My son asked me to publish this. I thought I already did, but who am I to look a gift fan in the mouth?
[Pictured here is the very year, model and color mine was. BTW, it cost $1777 out the door in 1966]
The Year I Rebuilt the Valiant
Hey, asshole, get off the road, your rings are shot!” were the actual words the biker used to convince me to rebuild my 1966 Plymouth Valiant. I know that sounds like a pretty big cave-in on my part, but he was a pretty big biker.
He’d been eating my smoke all the way down spiritual, twisting Laurel Canyon Road until he could pass me, which he did just above Sunset Boulevard, yelling and snarling and giving me the finger. I was lucky he wasn’t a Hell’s Angel. I considered it an omen.
My life right then was at a low-water mark. My ladylove (and partner in a house we’d bought together in the Hollywood Hills) had left me, my rock career had tanked, my bank account was empty. My student deferment was the only thing keeping me out of Viet Nam, and that was about to end.
But until it did I had to keep driving the ’66 Bermuda Blue Valiant with the maroon driver’s-side replacement-door and roped-down hood. It had over 100,000 miles on it, had never been serviced and smoking was not its worst habit, by far.
Nothing sucks like driving a car that is both unchic and decrepit in L.A. But since I couldn’t afford new wheels I had to do something about the Valiant. The problem was I knew nothing about cars and car repair. I was a member of a sub-section of the population not known for caring how things work or keeping them working: male, pre-law, Jewish.
And yet I wanted to do this, i.e., rebuild the Plymouth. And it was not just because I needed transportation. I wanted to be able to say things like, “Your exhaust manifold is loose,” or, “You’ll need a cherry-picker to get that engine outta there,” and know what I just said. I hated being dissed on the road and not understanding the insult. Worse, I am a hothead, and I hated not knowing what to say back.
I had a resource. Warren. Warren was a retired “salt,” an ex-Army tank driver, construction worker, machinist, gandy dancer, jobs that require using one’s back and hands. Which is not to say Warren hadn’t learned to use his head, too.
In fact, I know he thought of himself as a mind- over-muscles kind of guy. Whenever he’d hear me grunt with strain he’d look at whatever I was doing, bray like a mule, and say, “Muscles are for dummies.”
Not that he didn’t have them. Muscles, I mean. Warren was built like an old-fashioned fullback: thick, sinewy ropes connected his head to his body so that his upper limbs seemed to start at his neck. Popeye forearms and powerful hands spoke of years of picks and sledgehammers swung in short arcs, as is necessary in mining and railroad-tie spike-driving. I once asked him if he’d played football in school.
“Well, since they didn’t have no organized teams until the sixth grade, I guess not,” he’d answered.
In spite of his curtailed education he was a current events freak and had been one for so long he could probably qualify as a history freak, too. The small shack he shared with his wife across the road and down in a gully was bursting with books, newspapers, periodicals and any other non-fiction media he could lay his hands on.
“I was a Wobbly before the Russian Revolution,” he told me, fishing through his wallet and proudly showing me his I.W.W. card.
I’d never met a Wobbly, an Industrial Worker of the World, before, and I was impressed.
“Took some balls to join, didn’t it?” I asked.
He shrugged, but I could tell he was surprised I even what he was talking about. His blue eyes twinkled behind the thick lenses of his “seein'” glasses (he had another pair, very dark, that he couldn’t see out of; Warren was legally blind) and he sucked in the little rivulet of saliva that would always form at the corner of his mouth whenever he got excited.
“For a while there, we had enough members to scare the life outta those sumbitches up in Washington,” he said, winking at me conspiratorially, “you bet we did.
“But I unjoined when Comrade Lenin and Comrade Trotsky took over and tried to get our union to become Bolsheviks. I could see where that was goin’ and I didn’t want any part of it.”
He reminded me a little of Harry Truman right then. He had the clean, square lines of Truman’s face, and his rimless “seein'” glasses focused the sunlight into bright patches under his eyes, just as “Give-’em-Hell” Harry’s did.
“Nosiree. That’s where I disagreed with Big Bill Haywood. He was the Union’s leader, y’see. ‘No sir,’ I told him, ‘you can be a free-thinker and still be an American.’ That’s what I said then, and it’s what I say now.”
He also said he’d be glad to help me with the Valiant, but that I shouldn’t be surprised if it needed to be, well, rebuilt.
I was ecstatic. Up until then I had avoided even using the word, let alone bringing it into a sentence that included me and the Valiant. I half-wished the biker were there, so I could say something like, “It’s not the rings, dickhead, it’s the rocker arm panel (I’d seen that parts description once, by accident), so we’re gonna rebuild the engine.”
And so, one hazy L.A. morning, we parked the Valiant in the dirt field next to my house, jacked it up and put it on blocks (wooden blocks, because concrete blocks can break while you’re under the car, and then you’re just another chuckling auto shop teacher’s story about someone who didn’t take his course).
You could almost hear the neighbors groan when they saw all four wheels of the car leave the ground, because they also knew that moody, Jewish, pre-law draft-dodgers weren’t likely to be handy with tools, and cars up on blocks in front yards may be fine in Georgia and Mississippi but not in the Griffith Park section of Los Angeles. I am sure they prayed every night for Warren’s continued robust health.
You’ve got to understand one or two things about Warren: As I said, he was almost blind. Also, because of some speech impediment or habit, he talked a little like Walt Disney’s Goofy. What he said was almost always clever, but the presentation was sometimes a little comical.
It also may help to understand that I was, as I have said, a monumental hothead with a quick temper and a big mouth, “full of sound and fury, etc.,” but full of shit.
So, what the engine-rebuilding process might have looked and sounded like to the casual observer was Goofy the Dog telling Donald Duck how to build a spaceship.
But the partnership worked, and Warren and I became good friends as a result.
Warren would sit ramrod straight in a kitchen chair that I would set next to the part of the car I was working on, and say things like, “That hose is going to be held onto the pipe with either a spring clamp or a screw clamp. Which one is it?”
“I don’t know,” I’d probably say.
Then he’d say, “It’s a spring clamp; even you would recognize a screw clamp.”
Then we’d go across the street and down into his gully to a rusted-out 1932 Model-A Ford that served as his toolbox, to get a special pliers for removing spring clamps.
This process took time, but I had plenty of that. Also, it was entertaining. For one thing, the tool we’d be looking for almost always came with a story.
“I got these pliers when I was pouring cement for FDR’s Redwood City aqueduct,” is the one that came with the spring-clamp pliers.
“Now, Franklin Roosevelt,” Warren said, looking up from his rummaging, “he was sly dog. He never let the right hand know what the left was doing. The Redwood City dam wasn’t built anywhere near Redwood City, y’know. It was built in Wyoming, a thousand miles away.
“Old Roosevelt, see, he couldn’t get Congress to give him the money for the project in Wyoming—people were still bitching about Teapot Dome; you know what that was, don’t you?—so he renamed the project for Redwood City, in Oregon, raised the money and built the dam in Wyoming.
“Here it is,” he said, holding up the spring-clamp pliers and cackling with glee over FDR’s little hijinx.
Another thing: finding and using special tools for special tasks turned out to be a real confidence builder for me, because it made so many more jobs do-able.
But mainly, special tools brought me closer and closer to the amorphous fraternity of people who can do things with their hands. I loved being able to say, “I think we’ll need a half-to-quarter-inch swivel-drive to get to that tie-rod,” and know what I was talking about.
One day, when the last mount bolt was finally off, and the engine had been pared down to just the naked block sitting inside the motor well, I actually heard myself say to Warren, “We’re gonna need a cherry-picker to get that sucker outta there.” What a moment.
There were other, slightly less glorious moments.
There was putting the water pump back on without a gasket, thereby inventing the first self-contained, under-the-hood, high-pressure car wash.
And then there was the great Pin-bearing Panic of ’73, performed in front of a live audience at sunset, Warren sitting on my lime-green kitchen chair next to the rear fender, me under the back axle, proudly removing the universal-joint while several of my friends watched.
“Son, you gotta be real careful when you get the plate off the joint; you don’t want to drop those pin-bearings,” Warren said, in a loud, clear voice.
“What are pin-bearings?” I said back.
“Well, they’re right under the plate you’re taking off. They’ll look like a row o’ needles, but they’re just stuck in there with grease, so if you’re not careful as a cat, they’ll—”
“Oh, I see what you’re—Shit!”
I saw what he was talking about.
Certainly the best moment of all had to be a warm, golden October afternoon with all the cherry-pickers and pin-bearings and gaskets back where they were supposed to be, neighbors on porches and front lawns pretending not to notice what was going on in the dirt lot at the end of their road.
Orville Wright (I) was behind the wheel, Wilbur (Warren) was hovering over the open engine compartment, nose to carburetor, ear to distributor.
“Okay, turn ‘er over,” Wilbur yelled to Orville.
Orville turned the key, and…
“Rhurrr-rhurrr-rhurrr,” went the Valiant.
Wilbur held up his hand immediately for Orville to stop.
He did. It took everything he had not to look up and catch the neighbors’ head-shaking and eye-rolling that had to be going on.
But Wilbur was too busy to notice. In a moment, he held up his hand and twirled his index finger in the air.
Orville turned the key again.
“Rhurrr-rhurrr-rhurrr-rhur-rhur-rhur-rhr-rhr-rh-rh-r-r-r-RHOOOOMMMMM!” went the Valiant.
We had ignition! It was only for a moment, and a very rough ignition it was, the car lurching and pitching in place like a cartoon jalopy. But the engine did turn over, so we knew we’d got most everything back in its place, which to me was tantamount to squaring the circle or curing cancer.
Now I chanced a look at the neighbors. The Chinaman pretended to be going back to raking a leafless front lawn, and the two old gals who lived together at the top of the hill made like they were inspecting the roofline of their red raised-ranch cottage. The little knot of kids that had come out of somebody’s living room where they were probably watching TV were guileless in their lack of pretense.
“Run outta gas?” one of them said, as I let the engine die. “My dad said you don’t know the difference between a screwdriver and a chainsaw.”
Warren signaled me to get out of the car and join him at the engine well.
“This is the part you need eyes for,” he said, handing me his homemade timing light. “I’ll crank the engine and you do what I told you.”
He got behind the wheel while I took off the distributor cap to expose the points. (Just saying these things now gives me chills of excitement.)
“Remember,” he reminded me, “you gotta hold the light steady, or it won’t strobe. Tell me when it’s doin’ that.”
“It’s doing that.”
“Okay,” he said, killing the engine and handing me the key, “get back in the car.”
I did. I turned the key, the starter motor turned the engine, the engine turned the crank shaft, the crank meshed with the universal, etc., etc., and we were off.
Several of the neighbors had overcome their skepticism and were clapping. Mac, who lived across the street and up a couple of houses from me and always seemed to be fretting about neighborhood real estate values, seemed to be crying.
As we took off down the hill I saw another “pre-owned”-type vehicle coming at us, left front fender crushed, muffler ruined, smoke billowing up behind it. It was a winding, narrow street, and when I rolled down my window my face was no more than two feet away from the other driver’s.
I smiled and said, “Hey, asshole, your rings are shot. You really should get that fixed.”
Then I sped off down the hill. Even slumped behind the wheel the guy looked pretty big.