Russ Ringsak

Heavy Lifting of All Kinds

November 3, 2001

We'll be on the road in a few weeks, and to some of us that brings on thoughts of heavy lifting. An inescapable fact of life, the lifting, but it's not inescapable to everyone. In fact most people are able to escape it pretty early on. And we encourage our kids to get educated so they can escape it too, and we never say, "Hey child, why don't you get a degree in Heavy Lifting? That's a great career." In fact one seldom hears talk of heavy lifting at all, except in the company of the dwindling few who actually do it; and even they don't talk about it much.
But it's inescapable in general: heavy lifting lurks somewhere in the background of everything, whether it's a Bach recital or a ham sandwich. Everything. A young poet on an old bicycle, carrying a few sheets of paper to a reading where he will unleash his deepest feelings: someone took a chainsaw into the woods and loaded logs onto a truck that took them to be ground into mush at a paper mill, and in a different place miners blasted iron ore from rock and loaded that into trucks, to be carried off to a mill and melted into steel, the steel extruded into tubes and loaded into other trucks to be welded into bicycle frames, all to get that poor poet to his reading. Doesn't matter what it is, unless you grew it in your garden it's been on a truck and the truck doesn't move until the heavy lifting is done. And that spade in the garden, that was once on a truck, too.

It takes about 9 tons of gear to do our show; we hire a couple of extra hands to help load and unload, but a lot of it is done by the same skilled people who mix the sound and who design and run the lighting. They wouldn't have to help but they do, in the interest of getting things done in what we like to call a timely fashion and because they are basically just good people. Even I sometimes help a little. Sometimes just enough to let them know I've done it before.

Heavy lifting brings to mind a young guy I know who got laid off his warehouse job right after he bought a used Jeep. This was in 1994. He bought the Jeep so he could put his fishing boat into remote, limited access lakes, to get away from the crowds. He had a pickup but it was only 2-wheel drive and he'd buried it axle-deep out in the woods a couple of times, and he'd had enough of that. And it was a wreck anyway. Besides, he'd always liked Jeeps.

It was in terrible condition when he bought it, a 1987, not even ten years old but looking thirty. His wife, his mother, his friends and his brother, they all said the same thing:

"You paid $1100 for THAT? Boy, they must have seen you coming! Jeez, I'd figure $300, tops, for that thing!"

"That thing is a wreck."

"I'll fix it up," he said, "It just needs some work."

"Some work? Are you kidding? It needs to go back to the factory!"

"Yah, or else the junkyard!"

It did look bad; the hood had flown up when the kid who owned it forgot to fasten it down, so the windshield was cracked and the hood had a crease all the way across, and it had never been washed or waxed and there were rusty holes right through the lower side panels around the doors. The battery had fallen off it's cradle under the hood and lay down next to the engine, hanging by it's cables, and it had taken out a couple of vacuum lines when it fell, so the timing was all screwed up and the engine ran rough.

The floor boards had rusted through and you could see the carpeting hanging down from the outside. The driver's bucket seat was propped up with a wooden block so it wouldn't tip over. The passenger's seat was loose and the tail gate was bent so it didn't latch all the way. The doors were sprung and had big gaps around them. The wheel rims were all rusted, from the Minnesota salt that had never been cleaned off, and the shocks were bad; it bounced all over the road when you drove it.

But the guy saw the possibilities: Jeeps hold their value, and the book on an '87 was $3600, and in the paper they were advertised even higher than that. And it didn't burn oil and no strange noises came from either the engine or the transmission, and the electrical system all worked. The removable top just needed paint and the big tires were good. He didn't see anything wrong that he couldn't fix himself.

But then he got laid off and went into a deep funk. Couldn't catch fish for a living. Couldn't work on the Jeep, either, with no money for parts. Being unemployed was miserable, especially for a guy who's always worked and who believes in it. They told him to hang around, they might call him back in a few weeks when things looked better. The rent and the bills loomed large and they didn't know where they'd make a cut when they ran out of savings, which wasn't much. He felt bad having to live off her anyway.

Three weeks went by and the phone didn't ring and then he got a chance to sell the old pickup, which needed a major reworking of the front end, for $400, and the next day he got an offer on his Camaro, too good to turn down, so he sold them both and now had to borrow his wife's car for everything. They had enough money to make the bills but without wheels he was feeling even more useless than before. She didn't say anything and she didn't have to, about that worthless Jeep sitting out in the run-down garage beside their trailer house.

He watched TV, read the paper and all the want ads, fooled with the aquarium, watched more TV. One morning a kind of madness took him, and he went out and attacked the Jeep; jacked it up on blocks and began gutting it. He removed the windshield, the wheels, the top, the seats, the battery, the shocks, the doors, everything but the engine and transmission. He borrowed her car every night when she got home and tore off to the junk yard or the auto parts store, spending the last dollars left from his Camaro. He cut the rust out and welded the holes and ground them smooth, fixed the frames of the seats, the battery bracket, the windshield. When problems came up, the kind where you'd usually get mad and just let the thing sit for a week or two, he'd dig in all the harder.

He spent all his time out in the garage, and she said, "At least it's better than having him moping around doing nothing."

He ground off all the paint. Once down to bare metal, he primed and then painted it a 3-coat metal-flake silver, and he bought checkered aluminum plate and shaped rocker panels below the doors from the front wheels to the back, and riveted them in place. He took the tires off and ground the wheels smooth and repainted them. He worked in a silent fury.

In six weeks he finished it; it looked better than showroom-new. All aluminum, silver and black. People couldn't believe it was the same rig. His wife may have been thinking that this didn't look like any fishing vehicle she'd ever seen, but she didn't say it. He had taken what looked like a hopeless wreck and like magic turned it into a showpiece; the fat tires and the silver paint and the flat-black top, and especially the shiny checkered-plate rocker panels. He was smiling.

He drove it for two weeks, pleased and proud, and then quietly put an ad in the paper, asking $3900. The second guy out to look at it offered him $3700 in cash, and he took it.
When she came home from work that day he was sitting on the couch reading an outdoors magazine and she said, "Where's the Jeep?"

"On the counter there." The counter was clean, except for a fat envelope with the flap open. She looked at him and he didn't look up, and she could see the envelope was stuffed with hundreds. She picked it up and felt the thickness, and she looked back at him and he still kept his head down in the magazine, trying not to grin, and then she started to cry. Which was, at that moment, exactly the right thing to do.

. . . .

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