many hours of work than we have regular work hours on a 40-hour-week basis) has inevitably lead to some burnout and some folks leaving for other pastures. We did get a few new/extra faces in to help, but not enough to account for the additional workload. Supposedly that situation is improving soon. We’ll see.

I did manage to escape for the week of Labor Day to the Solo Nationals in Lincoln, Nebraska, where I hoped mostly to show up, drive a bit, and relax/socialize a lot more. The ghods had other plans for me, however…

I drove from Houston to Salina, KS, on Saturday of Labor Day weekend — while I could have continued on to Lincoln, there was a Huskers game that day and the hotels were charging premium pricing — for the week! — if I checked in on Saturday. I saved more than $30/night by checking in Sunday. Which meant I got up Sunday morning in Salina, did my usual pre-flight walkaround on the truck and trailer, saw all was as it should be, and headed up US-81 to York, Nebraska, where I stopped for fuel…

…and discovered that the right side forward wheel of my trailer had pulled an Elvis and left the building. The wheel didn’t fall off — the wheel bearing failed spectacularly, so the wheel & tire, brake drum, and hub all exited, but not before chewing the living daylights out of the spindle. I don’t really know *when* exactly it departed, and I wasn’t about to turn around to try to find it somewhere in the 120 miles or so I’d just driven.


Do I leave it there at the truck stop and try to figure out a way to fix it by remote, or do I limp it the last 45 miles to the Nationals site in Lincoln and execute a controlled repair in an environment where I have a ton of friends, a ton of tools, and enough time to sort it properly? Nothing is dragging, the lone remaining right side tire is holding up okay and isn’t really TOO stressed…

I limped it in along I-80, just keeping time with the right-lane trucks and well below the posted 75 mph speed limit. Got there just fine. Looked at it in more detail and discovered that the spindle wasn’t separately-replaceable, and I’d thus need to do the whole axle assembly. And since it’s a 17-year-old trailer and these are rubber-sprung "TorFlex" axles, I probably better replace *both* of them so that everything is properly balanced…

And here’s where things get entertaining. I hunt down my Nebraska Region pal Mark Walker, who in addition to running E Street Prepared as I do, also is the liaison between SCCA and the Lincoln Airpark where the event is held. So he’s busy… and from Omaha, not Lincoln… but I just need a contact, and Mark’s someone who would either know where in Lincoln to tend to my trailer, or know who knows where. I find Mark up at the practice course, where things are pausing for lunch. Unbeknownst to me, the practice course is being wrangled by the Rebels Auto Club of Lincoln, a local hot-rod club, as a fund-raiser for their several charitable works. And one Jim McNeil of the Rebels overhears my conversation with Mark and just jumps in: "What kind of axle? What kind of trailer? Okay, you don’t worry about a thing. We’ve got shops, we’ve got welders, we’ve got trailer people in the club. Come find me after we close for the day and I’ll come take a look and we’ll get you sorted out." Guy didn’t know me from Adam and he’s just volunteered to solve all my problems.

Here’s the kicker: Jim is as good as his word. He started making calls, found the Dexter Axle distributor in Omaha, we got the info needed, and got axles ordered for the trailer. But all this took a few days, during which I’m sweating about it instead of relaxing.

At the end of the week, I hauled the rig over to Jim’s shop, where we secured it as best we could… but we didn’t yet know what the lead time on the axles was going to be. The plan: I’d go home, and when the axles came in, I’d take a long weekend or something, drive up, we’d install them, and then I’d haul the rig home.

Which held up exactly long enough for me to get back to the office the following Monday, the second Monday in September. And went back into 12 hour days, weekend work, etc. No way I’m gonna get a chance to go back up there anytime soon.

Long story short, I finally got enough projects done to get a break the first full week of December. And then I couldn’t get a hold of Jim. He’d been calling me regularly, but when I tried to call him… no answer, no way to leave a message. Finally got through via a message relayed through a couple other people. So off I went… drove up Tuesday, we spent about 13 hours getting it all sorted out on Wednesday, and then I slept in and split the tow home into two segments for a couple reasons:

1) New axles. Need to stop and check things like bolt torques and bearing temperatures regularly.
2) This is supposed to be my "relax and recharge" week and it’s hard to do that if you kill yourself trying to tow 900 miles home in one stretch with unproven equipment.

It works out that Oklahoma City is about halfway between Lincoln and Houston, so I called up my cousin Jill, who I hadn’t seen in quite a while, and arranged to meet up for dinner, which was at something called Republic Gastropub. They had a bewildering variety of beers on tap and good food and an atmosphere that can best be described as full of people wanting to be seen in a place where people want to be seen. Jill, who has spent her adult life moving in and around the circles of government as elected official’s staffer or, presently, CEO of a local Chamber of Commerce, was identifying lobbyists, state reps, former state reps who were now lobbyists, etc. I was underdressed in my jeans and t-shirt, but what the hell. I was also generally underimpressed with the crowd, which isn’t a reflection on Jill but more of a reflection on my general attitude toward lobbyists and other self-appointed "power brokers" moving in the halls of government and working on interests other than those of the constituents of the elected officials they schmooze.

But it was great to catch up with Jill, who I don’t get to see nearly often enough. I’m thrilled that she’s finding success in her career and is able to do stuff like remodel her house (I’m still renting. I’d just like a house of my own at this stage…).

And then I trundled down the road and overnighted in Norman, where I’d miss most of the morning commute traffic by virtue of being south of it and heading counter-race.

Towing through Dallas sucks. There’s no other way to describe the experience. I really need to figure out a better way to transit DFW than I35E to I30 to I45.

But I got home with my trailer and car intact, just in time to do some delayed maintenance on the truck. Expensive week, between trailer axles, travel expense, and truck repair. Couldn’t be helped.

And back to work, where, to commemorate my week off, the work week has included a 12 hour workday and a 17 hour workday…

There’s a lesson out of all this: It certainly doesn’t hurt to be nice to people. Jim McNeil, his son Shawn, and the other Rebels Auto Club members who helped me out didn’t care that I was a stranger — okay, in Jim’s case, I don’t think he’s ever MET a stranger, just a new friend — it was real simple: another Car Guy in from out of town has a problem, we have the solution. They didn’t wonder what was in it for them, they just jumped in and helped.

Ordinarily, I try to stay on the "giving" side of the Car Guy karmic balance. This time, I was on the receiving end — and I’ll not pretend I didn’t need every scrap of help that was offered, either. The Rebels are going to get a little something from me for their charity work. Not because I feel like I owe it to *them* — more like I owe it to the folks the Rebels help out — Care packages and welcome-home packages for the troops, scholarships to the local technical college for kids wanting to learn the automotive trades, young-driver safety/anti-street-racing programs, toy drives…

And wouldn’t it just be great if we all adopted that attitude, even just a little bit? "What can I do to help you, friend?" It’s contagious. Over on another blog I started following recently, what started out as an effort by the blogger to help 20 people in need out with gift cards turned into, at last count, over 650 folks-needing-help and folks-offering-help getting matched up, in maybe 3 days. Every time it looked like they’d run out of things to give, more people stepped up.

In other news, during the week between Christmas and New Year’s, I’ll get turned upside-down and dunked in water in a simulated helicopter as part of the training required to be certified to go out to offshore rigs and service vessels. At least it’s in a pool.