Driving. And Being (something that you’re not)

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University is expensive.

It wasn’t always as outrageous (tuition fees, for example, have gone up by about a factor of eight since my first year) as it is today, of course, but it’s never been cheap.

Because of this, an omnipresent part of most student’s lives was always the nagging worry of where the money for the next year was going to come from. Which meant a lot of things, but one of them was the dreaded Summer Job. Which is why, the year after the events described in Courting, I found myself on the way to Manitoba.

I could have taken the train or flown or something but I love the drive through the near north — the north shore of Lake Superior is some of the most stunningly beautiful country you’ll ever see.  And besides, when you drive you can take pretty much everything; no need to worry about efficient packing.

There were some downsides, of course. My car at the time — my First Car — was a 1971 Oldsmobile Delta which boasted rust, a lot of amateur bodywork, a somewhat tenuous exhaust system, a failing radiator and — most important for a solo trip though sparsely-inhabited country — an AM radio with extremely limited reception range.

That was an odd car to drive as a young man with longer-than-the-norm hair: for some reason it was a magnet for every police cruiser within miles. Practically once a month I would wind up in an…altercation by the side of the road. On the Manitoba road trip I had one encounter with an extremely persistent OPP constable who was convinced that I had open liquor in the car.

Odd. Problems went away when I replaced the car, though.

I camped. It was April. This meant it was cheap — most places weren’t actually open yet but had signs to the effect “if you’re stupid enough to stay here and freeze your ass off, feel free” — but damned cold. And on the north shore, most every little town had a CBC radio station with a broadcast range of about ten miles so I never felt particularly isolated. (Never felt like I had driving music either — the CBC is not known for such things.) I kept the speed down (the 455 Rocket was many things, but ‘economical’ wasn’t one of them. And I had a hole in the gas tank so I couldn’t fill it anyway) and enjoyed the country.


Until I was approaching Thunder Bay and there was this weird vibration. An intense weird vibration. A very intense weird vibration. I started to slow down and the vibration got worse, then stopped entirely with a very loud CLANG and a loud scraping sound.

Then nothing. Silence.

I stopped. I pulled over. I got out of the car and looked at it from all angles — it looked fine. Under the hood? Looked fine. Under the car? Looked fine, but somehow…. funny. I walked around the car again and happened to look back up the highway.

There was something on the road. I started walking. As I got closer to whatever-it-was it started to dawn on me. It was the drive shaft. The rear end of the drive shaft is (or was, I suppose) bolted to the differential with (if I recall correctly) four large bolts. At the front it fits into a socket. Clearly one of the bolts had failed. The resulting weight imbalance caused the vibration which in turn caused the other three bolts to fail which caused the drive shaft to fall out. Which sort of explained my predicament.

I examined the drive shaft — to my inexpert eye it looked undamaged. Most importantly, the universal joints looked fine. Which meant that it might be a simple repair except for the fact that I was on the Trans-Canada not quite in the middle of nowhere but close to it. So I picked up my drive shaft, put it in the back seat, and started to hitchhike. Forward — I was pretty sure I hadn’t passed a mechanic in the last hour and besides, the Big City (well, Thunder Bay) was ahead.

In about 25 miles there was a place with a service bay and a tow truck. My ride (who found my predicament entertaining) let me off and the mechanic and I headed east with the tow truck. We towed the car in, he put it on the hoist and examined everything. “Looks like you were lucky, young fella; nothing seems to be damaged.” He rooted around in his pail of parts and found four matching bolts of the appropriate size and within 15 minutes things were back together and I was back on the road.

Total cost — I obviously don’t remember the exact number but it was about $29 (about a buck a mile for the tow and about a buck each for the bolts). (Which is completely coincidentally the name of one of my favorite Tom Waits songs.)

I kept that car for another four and a half years. The drive shaft was good until the day I drove it to the wrecker. Can’t say the same for the differential — it blew out the next year when I bottomed out on a cottage road. But that’s another story.

That was the end of day two on the road. Day three took me through the bustling metropolis of Whitemouth (I skipped St. Pierre — the frog follies weren’t on) and finally to my destination, Pinawa and the the grandly named “staff hotel” Kelsey House. (There aren’t many pictures on the web as far as I can tell but there’s one here.) where I settled into a double room in the basement. (Cooler, fewer people and, as it turns out, I had the double room to myself for the entire summer.)

The first day at the plant it started getting a little surreal.

So I’m sitting in HR after being ‘processed’. I’m the only person in the waiting room and my supervisor has been Summoned. He arrives, goes
to the counter, and they point to the waiting room. He scans the waiting room (just me, remember) and turns back to the counter, obviously puzzled. They point again. Eventually he comes over and fetches me, but the whole thing struck me as a little odd.

I’m taken to my office which is shared with an engineer. A Chinese-Canadian engineer. “Here’s your office mate.” He looked at me, through me, past me and looked confused.

Scenes like this happened throughout the first day. Very odd. I eventually asked my office mate about it and he explained that my position had been intended as a sort of affirmative action (wrong name, but what the heck) hiring. He even had the document with the names of folks to be offered the job — every name was recognizably asian. Mine? Well, my surname is very short with a vowel in the middle.  Someone probably just Assumed.

I had a decent summer, wrote a paper and learned a modest amount about creep and the anisotropic behavior of zirconium.

The following summer I was hired into the metallurgy group at one of their other research labs. At the time I was about to start grad work in relativity and every so often someone would ask me “well, why are you here?” And the answer was, “because a year ago, someone in HR thought I was chinese.”

The Author

Rose Glace is the pseudonym of nobody important.


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