Thursday, October 25, 2012

Ragweed Rock: Requiem for a Truck Tire

BOOM! whacka-whacka-whacka  (I wanna take you highhh-er♪♪)

WHAT the…?? 

Bollocks, a blown tire!

My turnpike trance was gone in a flash. Both hands gripped the steering wheel.  I took my  foot off the gas pedal and let the Ford U-Haul truck coast gradually to near-standstill, then nudged it off the highway.

During catastrophic tire failure like this, especially at high speed, you have to resist the temptation to hit the brakes.  That could throw you out of control and even flip your vehicle. Instead, you just coast, steering cautiously to compensate for yaw.

For the past year and a half, Leah and I have been moving – one U-Haul load at a time – from west Texas to southern California. The trip follows Interstate 10 all the way to the California route 210 exit at Redlands. Typically, after the first day’s drive we overnight in Phoenix, then arrive at our destination late the following afternoon. It’s a journey of about nine hundred miles.

Interstate 10 runs from Jacksonville, Florida, to Santa Monica, California. The other major coast-to-coast freeway, Interstate 80, stretches from New Jersey to San Francisco.

Before the interstate system came along, most coast-to-coast road trips, including the six I made during college in the 1960s, followed legendary two-lane Route 66. Departing Virginia, I’d pick up the 66 in St. Louis and take it as far as Los Angeles, traveling through the Painted Desert, the Petrified Forrest, by Meteor Crater in Arizona, and finally across the Mojave Desert into California.

After awhile, I began to notice construction of Interstate 40, the four-lane freeway that eventually replaced the 66.

Route 66 has a storied history. Established in 1926, the road was a major thoroughfare westward during the Dust Bowl years of the 1930s. In The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck describes it as "the mother road.”  In 1940, McDonald’s opened its first hamburger shop on a stretch of the 66 in San Bernardino, California. The U-Drop Inn is a famous art deco-styled motel, recently restored, on what used to be part of 66 in Shamrock, Texas.

The roadside attraction I recall best, though, is the Whiting Bros. chain of gasoline stations.  About forty of these stations, some with restaurants and motels, were scattered along the 66 as far west as Barstow, California. Whenever the next one would be a ways off,  you’d see a sign reading something like “Fifty miles to the next Whiting Bros.”  This was important because back then there was nothing else out there. Even so, my red 1967 Volkswagen beetle, which got about thirty miles to the gallon and had a reserve fuel supply, allowed me to push the limits a bit.

The VW also had an air-cooled engine that did well in the heat. Crossing the Mojave, you’d see car radiators, lots of them, in the shade of a prickly pear, spluttering like a riled-up tea kettle.

But the Volkswagen was no Chevy corvette. It’s measly 53-horsepower produced a top speed of about 80 miles per hour, which could make passing an eighteen-wheeler a bit dicey. Where Route 66 crossed the Mojave west of Needles, California, the road was virtually a straightaway, and trucks would pick up speed there to make up for lost time. In order get around a big rig, I’d have to push the pedal to the metal and eke my way past, sometimes running abreast of the truck for a mile or more, trusting to fate that the oncoming traffic was only a mirage.

Upon completion of the interstate system in 1985, Route 66 was officially decommissioned. As work had progressed on I-40, bypassed sections of 66  were demoted to state or local use or fell into desuetude. Here and there, you can still see abandoned stretches of the old road, overgrown with weeds and littered with relics – rusted vehicles, placards for products no longer made, derelict remnants of  the Whiting Bros. gasoline empire.

Derelict Whiting Bros. gasoline station, Route 66
Defunct though it be, Route 66 remains enshrined in popular culture. Remember Nat King Cole’s “Get Your Kicks on Route 66?” On the site of the original McDonald’s in San Bernardino now stands a Route 66 museum. The TV series, Route 66, with Martin Milner and George Maharis made an icon of the Chevy Corvette. The U-Drop Inn figured in the popular 2006 Disney-Pixar film, Cars.  Sky Harbor International Airport in Phoenix is presently home to one of several Route 66 Roadhouse restaurants (aside from the name, they appear to have little in common) scattered around the Midwest and Southwest. The list goes on and on.
Route 66 Roadhouse restaurant, Sky Harbor 
International Airport, Phoenix

On the morning of our big blowout near Buckeye, Arizona, just west of Phoenix, traffic along the I-10 was moderate. Random passenger cars weaved amongst loose clusters of slower moving eighteen-wheelers, the familiar warp and weft of interstate travel. The outside temperature was about 84 degrees Fahrenheit, cool by Arizona standards.

The situation for a blowout might have been worse.

After the bone-jolting whacka-whacka-whacka died away and the U-Haul came to a stop, I squeezed  through the driver’s door and carefully picked my way aft between vehicle and roadway as though negotiating a narrow ledge. The traffic noise was deafening, and sudden bursts of air from vehicles speeding past hindered progress.

Except for some dry rot of the sidewalls, all four rear tires appeared to be OK.  Returning with less effort along the passenger’s side, I checked the U-Haul’s other end.

Blown out Goodrich truck tire resembling Dante’s 10th circle.    
The right front tire had virtually exploded, causing tread separation and noticeable damage to the wheel well and fender. The tire itself had been reduced to a vision of hell. Sprouting from what had been the tread was a shock of belting wire that looked like tangled tares of carbide tungsten, demonic ragweed or dogbane flourishing on basalt – Satan’s own cereal crop. It reminded me a bit of the Shatani (shaytan means devil in Arabic) lava flow in Kenya’s Tsavo West that we’d crossed one day in a Land Rover, escorted by guards armed to the teeth against Tanzanian renegades.

Lava flow or no, itinerancy can make you feel vulnerable, especially if you’re toting a strong box.  So for this trip I‘d decided to bring a Colt .45 ACP semi-automatic Combat Commander (shorter barrel than the Model 1911 government version).

“A good thing, too,” I muttered to myself ruefully, feeling more than a little agitated and nervously fingering the .45’s thumb safety inside my green canvas and leather Orvis shoulder bag.  Leah had packed up all her jewelry for this run, not to mention the dining room silver, and now here we were stranded, a couple of Berbers alone on the Silk Road with a lame camel and no caravansary.

For a handgun, you see, is not just a weapon, its a talisman. Its apotropaic magic forefends every mischief, mere ownership averts all peril. Its good luck nonpareil and a safeguard to liberty.

That’s why guns are so popular and for sale at Wal-Mart.

But it seems they’re no good for tires.

In the event, nothing much happened on I-10 that morning. In addition to no hockey-masked heistmeisters swooping down in souped-up dune buggies,  other things conspired to make the whole business seem trivial.

First, U-Haul International, Inc. happens to be headquartered in Phoenix, so rescue by the mother ship was less than an hour away. Next, U-Haul trucks have an emergency "1-800" number emblazoned on the passenger’s-side visor that you can’t miss no matter how flustered you get, and it connects you to a helpful emergency centre.

Lastly, besides the Colt .45, I’d brought  aboard a 3G-caliber iPhone 4S with an app for Google Maps, so alerting U-Haul’s roadside response team (one guy) to our location was simple.

These days help on the highway is just a cell tower away – and I had five bars. Itinerancy no longer exits. Wherever you may be, you’re always “@” your cell phone. Its almost like staying at home.

The repair technician showed up apace, changed out the demolished front tire, and pronounced us good to go. We arrived on the west coast tired, a few hours late, and shaken but not stirred.

After all, it was only a blowout – even if for a second it did take us higher.

I'm indebted to Wikipedia for background material

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Dystopia Redeemed: Life at the Sharp End

In front of the Prague shop where he sold men's and women's fancy goods and accessories, Hermann Kafka, the father of Franz, hung a sign with a jackdaw painted next to his name – “kavka” means jackdaw in Czech. Hermann was a vociferous, selfish, overbearing, self-satisfied sort, and the jackdaw in folklore connotes thievery and vanity.  So wordplay aside, the implied comparison suggests either uncommon self-awareness or beguiling cluelessness. Franz apparently considered it to be the former.

The kavka, or jackdaw, is a member of 
the crow family   
Franz Kafka respected, perhaps even feared, his father yet couldn’t have been more different from him.  He had none of Hermann’s authoritarian and demanding character. His obvious intelligence and dry sense of humor went with boyish good looks and a cool, quiet, if somewhat austere demeanor. Max Brod, Kafka’s lifelong friend and curator, regarded Franz as one of the most entertaining people he’d ever met, someone who liked to laugh and make others laugh.

The writings of Kafka, deceptively subtle, allow for diverse interpretation. His themes of hopelessness and absurdity, for example, are emblematic of existentialism. Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre are among the authors influenced by him.

Yet Kafka’s writing is also relentlessly funny, even joyful – the futility of his characters' “Kafkaesque” struggles bespeaking a surreal sense of  humor. Indeed, Kafka himself used to read drafts of his prose to friends, typically concentrating on the amusing parts which can creep up on you like an ambush.

Much of Kafka's work (e.g., The Castle and The Trial) famously focuses on the struggle of  the individual with bureaucracy. This, along with Kafkaesque comedy, is what came to mind a few weeks ago in the aftermath of a minor incident that occurred in a hospital operating room.

During a surgical procedure, I was accidently stuck by a sharp instrument. Before it got to my finger, the tine of the instrument had to penetrate a double layer of latex rubber, so the latex had probably squeegeed off most of the bad stuff. Still, there’s a protocol for dealing with such mishaps – it starts with discarding the contaminated instrument and changing your gloves – and I followed it.

The first phase of the “needle stick” protocol went pretty smoothly.  After completing the operation, I reported to the hospital emergency department to have a blood sample taken for HIV and hepatitis, viral infections that could result from my type of injury. You need to establish a baseline for the presence or absence of these pathogens even if you have no personal history of infection with them.

There were, of course, lots of forms to fill out – sundry waivers, affidavits, an account of the incident.

Then I was fitted with one of those hospital identification bracelets. I’d always thought of these as being meant to ward off misidentification of in-patients, not out-,  but it was comforting to know I wouldn’t be confused with the guy next door in delirium tremens. What’s more, the ID bracelet gives you a certain sense of belonging, like a gangbanger’s distinctive tattoo or maybe a prisoner’s handcuffs.

A lab tech appeared and took a blood sample. Next came about thirty seconds of bonhomie from an emergency medicine doctor who told me to follow up with Occupational Health for repeat viral titers (more blood samples).

About this time I noticed a large lavender bruise spreading around the site of the blood draw – a consequence of those daily blood thinner cardiac aspirins I take, you see – so I went to some pains to apply more pressure. But to little avail – the bruise got bigger anyway. One of these days, I suppose, I could darken to purple entirely like a vintage Médoc merlot, but hopefully I won’t get a heart attack.

A few weeks later I received a notice to report to Occupational Health. My baseline blood tests had been negative, but I still needed follow-up titers to see if anything would change.  

The hospital in the meantime had expedited an invoice payable for twelve hundred dollars. This caused me sustained apoplexy for awhile until Roxie, my secretary, finally took matters in hand.

“I’ll deal with this,” she’d vowed, through clinched teeth, her eyes narrowing.

And then the bill simply vanished. Did Roxie consign it to sea transit in perpetuity, say, aboard the Flying Dutchman? Its amazing what people can do!

The office of Occupational Health is located on the second floor of a grey annex that could have been constructed of oversized Legos®. The office itself has a glass façade and swinging glass door fronting a hallway just down from the elevators. Straight ahead as you enter, on the opposite side of the waiting room, is a glass partition and a second glass door leading into the patient treatment area. Off to the right is the receptionist’s window where a comely young woman in pink lipstick and smart healthcare livery operates a computer.

I’d visited Occupational Health many times (they do the employees’ obligatory annual TB skin tests) and knew their simple intake routine by rote. You come in, register with the receptionist,  and take a seat in the waiting room. Nothing – nothing – ever happens until, like Beetlejuice, you’ve signed in and been seated.

On this occasion, though, as I was walking toward the receptionist window, a voice chimed out from the door of the treatment area.

“Sir, sir…can I help you?”

“I’m here for a needle stick follow-up,” I replied in surprise,  briefly halting in my tracks.

“Well, first you have to sign in with the receptionist,” said the voice authoritatively.

“Oookay, thanks,” I muttered, already in mid-stride again and a little puzzled at this seeming gratuitousness. At least I wasn’t being ignored.

The receptionist took my information, tapped away at her keyboard for awhile, then handed me a business card from a small cache beside her computer.

“You’ll have to contact this person – Ms. Nina Nullacre, Coordinator, Quality Improvement, Occupational Health,” she advised. “Her number is on the card.”

“Well, thanks,” I replied, and made my way out of the office.

Ms. Nullacre’s business card listed a phone number – let’s call it 915-634-0081 – and an email address. I punched up the number – correctly, too, according to my cell phone’s outgoing calls log – and waited.

“Internal Medicine,” answered a live female voice.

“Oh,” I said, “I’m trying to reach Ms. Nina Nullacre in Occupational Health.”

“You’ll have to dial 915-634-0081 for that,” the voice replied smoothly.

“But I’m speaking to you right now because I just dialed that number,” I insisted.

“Let me try some extensions,” she offered.

The extension search yielded several voicemail greetings, none of them Ms. Nullacre’s.

“Thanks very much,” I said at last. “I have an email address for Ms. Nullacre, so I think I’ll try that.”

Ms. Nullacre answered my email almost at once and instructed me to go to the office of Occupational Health located on the second floor of the grey Lego® building.

I briefly recounted my story for her, then inquired “What do you believe would happen if I returned to Occupational Health right now? When I went there before, they dispatched me in search of you.”

“Call Ms. Josephine Schlitz at this number,” Ms. Nullacre emailed back.

So I called Ms. Schlitz and trusting to fate, trudged off once again to Occupational Health.

Sure enough Ms. Schlitz was on hand to meet me!  She ushered me into a treatment room, handed me several new forms to complete, and then graciously shot me full of DPT and hepatitis B booster vaccines.
As the flagpole-sized vaccination needle bored into the belly of my left deltoid muscle, who should appear but the receptionist with pink lipstick.

“I’m so sorry, doctor,” she said painfully, her face in a grimace.

“I know you’re here just to watch me suffer,” I joked, grimacing back at her.

“No, no!” she cried, her pink lips dancing pale ultraviolet in the glare of the fluorescent overheads. Or so it seemed through the pain – those damned DPT shots hurt!

“Kafka was right,” I thought. “We’re all soddin’ guilty, even the most blameless of us.”

“For irrealisms like these,
With the flow must thou roll,                             
Be it down coil-ed plain,
or up plane-ed col.”

This might’ve been an hallucinatory effect of the anesthetic – if I’d had one.

I left the second time laden with documents for my next visit at the end of October. I never saw Ms. Nullacre.

Is there a moral to this story? Maybe so. America right now is the only First World country on the planet without a national health care system. But there's one in the making, and to get a jump on it you might want to read Kafka.

I’m indebted to Wikipedia for background material.  Names have been changed to protect the innocent, especially the guilty ones.