Friday, February 18, 2011

Fixing cars in Siberia

Last week, during a drive from Chicago to Oklahoma with my siblings, I learned a lesson that may prove valuable should any of you find yourselves needing to travel across this great land of ours—in particular, across its more, um, distant and depopulated reaches: America at its highway-sprawl, tire-shop-and-Waffle-House, cows-and-barbed-wire worst improves considerably when viewed while you’re reading Ian Frazier’s Travels in Siberia.

It's a wonderful book, full of passages that made me laugh out loud, to the amusement of rocketlass. If you harbor the sort of irrational, exuberant love of Frazier’s writing that I do, you should go get this book immediately, before spring leads you to thoughts of warmer climes. (And if you don't already know Frazier's longer work, hie thee to your local bookstore and grab his Great Plains today. It, too, makes great company for long drives, while also being suitable for reading aloud to friends as you try to suppress your laughter.)

Keeping with today's automotive theme, I’ll share two of the many scenes in the book that involve car trouble and Siberia’s ever-present heaps of trash. First, a muffler problem that Frazier’s driver, Sergei, solves simply by knowing what resources are likely to be at hand:
A boulder in the path knocked away a foot or so of tailpipe. A worse bump on an uphill grade crushed and scraped away the remaining two or three feet, leaving no pipe extending from the muffler’s outlet to carry off the exhaust fumes. Immediately the air in the van, which had never been good, became unbearable. Now I could detect an actual blue fog. I tried to remember what the signs of carbon monoxide poisoning were. Sergei, as expected, refused to go to a muffler shop or do anything about the problem. That was not necessary, Sergei announced, sitting beside an open window and its plentiful incoming dust. Finally Volodya, the swing vote among us, switched to my side and told Sergei that we had to fix the tailpipe right away or we’d all suffocate. Sergei said he would fix it, and with some annoyance he pulled over to the shoulder.

He got out. Volodya and I watched. Sergei was just wandering around a weedy patch of ground that paralleled the road, looking down and kicking occasionally at the dirt. After a minute or two he bent over and stood up with something in his hand. It looked to be a piece of pipe. We got out to see what he’d found, and he showed us a somewhat rusty but still serviceable yard-long piece of tailpipe that must’ve fallen off another vehicle. It was exactly the same length as the one we’d lost.
A bit of wire, a few minutes under the chassis, and presto! Van fixed!

Sergei’s technique, in its silence and obscurity, calls to mind Sherlock Holmes—but Frazier is no Watson, perpetually surprised. When the van dies later, he watches Sergei’s repair effort with every expectation of success:
The driver seemed overwhelmed, but Sergei had taken a piece out of the engine and was strolling on the ice, hunting around. . . . After more tinkering by Sergei, the driver turned the key and the car started and ran at a rough idle. . . . Later I asked Sergei to describe how he had done it, and he said, “When the Uazik [the van] died at approximately four o’clock in the afternoon in the middle of the great Lena River in traffic, the driver opened the hood and found with horror that in a most important part of the engine—the carburetor—a piece was missing. A screw had come off and the small rod that held the float regulating the gasoline level of the carburetor had fallen out and disappeared. Thus, the gasoline stream flew into the carburetor as if from a hose, gasoline was spilling on the ice, and naturally the car would not run.

“What was to be done? I looked all over on the ice road in the hope of finding our missing part. Instead of our part I picked up about half a bucket of other parts, but not the one we needed. I then disassembled the carburetor and it appeared that all we needed was to find a piece of wire or a nail of the right diameter in order temporarily to replace that rod on which the float of the carburetor was set. I did find such a wire nearby on the ice, I cut off a piece of this wire, and I inserted it where the missing part should be. I found a bolt of approximately the right size belonging to some other machine under our car’s wheels, and with this bolt’s help I fixed the rod in place. In truth, the carburetor did not work so well as before, but nevertheless we were able to drive from the ice road and reach our hotel. Thus I was once again convinced that the Russian car is the most reliable in the world, because it is possible under necessity to replace any part in it with a piece of wire or with a nail.”
Even the joyous extravagance of Sergei's explanation of his work is reminiscent of Holmes—which brings me to close by offering him some of Dr. Watson’s praise for Holmes: “You have an extraordinary genius for minutiae.”

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