Cars, Science

Woolly Bears Unleashed

This past weekend we enjoyed what can only be described as a summer extension. Sitting by the sunny warm shores of Lake Michigan, we were delighted to find a fuzzy little friend, the Woollybear caterpillar.

As I have been deeply involved in authoring another book, a time-consuming project, I am shamelessly reprinting a story first published by the Toronto Globe and Mail, September 21, 1985.

“As we approach the end of another summer, we can look forward once again to sanity on the roads– but not quite yet.

“Any day now, drivers will be rattled by the wanton and reckless onslaught of woolly bears, those brown furry caterpillars that churn across the roadway like runaway locomotives.

“At one time I cultivated the notion that these creatures were compelled by nature’s dictates to make the near-suicidal break for the other side of the highway — in search of food, a mate or something mystically greener according to their multimodal instincts.

“This is not so. In fact, the woolly bears do it for a lark. They hear the oncoming cars and then dash for the pavement like surfers in search of the perfect wave. As the car whooshes over them, they are scooped up in a pocket of turbulence and tossed head over tail before they tumble harmlessly to the road like an old sock. Then they unfold themselves, and with antennae twitching and fur bristling, await the next car.

~ Phil Brown, Brampton, Ont.”

Thanks for reading and sharing! These little fellows are mythically said to foretell the winter coming soon. Mean time, they traverse the road for recreation. Drive carefully!

Cars, childhood, Culture, Government, Legal

The Nose Count

“Opinions are like noses: everybody’s got one,” which is what one of my best bosses ever advised me. And so it is, the 2nd Appellate justices reviewed the Libertyville appeal, buttressed by eloquent oral arguments, and came to the opinion: “No dice.”

Our appeal to reverse the Lower Court Judge Michael Fusz’ ruling was refused. The ruling stands. The Archdiocese of Chicago may now expect the Village to re-zone the 40-acre lot on Butterfield for residential building, and along with that, allow the final plats to be submitted and approved for building the 148-units which were proposed in 2017.

This of course is subject to the Village Board’s acceptance of the decision, which will be deliberated in the next few weeks.

There is no upside to predicting future events. However, if there is an upside of any sort, it is that the proposed development still has to respect and comply to the fifty-plus requirements which the Village planning department had stipulated two years ago. And that is assuming that there is a developer who still is eager to pursue the enterprise.

Putting it all aside, we hang on to the original objections to the development as values and concerns the neighborhood held about this development. We hope that the Village departments will remember these too.

Chief among our concerns today is the forecasted population of 150 children who will live and play a stone’s throw distant from Butterfield School, and its magnificent and inviting playing fields. They are there within sight, viewed from the opposite side of a 4-lane Butterfield highway.

Hindsight is perfect vision. While the Village focused on the difficulties in local motorists making left turns out onto Butterfield, little light was shed on the dangers of pedestrian traffic– young kids, minors, venturing across the highway over which 24,000 cars speed through at 47 mph. every day.  The lower court judge never heard that insight, and the opportunity to remind him now is moot.

However, the developer will still have that, among many other hurdles to pass before the shovels go into operation.  We will wait to see what the Board chooses to do next, and how the parties involved will respond.

Thanks for reading and sharing, loyal Butterfield Friend and Neighbor.  We will see how it all works out!

Cars, childhood, Culture, Thank You

Gus’s Coffee Shop

Mobs of students crossed Hwy #3 every day to Gus’s.

Gus Vander Elst was a genius. He was a father, uncle, pump jockey, counter clerk, cop, teacher and short order cook. But most of all, he was a genius who bought the Cities Service gas station directly across from Delhi District Secondary School.

Can one grow wealthy selling burgers and 10-cent coffee?  Yes.

My first memorable experience with a diner hamburger was Gus’s, and like 800 other high schoolers, I reveled in the unshakeable aromas of grilled hamburgers served up under chopped raw onions, and spiced with the intoxicating clouds of cigarette smoke that floated across the tables of this busy, bustling hangout.

Gus’s was our off-property school cafeteria. Like the M*A*S*H Rosie’s Bar, Gus’s attracted a majority of kids, just for its noise, warmth, foggy windows, forbidden foods, back room and unstoppable traffic.  The coffee shop was a magnet, a cash cow, and Gus was king.

So it was that every lunch hour we exited the school driveway to the eastern curb of highway #3 and strode across to the center line in crowds, intimidating the stream of drivers going to and from town. With a break in the oncoming, our hungry mob would cross over the second lane to the white, two-story concrete block building, occasionally pounding on the bell wire by the pumps, and enter ground zero, our family teen haunt.

Lunch counter, or teen haunt, prepared for the daily rush at noon time.

Inside Gus’s was a lunch counter with six red, swivel stools. Diners could face the cook’s window, or turn to the two large picture windows that looked out onto the gas pumps. But more likely they faced two banquettes separated by a Wurlitzer juke box. The banquettes were perennial turf of the seniors–that’s high school seniors– and pretty much filled with bubbling squads of girls who laughed, screamed, rolled their eyes, primped, gushed and stared dismissively at the guys shuffling in front of them, the guys who studiously ignored their looks as if the table was circled by bags of oats.

At the south side of the small diner were two more tables where a junior or soph may get lucky to be invited to sit, but space was limited, so most visitors took their lunch standing up, the whole time, bumping shoulders and elbows while they downed their burger.

Gus managed the crowd like the Music Man. He was loud, smiling and all business, hustling orders to the cook’s window, spinning burgers onto buns, and dressing the patties as they appeared, “what’ll you have, mustard, relish? Onions with that? Cheese?” He bantered with his young eaters flipping on the extras.  He knew everyone’s name.  When an order was built he’d smack a bun top onto the mountain of condiments with a cupped hand like he was slapping down a set of dice on a sponge. We took our food happily, while his wife Jeanie took our coins in payment.

Wurlitzer: the heart beat of Gus’s Coffee Shop

The jukebox was a powerhouse.   It was always in motion, pounding a super bass speaker that shook around our ankles.  Sounds of Freddy Cannon, Little Eva, Gene Chandler, Chubby Checker, and Dion moved pairs of girls to dance in the crowd.  The guys would swagger and slouch as Dion would tell his story of The Wanderer.

The back room was where Gus stored the empty pop cases: stacks of large worn wooden crates that nested four 6-packs of empty Coke, Canada Dry and Wishing Well bottles.  These were lined along the walls, and leaning up against them was a cadre of guys, staring at each other through the haze, smoking, and telling impossible, implausible, and richly impressive stories about girls, cars and teachers.

Out front were the cars.  Old Fords and Chevys mostly, but always with doors and windows open for more conversation and music.  These were driven by seniors, all in grade 13, ready and restless to escape, off to university, off to work, back to the farm, off to the lake.  One drove a beautiful plum-coloured Volkswagen, and with help from four of his buddies, would rev up the engine, spinning the wheels while they lifted the rear of the Beetle a foot off the ground.  As the engine whined its loudest, they would let go of the bumper, and the car came down on those tires that screamed as he scooted across the pavement.

When Gus couldn’t reach the pumps in time, the guys would get their own gas.

Jeanie and Gus fed us from 1951-1969.

Gus looked after his customers like a parent.  On a wintry January day, a silly joke nearly turned violent until Gus walked out to settle the score.  It was cold, and the frozen, Brylcremed hair of a young student looked like it might repel water.  Experimenting with a bottle of Coke, a second student poured a couple drops on his head, and indeed, the Coke did bead up and roll off.  Moments later, a third student decided to pour a whole bottle of Coke down the neck of the second in retaliation.  That was enough to enrage student #2 who then smashed his bottle against #3’s bottle.  The tense exchange was viewed through those picture windows as the two kids faced each other with broken Coke bottles raised towards each other.   Gus suddenly appeared between the two, and with a few words took their weapons and shut them down.  I was thankful he showed up when he did.

Everyone who went to DDSS has a story about Gus, and the student body loved him and Jeanie for the place they took in our youth: steady, reliable, hard-working, dependable and non-judgmental, they were the older couple who parented us for an hour every day as we journeyed through our high school career.  He watched over us for nearly 20 years.

The last time I saw Gus, he was a much older man.  He lived in the Delrose Retirement home at the south end of town.  Always the spark plug in a crowd, Gus led a daily exercise and work out routine for the residents who lived with him there.  They loved him too.  He was wealthy in the best way.

Thanks for reading and sharing!   You can add your Gus memories below, too!

Cars, Culture

Gone But Never Forgotten, Ever

Blue opened the door to travel across Norfolk county, and across Ontario.

The Volkswagen folks announced the last run of the Beetle is rolling off the line, to be placed in museums around the world. Can it be? Viewed as the ‘peoples car’ of the 30s, it was re-instated after the war, in Germany, under the Marshall Plan. By the 60s, there were over 300,000 in the U.S. and Canada.

Ours was Blue.

Blue was a 1964 Volks which was our first car. A hand-me-down from the family garage, Blue transported us from school to summer jobs, from carefree excursions across Ontario on brilliant summer afternoons, to riveting, ice-rutted winter traverses along highway 401 through the snowbelt to Delhi. It trundled over two-wheel dirt paths along the tobacco fields, and parked in the breezes of Lake Erie at Long Point.  Blue was our getaway car when we waved goodbye to all the good folks on our wedding day. He delivered me to a thousand businesses in my first job, a reporter at Dun & Bradstreet.

A labor of love, I scrubbed and polished, even in the rain.

The first car for everyone is really the first adult responsibility that involves the threatening combination of technology, heavy machinery, rules of the road, and expense. Blue was my teacher, a frustrating, whimsical, joyous, moody partner in this journey into adulthood.

Thanks to the creative genius of the New York ad agency Doyle, Dane Bernbach, I was smitten with the Volkswagen ethic.  Homeliness, parsimony, modesty and minimalist statements conceal the rugged individualism of a Volkswagen owner.  “Four on the floor, dual exhaust, slowest fastback in America” was one headline that has stuck with me ever since I saw that first ad in a New Yorker magazine back in the 60s.  Branding at its finest.

I thought they could float, thanks to DD&B’s ads.

Another ad pictured the VW floating in a swimming pool, demonstrating its air tight body.  I took this message quite literally.  True, when you slammed the door shut with the windows closed, your ears popped.

What I did not know was that the exterior was not immune to water. Once, facing a flooded intersection in Kitchener, I chose to drive through the knee deep waters under the illusion that the car would be dry.  As I drove in, the car slowed, and gearing down with the stick, I stalled the car.  No water entered.  However, the engine was deep in a muddy wash, and cracked the cylinder heads.  Ouch.

Blue had an occasional leak.  Not oil, but water.  Every time we drove in the rain, water shot up through the pedals.  When we braked to a stop, a small wave would rush forward soaking our heels.  I solved that problem by punching a couple holes in the floor to let the water drain out.

Traveling companion and occasional VW pusher.

Blue was the training tool for automotive repair 101. Way back then, there was the universal belief that one could fix their automobile just as easily, and more economically, than the local mechanic.  To that end, I stripped off its rusty running boards–a vestige from the 30s–and repainted its doors and hood with Canadian Tire spray cans.  Back then paint colors were limited and easily matched.  Don’t try it today.

Canadian Tire aided my descent into the mysteries of automotive technology, selling a book entitled: ‘Fix Your Volkswagen’.  For $4.95, I had a manual to delve into the intricacies of oil changes, plug changes, setting points and timing.

Minimalist, modest and self-effacing DD&B ads built a solid brand.

I did all of these mechanic specialties, once. I changed the oil, emptying Blue’s lifeblood into a bed pan.  But what to do with the oil?  I put in new spark plugs, once.  The plugs at the back of the rear-mounted engine are almost impossible to reach.  Once I installed new ignition points in the distributor.  Following instructions, I set the fan belt wheel to 7 degrees off ‘top dead center’.  Little did I know I had re-installed the distributor cap wrong, and the pistons fired out of sequence.  That little escapade took about 3 hours to correct under dim light in our parking garage.  My knees still hurt from crawling around the cold concrete.

After the wedding reception, our getaway car.

The book did help on one recurring problem however.  Being nearly 8 years old, its ignition system sometimes did not work, which was a disturbing phenomenon.  Our brains and muscles develop patterns for repetitive actions.  One is sitting in the driver’s seat, inserting the key, turning, and listening to the engine start up.  But after several thousand repeats, it comes as a surprise, a speechless awakening, when the car does not respond.  Nothing. No sound.  No whine. No lights.  Similar to stepping onto an escalator that’s not moving.  You are off balance.

Turns out, according to the book, that underneath the rear left wheel well, there is a little cylindrical electrical device called a solenoid.  About the size of a can of beans, it has wires stuck to it and to the 6-volt battery that hides under the rear seat, just above.  The solenoid jumps when you turn the ignition key, and engages the starting motor.  But after 60,000 miles of water-laden travel, the device corrodes, and sometimes is not up for the challenge of jumping.


I could have replaced the solenoid. But the book advised, that I could start the engine by rolling the car, with stick in third gear and dis-engaging the clutch.  It worked!  Thereafter I always looked for a hill to park the car on, in case the solenoid was on the lam.

This however was one bridge too far for my better half, Jane, who was designated car pusher.  So the book also instructed that connecting a jumper cable to the hidden battery, and then zotting the solenoid could also free it up.  I bought some cables, and thereafter lay on my back, regardless of weather and local environments and poked the jumper up into the nether regions of the car to give it a little jolt.  Reportedly this is also a known torture treatment used in some dastardly countries to extract information.  I still have the cables.

This book: the road to perdition.

Blue’s odometer eventually stopped counting.  It fell asleep finally. That forced me to falsely report my daily mileage at work.  This was a concern because the good folks at D&B occasionally scanned our odometers to seek out miscreants like me.  So, concerned, I went to a mechanic and asked if they could spin the odometer forward a few thousand miles.  I did not fully understand his alarm and puzzlement.  Usually people asked to have miles taken off, not added.

Sentimentality and wishful thinking.

As you can expect, Blue was entering the final stage of his time with us.  For me, the affair was over, like the weight of a fading romance that was wearing down.  More cost: valve jobs, gas heater repairs, cold weather complaints–do cars get chilblains?– I eventually was guided by my brother to purchase a new car.

The VW shield, a friendly reminder of Blue.

The salesman was Kassam Barwanni.  That was 1974, and I remember his name to this day  because in his kindest, most sympathetic voice, he offered me $50 trade-in on Blue. I needed $100.  After some writhing body moves that would have impressed Houdini, he winced his approval, and took Blue away.  And that ended our early education on cars, points, plugs, oil and water.  Our travails were over.

Valentine: our new ride.

In exchange, we took home a nice Datsun 510.  It was red and white, so we called her Valentine.




Cars, Culture, Thank You

Farewell To A True And Faithful Friend

Blue at Weslemkoon

Our first Olds Cutlass Cruiser.

It’s strange how we can instill heart and soul into material objects. Because of that, this is a wistful moment, bidding farewell to a member of our family for over 25 years.

Back in 1990 when we bought our home, the real estate agent said, “Hey, you have a few dollars left over from your loan, why don’t you buy a car?” So we acquired a brand new Oldsmobile Cutlass Cruiser, a mid-sized station wagon.

330,000 miles later, here we are, standing beside Blue, who is resting quietly in the driveway.

You may think it is a stretch to give a soul to a machine, but it is not uncommon. Sea captains adopt their boats. Hearst had his Rosebud, and Davey Crocket, his trusty rifle Old Betsy.

Blue after a wash

Blue, fresh out of the shower.

Olds Plywood

A rare talent: a 4×8 sheet of plywood through the window.

Actually, Blue is resting on the driveway, not in it. Family only goes so far.
The reason why this departure is so touching is that we remember when we first got Blue. We traded in an earlier Olds wagon, the exact same model.

It was the easiest order a car salesman ever took:
“Yes sir, can I help you some how?”
“Yep, see that Olds wagon in the lot outside? I want another, just like it.”
“Certainly. Just like it?”
“Well, yeah, but with air conditioning, fuel injection, and FM radio.”
“Power windows and door locks?”
“Nope. If we drive into a lake I want to be able to get out.”
“Same color? Blue?”

The paperwork took much longer, but by the next day we had Blue.

Years later there’s no need to recount all the outings and family trips in Blue, but the car distinguished itself by its steadfast performance.   According to industry stats, Blue must have been made on a Wednesday, because he never suffered a quality issue.  Beyond the normal R&M costs, Blue lived a clean and pure life.

It was not until 14 years later, on a mild December evening in 2004, that we truly realized what a prize Blue was.  We had parked outside a restaurant for dinner, and walking in, spied a similar Cutlass Cruiser wagon, same vintage.

I was moved to scribble a note and leave it on the windshield:

“Hi! Great car!  We have one just like yours.  Look behind you. 210,000 miles, and runs like a clock!”

Olds Back Seat

Rear view treat: the seat of choice.

When we came out of the restaurant after dinner, the wagon was gone, but we found the note with a reply, under our wiper:

“This car just won’t die.   190,000 & runs great. Hope you make 300K.”

And here sits Blue today, well past the mark.

With a few makeovers mind you.   We have repainted Blue four times.   Maaco gives us respect, though honestly, the owner there may have succumbed to paint fumes.   On two different occasions we returned after a week to pick up Blue as scheduled, and he couldn’t remember us or the car.

Blue Possum

Varmint duty: airing out after trapping a possum.

But the new paint jobs breathe new life, just like a new suit, new carpet or a new kitchen.   People would stop to stare at Blue.

“What year is that?  How many miles you got on her?”

We never viewed Blue as feminine, but protocols demand the female gender for cars it seems, just like Pat Brady’s Nellie Belle.

Another common comment from admirers:

“We used to have one just like this.  Rode in the back seat.  Does it face backwards?”

You bet it does, kids loved it, but the D.O.T. put an end to that hazard, understandably.  Still, it was fun.

Olds Jerry's

The pitt crew: Don and the team.

But what Blue could do with its backseat and rear window was pack in a 4’x 8′ slab of plywood, thanks to General Motors’ patent on the hatchback window.   You can find the same feature on Cadillac Escalades today.

Unfortunately for Blue, General Motors lost its way, and designed a long series of geriatric, goofy looking Oldsmobiles through the 90s and into the new century.  Sales withered, and April 29, 2004, the last rolled off the line.

Mean time, Blue had become my main ride, and delivered me daily to work and home, racking up the miles.   One day, in 2006, around 229,318 miles, I filled in the new owner questionnaire.   I was 16 years late, but General Motors responded February 9, 2007.   Adam Dickinson, our designated Customer Relationship Specialist congratulated us.   After a stream of compliments, he suggested:

Olds March 2011 copy

15 minutes of fame, and a year’s free oil changes.

“We would be remiss, however, not to suggest that you look closely at our new Cutlass at your local dealership….”  That was three years after the demise of the Olds make.


We wonder today if Adam is in a small cube somewhere, still writing optimistic notes to holdouts like me.

In summer 2009, Blue was worried.   The CARS program lurked.   Car Allowance Rebate System, popularly known as Cash For Clunkers, was the federal government effort to compensate GM and others for turning out a decade of lemons.   To the automobile, this was like plague, emerald ash borer and mad cow disease, all rolled into one.

Blue's Worst Fear

Blue’s worst fear: to be stripped at Pick & Pull.

All told, the feds grabbed 671,000 vehicles off the street.  Blue wasn’t one of them.

As a celebration, Blue had his own Facebook page.   It was revealing, listing his favorite movies, shows and songs: Bullitt, Dukes of Hazard, Knight Rider and Deadman’s Curve.

January 2011, the miles continued to climb as Blue enjoyed continuous 100-mile round trip sprints to the office every day.   300,000 loomed ahead on the odometer.   We contacted Jiffylube, which had been Blue’s choice since May of 1991, mile 5991, 20 years earlier.

They sensed a PR opportunity when easy math showed a century of oil changes: 100 visits.

Blue in Hebron

Under the State Champs water tower, Hebron, IL.

Jiffylube’s ad agency jumped on Blue and he had a day’s coverage in suburban Chicagoland’s news, taking interviews from reporters and an FM station in Dubuque.  Best of all, a gift of free oil changes for a year.

Celebrity is emboldening, if also a heavy responsibility.  We bought Blue a new set of tires, with the slim whitewalls to complement his spokes.

The daily commutes were Blue’s opportunity to let the ponies go.  There is a 4-lane strip of highway north of Chicago where we pushed the speedometer over two digits a number of times.  Only for a mile, but long enough to let him smell and feel the brisk air screaming through the rad grill.

Blues new wheels

New tires. Sweet!

Sadly, things change.   With our retirement, the commutes stopped, and not too long after, Blue saw his first signs of slowing down.   Kind of an automotive hardening of the arteries.   Don, the pit crew chief, who has managed Blue like an uncle cautioned us:

Blue at Mars Bar

A ride in the country, Lake Como, WI.

“Yunno, he’s stiff.   You’re not running him hard.   So he gets tired.  He’s gonna stall on ya every once in a while.   Nothing serious, but he really needs a good long drive.   And some Gum-Out.   Use high octane every once and again, just to clear the injectors.”

Then last week, a new wobble.   Driving out for a visit to the hardware, Blue couldn’t make up his mind on which gear he was in.  3rd? 2nd? Drive?  We got him home by slipping into Neutral at every brake and corner, just to keep the revs up.

Blue at 330,000

Blue notches 330,000.

He wouldn’t talk about it.   When we pulled the hood release to check the engine, the wire snapped, locking us out of a closer look inside.   Blue was suffering his pain quietly.

Back to Don again.

“It’s the solenoid in the transmission.   We’ve tried everything, but it’s dead.  He’ll still shift, but you might have to change gears manually.   There’s nothing else we can do.”

At mile 332,879, the automatic Hydra-Matic transmission that was perfected by Oldsmobile in 1939 was out of the race.

Our worst fear is that Blue could end up in the jaws of a car crusher at some junk yard.  It is  unpalatable.   Better to hide under a tarp in a barn.

Blue at Sunset

Sunset, Butler Lake in Libertyville, IL.

So we are hanging onto Blue, and will nudge him past 333,000, maybe with a trip or two to the golf course, or to a grassy park overlooking the tollway, where he can hear and smell the noise and speed of the thousands of cars that whine and hum along the lanes below, unaware of his watchful gaze.

It’ll be a sunny, breezy day.