The Death Machine

I never intended to build a Death Machine, but sometimes life takes a turn and there you are: doing the unintended. I wasn’t expecting to be attacked by an angry swarm of Yellowjackets, either — and if you’re unfamiliar with the sting of these nasty little wannabe Murder Hornets, you’re better off.

Believe me.

So there I was, stoically mowing down a thicket of four-foot high weeds on the steep hillside below the house to create what the local fire department calls a “defensible space” — in essence, a land-moat designed to leave nothing flammable around the structure. The last few summers have seen catastrophic wildfires do horrendous damage up here in the hill country north of San Francisco, where we’re forced to take the threat of fire very seriously. With a noisy weed-whacker slung over my shoulders, and wearing a protective plastic face shield so scratched and dulled from heavy use that I could hardly see anything while facing into the sun, all was going well until I felt a sudden sharp, intense pain just above the knuckle of one gloved hand.

“Must have hit a rock,” was my immediate thought. As anyone who’s run a weed-eater in rough country will understand, this was a reasonable assumption. Those whirling nylon strings constantly send all sorts of small, hard objects flying out at high speed — sticks, rocks, whatever — and some of these missiles inevitably hit home. That’s why I wear knee-high boots, coveralls, gloves, and that thoroughly scratched face shield.

But man, this one really hurt. It stung “like the dickens,” as my sainted mother used to say — her generation of women being denied the freedom to blurt “Fuck! That motherfucker stings like a fucking motherfucker!” — but this time the pain didn’t fade: instead, it just got worse. Another sharp stab further up my arm finally prompted me to look down at my gloved hand, where a Yellowjacket was on the attack, mandibles firmly clamped onto the glove, repeatedly stabbing its needle-sharp stinger right through the fabric into my suddenly screaming flesh.

Note to self: next time, wear a pair of thick leather gloves rather than these flimsy three-for-ten-dollars Home Depot specials.

I bolted like a deer, without conscious thought, running as fast as my legs and seven-decades on this troubled planet would allow — which was a lot quicker than I’ve moved at any point over the past twenty years. Fortunately, the Yellowjackets did not pursue, allowing me to retreat inside the house rather than sprint through the woods like a Sasquatch on meth with his hair on fire. My left hand was already beginning to swell, as was my upper arm, so I swabbed both with rubbing alcohol and applied a cold compress, then consulted Google. Not being allergic to bee stings, it seemed that I was in no danger, but my hand and arm would remain swollen, painful, and itching for the next three days. Every time I had to wash hands (and we’re all doing a LOT of that these days), it hurt like hell.

The Yellowjackets won the battle, but I was determined to win the war — the empire would strike back — so once again to Google I went, where an array of poison sprays promising to slay Yellowjackets were advertised. None of those would do, for three reasons: First, there’s a lovely little bay at the bottom of this hill, and I since I often barbecue oysters harvested in those waters, I won’t be using any kind of poison that could possibly leach into the watershed. Second, without wearing a full bee suit, no sane person could stand close enough to hit the target — the opening of that nest being smaller than a quarter — with a sufficient quantity of poison spray to eliminate the nest before getting stung repeatedly.

Third — see Reason Number One: no poison, period.

My eco-friendly options seemed limited to plugging the Hell-Mouth of the hive with a bottle or bowl — and hoping there wasn’t a second entrance/exit to the hive — or vacuuming out the Yellowjackets, a tactic reportedly adopted by some environmentally conscious pest exterminators. The bowl idea was out, since the nest was dug into the dirt at the base of a sprawling fern that would prevent anything like a good seal. A bottle might work, and I toyed with the idea of shoving a half-empty fifth of truly god-awful Trader Joes “blended scotch whisky” (possibly the worst ten dollars I ever spent — this swill tastes like Sterno mixed with methanol) to intoxicate the Yellowjackets and render them unable to tunnel out until it was too late.

“Smooth and Mellow”? No. “God-Awful Swill” is more accurate

Another notion was to use a large bottle of cheap garlic-infused olive oil — now 12 years past its sell-by date — in the same manner, thus blocking the entrance of the nest and drowning those Yellowjackets in oil that was surely rancid by now.

The downside of both approaches was obvious — I’d have to get very up-close and personal to that nest, and if anything went wrong, would deeply regret the error. Yellowjackets bed down after dark, but a late night scouting mission with a flashlight confirmed that sentries were guarding the mouth of the hive at all hours, ready to rouse the troops and defend the nest from invaders.

I wasn’t ready to call in the pros — this was personal, now — and since I had a small “Stinger” shop-vac, maybe I could. Trouble is, the intake hose is only four feet long, and I had no intention of getting so close to that nest again, so off to the local hardware store I went for ten feet of one-inch diameter PVC pipe, which fit nicely into the shop-vac hose. With a strip of blue painter’s tape to seal the fit, I was ready to mount a counter-attack.

I waited until well after dark, then very carefully placed the business end of the PVC pipe as close to the Hell-Mouth of the hive as I dared, using a few bricks to hold it steady on the steep, uneven hillside. After making sure the switch was turned on, I crept away. The next morning, with the sun high and warm enough to fully activate the hive, I plugged the cord into an outlet on the deck, and the shop-vac begin to whine.

Shop-vac with PVC pipe
Business end of the pipe at the HellMouth
Ten feet of PVC pipe provides a margin of relative safety

After waiting for twenty minutes, I eased down the hill to take a look, but instead of the great buzzing mass of angry Yellowjackets I’d expected, saw nothing unusual: they were cruising in and out of the Hell-Mouth as if all was normal. From a distance, it appeared that I hadn’t placed the pipe close enough to the hive opening to hoover up flying Yellowjackets, but I left it running for another ninety minutes anyway, then untaped the PVC pipe and quickly shoved the end of the input hose into the exhaust port to trap any Yellowjackets inside. Only then was it safe to turn off. I put the shop-vac inside a black plastic garbage bag and left it on the deck to let the hot sun to do the dirty work. Two days later, I found more than two hundred dead Yellowjackets inside, many of which seemed to have died while trying to sting the dirty filter to death.

Although my first attempt wasn’t a total failure, it hadn’t noticeably diminished the number of Yellowjackets buzzing in and out of the Hell-Mouth. I saw no safe way to get that PVC pipe closer, so back to the hardware store I went for a 90 degree “elbow” joint. With a two inch piece of the pipe cut from the end, then inserted into the elbow joint, I slipped the assembly onto the end of the pipe and taped it all up. Once again I waited until dark to slide the pipe in position, and was now able to rotate the 90 degree intake to point directly into the Hell-Mouth, being oh-so careful not to alarm the sentries and awaken the hive.

The next morning, I plugged it in for two more hours, and again bagged the shop-vac in the sun. Many fewer Yellowjackets were coming and going now — the Death Machine had severely depleted the population of the hive this time — but there were still plenty left, with the queen deep inside birthing new workers as fast as she could. After sun-baking the Shop-vac for two more days, I opened it up to find that the modified pipe had indeed inhaled more Yellowjackets this time — between two and three hundred, which meant there were now roughly five hundred fewer in the hive.

Victims of the second assault of the Death Machine

I could see light at the end of this tunnel. A couple more sessions with the Death Machine might doom the hive. Without enough workers to bring in food, the queen should not be able to survive — and absent a queen, there would be no more hive.

I felt an odd and very unexpected tinge of sadness at watching so few Yellowjackets exit and enter the Hell-Mouth. Although they’re distinctly alien creatures in every aspect and behavior, they hadn’t randomly attacked me, but were simply defending their home. To me, I was just weed-whacking, but to them I was a Godzilla-sized behemoth wielding a horrendously noisy engine of death, and they’d reacted as Mother Nature intended. If that nest had been a hundred feet further down the hill from my house — as was a similar nest I’d spotted during the spring while trimming trees on the slope below — I’d have left it alone in the spirit of live and let live, but here they were, barely twenty feet from my front door. Too close for comfort.

Too close for anything.

So I’d built and deployed a Death Machine — a weapon of mass Yellowjacket destruction — and in so doing felt a melancholy kinship with the late Robert Oppenheimer, who after the Trinity test of the first atomic bomb, said: “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”

So it goes. It’s hard to get through 70 years on this planet without wreaking considerable havoc, intentional or otherwise, bringing misery and death to many of our fellow creatures.

I was planning my final, take Mt. Suribachi assault on the hive when a neighbor called. I’d appraised her of what was going on, warning her that the hive I’d spotted last spring — on her property — might still be there. She reported that if I could find and mark that hive, the county would send someone out to fully eradicate both hives for free. This was news to me, so down the hill I went, but her nest had vanished. Another twenty minutes of searching turned up another hive, however, this one much larger than mine, with multiple entrances and thousands of Yellowjackets. I got as close as I dared, then dropped a metal fence post on the ground to mark it.

Two days later a truck pulled up driven by a cheerful woman named Teresa, who donned a full bee suit, loaded up her supplies — devices to deploy a non-toxic desiccant powder — and went to work. A few minutes later, she was done with my nest, explaining that the desiccant would dehydrate the adult Yellowjackets, the queen, and any juveniles that emerged after the application. By the next day, she assured me, the hive would be dead.

She was right. I took this photo twenty four hours later, which shows the Hell-Mouth plugged with — and I presume, full of — the desiccant powder.

The Hell-Mouth, post- treatment

She then treated the larger nest on my neighbor’s land — receiving one painful sting in the process — thus rendering it sterile, and that was the end of our Yellowjacket problem.

I didn’t have the satisfaction of vanquishing the Yellowjackets all by myself, but “satisfaction” really isn’t the right word. Killing is killing, no matter how you look at it, and not something to celebrate. Besides, my improvised Death Machine had disposed of at least five hundred Yellowjackets, and certainly made the task of finishing the job much easier.

They say an old dog can’t learn new tricks, but this experience taught me a few things, courtesy of the Joe Frazier School of Higher Education.

Still, I’m left with one unanswered question: what the heck am I going to do with that half-empty bottle of god-awful “blended scotch” now?

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Clarity

While watching Patti Smith being interviewed on the PBS Newshour a while back — ostensibly hawking a new book, but really just talking about her life — I was jerked from my television-induced stupor when she spoke about the value of an occasional moment of “clarity.”

Clarity.  I knew exactly what she was talking about.

We’ve all had those moments when the foggy minutia and metronomic, one-foot-after-the-other drumbeat of daily life abruptly vanishes to reveal a startling reality that, in retrospect, is suddenly obvious.  Such clarity can arrive on the wings of alcohol or drugs (marijuana and LSD were particularly good at delivering Cosmic Truths, or it seemed at the time), which strip away the cloak of inhibitions and defense mechanisms that shield us from the real world  — and the real world from us — or in the aftermath of extreme physicality: a serious injury or illness, automobile accident, or any other peak experience that reduces life to its bare essentials.

Everything changes after something like that, for a while — but there’s the rub: this newfound clarity seldom lasts.  The fog and drumbeat return soon enough, and we go back to sleepwalking through life.

Same as it ever was.

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Spare Tire kit for Chevy Volt

Volt

I recently purchased a 2019 Chevy Volt, which feels like a futuristic spaceship compared to the trusty old Prius I’d been driving for the past 13 years.  The Volt has been great thus far, and after 600 miles is delivering well over 250 mpg.  I have no idea what the actual mpg is, since the gauge only goes up to 250, and it pegged out two weeks ago.  I love the quiet torque of the electric motor, and having 9 gallons of gas in the tank in case I need to drive more than fifty or sixty miles — but what I really love is burning very little gas at all.  In those six hundred miles, the gas gauge hasn’t budged.

There’s just one  downside.  For reasons best known to the bean-counters at General Motors (and other car manufacturers, unfortunately), spare tires have been disappearing from the trunks and hatchbacks of sedans over the past few years.  Full size spares were long ago supplanted by small donut spares, but even those are beginning to vanish, replaced by a glorified can of Fix-a-Flat and a small electric air pump.

This is certainly more convenient than hauling out a jack, chocking the wheels, elevating the car, struggling to loosen the lug nuts, muscling the flat tire off, muscling the spare tire on, then tightening those lug nuts in the proper order, lowering the car, stowing the flat tire and jack in the back and — finally — continuing on your journey.  Of course, fifty bucks a year will buy a Triple A card to summon a sturdy fellow who will cheerfully do the dirty work required to get you rolling again while your hands and clothes stay clean.  Not a bad option to have in your back pocket.

From what I’ve read, the OEM goop-in-a-can that comes with the Volt works fine for small, clean nail punctures, but I’ve seen reports that the sealant goo can ruin the pressure sensor inside the tire, which will then have to be replaced. I don’t know what GM charges for one of those sensors, but none of their parts are cheap. As usual, convenience comes at a cost — and if you happen to nick a curb a little too hard or suffer a major blowout that tears the tire, an entire truckload of Fix-a-Flat won’t help you.  The low-rolling resistance tires that come on hybrids, plug-in hybrids, and pure electric cars to increase mileage have weak sidewalls, rendering them particularly vulnerable to damage.  Whatever the cause, should your Volt suffer such serious tire damage, it will have to be towed on a flatbed truck to the nearest dealer or tire shop, where you’ll wait at the back of the line to have that tire replaced… and if this happens at night or a Sunday, you’re shit out of luck.

This doesn’t seem bother many Volt owners who apparently believe that Bad Things only happen to Other People — and hey, maybe they’re right… or maybe I’m one of those Bad People, because I’ve learned the hard way to follow a “hope for the best but expect the worst” approach to life.  Having felt the stinging backhand of fate whenever I was foolish enough to let my guard down, I’m not about not trust a little can of carbonated goo to get me back on the road when I get a flat.  And I say “when” rather than “if” for a reason: eight days after taking delivery of my new Volt, I found a sheet metal screw imbedded in the tread of the passenger side rear tire. The leak was slow enough that I could get to the local garage which plugged the hole, but this is why  any car I own will be equipped with a spare, one way or another.

Chevy offers a spare tire kit for the Volt for between $340 and $550.  I might have been willing to spend $340, but $550 — the price quoted by the parts department of my dealership  — seemed a bit steep. Besides, they didn’t have any spare kits in stock, and added that they’d been on back-order “for quite a while now.”

Still, if you’re blessed with a fat bank account and don’t mind waiting, the Chevy kit  would be the simplest way to go, but being unwilling to drive my car for God knows how long before my dealership finally had a kit in stock to sell me,  I decided to go the DIY route.  A consultation with the Oracle of Google came up with this, which was very helpful.  After considerable contemplation (and checking out another solution to the spare problem), I decided to borrow a little from each approach, since neither fully met my needs.

You might want to take a look at both those links before you proceed — one of them may be perfect for you — but here’s the path I took.

My first task was to get a donut spare that would fit my Volt, which I found on E-Bay, complete with a jack and tire iron, for $160 delivered.  According to all the information I could find, the proper size donut spare for a Generation Two Volt is a T115/70R16/92M, but a close look at mine revealed that it was actually a T125/70D16/96M.  A call to a tire store revealed that my spare was “a little bit taller and a little bit wider” than the right tire.  The Oracle of Google confirmed that the difference was slight — about a half inch larger diameter and a not quite a half inch wider than the OEM donut spare.  The wheel well appeared plenty large enough to accommodate my  spare, but there was only one way to find out — bolt it on and see what happened.

The jack that came with the spare was a sad, spindly little piece of crap I wouldn’t trust  to lift much more than a loaf of bread, but I tried it anyway. Sure enough, the rear wheel wasn’t even off the ground before that jack began leaning to one side like the famous Tower of Pisa, so I got my 3000 pound capacity scissor jack from the basement, which levitated the car with ease.

Scissor Jack

Off came the tire and on went the spare, after which I took a six mile drive that was smooth as silk — no problems at all.  The tire fit fine, and as bonus, has a 15% higher load rating than the OEM spare.  I’m not sure that matters, but it can’t hurt.  The only anomaly  was that the donut spare was rather warm when I pulled it off, so I  checked the air pressure (which I really should have done before going for a drive…)  and found that it only had 45 psi, a good 15 pounds below what it should be.  Remember that if you buy a spare from E-Bay or anywhere else — check the tire pressure with a quality gauge.  I pumped it up to 60 psi and was ready to secure the tire in the hatchback trunk.

Plan A

My first thought was to utilize a “Spare Tire Hold Down Kit” from Dorman (part #41068), which I got from Amazon for $12.

Mounting Kit Plan A

The second of the spare-tire solutions I’d found on Google (the Utube video) utilized parts of this kit, but if I could install a threaded screw eye in the threaded hole Chevy has thoughtfully put underneath the hatchback floor panels, then the entire Dorman kit  — threaded hook, flange, and butterfly nut  — could be used to secure the donut spare.

Mounting parts Plan A

There was just one fat, buzzing fly in this otherwise smooth ointment — although the threaded screw eye was the shortest I could find with the proper threads, it was still long enough that a large amount of material would have to be cut out from underneath the hard plastic foam panel of the hatchback to allow the screw eye and hook to fit.  The more I thought about that, the less I wanted to do it, so it was time for…

Plan B

Eventually it hit me that all I really needed was a threaded rod (to go in the same hole I’d planned to use for the screw-eye), a washer and nut to make sure that rod doesn’t come loose, and a butterfly nut to use with the flange from the Dorman kit to hold the spare tire down.  I already had the the right sized washer and nut from the screw eye, so I ordered the threaded rod and butterfly nut online from McMaster Carr: one M8x1.25 metric threaded rod, Class 8.8 steel, zinc-plated, 200mm long, along with a five-pack of Zinc plated steel M8 x1.25 mm thread, 22.23 mm base-diameter wing nuts.  I didn’t need five of those wing nuts, of course, but that was the smallest quantity McMaster Carr would sell — so now I have a few spares in case I lose one.  The parts were cheap — seven or eight bucks in all, plus a bit more for shipping.  All told, the various parts and shipping came to less than thirty dollars.

Here was my mounting kit, ready to install:

Mounting parts

First I had to access the space below the floorboards of the hatchback.  Pulling up out the cloth panel revealed this:

Stock Hatch

From left to right is a plastic pop-rivet, the OEM tire inflater kit, the 12 volt battery, and two more pop rivets.  I was able to remove the rivets by unscrewing and loosening them with a wide-blade common screwdriver, after which I popped each one off using a Number Two handy clamp to grasp the pop-rivet.  It was a bit awkward, but could probably be done using two screwdrivers, one on each side.  Once I’d unscrewed the black plastic knob atop the inflater kit, then removed it and the chromed metal piece below (which I assume is used to drag the car up on the flatbed of a tow truck when necessary), I lifted the entire black foam panel out.

Hatchback floor pre-mod

Near the center of the photo is the threaded hole in which the 200 mm threaded rod would go. I screwed the nut a couple of inches onto the threaded rod, slipped the washer on to go between the nut and the metal of the car, then gently turned the rod in as far as it would go. Using a 13 mm wrench, I tightened the hell out of that nut to make sure it stays where it is.  I think it’ll be fine, but if it ever does come loose, I’ll go back in with a lock-washer and maybe some Loctite to make sure that doesn’t happen again.

Rod in place

Now I had to think about securing my scissor jack in the slot Chevy created for it in that big black foam panel.  The smart way (as in that Utube video) would be to get a nylon strap with a retaining ring and velcro, then thread it through the slots on either side of the space where the jack goes… but I didn’t have a nylon strap, so used rope instead, with a couple of knots to keep it in place.  I’ll get a proper strap for a neater, tighter installation later.

Once the rope was threaded and knotted, I put the black foam panel back into the hatch. This was a bit tricky, since there were now two rods to go through their respective holes — one for the tire inflater kit and the new one for the donut spare — but I was patient, didn’t force anything, and it went in just fine.  I popped those three rivets back on, placing each over the white threaded rod and pushing down as far as it would go.  The scissor jack went into the slot on the right side of the black plastic panel, where I tied it down.

Jack tie-down

(No, I didn’t take a photo of the jack in place — you’ll just have to use your imagination)

The cloth panel would only go in so far with that new rod sticking up.  Using an Exacto knife, I found where the tip of the rod contacted that panel and cut a tiny “X” in the cloth, then applied a little pressure and the panel dropped down into place.  I then centered the donut spare over the threaded rod, slipped the black flange down until it contacted the interior tire rim, and screwed down the butterfly nut nice and tight.

Spare in place

My Volt is now equipped with a spare tire that shouldn’t come loose unless unless and until I suffer a truly catastrophic accident, in which case I’ll have much bigger problems than a flat tire.

One more thing: use whatever lug wrench you like, but I much prefer an X-shaped wrench like this:

Lug wrench 2

The lug nuts on a Volt are tightened to 100 foot pounds of torque, and loosening those nuts will be a lot easier with this type of lug wrench.  Just make sure it has a 19 mm socket, and you’ll be good to go. For what it’s worth, I tied mine atop the donut spare by running a rope through two of the spare’s lug-nut holes — that way, the wrench will be there if and when I need it, and won’t come loose until then.

I hope this is helpful for any fellow Volt owners who aren’t content to rely on a can of aerosol goo to get your car rolling after suffering a flat tire.  There are other ways to skin the spare-tire cat, of course — but this is the solution I came up with, and it works for me.

 

 

 

 

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Uh, I’m afraid there’s been a misunderstanding…

… if not exactly a mistake.  See, I’ve already got a blog right here:

http://hollywoodjuicer.blogspot.com/

It’s been over there on Blogger since 2007, and given that I have enough trouble writing posts for that one, there’s no reason to post here.  Anything’s possible, of course —  after all, nature does abhor a vacuum — so maybe I’ll end up using this space for things that don’t really fit over at Blood, Sweat, and Tedium, but for the moment, if you’re interested in my take on life in Hollywood below-the-line, hit the link above.

“WTF?” you might well wonder.  Why start another blog when I had no intention of posting?

A totally legitimate question.

It’s like this — all I wanted to do was comment on a post at the Time Magazine TV critic’s blog, but (for reasons I do not understand) this required registering with WordPress.  No problem, right?  Wrong — being something of a digital illiterate, my efforts to register  (clicking on buttons willy-nilly as they popped up on screen) somehow resulted in the sudden, unexpected, and unwanted appearance of this non-blog blog.

“So what?” I thought. “Who’s gonna notice?”

I should have known better — in outer-space no one can hear you scream, but here in cyberspace, you can’t even hiccup without somebody (or lots of somebodies) hearing the echoes.  Imagine my chagrin when only one day later, the Patron Saint and Queen of All Industry Blogs herself, Peggy Archer, left a “get on with it” comment.

So much for anonymity.

We’ll see.  Maybe I’ll end up liking WordPress better than Blogger, and try to do something worthwhile with this space, but right now I’m buried at work, with a very full plate and no time for much else.

I apologize to anyone who stumbles here by mistake hoping to find something new and fresh.  All I can say is “Do not pass Go.  Do not collect two hundred dollars.  Go directly to jail.”

For the moment, you know where the Hollywoodjuicer’s real blog is.  As for this one, time will tell.

Oh, and “Mr. WordPress” can go fuck himself…

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