9: A Motorcycle Named Snake

30 Objects in 30 Essays

From the objects that I have made, objects other people have made, objects that I live with, and what they have to say. The products of hands and brains. The obvious differences between things and words. The tangible and intangible rewards of effort. Use and beauty as the two primary qualities of objects, words, hands and brains. For through objects we make the stories of our lives: a life made, a life bought, a life well-used, a life beautiful and useful.

 

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This is a story about Snake, a 1991 Jawa 350.

I named him after Tchitcherine's horse in Gravity's Rainbow. Snake was the first motorcycle I ever both owned, and rode. Though we were a pair for just over 7 months, he taught me bush maintenance, and, like his namesake, tried to kill me repeatedly. I loved Snake, and dearly miss him.

When I met Snake, mere minutes had passed since his manufacturing. A new bike, without a history, I thought. One that should run like new, with no problems. Snake was literally rolled off the production floor to a spot next to the sales office. As I watched, though, another factory worker walked up and attached his side mirrors. They had apparently forgotten to add them in the factory. Then another walked up with a very grimy rag and wiped down (smeared?) random parts. I puzzled over this as the bike looked relatively clean from the sales office window. Then, another approached, holding a little jug. He took the gas tank cap off and poured out a dollop of gas, less than the gin I'd add to a G&T. Topping him up, I wondered?

A bike with no history perhaps, but I with much personality, I hoped. I was the one with a history that marked the way I approached, rode, and took care of Snake. So story begins with all the bikes I rode, and owned, and worked on before him. Without this context, Snake's story will remain impenetrable.

--

The first bike I rode, but did not own, was my father's 1972 Yamaha 100.

When I was 13 he offered a ride around the yard. He held one handlebar and graciously stood back. I took the handlebars and threw my leg over, and began kicking the starter, over, and over, and over... The trouble was the bike rarely ran, because my father largely performed what I later learned to call The Machine Maintenance of Will (MMW) on it. Through it, the mechanic imposes his or her knowledge and opinion on the machine, generally through anger, and it is the machine's job to understand that will, knowledge, and opinion, and obey it. Failing obedience, the machine is damned. This practice can be observed in the singular response when the machine does not run. Simply put, it is the machine's fault. The mechanic takes the opinion that the plugs are bad, when the fuel filter is clogged. The mechanic first damns the plugs for fouling, then makes a special trip to buy more plugs, and when the machine still does not run, the machine receives verbal and possibly physical abuse WHAT IN JESUS F. CHRIST'S NAME IS YOUR PROBLEM. THOSE ARE NEW GODDAMN PLUGS..." possibly accompanied by new plugs being thrown across the room for not making the machine work. If the clogged fuel filter is ever discovered, the failure to run remains the machine's fault: "OH NOW IT'S A CLOGGED FUEL FILTER, EH? CLEVER, YOU PIECE OF JUNK. WHY THE HELL DIDN'T... CRAPPY JAPANESE DESIGN... THAT FUEL FILTER SHOULD BE FINE I CHECKED IT JUST GODDAMN YESTERDAY..." This kind of maintenance can, eventually, lead to a working machine. The approach's flaws are that it is usually slow, sometimes involves added damage to machine, and teaches that most machines are dumb, poorly built, and should be avoided. Not knowing any better, I spent more time kicking it over, cursing it as my father did, watching him get steadily angrier and more disappointed in me for being an idiot son, incapable of starting a mere motorcycle. He then took the motorcycle from me with a "give me that, you idiot" glance, and tried to start it himself. Also failing to start it, first he cursed the motorcycle for being a piece of shit, then looked at me wondering how I might have broken it. An afternoon in the shop, standing timidly at his side as he cursed the machine endlessly, eventually yielded a running motorcycle.

And I was off. The Yammer was a low-speed, sputtering blast. I learned to slide the rear tire across the lawn, earning my mother's rage.It had no oil in the front forks, so she clacked and clanked over every bump. And it rarely ran because of my father's MMW approach. I learned this maintenance approach from him, and applied to the Yammer with no better results, though with some budding questions.

The second motorcycle I owned, but never rode, was a 1968 Honda CB360, given to me by my cousin Jeff when I was 16. The bike had sat outside for ten years and didn't run. My dad bought me a Clymer manual and let me use his tools, though with unspecified threats if I damaged them. I took the Honda all apart, cleaned it, and put it all back together, as I had no idea what else to do. I did not apply any percussive maintenance, as my father often did, as I had learned that didn't work. And in this process, I learned much to my surprise, that machines had inviolable rules. For example, that aluminum and steel had different properties. When I neglected those properties, I stripped threads. Not the aluminum's fault, but my fault for not using a torque wrench or reading the correct torque specs in the manual. Timing setting, believe it or not, had to be exact, not where my fingers could easily tighten the screws. Learning the limits of MMW, I started to develop the Machine Maintenance of Empathy (MME). This can be summed up as the practice of listening to what the machine wants and needs. You want an oil change? Your oil is all dirty and gritty? Oh, ok. I'll make you happy, then. This kind of maintenance also can, eventually, lead to a working machine. It is generally applied only after the machine makes a new noise, acts bizarrely, or loses a part. The approach's flaws are that it is patchwork, and prevents no damage from occurring. But it teaches that non- or poorly-working machines are simply in need of attention.

After a summer of asking the Honda what it wanted, and giving it what I thought it needed, I eventually got one cylinder running maybe 80% of the time, and the other about 30% of the time. The sparks were dim, even though I had bought new ones and gapped them according to Clymer. I figured the bike needed something else electrical, but buying parts was a sign of failure in my father's eyes. It proved that I couldn't fix something. And I didn't have much of a budget. So the bike sat, probably in need of new capacitors. I owned the Honda, but never rode her, consigned to the garage, and eventually, the side of the road with "Free" sign on her.

--

Six long years later, at the age of 23, while living in Bratislava, Slovakia, with vague memories of a Yamaha and a Honda, fading capabilities in MMW and MME, fading front yard dirt bike riding experience, no motorcycle permit or endorsement on my license, I bought a 1991 Jawa 350.

Slovakia in 1990-91 is a topic for much discussion, but not here. Let's summarize that the Slovaks lived a key moment in world history. For little me, living through it as an English instructor was an, er, instructive experience.

In a discussion over beer or Slivovica, as all discussions occur over either beer or Slivovica, I learned that the local motorcycle manufacturer Jawa had just been allowed to sell its motorcycles to individual foreigners. I jumped at the chance. With the help of some Slovak friends, many discussions over kitchen tables (involving beer and/or Slivovica), phone calls they made on my behalf (my Slovak was rudimentary), I eventually ended up in the sales office of the factory, a wad of cash in my pocket, and a pile of paperwork to sign.

While paperwork was being processed, I watched as brand-new bike after brand-new bike was pushed out of one building into another. Then one peeled off this route and was parked in front of the sales office, literally rolled off the assembly line minutes before. Handing me the keys, no instruction booklet, a pile of paperwork, and a license plate I would have to attach myself, the factory employee merely noted that I should get gas "soon."

I kicked it over and it wouldn't start. I kicked it again, and again. Anger rising that this fucking piece of shit brand-new bike I just fucking bought wasn't working, with memories of my father's Yamaha stirring at gut level, I stopped and channeled some MME. What do you need...? I looked her over carefully and figured it out. She needed the ignition switch turned on and choke out. Completing those tasks, she started on the first kick.

Prrutta prutta prutta prutta prrrrruuuuuuuutttaa, a tinny two-stroke sound that when revved, got tinnier. I was in love. A bike that I owned, and a bike that ran.

I rode the bike up the road towards a gas station I could see about a 1/2 mile away, and she sputtered and stopped after about 500 feet. Ten minutes of wondering what the hell I had done (left the choke on too long and fouled the plugs? Hit a hidden kill switch?), I ascertained that it was out of gas. I pushed it back to the factory, found someone, and begged for a little more gas. After a fair amount of grumbling and discussion among themselves, an employee came back and splashed a 1/4 cup more gas in my tank. I felt entitled to a full tank, seeing as i had just paid full price for the new bike (if I recall right, about $500US) Perhaps the cost of the gas came out of their salaries, I don't know. I rode up to the gas station without breaking down again.

That's when I discovered the bike's identity, and proper name. Pulling into the gas station, I turned hard to the right. The clutch engaged itself, the engine revved high and the bike slowed. Straightening the bars was my second mistake, as the clutch reengaged, the bike lurched forward into a wheelie towards the pumps, hands slipping off the bars.

What goes through one's mind at such moments? -- It was a strange dream-like feeling, as if I had five steep steps on an attic staircase to climb before I could reach the clutch lever and save my life. Instructing my feet to climb them led to the realization that they were stuck in a vat of molasses. I also realized, and marveled that,Yes! Of course! The hand brake is useless in a wheelie. I squeezed it anyway. Go figure.

Miraculously, I managed to stay on, and land it upright, clutch reengaged and throttle released. Heart pounding, adrenaline raging, I examined the bike thoroughly, and found the clutch cable entwined tight around the frame in a way that stretched it tight in right hand turns. I yanked some clips loose to fix the problem.

Homicidal Fucker of a bike, if there ever was one. You're a snake, I thought. Your name is Snake.

For a full understanding of this name, please read Gravity's Rainbow before continuing with this blog post. You will meet Tchitcherine's beloved horse. Snake randomly and methodically tries to kill Tchitcherine, in a delightful dance macabre. Over the next six months, I rode Snake nearly every day, eventually 15,000km around Europe, on what I called my Pynchon Pilgrimmage, visiting places mentioned in Gravity's Rainbow, thinking about Slothrop's quest to save himself. There was no way to predict Snake's next attempt on my life, but a next attempt was assured.

Over that summer, Snake tried to kill me with the following: the disc brake on the front wheel seized on the highway, twice; Snake caught a peg on a mountain curve and lifted his rear wheel clear of the road causing us to slide sideways into a guardrail along the edge of a cliff; Snake's clutch cable snapped on the same mountain road, while descending; Attempting 70mph for the first time, Snake went into such a violent wobble that my feet came off the pegs; complete electrical failure at 60mph at night on a busy highway with no shoulder. 

The seized front brake episodes were the absolute scariest. On a stretch of highway at about 55mph, the front suddenly dove and I came up off my seat. I hung on for dear life by throwing my feet out either side, which seemed to make sense at the time. I recall wrestling with the handebars and pulling in the clutch with all my might before sliding somewhat sideways to a stop, miraculously upright. Sitting by the side of the road, shaking with the adrenaline rush Snake gave me, I went through the MMW (FUCK THAT BIKE) before practicing MME by taking the front brake caliper apart, noting it was dirty, cleaning everything with a rag, and reassembling it. The second seizure a few hundred miles later indicated that, perhaps, MME was as equally inadequate as MMW. I needed a better approach, I realized, one that included actually knowing what the fuck I was doing, and what was causing the caliper(?) or pads? to cock sideways(?) at a certain speed(?). Maybe it was the hydraulics. I really didn't fucking know. But I still rode Snake.

The shortcomings of reactive MME were becoming obvious. I had no mechanical approach adequate to him. When I tried to change his oil in the parking lot of a supermarket, and his drain plug came out with all its threads, MMW and MME had nothing to offer. My improvised bush maintenance was elaborate, incompetent, but it worked. I walked to a hardware store and bought a five minute epoxy. I drained Snake's gas and flipped him upside down. I wiped all the oil from the drain plug and hole and bits of thread around the hole with the cleanest shirt corner I had, slathered epoxy on all of it and jammed it back in the hole. I let the epoxy cure overnight before returning Snake to his upright position and filling him up with oil again. It worked. I rode another 5,000km without thinking about the drain plug. After that, I didn't want to think about the drain plug, so I didn't.

--

Snake was also suicidal. He didn't want to throw me off a cliff so much as take us both off. His oil plug threads had been cast across a seam in the case, likely why they came out in my hands when I unscrewed the plug. I figure he was fixing to spit his oil out on the road. He also fouled plugs on the regular, usually as far from a parts store as was geographically possible, and when I had no tools to clean or regap them. His headlight would blink off, then on, at night. Whether a fragile filament, a loose wire, or bad connector, I never discovered. This was in addition to the many nuts and bolts that hadn't been tightened, couldn't be tightened, had been over tightened at the factory, and led to a consistent rain of parts off of him at speed. The headlight faring, the crash bar, the battery platform: all ended up held on by anywhere from 75% to 50% of their original securing nuts and bolts. The right hand mirror threads eventually stripped so it spun freely until I wrapped the base with tape.

Snake held a certain mechanical despair. Snake was engineered, and built, to fail. I felt for Snake, even as he kept trying to throw me off at high speed. Who would design a motorcycle with cast threads across a seam? Who would assemble Snake by overtightening or undertightening every nut and bolt? Who would give a new customer only enough gas to get halfway to the nearest gas station, visible down the road?

Ford Motor Company earned the joke that its name was an acronym for "Fix Or Repair Daily." Fiat earned "Fix It Again, Tony." Workers who don't give a damn about the build quality The Jawas of the time, however, took bad build quality to a new level. This gets a fellow thinking. Who builds to fail?

When I rode Snake, I had not yet read Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I remain glad that I hadn't. I read it years later, found it to be nothing like what I had imagined. Who rides a motorcycle and has discussions, that he calls chautauquas, with his former self? For me, Chautauqua is a small commuter town in New York State where rich people live. The train I'd take from downscale Brewster to New York City stopped in Chautauqua. Men in suits got on and off (Ok, ok. They really misspell the town as "Chappaqua"). When I want to talk philosophy with myself, I don't use that word. When I ride motorcycles, I don't turn philosophical. Of my many friends who ride, I don't know any who have chautauquas with themselves. Riding a motorcycle gets me out of my head, not into it.

Snake forced me out of my head, and into his. How the fuck are you going to try to kill us next, Snake? as the only question I had riding him. My mental eye roved over him for dangling bits. My ear listened for the tiniest change in motor or bearing noise. My hands, feet and butt tuned into his vibrations, feeling for the slightest shift or overtone. I had to experience the road through Snake to avoid death.

It is a question, frankly, we should ask more commonly of the technology we use. We can't impose our will on machines and expect predictable answers. We can't impose our feelings on them either. We have to gain knowledge of them, and respect that knowledge by acting on it.

A certain whirring sound is not nothing, because we don't want to stop now. It's not our failure as a person for not taking better care of the machine. It is a bearing seal failure that needs to be fixed before the hub heats up and causes worse damage, requiring mental calculations to answer when and where to stop, and how best to fix it. When we figure out an answer, we should respect it. This latter process, of acquiring knowledge and respect for machines, is frankly delightful. It's the Machine Maintenance of Knowledge (MMK), and it develops through a curious mind open to learning from good sources. That summer, I got an inkling of MMK, but certainly didn't develop it. I would have needed Snake's shop manual to learn proper torque values. I would have needed a community of Jawa riders who were willing to share their collected experience and wisdom. I would have needed to be a whole lot more mature I was then. But I did realize that -- wow, there was much I did not know about Snake, that if I did know, I'd be a whole lot safer on him.

--

If I remained un-philosophic on the road, during off-bike hours I would return to that question: "who builds to fail?" At the time, my thoughts led to utter disgust with a dehumanizing Socialist system that produced factory engineers who didn't give a damn, and factory workers who didn't give a damn. I despaired at their despair.

Many years later, my thoughts returned to the Capitalist companies with essentially the same problem, of people producing objects that were much worse than they could be. I blamed the pursuit of profit for the malady of Ford's "Fix Or Repair Daily" problems. Planned obsolescence; revenge against asshole management, etc. 

But now, I see something else to answer "who builds to fail?" People build to fail when they can't take ownership of what they do. Each of the thousands of people involved in designing and building a modern motorcycle has just a tiny bit of skin in the game, but no complete ownership. The act of making becomes a social, even personal exercise towards some goal other than building well. Revenge against, or the pleasing of a manager; the making of money; social status, etc. The object itself gets lost in this fragmented, diffuse way of making. The angry floor worker, whose only job is to insert and tighten an oil plug, hundreds of times a day, who has just been denied vacation time by a manager who doesn't give a shit about his family life, is going to overtighten that bolt consistently--not to the specs given to him that he doesn't understand--to appease his anger. "Fuck them all" is all he has in his head. He has no clue who will ride the bike, will never meet him, and doesn't care one way or the other. As soon as the next bike comes along the assembly line, his work on the previous is all but forgotten except in a stingy paycheck at the end of the week. Modern manufacturing itself is a bad recipe for making anything well, while utterly fantastic at making more. Conjuring pride of workmanship in a diffuse manufacturing job is a rhetorical exercise with nothing inherent to the specifics of the job.

To this day, Snake's homicidal/suicidal streak reminds me of our win-lose relationship with technology. What we win is More of everything, and complex objects that could never be made by a single person from raw materials (think billions of motorcycles or iphones). What we lose is the singularly beautiful and useful object made by a masterful, individual artist-craftsman with intimate and complete knowledge of the object. As we can't make a motorcycle all by ourselves, we will never know what a truly hand-made one would be like. And we can't manufacture handmade objects, by definition.

We have made much of a middle ground, with hand makers using the semi-raw materials of the industrial supply chain, even some components. From custom knife-makers, to studio furniture makers, all rely on the products of manufacturing, if not for their materials, then certainly for their tooling. Along these lines, I've wondered what it would have been like to completely disassemble Snake and rebuild him, by hand, from the ground up. It would explore the concept of making a silk purse from a sow's ear. To make Snake functional is one thing. To make him beautiful, however, would require a number of near-fundamental changes.

Such a process would require a complete interrogation of the object, to really know it. What alloy of aluminum was the crank case made of? What properties does it have and under what conditions? What possible solutions to stripped threads are there? How clean must a bolt and threads be to get an accurate torque value when tightening? There are answers to all of this. This is all knowledge, facts, testable, repeatable truths. There is nothing I can think or feel that will change the properties of that crankcase. I have to be humble before it, and respect its strengths and limits. When I strip the threads out, it's 100% my fault for not knowing that particular crankcase better, even if the reason is a design that makes stripping probable. It was that I lacked that knowledge that made me less than careful when I loosened the plug.

I have subsequently owned and ridden a 1997 Honda VFR750F, and thereby learned how well manufactured motorcycle can be made. She was exceptional in every regard (except her rectifier).

Before returning to the US, I sold Snake to the father in my host family. Snake promptly tried to kill him, giving him a high side as he tried to go up a hill laterally. It was likely due to his novice riding skills, but just possibly, Snake bound up his clutch cable....

Good job, Snake, starting the education of a new rider in the benefits of MMK.

 


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