The Nation's Heartland Tour (part 2)

Sunday, August 17 2003 @ 11:31 PM PDT

Contributed by: matt

When we last saw our hero, he was asleep in an apartment in Milwaukee.

I'm pretty good at improvising, when it comes to moving things from one place to another. I'm not just talking about the easy stuff... manufacturing a jury rigged dolly out of the base of a desk chair and stuff like that. I'm talking about the hard stuff. The "this pile of belongings doesn't fit into this truck" kind of stuff.

I've also moved a lot of people. Sure, everyone has, right? The difference is that every male member of my family on my dad's side worked for my grandfather's moving company growing up, and my father is the one that stayed in the industry. Let me put it this way: not only can I close my eyes and recall in perfect clarity the unique smell that pervades the box of nearly every moving truck on the planet, but I can actually pick out the constituent parts of that smell (packing blankets, cardboard boxes, newsprint - both blank and printed upon, brown packing tape, clear packing tape, nylon straps that have gotten wet, the grease from two-wheeled dollies, the funky rugs on four wheeled dollies).

I had figured that these two qualities would be enough to handle whatever might come up during the move. Just to be safe, I also brought a universal ratcheting screwdriver (for disassembling furniture) and a pocketknife (which still has emblazoned on its side in fading letters, "MAST-MAYFLOWER", which is where my father worked before he died).

Occassionally, I have the bad judgement to assume that a person knows exactly what I'm talking about when I describe something, especially a part. It's invariably one of those shitty situations where the person thinks they know precisely what to get based on my description, but I either left out, didn't emphasize or didn't think of some crucial detail. Another failing that I have is that I tend to assume that a person that has more than three toolboxes owns a ratchet set. In a confluence of circumstances made possible by your friend and mine, Murphy, everything that could go wrong did go wrong. Or, to quote O'Toole's Corrollary, Murphy was an optomist.

My friend had a very specific notion of the way she wanted to pack the truck. I have no problem with that, as long as the methodology obeys the basic laws of geometry and weight distribution, which hers seemed to do. Since she had that end of things pretty well in hand, I spent Monday attempting to convert her Jeep into a trailer that we could safely tow from Milwaukee to Boston. In preparation for this, she had purchased a tow bar and taillights, and her neighbor was picking up safety chains on the way home.

The first problem I ran into (not counting the fact that the only things she had that would pass for wrenches were a pair of six inch long crescent wrenches that were part of a bicycle repair kit) was that the bolts for the tow bar were too big for the corresponding holes in the bumper. After trying to coax them in or find another spot to mount on for a while, I finally broke down and drove over to Home Depot for a drill bit (fortunately, she did have a drill). For those of you who have never tried it, drilling through steel is a pain in the ass. It takes a while to do it right, and when you're done you still have to find a way to file down the burrs that are invariably left behind. It also helps to have industrial grade equipment, but that was, alas, too much to ask (except for the bit that I bought.. that was good stuff.)

Eventually I had the two holes drilled and burrs removed (If you're curious, since I lacked anything resembling a file, I used a smaller drill bit with the drill in reverse. This is not the recommended way to do things, and is very time consuming), and I was ready to mount the bar. Well, I thought I was ready to mount the bar. It was at this point that I realized that the bar was made to attach to the front of the bumper, not the top (which is where the only other one I've seen mounts). Since the holes were on top, I had to take apart the whole hinge assembly and mount parts of it backwards to get it to work. Of course, taking apart pieces that had been factory set with lock washers when all you have is a pair of crappy little crescent wrenches is, shall we say, a challenge. At some point while I was wrestling with it, she introduced me to one of her other neighbors who was a regular sort of guy in his late thirties or so. She thought he'd be just the kind of guy who'd have a toolbox or two lying around, and we weren't disappointed. With his wrenches in hand, not only was I able to reconfigure the bumper mount, but I was able to actually attach the thing to the bumper.

After returning the tools (and thanking the guy profusely), I figured I'd be able to take the magnetic towing taillights she'd bought, slap them on the bumper, figure out a way to tuck the wiring out of the way, and I'd be ready to start helping with actually getting stuff into the truck. This fantasy lasted for a few minutes, mostly due to the fact that I took a break to guzzle about a half gallon of water (it was in the upper 80s and humid as hell) and smoke a butt. When I opened the package for the taillights, I realized that these weren't made for towing a car, but rather for replacing the ones on a boat trailer. There were no magnets, and the wiring was coiled up in a nice little bundle that handily included some wire nuts. They tails weren't even stripped.

To be honest with you though, the wiring isn't what bothered me. I very nearly made a living as a theatrical electrician, so it's not as if I can't handle stripping some wire and setting some grounds. What bothered me was the fact that I had no good way to mount the lights to the bumper. I mean, sure, I could've drilled a few more holes, but that was hardly an appealing prospect when I had assumed that magnets would be involved. Luckily, one thing she did have in relative abundance was cable ties. Of course, they were meant for slightly less rigorous projects, so each one was only five or six inches long, but after linking them together in interesting ways and weaving strands in and out of each other and around things, I had the lights mounted. The wiring took a bit longer, because I got it in my head that I wanted to run it through the Jeep's frame. I suppose I just wanted at least some aspect of this project to not be half-assed.

It was about this time when the neighbor showed up with the towing chain. Ok, that was probably too subtle. She showed up with a towing chain, not a pair of safety chains. The distinction is, admittedly, difficult for the uninitiated to grasp via a telephone conversation, but nevertheless it's very real. The function of the safety chains is to keep the trailer at least near the towing vehicle if it should slip off of the hitch ball. A towing chain is what you'd use to pull said trailer out of a ditch... if it were upside-down or something. I'll assume that most people are at least vaguely familiar with the little chains that you might see hanging from a boat trailer. This particular towing chain was 16 feet long and weighed over 50 lbs. Oh yeah, and the hooks on a towing chain are made to fit snugly around a link of that chain, and even on a chain that massive, they weren't big enough to fit onto the appropriate spots on the truck's trailer hitch.

So I improvised a way to connect everything together by removing the hooks, attaching them to the rear bumper of the truck and fitting the chain into them, after wrapping it around the front bumper of the jeep a couple times. It was ugly, but it worked, and just in time for dinner.

After dinner, we loaded the truck for what seemed like forever, until arriving at the conclusion that we still had stuff that needed to be packed, because she had left a bit of the apartment intact so it wouldn't be completely spartan over the weekend. So upstairs we went. I was working on packing up dishes when she poked her head in and said, "It started to rain." You'd think that this would just be a minor inconvenience, but the problem was that there was so much stuff to be shoehorned in that the stuff we were still packing needed to go in before the stuff that was sitting outside on the sidewalk. Yup. Outside on the sidewalk in the rain.

It wasn't just drizzling either. I had forgotten how the sky can open up in the midwest. You'll be sitting there, minding your own business, finishing out a nice sunny day when mother nature decides to hit you with her super soaker. You know, the one that has a backpack and can shoot 100 feet? It was as if a couple of million of those were pointed straight down at us as I heaved things into the truck and she found spots for them. We had the stuff (that wasn't cast iron) loaded into the truck in under five minutes, but even moving that fast, there wasn't a single fiber of my clothing that wasn't saturated from the rain. I was actually using my hand at one point to squeegee the front of my tee shirt.

After about an hour or so, it was done raining, we finished loading the truck and then retired to an empty apartment and an air mattress.



The next day, we started late. We were supposed to be on the road by 11AM, but instead found ourselves leaving the apartment closer to noon. That morning, when hooking up the Jeep, I had realized that hitch collar on the tow bar lacked the pin that would keep it from popping open, so our first stop was at Home Depot, where I spent 29 cents on a bolt and a pair of nuts. I mention the price only because it kills me that some people won't bother with that pin, and it's the one thing that might make the difference in whether or not you end up needing that safety chain.

Once we were on the road, three things became apparent pretty quickly. At the rate we were going, we were going to hit the beginnings of rush hour traffic in Chicago, there was nothing we could do about that because the truck had a governer that stopped it from going over 70, and the truck was also viciously overweight. I know the truck was overweight not because we stopped in a weigh station, or that I even paid much attention to how heavy the stuff was while we were loading it. I know the truck was overweight because it shouldn't take 70 or 80 pounds of pressure on the brake pedal to get the thing to slow down. I felt like I was driving a freight train, and somebody had greased the tracks (Later that night, after we had disconnected the Jeep and I was driving that around the motel we were staying in, I managed to lock up the brakes and skid all four tires because I was used to driving the truck. I was doing 15 mph.)

To anyone who lives in Chicago, what the hell is up with the 90 degree turns on I-90 near U.S. Cellular Field? (That name just doesn't flow off the tongue, eh?) Anyway, having a couple of heart attacks in Chicago traffic (aforementioned problem with brakes), passing the "Bong Recreation Area" while still in Wisconsin, and marvelling at the miniature New Jersey that is Gary, Indiana were pretty much the only points of interest for the remainder of the day. We had originally been slated to have dinner with some of her relatives in Toledo (they actually live in Michigan somewhere), but we were about four hours late getting there due to the traffic and the late start. Sometime around eleven or eleven thirty we rolled into the parking lot of a Motel 6 in (or near) Sandusky, Ohio. As I remarked to her at the time, it felt like Christmas Eve.


The back story... | Continued...

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