COAL: 1999 UM Maize Blaze • Everybody Makes Mistakes

At one point during the car’s construction, we needed a big roll of gluey carbon fibre fabric in a big hurry. The Project Manager decided we should go fetch the roll we needed from the maker in Oklahoma, rather than having them quick-send it up to us—because reasons. I cannot remember and certainly cannot imagine what these reasons might have been. It couldn’t have been a balk at the expense of fast shipping for a heavy, bulky item; we had accounts with all the major shipping carriers, so we could’ve just whipped out one of the team credit cards and had the carbon fibre at our shop in a day or two, but instead three of us would go fetch it in a 30-hour round-trip drive.

The motor pool issued us an almost new ’98 Plymouth Voyager. I showed up at the shop at 7:20 on Tuesday morning, ready to go; we were meant to leave at 7:30. The first thing the Project Manager said to me when I stepped out of the car: “Daniel! You’re here! Great! What’s a 12 and a 31 mean?”. Eh? He gestured towards the Voyager and said “12 and 31! What’s a 12 and a 31?” Oh, that. I had taught him how to pull the trouble codes on his ’90 Spirit and I guess he’d done it on the van, now, because when he’d started it that morning the Check Engine light came on and wouldn’t go off. I was the closest we had to a resident Chryco tech (and I also hadn’t got enough sleep or had any coffee, back when I was severely addicted to the stuff, so this command performance didn’t improve my mood).

12: Start of codes, disregard. 31: open or short circuit to the canister purge solenoid. I reseated the purge solenoid plug and figured I’d reboot the computer; I disconnected the battery and used the 15 minutes to remove the el-strippo van’s FM-AM radio and replace it with the Infinity CD/Cassette deck from my Spirit R/T. Reconnected the battery: no more CEL, and after some gasping and skipping from the 3.0 as the computer relearned its purpose in life, everything was fine and we had selectable tunes, too. Ducky.

We finally left town at 10:30. Heather and/or Michelle had the idea to stop for lunch in Chicago so we could get actual, real Chicago pizza; resentment at the PM and teammates who’d sent us on this dumb errand made it seem like a good idea despite the urgent time pressure. Our maps and printed directions were equally but differently rotten (remember life before nav?), so we went much farther out of our way than we should have, but we did eventually make it to Uno’s. And then, gorked out of our gourds on gutbomb pizza, we decided it would be prudent not to tempt fate by getting back on the interstate until our food comas would lift. At least that’s how we rationalised heading over to American Science & Surplus . Am Sci & Surp is always worth it; we spent nearly two hours and many dollars there.

All in all we lost many hours eating pizza, buying schwag, and getting stuck in Chicagoland traffic, which ate up the time we ought to have used sleeping at a motel that night. So we drove in shifts all through the night, and finally pulled off the road around 4 in the morning for a failed attempt at some sleep. Couple hours later, back on the road we went, on a diet of C-rations (“C” for Convenience store, “C” for Crap, “C” for listening to every CD for the second or third time).

We made it to Tulsa at around 8:00 on Wednesday, but weren’t due to pick up our roll of thermal-curing carbon fibre until 9:00, so we stopped for breakfast. After a meal somewhat resembling eggs, grits, toast and Minute-Maid, down the road we went to Advanced Composites Group to pick up our very perishable carbon fibre, which they’d triple-packed: “We used regular ice packs instead of dry ice ’cause you’re carrying it in a passenger vehicle and we didn’t think you’d want it to fill up with CO2 while you’re trying to drive, so you’re going to have to scoot because regular ice isn’t as cold and the clock’s tickin’ on this stuff”. Nice of them to consider our oxygen requirements, but the triple-packed box was too big to fit crosswise in the cargo area of the Voyager. We had to remove the middle Easy Out Roller Seat (Stow-n-Go was still in the future) and put it sideways along the left side of the van, facing the box of carbon fibre along the right side.

So: three occupants in a van with two anchored seats with seat belts. The unsafety and illegality didn’t really faze us much, consistent with the nature of being in our early 20s, but while I had some experience driving precariously-loaded vehicles, Michelle did not. Inertia and centripetal force and suchlike really matter in a situation like that, so you have to do things like slow the eff down when going around tight curves and cresting little hillocks and otherwise like that. In the unanchored back seat, without any seat belt, I was mentally listing all the marvelous physics classes Michelle could maybe take if we made it back alive, the odds of which were worsening out loud as our nonexistent-and-trending-negative allotted time to complete the mission meant driving at 85-95 mph wherever it was even a little bit possible. The human brain does not finish wiring itself up until one’s mid-20s, and one of the last things to come online is the kind of long-term thinking that processes risks and consequences. Fortunately we didn’t lose that gamble that time, but.

I was pretty surly by about mid-Wednesday. Good thing Heather and Michelle were able to carry on intelligent and interesting conversation, otherwise I’d’ve gone insane. To make the best of a suboptimal situation I stripped off my shirt and kicked off my shoes, leaned back in the sideways bench seat, donned the big black cowboy hat I seem to have favoured back then to keep the sun out my eyes, and put my feet up on the carbon fibre box. To an outside observer it probably looked like I was naked; I got some surprised looks from inside other vehicles: shock from Gladys Kravitz types, curiosity from kids, smiles and waves from the occasional bearish type, and a full-on Warner Bros cartoon-spec aWHOOga! double-take from a dude on a Harley.

Me outside the Solar Car office, 1998

We stopped in Indiana for gasoline and fireworks (early 20s…), and I drove the final 350-mile leg of the trip. It got dark, and that van’s notoriously useless headlamps sure as hell didn’t help. Driving far beyond bedtime got very uncomfortable—eyes unable to focus, hands unsteady on the wheel. Then it got surreal, and then psychedelic as my mind started playing open-eyed dreams. I saw phantom cars pulling out in front of me, trees became trucks, road signs started saying things other than they said, lane markers became meaningless. I started seeing bridges and other cop hangouts that weren’t there, I lost depth perception, and I got this creepy feeling that the van was stationary while the road was moving underneath. The only thing that kept me behind the wheel was knowing that Heather and Michelle were in worse shape.

We finally pulled in at the shop around 2:00 AM on Thursday. The whole team were there waiting to start laying up the composites upon unloading the carbon fibre. We got no “thanks” from the PM, which prompted me to edit what I wanted to say to him down to “Y’know, if we simply report to the team right now what we’ll be doing tomorrow, we can go sleep instead of having the morning meeting at 7:00″. The PM’s insufferably cheery response was thoughtless and tonedeaf: “Oh-ho! But part of the point of that meeting is to get you awake so you can do what you’re doing!”. He was big on programs with names like “LeaderShape”.

Well, goshdangit, y’know, in my early 20s whenever I was really tired and peeved off, I was sometimes sort of extra likely to accidentally do clumsy things like kick the phone off the hook and turn off my pager and forget to set my alarm clock. So wouldn’t you just know it, I missed the dang ol’ 7:00 meeting, darnit. When I woke at 9:30, it was definitely the morning after the night before; my eyes looked like boiled lobsters and my throat felt like 40-grit.

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