The Jeep Stick; I’ll Take Accidental Perfection Any Day

This will be a longer story, but it tells how random timing, the passage of time, weird coincidences, sticking with what works, and a sense of fun, can result in overall near perfection.

The story starts in 1995, and Martin & Ottaway had just moved from New York City to Red Bank.

The move to Red Bank was quite a logistics effort, which was coordinated by Jim Gilligan, a young friend of the family, who happened to be available and did a superb job. Besides the regular coordination of movers, furniture purchases and disposals, and changing phone numbers, addresses and letterheads, M&O also needed to deal with the distribution of company cars. We had a number of lease cars that were distributed based on surveyor’s needs. I will not get into the details, except to note that my father and I shared a lease car, because we commuted to NYC together. This worked out well, because if one of us got called out, one would use the car and the other would get home by public transport.

Our regular routine was for me to have the car at home, pick up my dad at his house in the morning, which was about 3 miles closer to the Parkway, travel to NYC and on the way home drop my dad off again and take the lease car home. Anne had a minivan, which was Anne’s regular driver.

I had played hardball with my Dad trying to convince him to leave NYC and he said: “OK go ahead, but tell me what it costs.” I gave him a low ball estimate and hired Jim Gilligan to make it work. Amazingly, with the help of the entire staff, we came in almost on the penny, and were properly ensconced at 172 Monmouth Street when we spent the last few dollars in the budget. However, our operations at 172 Monmouth street posed a dilemma for me. My father simply took the lease car home, and used it to make the 2 mile commute to the office. I did not want to take Anne’s minivan so I rode a bike for my 3 mile commute.

A few days in, my father noticed that I was riding my bike and, asked why. I explained the situation and Chris Hanges overheard the conversation.

Chris said: “I have a solution. I have an old car that I used to drive to the station, but now you guys have given me a nice new lease car, maybe Rik can have the car I used to take to the station.” That seemed like a great idea, and that day I rode home with Chris to North Jersey to pick up the other car. The car turned out to be a 1980 4 cylinder Ford Fairmont, with a vinyl roof and fake wire wheels. It was breathtakingly ugly, and, at that stage, far from a blushing virgin. I drove it home and Anne said: “I am sorry but I don’t think I want that car in my drive way; it is just too depressing to look at.”

The next morning it would not start. So I got back on my bike. I got to the office and my father said: “I thought you would get Chris’ car?” I told him it would not start. He said: “For God’s sake; we are not that poor, get another lease car.”

So I called our trusty Dodge dealer and told them to start filling out the paperwork for the cheapest 15,000 mile per year lease they could get me. I took my dad’s Dodge K and drove out to the dealer to sign the paper work. We knew the salesman well and while he was filling out the paper work for a Dodge Neon, he said: “You know for this amount of money you can also lease a Jeep Wrangler”. I don’t think I ever mentioned to him that I have always had a secret love for Jeeps, and here he made an unsolicited suggestion. (My favorite Matchbox car as a kid was a yellow Jeep CJ with red interior. I actually had two of them, I got them as birthday gifts, one after the other. I loved getting two; somehow my friends guessed I would like a Jeep matchbox best. And now the salesman guessed the same?)

I ask him: “Can you get me one?”

He says: “We have a sister Jeep store in Keyport, they can set you up there”.

He calls the store and I drive over. They had the paper work waiting.

I said: “Is this the cheapest?”

They go no: “You can order even more basic but we don’t sell it.”

“So what makes this better?”

He says: “You asked for a four cylinder stick, no air, that is what we have. We always order them with the heavy duty suspension, power steering, cassette player and the intermittent wipers. Only fools don’t order that”

Next he asks: “Hard, or soft top, and what color?”

I go: “Uhm, I actually have never driven a Jeep Wrangler, can I at least try it first?”

He goes: “I have a green hard top like you want right out front. Here are the keys.”

I drive it and am shocked at how loud it is, how rough it is, and how it rattles. In other words; it appealed to me perversely.

I come back, told them I’ll take the green hardtop, sign and picked it up a few days later.

I don’t think I even told Anne, who at that stage only once had tried to drive stick in a Triumph Spitfire we had many years ago. Anne quickly learned to drive stick in the Jeep though, because it was stupid fun.

The car was supposed to be a company lease car, and my first call was a trip to Slaughter Beach, DE. About a three hour drive and in the middle of summer. It was hot (and loud and rough), and I was a sweaty mess when I got there. The launch driver told me the ship had not made it to the anchorage yet (yes, pre-AIS), and we would not leave the base for 4 hours. Too short to find a hotel and take a shower. But during the ride I had started to form a plan to deal with my sweaty back. I assumed that those bead seat covers might provide sufficient ventilation to make my ride bearable, and if I could fit a lift out roof vent in the hardtop, I would be able to get better air flow too. I asked the launch driver: Any place you think I can get one of those bead seat covers? He thought for a minute and said: “There is a Walmart about 10 miles back up the road. Try there.”

I had never been to a Walmart before. I walked in and found the seat covers, and also bought a compass, some ¾” rope, jumper cables (extra long ones!) and other things to bling out the Jeep.

Almost immediately I was convinced that I would buy the Jeep once it came off lease, and therefore I did not hesitate to fit a trailer hitch, the moon roof, a trunk lockbox and a center console. I also spent quite a bit of money to make my cellphone work in the car, which involved a separate mount, exterior antenna, amp and fancy handset. (It never worked very well; too much noise. Moreover, the greatest joy of driving the Jeep is completely ignoring the cell phone, which became modus operandi very soon). I even thought about getting an underhood welding machine for it, but that never happened.

While it was still on lease, I developed a long term plan for the car. It would serve me as a company lease, at some stage it would teach the kids to drive stick and it would become their car, and then, when it got really old, I would get it to my wife’s camp in the Adirondacks and we’d drop the registration and it would become the camp truck.

Very soon after I got it, something strange happened. My work package changed from local surveying to worldwide salvage work, and I spent many weeks away from home, and barely put any miles on the Jeep.

So when the lease was up, I got a call from the leasing company asking if I wanted to buy the car. I was ornery for some reason, and I said something weird like: “Money talks BS walks, how much”

She asked how much I would offer and I offered something like 2/3 of the lease remainder. She asked how many miles the car had and I said that made no difference. I did not tell her the car had only some 10,000 miles on it after three years. She said: “I’ll call you back”

She called back 20 minutes later and told me, if I got the check to her by the end of the week, the Jeep was mine. So I came to own it, really cheap, even though I would have bought it at full price.

While I continued to use it on the job every now and then, this is the moment where it really became part of a larger family. Co-ops drove it and it became a stand by local towing vehicle. I do not recommend highway towing of loads over 1,500 pounds on a car like this, but gleefully admit that locally we have towed over 6000 pounds with it, and, boy, is it fun to really shoehorn things into tight spots with the small turning circle, tiny rear wheel overhang, and excellent visibility of this car.

It towed all kinds of stuff and we hid a key in the car so, every now and then, I would come home and figure a friend had taken it to tow something because it was not in its regular spot. Often we’d get the Jeep back and there would be a six pack on the porch.

I bought some beautiful chain and chain hooks at Fair Haven Hardware and we often pulled stumps with it.

All with very little mechanical complaint.

One time it was in for service and a mechanic admitted he tightened the exhaust manifold, thinking there was a small leak, and broke a stud. We looked at it and since it did not leak any worse, we’d see how it developed. That was 20 years ago, the broken stud is still there.

Between 1995 and 2019, this is the list of work that needed to be done:

  1. 1.      Steering damper replaced
  2. 2.      Water cooling pump blew out. Replaced by Jake with help from my dad
  3. 3.      New shocks, replaced with nice Monroe’s
  4. 4.      New exhaust
  5. 5.      Rotted out brake lines (probably from too much salt water boat launching) Replaced by Monmouth Classic Cars, where Hannah interned.
  6. 6.      Brakes (two sets, so far) Done by Tubbies who also services the car
  7. 7.      Two sets of Goodyears
  8. 8.      Fifth gear stopped working around 2017. After driving it for four months with 4 gears, Hannah and a friend pulled the tranny and fixed it.
  9. 9.      A broken driver’s side seat belt clasp. A replacement easily purchased on the internet
  10. In 2019 the car has only 120,000 miles but, generally, local miles are the toughest on a car.

And let’s talk about tough; besides the towing, occasional off-roading, stump pulling, and other typical Jeep abuse, this Jeep also suffered a special abuse that will probably never occur again in human history.

By dint of its vintage, and being homeported in a hoity toity community, this Jeep was just about the only manual transmission car in the community. That put it in special demand which I will explain later, but first let me deviate a little.

Around 2002 my son Jake was getting ready to drive. Jake is quite bright; some will describe him as a space cadet. As a father that pleases me no end, except to note that space cadets, in modern cars with automatic transmissions and air conditioning, tend to zone out. Their thoughts wander to fusion reactors, and other things that have nothing to do with paying attention to the road. As a parent I was truly worried that my son would not be able to drive safely. I was despairing after he failed to perform in the family minivan and also in the VW Jetta wagon. And then I saw the Jeep and thought: “Well we have tried everything else, why not the Jeep.”

I asked Jake: “Would you like to drive the Jeep” and he lit up. So I showed him how to drive stick (there is a special trick to this, which was related to me by Click and Clack). He got it right away!

But even more interesting, the much more tactile experience of driving a clap trap marginally stable underpowered manual transmission car kept him from zoning out, and, Jake became a very good driver. It turns out that kids become better drivers when they drive primitive cars.

The Jeep became Jake’s high school driver and Hannah’s high school driver and Abby’s high school driver. In our high schools where new Beemers are a common sight, the Jeep stood out and friends with fancy cars wanted to drive it too. But it was stick, and so my kids taught those kids to drive stick too. (I did not know this until recently, which I think is quite funny). We never made an exact count, but most of the kids in our community that know how to drive stick, probably learned on our Jeep, using the same trick that I taught my kids. And here is the amazing thing; after all this abuse the Jeep is still on its original clutch! How did the clutch survive? I don’t know, but there are still mechanical mysteries in our world (like Voyager and the Mars rovers) and this is one.

By the time the Jeep became Abby’s high school driver, we noticed that there were some problems with the cassette player in the car. I told Abby, if she worked with me, we would install a new stereo. We went to BestBuy and bought a nice Alpine stereo and decent waterproof speakers (since in the summer the Jeep drove topless). We used mahogany from an old Lighting sailboat that we had scrapped and built a speaker box that mounted on the trunk safe, and installed the stereo.

So now I am getting close to the main point of my story.

It was a nice stereo and the first one that I owned with a USB port.

As an experiment I decided to get a thumb drive, put some music on it, and see what it could do. I have all my music on CD’s and Hannah had just given me the Ya-Ke-Ma Galactic CD (2010). I copied it and another Galactic CD (Cooling off) on the stick and it worked very nicely. Galactic provides that great greasy thump that seems to jive with the rattling and shuddering of a Jeep

Then I realized the stereo could shuffle the songs on the thumb drive and I decided to load it up with more stuff, but I did not want to load up whole albums, since I did not want to have to hit the skip button.  In a Jeep the stereo is only a few inches from the floor and it is really hard to hit one of those tiny stereo buttons while the car is shuddering along. I filled the thumb drive with stuff I liked, and that I thought worked well with a Jeep. I just kept going through my CD collection and loaded stuff from Leonard Cohen, to Nina Simone, to Santana, to Matt O’Ree.

I popped the stick in and it was a weird kind of magic. The Galactic backbone together with the eclectic other songs provides a weird sense of joy, freedom, surprise and anticipation. Not just I, but everybody (my kids included) who rode in the Jeep went: “What am I listening to? This is great stuff. No, it is perfect. Perfect for riding in the Jeep.”

Perfection. What is perfection? I still drive the Jeep every now and then, and automatically the stereo fires up on the Jeep Music Stick. Music has changed and taste changes, but every time, to this day, the selection and its random play delights me. Every now and then I think I should get a massively big thumb drive and load up even more music that I particularly like and put it in the Jeep, but then I have second thoughts. Will I ruin it? Will it go from perfection to an aimless mess of excess?

As it is right now, it provides me joy. What is real joy? Maybe it is accidental perfection. And when it happens, why not stick with it? Here it happened with a thumb drive in a magic Jeep. As a designer I have seen perfection occur in other situations, and it befuddled me just as much, but if you accidentally achieve perfection, don’t mess with it. I decided I am not adding other stuff. Whenever the Jeep stick fires up, I will simply think of all the weird coincidences that led to its creation.

The Jeep is getting older (24 years old!), and nothing lasts forever. I see rust in places where it becomes difficult to deal with, the window gaskets have crumbled, we have made some jury-rigged fixes (mostly cosmetic, non truly mechanical). It still runs fine, but for how long?

Some day I will retire it (scrapping sounds so mean), and it will be a sad, sad, day. That car has been central to my quest for freedom. I bought it when I knew I had gotten to where I wanted to be, and my family enjoyed it just as much for very similar reasons. When I retire it, I will take out the thumb drive as a symbol of the removal of its soul.

But this is a great soul, a rare soul that does not have to fade away. I can pop it into any USB and, once again, I will feel the joy of a quarter century of coincidence, growth, fun and adventure. Moreover, I can copy it and share it with the other travelers in this coincidental adventure. As a matter of fact, I have already made a bunch of copies, and am sharing it with those who I think will appreciate it. If you would like to try it, this is the play list. No need to own all the CD’s, you should be able to put it together on Spotify. If you ask me really nicely, maybe I will burn you a copy.

  1. Chasing Pirates, Norah Jones
  2. Friends of Science, Galactic
  3. Go Go, Galactic
  4. Imagine, John Lennon
  5. Kid from Red Bank, Count Basie
  6. See That My Grave Is Kept Clean, B.B King
  7. Smoking Gun, Robert Cray
  8. V Neck Sweater, Greyboy Allstars
  9. Valle de Picadura, Irakere
  10. Boe Money, Galactic
  11. Clint Eastwood, Gorrilaz
  12. Fat Man in the Bathtub, Little Feat
  13. Messin’ With the Kid, Junior Wells
  14. Welcome to New Orleans, Galactic
  15. What I Got, Sublime
  16. What’s Happening Brother, Marvin Gaye
  17. Something’s Wrong with This Picture, Galactic
  18. There Stands the Glass, Ted Hawkins
  19. What the Water Gave Me, Florence and the Machine
  20. Deck Shoes, Greyboy Allstars
  21. Funky Bird, Galactic
  22. Heart of Steel, Galactic
  23. I Need You Tonight, ZZ Top
  24. Incident at Neshabur, Santana
  25. Rock and Roll Stew, Traffic
  26. Stormy, Santana
  27. That’s What Keeps Me Rockin’, Robert Cray
  28. Double-O, Count Basie
  29. Groovy Little Things, Ted Hawkins
  30. In The Cold, Cold Night, The White Stripes
  31. Smooth, Santana
  32. Stax Jam, Galactic
  33. The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me), Tom Waits
  34. Wild Man, Galactic
  35. Bacchus, Galactic
  36. Church, Galactic
  37. Hummingbird, B.B. King and John Mayor (this version is the real thing)
  38. Invitation to the Blues, Tom Waits
  39. Legs, ZZ Top
  40. Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology), Marvin Gaye
  41. Rosalita (Come Out Tonight) Bruce Springsteen (the original version)
  42. Katey vs. Nobby, Galactic
  43. On the One, Galactic
  44. Pasties and a G-String, Tom Waits
  45. Samba Pa Ti, Santana
  46. Cineramascope, Galactic
  47. Cry for Me Baby, Robert Cray
  48. Mystery Tube, Galactic
  49. Dark Water, Galactic
  50. Doo Rag, Galactic
  51. Dixie Chicken, Little Feat
  52. Percussion Interlude, Galactic
  53. Stormy Monday-Have You Ever Loved a Woman–No Rollin’ Blues, Van Morrison, A night in San Francisco
  54. Time Makes Two, Robert Cray
  55. Everybody Wants Some, Pt. 1, Galactic
  56. Good Thang, Matt O’Ree
  57. Liquor Pang, Galactic
  58. The Red Rooster, Howlin’ Wolf
  59. Theresa, Matt O’Ree
  60. Everybody Wants Some, Pt. 2, Galactic
  61. Krewe d’Etat, Galactic
  62. Rucu Rucu a Santa Clara, Irakere
  63. The 12 Year Old Boy, Robert Cray
  64. Bold as Love, Jimi Hendrix
  65. Do the Do, Howlin’ Wolf
  66. Everybody Wants Some, Pt. 3, Galactic
  67. God Send, Matt O’Ree
  68. Hallelujah, Leonard Cohen
  69. The Calling, Eric Clapton and Carlos Santana
  70. You Don’t Know, Galactic
  71. Blues in G, B.B. King
  72. Goodnight, Galactic
  73. Moondance-My Funny Valentine, Van Morrison, A night in San Francisco
  74. Sailin’ Shoes.wma, Little Feat
  75. Sinner Man, Nina Simone
  76. Speaks His Mind, Galactic
  77. I’m Your Man, Leonard Cohen
  78. The Healer, Santana with John Lee Hooker
  79. I was not in the mood to type all the album names (it was hard enough to cut and paste the file names and to type in the artist names), but in a few cases I added an album or further direction, because other versions may not work as well.