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Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Positive Side

OK, yesterday was a little negative, so I want to write something a little more positive. Not everything is bad here in Iowa.

The shop we're working in is great. The whole National Guard center up here looks brand new - which is unusual because National Guard facilities are often pretty run-down. This one is great. Clean, new, nice. Stuff in the shop works, and the lighting is very good. Apparently we're in a former tank shop, so it's got plenty of room and big air. We can get three 5-ton trucks with trailers in each bay at a time, if we offset them a little from side to side. We have two bays available to us, so that's 6 trucks and 6 trailers we can work on at a time. That's almost unheard of - at least in my experience. By "big air" I mean the air compressors put out huge volumes of air, which is great for running big impact wrenches. Not that we've needed it, but it's impressive.

At Ft. Bragg I had a shop with a lube pit, which would have been really cool. Down in the pit there were separate hoses for grease, motor oil, gear oil, anti-freeze, and transmission fluid. That would have made services very easy, if the system worked. You could top up low fluids or completely replace fluids by just picking the right hose and pressing a trigger. Unfortunately, the system didn't work and hadn't worked as long as anyone there could remember. Here in Iowa at a National Guard unit, they have a similar lube system, and it works. No pit, but that's not really necessary with these trucks - a short mechanic like myself can duck-walk under an FMTV truck. I haven't pulled the hoses out to the trucks yet, but it's so easy to just fill an oil can or other container with what I need and pour it in that I'd rather do that than try to route hoses across the bays. We've had a LOT of trucks coming in low on power steering fluid and coolant. At this shop, we can take care of business very easily. At Ft. Bliss (El Paso), we had to hump a 5-gallon can of oil out to the lot and pour oil with a funnel. So, there's one way that Iowa is better than El Paso.

The soldiers (National Guard full-time technicians) are also great. They've been very helpful, especially with moving trucks to the shop from the holding lot and taking them back to the staging area where they'll be issued to units. In El Paso, we didn't even see soldiers, but that was an active duty post which is a little different. They've loaned us tools and helped in just about any possible way they could and really made us feel at home. One of the NCOs turned me onto a website his son uses to download games when I told him that the game I brought with me won't work on this computer.

So, the eight hours a day I spend working here are very pleasant. Since that's what we're here for, I guess that counts for a lot. Today we also had the bonus of finding a really great place for lunch - Cactus Bob's Bar-b-cue. The brisket sandwich basket was very tasty.

Part of what we do requires driving every single truck for at least 10 miles and making sure everything works properly. That's probably my favorite part of the job. At most Guard units, the road tests involve driving on local roads. It's a nice way to see at least some of the local area. Here we drive out through an area of new subdivisions scattered across farm land which is apparently being sold off gradually to developers. It's a very nice little drive.

I was going to go into some detail about road testing, but I got bored just reading what I wrote. I can't imagine anyone else would want to read it, so I'll just close this one out by saying that it's not all bad here. It's great to have a job that I enjoy.

Monday, March 30, 2009

8 Days in Iowa. 18 to Go.

One week down on this trip and so far it's my least favorite. It's not Iowa. Iowa is fine. The weather reminds me of why I left Indiana when I graduated from college, but I got lucky and Spring is trying to take hold now. And, the area where we're working is very nice; I've hardly seen a single piece of litter anywhere, and everything looks like it was built last summer. But, if you read any of my writings about El Paso, you know I like things a little gritty. And warm. So far, I've found nothing to do - at least not within walking distance. Everybody here speaks English, too. It's just a little too bland here.

Also, I hate this "hotel." It's one of those extended stay apartment-like places which means no lobby, no breakfast in the lobby, no manager's receptions, no pool. Not that I ever use a pool, but I like the idea that there's one available. I do have an ice maker in my room fridge, but in this case that amenity just takes away one of three excuses I have to leave my room (work and coffee are the other two). Speaking of coffee, I just remembered that I once again forgot to get some at the store this afternoon for the second time. I can get coffee from a dispenser downstairs in the canteen (free), but it's not very good. When I got to my room last Tuesday there was one pre-measured coffee pack; apparently that's all I get for the duration of my stay. Today was weekly maid service day and there's no new coffee. Seems a little stingy to me.

I suppose having a kitchenette helps me save some money. I can microwave and eat cereal instead of going out for dinner. I've been to the grocery twice so far. As I said, both times I've forgotten to get coffee. Today, among other things, I picked up a frozen pizza and a small bottle of dish washing soap. Turns out the thing I thought was an oven was a dishwasher. So, I can't cook the pizza. Using Joy soap in the dishwasher might create some excitement, though. I found an even smaller bottle of dish soap under the sink when I was unloading groceries so I really didn't need to buy one.

One of the worst things about my room is that it's on a smoking floor. It's a non-smoking room, as requested (which is one of the only things I've requested through our travel agent that I've actually gotten), but, much like a non-smoking table in a small restaurant, having a non-smoking room on a smoking floor of a hotel is mainly symbolic. I didn't realize there were so many smokers still living. They must be having a convention in Des Moines this month because the hallway reeks of cigarette smoke. A lot of it finds its way under my door. I don't suppose it matters too much because three of the other three guys I ride to work with are smokers, so I'm couped up in a van full of smoke at least four times a day.

Today one of my smoking co-workers went to the store with me. He had to make an extra stop for smokes. He paid $54 for a carton of Marlboro Reds! I almost wish I smoked so I could quit and save thousands of dollars a year. As it is, I'm not sure what I could cut out of our family budget (yet to be finalized) to save money.

So. I'm sitting here outside of Des Moines, Iowa with not a heck of a lot to do and not really enjoying it much which is frustrating. I like to think I can find something to do no matter where I go. It's just not happening for me here. Guess I'll finish up my taxes, work on that budget, sketch some ideas for the house, and read a couple of books. That and a few hundred games of on-line backgammon should occupy most of my downtime here. The work is going well and I still enjoy it, which is probably a lot more than many guys can say about their jobs.

Nonetheless, I suppose I'll use some of my time here to dig into the job market a bit deeper. The latest e-mail from my recruiter wasn't very encouraging; I'm starting to doubt that job will ever come through, so I need to find something else in Huntsville - or just learn to like driving 280 miles a day to and from this job when I'm not on the road. I applied for a trash truck driver job, which may seem an odd choice but is actually sort of a logical choice for me. For starters, riding around the block in the trash truck was one of the highlights of my week as a kid. In 1968-ish, I guess my mom wasn't worried about the trash men abducting me. Also, the trash company didn't have to worry about being sued if I bumped my knee getting out of the truck. People didn't sue over stupid stuff back then. Anyway, riding in a trash truck was probably one of my first exposures to the world of work. Perhaps that experience is what makes me totally shameless about stopping my car to grab stuff out of people's trash now that I'm older. My wife jokes that driving a trash truck would be perfect for me because I'd be getting paid to drive around picking people's trash. Plus, I'd get first dibs on the good junk. Hey, getting paid to drive around for 8 hours with no supervisor looking over my shoulder with the fringe benefit of grabbing up free junk is a pretty attractive deal. Frankly, it's about like being a pilot except possibly smellier.

I'm trying to put a finger on how I feel about Iowa in general and I cannot. It's very nice here. Litter is virtually non-existant. All the cashiers can make intelligent (but brief) conversation and change at the same time. Generally, the people I've encountered are very pleasant and speak standard English. But, at least around Johnston - the western suburb of Des Moines where we're working, there's just not much soul. The whole area is like a brand new subdivision. Some of the houses are incredible. One looks like a colonial governor's mansion, and I'm sure I've seen several that are at least 5000 square feet not counting the three-car garages. But, they're all brand new and built on what was clearly farmland until very recently. There's no sense of history. Of course, I haven't been to downtown Des Moines yet. Maybe Johnston is just an anomaly - a Stepford suburb which just happened to pop up around a National Guard post. I know John Wayne was born near here in the very Madison County which was the setting of a very good book about covered bridges. (OK, I know Bridges of Madison County was not actually about bridges, but presumably the covered bridges which are still there were at least part of the inspiration for the book.) I'll reserve judgment for now. Right now my impression is that this would be a great place to raise kids but not a very interesting place to live.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Scary English

I'm starting a new project on this blog. I'm going to start cutting and pasting some of the more grammatically notable listings I find on Craigs List and eBay.

Here's an actual listing I found yesterday on Craig's List:

96 chevy tahoe

Reply to:
Date: 2009-03-13, 5:28PM

96 chevy tahoe dark blue, 153k miles wrecked on the front right side, wiring needs to be rewired to the tps system, stern collar needs to be replaced single mom cant afford to fix AS IS VORTEC ENGINE, NEW AIR COMPRESSOR, FUEL PUMP, TPS SENSOR, POWER STERN PUMP ALL THESE ITEMS ARE NEW ENGINE USED BUT REPLACED.

  • Location: huntsville alabama
  • it's NOT ok to contact this poster with services or other commercial interests

Original URL:

Any idea what's wrong with this truck?

Based on the assumption that "power stern pump" means "power steering pump," I'm just guessing that a "stern collar" might be a "steering column," although I cannot imagine why a steering column would ever need to be replaced - unless this truck is totaled. Maybe the seller is just referring to the plastic trim? Not everything is spelled the way it sounds, especially when you hear it pronounced with a heavy accent. . .

Again I'm just guessing, but my guess is that this truck has a new A/C compressor on it. I've never seen a passenger vehicle with an "air compressor" on it, but the listing clearly says that this Tahoe has one. This is why lawyers get paid to write contracts.

Next up: How do YOU spell "solenoid?" A collection of bad guesses and worse typing.


Ford: Found on Road Dead.
Ford: Fix or Repair Daily.

Until recently, when it came to domestic vehicles, I always had an unexplained preference for Chevys. It was probably just breeding. My grandfather was a Chevy Man and my dad drove a Chevy to work for years. My parents bought a brand new Volvo 144S in 1971, which nearly caused my grandfather to blow a head gasket. The Volvo was my mom's car. I myself currently own two Chevy's and a Geo. (And a Volvo, but that's our family wagon.) To me, Chevys always looked slightly more masculine than Fords. Dodges never appealed to me, and they seem to actually get uglier every year. Even among GM vehicles, Chevys always came out on top. Pontiac's Trans Ams had a "girly" flair while Chevy's Camaros looked muscular. This year, however, I find myself leaning heavily toward Ford.

My newfound affinity for Ford was foreshadowed by the bankruptcy and closure of Steve and Barry's clothing chain. At their liquidation clearance sale, S&B had some very nice hooded sweatshirts for, like, $2.00. I like to wear hooded sweatshirts to work and so looked through several racks of them to find one my size. Turned out, the only ones left in Medium had the Ford logo on the front. I've long ascribed to the "if the shirt fits, wear it" philosophy, so I bought the Ford sweatshirt. (I learned that from a guy named Greg Meyer, a phenominal guitarist who, nonetheless, sometimes wore a Bay City Rollers T-shirt.)

Phase Two of my Ford transformation was caused by equally random events. For various reasons, I have driven a number of rental vehicles in the past year. Two of these have been Fords. One was the new Ford Fusion sedan, which was a pleasure to drive and very easy on gas. The other was a full-sized Ford F-150 Supercab pick-up truck. The truck, with a V8 engine, actually went more miles on a gallon of fuel than the 4-cylinder Volvo my wife currently drives. It, too, was heaven to drive. Plus, there were drink holders, something the Swedes apparently don't use.

I have actually owned two Ford products which I generally enjoyed. One was a 1990 Aerostar cargo van. The other was a 1984 Crown Vic' station wagon, a full-sized land yacht which rode like an easy-chair on wheels. With a V8 engine. My Aerostar served me very well until I married and had a child. A two-seat cargo van just didn't have a place for a car seat. (Looking back, I'd have kept the van, put my daughter in the front seat, and made my now-ex-wife ride in the back.) Anyway, I sold the van. It had required minimal repairs and had only one really aggravating feature; there was a button under the steering column that you had to push to get the key out of the ignition. A few years later I found the Crown Vic on eBay and bought it as my "dad car." It was old and dirty; someone had used it as a hunting vehicle for a while. But, the cruise control worked and I absolutely loved to hear that 5.0 litre V8 engine purr. I also always appreciated the way Ford put distributors on the FRONT of their engines where you could reach them. That always made sense to me. Most distributors, including Chevys, are on the back of the engine which makes tune-ups much less convenient. The Crown Vic died unexpectedly of electrical problems which I didn't feel like tracking down.

Now the Big Three U.S. automakers are hurting. There's talk that one or more of them might tank. The government is throwing billions at GM and Chrysler to save those companies. Ford, to date, has told the government, "Thanks, but no thanks. We don't need the money to stay in business." That impresses me. I still won't go buy a new car because I don't want a car payment. But, I'll wear my Ford sweatshirt with a feeling that I'm promoting a company that seems to have it together. Good for them.

Ford: Fore-going Obama's Rescue Dollars.

The World-Wide Ponzie Scheme

I don't get why Bernie Madoff has become such a pariah. Yes, I know he ran a huge Ponzie scheme, but what's the difference between a Ponzie scheme and our economy at large?

Basically, for a Ponzie scheme to work, you have to get more and more people to put money into the pot. Economists and capitalists call this "growth." As long as we have growth, money just keeps rolling in and filters its way to the top. There's never a sucker left holding the bag as long as suckers are born every minute.

Consider the housing market. In order to survive, residential builders need to build houses (or apartment buildings) and sell them. What happens when everyone has a house or apartment to live in? People who already live in houses will die eventually and their houses will be available to the next generation. If the population were to stop growing, eventually there would be a house for every single person on Earth and new construction would cease (except to replace houses destroyed by storms, fire, or other calamities). So, isn't the home building industry really just a gigantic Ponzie scheme which depends on an ever-increasing population coming of age and buying a new house?

As Bernie Madoff eventually learned, a pyramid scheme is not sustainable. Eventually you run out of suckers and the last guys in line start asking uncomfortable questions. I would assert that an industry or whole economy which also depends on a continuous supply of new suckers is not sustainable either. The magnitude and span of the current "economic crisis" may just be the natural death of an economy built entirely on a premise as false as Bernie Madoff's investments.

Stay Single. Stay Alive.

In an effort to reduce their suicide rate, so I've heard, the Army is planning to somehow train troops to be more "mentally resilient." The horrors of war, the strain of being away from wives and families, and - to cap it all off - the agony of just being in the Army are too much for many of today's soldiers. So, somehow, the Army plans to "train" soldiers to be mentally tougher.

The Army has recognized, so they say, that mental fitness is just as important as physical fitness. But, the Army's physical fitness program, as applied on a daily basis, is pretty lame. At Ft. Bragg (NC) in the late 90s, PT consisted of running for an hour on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays and doing push-ups and sit-ups for an hour the other two days. According to the Army's own field manuals, flexibility, coordination, and balance are important parts of physical fitness, but those elements were completely ignored in actual day-to-day PT (physical training). I'd expect the Army's mental training (MT?) to be the mental equivalent of running up and down Ardennes Street every day for an hour. Even if the Army could launch an effective program, where would units fit an hour of MT into their training schedules?

Consider, too, the number of people in the military now who were raised to believe that spanking is child abuse, that virtually any misfortune is "unfair," and that every player on even the worst Little League team deserves a trophy. Forget having to try out for a team - everyone plays and everyone is a winner in this generation's mind. With that mindset, virtually any dose of reality could cause one to retreat permanently from the battle field of life. Wouldn't the Army be better off screening and passing on mentally "weak" recruits?

Before they launch an ineffective program to prevent something which will sometimes occur anyway, the Army needs to determine exactly why soldiers kill themselves. I don't believe the horrors of war are driving life-long video-gamers over the edge. Young soldiers probably saw more graphic violence on their computer monitors before they enlisted than they'll ever see in Iraq or Afghanistan. The stress induced by Army life in general has been driving recruits to suicide - or at least alcoholism - for decades. There's something else that is likely causing soldiers to take their own lives and mental toughness training is not likely to overcome it.

Jack and my mother dated in high school and my mother really wanted to marry him. Fortunately for me, Jack recognized that being married was not conducive to surviving in the jungles of Viet Nam during a war. He told my mother that he wouldn't marry her until he returned. To be married or even engaged would distract him and probably get him killed. He survived two tours in 'Nam as a Green Beret with only minor wounds. Smart fellow, Jack.

I tend to believe that worrying about spouses back home, especially unfaithful ones, leads to more soldier suicides than anything else. I don't have any numbers to back that up because I don't have access to the info, but I'm willing to bet that at least half of the suicides we've heard about are related to a soldier's wife packing it in or shacking up with someone who isn't deployed. (I haven't heard of any female soldiers committing suicide. I also haven't heard about any female soldiers coming home from a deployment and killing errant husbands.)

The Army has given impressive lip service to Family Support Groups, but at the end of the day the military is no place to be married or to raise children. If the Army is truly concerned about soldier suicides, they should go back to their old philosophy: If the Army wanted you to have a (spouse), they'd issue you one.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Grammar Nazi Writes

Immigrants, illegal or otherwise, are far from the only people in this country who need to learn English. From what I read in the Comments portions of various on-line articles, about half of us need to learn English. The other half may just need to learn how to type. How hard is it, really, to use the Shift key or type in a period once in a while? But, I digress.

The word "gift" is a NOUN. It is a form of the word "(to) give," which is a VERB. Why use an incorrect form of a word for the word itself? Have you ever "applicationed" for a job?

In many instances, the verb and noun forms of a word are the same. You can, for example, bicycle to work on a bicycle. You can target a terrorist group, thus making that group a target. You can petition Congress to do something by signing a petition. But, you simply cannot gift a gift. Two different words. Two different uses. You don't sound trendy when you talk about "gifting" a pair of Gucci shoes to someone. You sound retarded. Generous, but retarded.

An even more heinous abuse of English is the complete fabrication of words like "conversate" and "orientate." People don't "conversate." That's not even a legitimate form of the word "converse," which is almost always what people mean when they say "conversate." You don't "orientate." You just "orient." Would you "transportate" something on a ship? No. That sounds stupid. The only reason you probably don't think "conversate" and "orientate" sound stupid is because you've heard these made-up abominations so often that they sound normal to you. "Orientate" is so pervasive that it probably appears in the dictionary by now. It should not. It's an unnecessary word used by speakers and writers who got college degrees through the mail.

By the way, just because a word appears in the dictionary doesn't mean you should use it. My dictionary provides a definition for the word "ain't," but I don't say "ain't" in job interviews, and, apart from this sentence, I don't know when I've ever used "ain't" in a written document.

Back to "gifting." The thing you give is the gift - a noun. The act of conveying a thing to someone is to give - a verb. I can give you a scooter for Christmas. A demonstrator can give you a free sample of perfume at a department store. The scooter and perfume become gifts when they are given to you. The fact that one was a corporate come-on rather than a heartfelt display of generosity makes no difference. The scooter and the perfume were both given to you, NOT "gifted" to you. If you re-wrap them and pass them on to a distant relative next Christmas, you may be giving away used stuff but you will NOT be "gifting" or (worse) "re-gifting" your junk to someone else.