The Spechtacle

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Category: Greg’s Stuff (page 1 of 12)

The Army Security Agency in Vietnam

This story was on the Lompoc Record…. it is a typical story for a guy in the Army Security Agency in Vietnam during the 60’s and 70’s… and there were a lot of us.

Andy Francis recounted his story of Vietnam service and mentioned the dangers ASA personnel faced.  One danger all rear area guys faced was constant mortar and rocket attacks, but only rarely coming face to face with the enemy.  That usually happened to intercept guys in outlying firebases, but that was rare.

nam017A

The one danger we all faced was from our own guards.  Francis mentions the Air Force bombing us if we got overrun, and I had never heard that one.  What I did hear from the MP’s that were assigned to guard our top secret compounds was that they had orders to shoot us if we got overrun.  I think few of us had anything the North Vietnamese could use, but whatever….

Getting drunk with me might not have done that MP any good in the long run though, as who was going to get shot first was the question.

Not that it mattered much, if you got overrun, your survival chances were slim to none.

The church is a cel tower….

I drive through Indian Hill, a suburb of Cincinnati, on the way to work everyday, and sometime loiter in this church’s back parking lot to catch up on my reading if I’m too early. While sitting behind the Armstrong Chapel United Methodist Church, I was looking at my phone and noticed I had quite a few bars… in fact all the bars. Indian Hill is notorious for poor cel reception, especially as it is an enclave for wealthy people.

Armstrong01
So while I was thinking about that I noticed these cables run up the back wall of the church and dissappearing into the roof. Big cables, and quite a lot of them. They ran back behind the church and into a big pile of computerized equipment…. quite the modern pile of gear for a church. Did this church have a super cool stereo system to praise the Lord with?

Armstrong02
Armstrong03
There are megachurches with plenty of broadcasting power to lure the tv crowd, however I don’t think this is one of them… On further investigation, I think the sign on the electronic gear gave it away…. Property of T-Mobile…. It’s a cel tower.

Armstrong04

Clifford Morris’s D-Day story…

Uncle Cliff landed in Normandy on D-Day+2. He lost his rifle in the surf, as you still had to travel to the beach in a landing craft…. His CO said not to worry, there were plenty of rifles on the beach to choose from. He found one that looked pretty decent (Garand) and his buddies and him spent an afternoon setting their sights to 200 yards. He didn’t change them again for the rest of the war. He shot his rifle plenty during the next 11 months, but only fired it five times at Germans he could see plainly. He thought he got them all. He brought home a German Luger in .30 Luger caliber as a war trophy, and a nun’s cross filled with the bones of the saints… He never said how he got them.

CliffNov72

The VW Diagnostic Computer – 1973

In 1973, I went to work as a fledgling mechanic in a nearby VW dealer, Hassan Motors, in Norwood Ohio. I had just got back from the war a year before, and after goofing off for a year was finally ready to start some sort of career. Before I was drafted, I went to a local community college to learn about computers, but everything I had learned had disappeared by the time I got back, and it was time to start over. I should have found some way to get back into computers, as even then it was obvious that it was going to be big. However, my love for mechanical objects (cars) was overwhelming, so off to work I went.

Computers were shortly to take over the car business, and into my first year on learning to repair cars, I came face to face with the VW Diagnostic Computer, a machine introduced to dealers in 1973 as mostly a marketing gimmick, but did show the way forward.

plug1

The computer took up a whole bay, and plugged into the diagnostic socket in the engine bay. It couldn’t really do much, mostly would tell you how much the alternator was charging, but people got the readout and really thought they had something. VW had just released their electronic fuel injection on the squareback models just a few years prior. These were simple things, and if you took the control units apart, could practically build them yourself. They weren’t very sophisticated, and could run better, but most cars then were having trouble with the new emission laws, and they could all run better. The saying at the time was, “We can make them run clean, or we can make them run good, which do you want?” We even had a serial Luddite in Cincinnati that was killing these cars. In a VW squareback, the control unit sat close inside the left rear fender, next to the engine’s air vent. Someone who knew where the control unit was was driving something similar to an icepick through the fender and into the control unit. I don’t remember how many of these cars we fixed, but it was a significant number.

1973beetle
In the end, the VW Diagnostic Computer was deemed irrevelant, and the machine was sold to the dealer for one dollar, and they could dispose of it any way they wanted. I kept a few boards out of it for years, hanging them on my garage wall. Kind of a picture into the future. Every car has a diagnostic socket today, with the laptop taking the place of the behemoth of the early seventies…

Image of diagnostic plug from Speedy Jim’s homepage
Image of Diagnostic Computer from PaintRef.com
Image of a computer printout at this page

New Years rant on new cars

Cars are better than they’ve ever been. They can go thousands of miles with little or no maintenance and are marvels of engineering science. The littlest economy car is safer to crash than the biggest 10 year old sedan. Gas mileage keeps going up and pollution levels keep going down. What’s not to like?

Kia Space Shuttle, picture from NRMA Motoring and Services


Cars are designed to be easy to manufacture. Nowhere in the manual does it say anything about ease of repair. The first time you want to remove a hose clamp, you notice that it was obviously installed when the motor was out of the car. You can only hope to get a tool on it. Then you want to remove an electrical connector. Good Luck. Every one is double and triple locked, and each one is unique. By the time you figure out how it comes off, you’ve already broken it because, after all, it is only plastic. And getting a new one from a parts guy is difficult also, as there are thousands of them on a car, and he’ll be searching forever to get the right one, which he won’t have, and it you order it, it is guaranteed to be the wrong one when it comes in.

Parts are subassemblies. To decrease the burden of stocking thousands of parts, subassemblies have become popular. To buy a fuel pump for a pre-millenium car, you bought a fuel pump. Now you get a giant box that is almost as big as the fuel tank, with numerous plastic hoses, valves, sensors and what not. Buried deep in all this mess is the tiny fuel pump, now just a miniature version of it’s previous self. Granted things are more complex now, but still….

Cars are getting lighter, but tires are getting heavier. Tires have been growing in size every year, till now it’s almost common to see 18 and 19 inch tires on cars. The aluminum rims used to be lighter, but now are so big that you need to be the Incredible Hulk to change one. When I started working on cars, tires were usually 6.00 by 15 inch, and you didn’t even need a power machine to put a new tire on a rim. And those rims were steel also, but still lighter by a long way than modern tires.

picture of modern engine

This looks easy to work on…


Cars are incredibly sophisticated. The only modern machines that are more complex than cars are jet fighters. Mechanics are starting to need college educations to understand them. People that work on their own cars are increasingly fighting an uphill battle, not the least of which is access to information. Car Manufacturers consider any and all information that isn’t in the owner’s manual to be a state secret. Even the amount of money it takes for special tools and electronic scan tools can bankrupt a dealer, ,much less an individual that tries to figure out his own car.

I’m at a loss to think what you’ll be giving your kid to drive when he’s 16, a few years from now. Everyone can’t afford to put them in something brand new, and almost every 10 year old car will be as sophisticated as the space shuttle, will cost thousands of dollars to fix when it needs it, and you won’t be able to do it yourself to save a few bucks, even it you are handy. Cars from the 60’s were a lot easier to understand, and could be fixed by the average Joe. Older MG’s and Chevy’s have quite a following as parts are cheap and available, and the cars are simple to understand and repair. Car makers need to meet us in the middle somewhere.

picture of old MG

Anyone can fix this car…

Life after Saab

In 1994 GM had 1/2 interest in Saab, and soon owned the whole automotive division. They pushed the car upscale and eventually killed it, and now the corpse has now been hacked up, dismembered and parted out to a Swedish/Chinese/Japanese consortium with dreams of making an electric car. I’m not really sure, and I’m believe they aren’t sure either, but they might not get the name as Saab in Sweden is still a military-industrial complex and don’t want to dilute their good name.

As far as US Saab dealers go, they have gone out of business, or are in the process of reinventing themselves. For all the hoopla from Saab owners how they are going to bring the car back by demonstrations and such, they haven’t really supported the dealer network much, and have stayed away as long as they possibly could, not really wanting to spend any money on a dead horse. Parts have been really tough to get, and keys for Saab Sports Sedams have become a hot black market item. A late model 9-3 involved in a small fender bender was recently totaled because there were no front fenders in the country, and no prospects of any soon.

Empty Saab Shop

The shops generally remain empty. Some cars have to come back since they have bizarre German GM electrical systems, and no one else seems able to understand them, much less fix them. Mechanics have been pretty creative repairing parts instead of replacing them, something done routinely in the thirties, but not even done today. Other makes of cars are drifting in, but bringing in customers that are already going somewhere else is tough. Getting a different franchise is out of the question also. All the car makers have recently thinned out their dealer networks, and aren’t interested in any more.

As far as myself, I’m getting close to retirement anyway. So this whole thing doesn’t affect me as much as it could. But I’ve been working on Saabs since 1985, and will miss them, although they will still show up as orphaned cars at the shows, much like Edsels, Hudsons and the millions of other makes that have been abandoned.

I have been spoiled by Saab. They got good gas mileage, better than average performance, looked good and if you got them into the air on a bump in the road, they could land on all fours and still be in control. I tried that with an Oldsmobile once and almost got killed.

Update Nov 13, 2012
Well, life goes on. The cars are trickling back, I’m still working here, and we have 3 mechanics working. Wages for flat rate guys are still depressed, and the mechanics are struggling to pay their bills, but they have work. We’re not over the hump yet, but getting there.

picture of the shop

The Bank Street Pfeiffers

In 1900, William Pfeiffer and his family rented rooms at 902 Bank Street. 20 years earlier, William and his family lived down on Main Street where he kept a tavern close by. That didn’t work out and was now working at a Brewery on Liberty Street.

Picture of William and Elizabeth

William and Elizabeth


Times were hard, his wife Elizabeth was slowly going blind and even his oldest son had to quit school for work after the 3rd grade. William never got the hang of english, which didn’t really matter much in the Bank Street neighborhood, as everyone around was German. This heritage was to get stomped on in 17 years with the coming of World War One, even the German street names were to be changed, but for now, the whole town seemed to be imported from Bavaria.
Bank Street map 1920

Bank Street neighborhood in 1920


Most of the girls were working in laundry and tailor shops. Young Will Pius was 18 years old and working as a varnisher, learning his trade to one day own and run ‘Will Pfeiffer and Sons, Painters’. But for now, he supplemented his education by devouring an encyclopedia. Valentine would follow Will into the house painting business in the future, but in 1900 he stayed in school along with Mary. Painting would bite Valentine in the future when he was slowly poisoned by the lead he and Will had to mix their paints with. Elizabeth’s nephew, Carl Gaertner, had just recently immigrated to the US and was staying with them. Through one of William’s friends, he got a job as a porter.

The 900 block of Bank Street was filled with tenements, meat packing plants, and other businesses. One thing the elder William liked about the neighborhood was St. Augustine Church, which was just past the Sacred Heart Convent down towards Ailanthus Street.

Picture of St. Augustine Church on Bank Street

St. Augustine's church on Bank Street


Past that were more houses, packing plants, cemetery monument makers, carpenters and furniture makers, saloons and blacksmiths. News about the new horseless carriages were around, but no one had seen one yet. Electric streetcars were brand new, and young Will was already trying to derail them by wedging scrap metal on the tracks. Soon he would look for more adventure and join the Ohio National Guard in 1901.
Picture of a Cincinnati streetcar

Streetcars were a target for unruly youth


The entire neighborhood along Bank Street, from Freeman to Baymiller and including Ailanthum Street, was bulldozed around 1970, and the ballfields of Dyer Park sit there now, quietly covering the basements and foundations of a unique German community.
Picture of Bank Street today.

Bank Street neighborhood today. 902 Bank Street would have been close to this corner.


William would soon be dead, a result of an accident at the brewery. Young Will would be married in another five years to Rose Beiting. Elizabeth’s eyesight was fading, but got along with the help of her daughters and son Val, who were still living with her in 1930, across the street from Roger Bacon High School, and her other son, Will. Will’s family would spread out from Cincinnati, and settle from one end of the country to the other, and pride in German heritage would return to Cincinnati.
Picture of William Pius Pfeiffer's wedding

Wedding of William Pfeiffer and Rose Beiting

Colgate engineering gets it right

I struggle with the output of engineers every day. Our marvelous technological world is due to engineering mainly, and it is impressive. As an auto mechanic by trade, though, it seems that the manufacturer, and consumer get the better part of the deal, as all the engineering money is spent on making cars easy to manufacture, and appealing for the consumer to sit in, not so much in ease of repair.

Nonetheless, I simply can’t say good enough things about the modern toothpaste tube. Not just any toothpaste tube, but Colgate Total. It’s alright for toothpaste I guess, (I haven’t had any cavities for a long time), but it’s the engineering in the toothpaste tube that’s impressive.

I’ve grown up with toothpaste tubes since the 50’s, and they weren’t a pretty sight. Not only was it impossible to get most of the product out of them, but squeezing and rolling them up caused them to crimp, tear and eventually leak. Squeezing the tube by that time meant toothpaste coming out in at least 3 places. (That would be fine if 3 kids needed their teeth brushed at the same time,) And the tube would rust. Rust and toothpaste don’t belong on the same brush.

Toothpaste tube

Along came the 21st Century and Colgate Total. The tube doesn’t rust. and you don’t have to do any rolling of the tube to get the toothpaste out, just squeeze. When it’s used up, the tube is empty, with no rolling or anything, it just all comes out! I have no idea how they accomplish that, but it is one of life’s little joys. And the tube can stand on end, taking little space in the medicine cabinet, full or empty. The humble toothpaste tube has reached perfection.

Air Force jet flies again…

The Enquirer had a story on the Northwest Homecoming Parade today, featuring a photo of the Air Force’s recruiting tool, a self powered one man jet float. That jet brought back some memories.

20 years ago that same jet participated in a parade in Amelia, Ohio. My brother Jim and I were watching from his front yard as the jet slowly idled by, then disaster struck! The jet suddenly swerved to the left, out of control, right into my brothers driveway. We leaped into action. The impulse to just see how the jet was built was enough of a draw to get our attention. The problem was a link on the left wheel that had broken, and after rifling through Jim’s garage we found enough supplies to fix it on the spot. The jet was soon back in action and the parade was a success. We were glad to do our part to keep the Air Force flying.

Push it on the stack

Medium size metropolitan Saab dealer… 8:00 a. m. 2 waiters on the counter already. Been waiting since 7:30, I thought we opened at 8. First one is an oil change… get the oil draining. Second one has a window that won’t go down, push the oil change on the stack, off with the door panel… motor shorted… price motor. Car already in shop needs to get to bodyshop asap, but needs alignment first. Push window car on the stack. Almost finished with alignment, customer needs to go for a test drive for some noise she hears. Push alignment on the stack.

We don’t hear the noise, but she insists on driving till we hear it. A lot of people are getting antzy back at the dealership. I suggest letting me drive, and she agrees. Big mistake for her, as I drive straight back to the dealership, and tell her we just have to keep the car till we hear the noise. (Later that story has a happy ending, just a bent heat shield.) Pop the alignment off the stack, completed and off to the body shop. The window motor sold, and installed and out the door and popped the oil change off the stack. LIFO. Done.

9:15. Ready for a new round.

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