Sunday, June 1, 2014

Road Trip... Part 2

Something I forgot to mention in part 1 was a quick stop in McDonalds to use WiFi the night of our arrival. I started to sit down at a table and happened to glance across the restaurant. In a corner sat a person with a face so unmistakable that it could only be one person in the world. He saw me looking at him and was half suspicious but thought he recognized me also. I walked over and said hello to my old friend and comrade in arms, Richard Krikorian. Retired and now 70 years old, the only way Richard had changed was that his hair was gray. We talked for several minutes and I invited him to the reunion but he declined. We shook hands with the promise of a phone call in the near future.

After a fitful night's sleep (due to worrying about what was wrong with the van and how long it could take to fix) I was at the mechanic's place when they opened at 8:30am. He asked how he could help me and I explained the noise in the rear wheel.

"We only do smog inspections on Saturdays," he said. "We don't do any repairs."

"Is there a place here in town where I can get a repair done on Saturday," I asked. He could tell I was traveling by the luggage carrier on top of the van. Lompoc, it seems, is still a small town.

"Go out here to the light, turn left and go down to E Street.  Turn right. There will be a blue building on your left. Jesus will fix it for you."

So I headed out to find possibly the only mechanic in town who was open on Saturday morning. I found the place easy enough. As I said - Lompoc is still a small town. Jesus was a kind, elderly Hispanic gentleman; soft spoken and happy. I explained the problem to him and he said "We'll get it fixed. Come in and let me get you some coffee." I liked him already.

He was finishing some paperwork and the three guys working for him were already busy with other vehicles. But in about 10 minutes he had one of his guys bring a jack out to the van and take the wheel off. He couldn't get the hub off either and had to use a trick with bolts and a wrench to actually pry it off. Inside he found one of the hold down springs had come off and was loose inside the hub. That's what was making the grinding noise. Not exactly dangerous but it definitely needed fixing. In addition, although the brake shoes were still good, prying the hub off bent the tabs that connected them to the hydraulic cylinder. It wasn't their fault - the drum was scored - which is why they had to pry it off.

Long story short - they had to do a complete rear brake job and turn the drums because  you can't really only replace the brakes on one side. He had to send the drums out to be turned (the other side was scored as well) and order parts from the only other place in town that was open. All in all it took about six hours to get the repairs done.

At one point I was standing out by the van watching the young mechanic working. We were talking back and forth about the brakes and the hub. Jesus opened the door to the shop and quietly invited me in. Once inside he closed the door and said "You can't stand out there and talk to him. He's kind of lazy and if you talk to him and distract him it will take him all day to finish the job." I couldn't help but laugh but I stayed inside and found some magazines to read.

Around noon things came to a stop. One of the guys had gone out and gotten lunch for everyone. Jesus had a quart container of Menudo and offered to share it with me. I politely declined but greatly appreciated his generosity. We had only met a few hours before and he was offering me his food.

Finally the hubs came back, all parts were in and the wheels were put back on (by a different guy.) Jesus invited me to go on the test drive and we cruised around a few blocks, stopping and starting and making sure the brakes worked well. When we returned he told the second mechanic that they needed some more adjustment. It took about 20 more minutes but that guy told me they always wanted to be sure the job was done right. After five and a half hours I wasn't going to complain about 20 more minutes.

I won't say what the total bill was but let's just say it was more money than I hoped to spend. But the repair was necessary and I now have new brakes all around. (I replaced the front ones last summer.) So I felt good about the safety of the van.

I went back to the hotel and we loaded up our things. We weren't staying at the hotel that night. It being Memorial Day weekend, the price of the room tripled for Saturday night and I refused to pay that much. Besides - a large group of people, retirees and active duty, were camping at the staff picnic grounds at the institution for the weekend. We had planned to do that anyway and had brought a foam mattress, sheets, blanket and pillows to camp with the others. Sleeping in the van on a mattress would be better than sleeping in a tent on the ground.

I took Arden out to Surf Beach, a small public beach at the end of Ocean Avenue, the main road that heads West out of town. It literally ends at the beach and divides North Vandenburg from South Vandenburg Air Force Base. The Air Force owns the beach just to the North and South of Surf Beach and access to it is restricted - not only by the base but because it's a nesting ground for the Snowy Plover - a bird native to the area that apparently is protected. When I was stationed there in the early 80s the beach was open from one end of the base to the other and my friend David and I traversed every inch of it. Not possible now. But it was nice to see it again.

Since I left, Amtrak has built a train stop at Surf Beach. You can purchase a ticket online or from the machine right there on the platform and go North or South anywhere the train goes in California. I didn't know there was a market for an Amtrak stop there outside of Lompoc but hey - for some I bet it works out well.

From the beach we went to the retiree reunion at the Staff Training Center at the prison complex. As we drove by the prison Arden said "Aren't you going to take a picture?"

I realize that I could have taken a picture without penalty - even if I got caught. (Taking pictures of a federal prison without permission is unauthorized.) Being a Lompoc alumni there for the reunion I'm sure it wouldn't have been a problem. But it's still drilled into me that you don't take pictures.

We drove past the picnic grounds, where the party was still going strong, and into the parking lot of the Training Center. There was only one other vehicle there at the moment - Soledad Kennedy and her husband, whom I'd never met other than on Facebook. (There was a lot of that at the reunion. Many of the retirees I had only known through Facebook as we were at Lompoc at different times.) Within a few minutes two of our newest old friends arrived - Liz and Roland Blackmon. We had never met either except on Facebook. But within minutes it seemed we had known each other forever.

We headed into the Training Center to get things set up then Arden and I walked down to the picnic area for a spaghetti dinner that was being served for all Lompoc staff. That's when I ran into more old friends. Steve and Shiela Leach, Joyce Lewis, Craigo Morrison, and Marty Velasco, all comrades from my Lompoc days, and Patricia McKinney - another Facebook friend from Lompoc whom I finally got to meet face to face.

We enjoyed our dinner and conversation then returned to the Training Center where other retirees were arriving. Ed Your brought historical photos, booklets, patches and pamphlets from the institution. As it turns out I didn't need to take a photo - Ed was handing them out.

More retirees had arrived. Al Ramirez, who had run the Barber Vocational Training program at the USP was there. We had a nice conversation. I was disappointed that many of the retirees from the local area - Dave Blackburn, Martin Lopez, Richard - hadn't come out but we had a good time anyway.

Eventually the party wound down and it was time to clean up and go. We were headed for the camping area but when Liz and Roland heard that they said "Absolutely not." Being prior military they had rented a 3 bedroom house on Vandenburg AFB. They insisted that we abandon our plans to sleep in the van and stay with them. (Did I mention they are great people?) We told them sleeping in the van was what we had planned from the beginning but they insisted they would not let us do that. So we accompanied them to the base and slept in a very comfortable, real bed after a shower. 

In the morning I cooked breakfast for them, their daughter, her two friends and Arden and I. It was the least I could do to pay them back. We ate, had coffee and enjoyed their company as long as we could. But we had places to be so had to say our good-byes. Thanks again Liz and Roland. We enjoyed our stay and your friendship.

To those who were there - it was great to see all of you. Thanks again to Liz and Joyce for spearheading it and making it happen!

To be continued....

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