When I was a really little kid, Legos were nothing like they are today. Almost all of the pieces in my Lego bin were the same size, the two by four rectangular brick. There were some two by twos, and a few two by ones, but the majority of the pieces were the two by four variety, and only in three colors: red, white and blue.
Don’t get me wrong; we didn’t know any better and as a result we loved to build things with Legos… until.
For Christmas one year (probably 1978 or 1979) I received a Lego “Expert Builder” to build a crane. This set had all kinds of new shapes and pieces including gears, universal joints and pulleys. It was awesome.
As is now the norm with Legos, this was the first time there was a specific thing for me to build, and I went at it with reckless abandon. I think I had the whole thing built before Christmas dinner was served.
Of course once it was complete, you could only play with it for so long before you were overcome with the urge to tear it apart and build something else. However, this is where things got tricky since you only had instructions for the one thing, plus one or two variations.
To make something different,
first you had to conceive it and then build it.
Even with the variety of pieces this new Lego set contained, it was very challenging to build something specific, not knowing if you had everything you needed. But, in the end you just figured it out.
Back in March 2014, in a post called “Whack Whack, Vroom Vroom!” I spoke briefly about my very first car, which was a 1975 Post Office Jeep.
It was 1992 and I was living on east 74th Street in Manhattan. As most New Yorkers will tell you, having a car in the city is a big mistake unless you’re loaded. Loaded I was not.
Having moved to NY in January of that year, I was planning to return home to Rochester for a visit over Memorial Day weekend. Since I worked in Princeton NJ, the plan was to take the train from my office to Newark, and then the transfer bus to the Newark airport where I would rent a car to drive home to Rochester.
A week before my trip, my coworker Mick told me about a guy he knew that was selling a Post Office Jeep for $100. To someone like me this was too good to be true. For my entire youth, we had all heard about surplus Army Jeeps that could be had for $50 or $100, but nobody every managed to get one. I called the guy and the deal was real.
I took the train down to the Jersey Shore, took one look at it and plunked down five twenties. I decided her name was “Sally.” On my drive back to the city, I ran out of gas on the Garden State Parkway. Don’t ask me what exit, I don’t remember, but it was near Edison.
Lesson One – The gas gauge on a 1975 Post Office Jeep is unreliable.
After a brief conversation with a NJ State Policeman, I waited more than an hour for the “licensed contractor” tow truck to arrive. The three gallons of gas and his service charge cost me almost as much as the Jeep.
Four days later I headed north to Rochester. I had my dog Sylvia along with me, and although she loved to go places, she hated Sally. She sat on the floor where a passenger seat would have been and shivered… for 300 miles.
About half a mile from the Clark’s Summit, PA Exit on Interstate 81,
I ran out of gas again.
This time Sylvia and I walked to the exit, purchased a gas can and a gallon of gas. We returned to the Jeep, and completed the 800 yards to the exit. We filled up the tank and the gas can. I took a bungee cord and secured the full gas can to the back right corner of the Jeep. I had no worries about fumes, since the whole car already smelled like gas all the time, and “air tight” is not a phrase I would have ever used to describe Sally. The faster you went, the more “fresh air” you got. I convinced myself that this was a feature.
As I made the final approach to my parent’s home on the cul-de-sac, I saw my Dad out in the driveway bouncing a basketball. My Dad would always shoot baskets when he was waiting for someone to come home, but he didn’t want anyone to think he was waiting.
I pulled into the driveway, and Sylvia leapt out, excited to see familiar, safe territory. My Dad walked over to the sorry looking vehicle and said, “you rented this?” I calmly replied, “no, I bought this.”
My Father’s eyes grew wide and he said, “YOU BOUGHT THIS?”
My Dad has a lot of experience with cars on the sad side of the spectrum, but this was a new family low… and it was all mine.
The next day I dropped Sally off at a local mechanic for an oil change. Because of the holiday weekend they were closing early, so I paid in advance and planned to pick her up after closing. Later that afternoon, I put on my running shoes and covered the three miles back to my car. I hopped in, fired her up and tried to pull out of the parking lot.
The car would only turn right.
No joke, the wheel would only turn to the right, and back to straight, it would not turn left. Since the mechanic was closed and would remain closed until Tuesday morning (when I had to be back at work in NJ) this was now my problem.
I figured out how to cover the three miles back to my parent’s house making only right turns. It was harder than you might think – try it sometime.
When I got home I crawled under Sally to see what the problem was. It turns out that this particular Jeep has such odd dimensions that they didn’t want to put it on their lift. Instead they used a floor jack and accidentally placed it, not under the frame, but under the steering dampener, bending it in such a way that left turns were impossible.
After finding the bent part, I made some calls, found a replacement for $40, and spent my Sunday afternoon cutting rusty bolts and replacing the old with the new. Eventually I got the mechanic to cover the cost of the new part, but as I crawled out from under my “bargain” I was beginning to believe that I had purchased a Jeep for $100… a week.
Lesson Two – if you have a $100 Jeep, don’t bother taking it to a mechanic.
The braking system developed a slow leak, and the only access to the master cylinder fill cap was right next to a hot exhaust pipe. After burning myself twice adding brake fluid, I installed a little valve, a tube and connected it to an athletic water bottle full of brake fluid. When the brakes started to get soft, I simply pulled over, opened the valve, squeezed bottle, closed the valve and moved on.
Lesson Three – exhaust pipes are really hot.
One day I came out and found one of the small triangular windows broken – I fixed it with plywood.
As I described in the earlier post, the starter died one Sunday afternoon on Long Beach Island. One wrench, two bolts, $65, and 45 minutes later, I had a new starter installed and we were on the road again.
Lessons Four & Five – you can pretty much fix anything with anything, and Angus MacGyver was not a fictional character.
By October of the same year, I had socked away some cash and decided I needed a new, more reliable car before the winter. I ordered a green 1993 Saturn SL1 from the factory.
The dealer would not take the Jeep in trade. I tried to sell Sally to a junkyard where I had purchased $300 worth of parts off another Post Office Jeep they had there, but they insisted I pay them $200 to take it… no deal.
So I donated it to one of those charities that takes junk cars. When the guy in the flatbed came to get Sally, he took out his clipboard and his valuation book. Since there was no Post Office Jeep in his book, he gave me full value for a 1975 Jeep CJ7 – $2,550.
At the time I did not own a home so, I did not itemize deductions on my taxes, but I kept the receipt. Four years later when I purchased my first house, I dug out that receipt while doing my taxes. It turns out, you have up to five years to claim such a donation, so when I applied the $2,550 receipt to my taxes, it resulted in $850 in tax savings.
In the end I think Sally was a wash.
Every time I found myself scratching my head over a problem with the Jeep, I had the very same feeling I used to have when trying to figure out a Lego problem. Of course in the Lego world, I could just walk away if I couldn’t figure it out, but I never did.
Have you ever found yourself asking your children “don’t you have enough Legos?” Well, the answer to that questions will forever be, “Dad, there’s no such thing as enough Legos.”
Lesson six – The world is complex and most problems do not come with instructions. This, is why Legos matter.
Copyright © 2016 – Stephen S. Nazarian – All rights reserved.
(This post was originally published in August 2014)