Silver Springs 1971
I had no trouble finding the little cinder block building two miles west of the four corners intersection in Silver Springs. I parked my red Honda CL450 motorcycle next to the open door of the shop and walked inside. When my eyes adjusted to the darkness I saw a man sitting at a table studying blueprints.
He saw me and asked if he could help. I told him I was a machinist looking for work and the guy at the service station told me there might be work here. He stood up and introduced himself as Bill Turner, the owner, and yes, he had work for a real machinist, if that’s what I was. I quickly recounted my years of experience as a mechanic and also my apprenticeship at Olympic Screw and Rivet in Downy, CA. I went on to tell of my experience working for Kimzey Welding in Woodland, CA.
He narrowed his eyes and asked if I could make anything he could draw. I wasn’t sure I knew where he was going with that question, as I looked over the pile of blueprints on his table, but I went with my first thought—
“No, I can’t, because I can draw things on paper that nobody can make from metal with any tool known.”
He smiled and said, “Good answer! I sent somebody else down the road yesterday for claiming he could make anything.”
“When can you start?” he asked.
“Immediately,” I answered. “How is the pay?”
“$3.50 an hour, eight hours a day, five days a week. We pay every week.”
I knew I was going to like the work, and the pay was $0.25 more than I was making in Woodland before I quit, so there was that raise I didn’t get at Kimzey Welding.
Bill Turner spent an hour or so going over the prints on the table, which were of experimental engines that he had patented over the years. He had patents on 29 different engines, he said, and some looked like they might work to me. He had a rotary scissor piston engine that I thought would be good, but he wanted to start on a rotary steam engine, which looked to me like a simple vane pump with an offset shaft to impart an acceleration motion from one side to the other, which he claimed gave him more torque and power. I was skeptical, but I didn’t argue. No use making the boss mad the first day. Besides, I was already liking this guy.
I came to realize that Nevada attracts loners, iconoclasts, reprobates, and curmudgeons. He was a classic, and an alcoholic to boot. He went through a fifth of Black Velvet every day, and still continued to function fairly well, although slower as the day went on.
Nevada was a unique state in 1971. No speed limits outside of town, no laws against gambling or prostitution, and no state income tax, either. A real Libertarian heaven.
Evening was coming on, and Bill Turner asked,
“Do you have a family?”
“Yes, I have a wife and two kids back in California.”
“It’s too late to do any work today, and tomorrow is Saturday. Why not go back to California and bring your family here, and we can start work Monday.”
“Great” I said. “I will have to find a place to move to, first.”
Bill said there was a room off the shop where we could stay temporarily, until we could find a house to live in. He showed me the room, which was very small, with one cot there and a small desk with a phone.
On the desk was a large snake, around six feet long, I would guess, maybe three inches in diameter in the middle, wrapped around the phone, dozing in the desert heat. Bill explained that this was Oscar, the shop pet, and he made sure there were no rodents of any kind around the shop. He was impressive, but harmless—a big Bull Snake—just watch your step, and be careful answering the phone.
Sierra Rotary Engine Corporation was going to be an exciting place to work!
It was getting late in the after noon, so I rode back over Donner Summit back to Woodland, where I arrived late that night. I told Carolyn the good news about the job I’d found and the temporary living arrangements until we could find a house to rent in Silver Springs.
The next day we packed the car with essentials for a week in Nevada. We had to pack very light, because we had a small Toyota Corolla station wagon, and we had four people to carry there also.
On Sunday we traveled back over the Sierras and moved into the small rooms at the shop. Bill told us the house about 300 yards behind the shop was empty and might be available for rent. He thought he could find out who owned it and find out the details.
I spent the first week working on Bill Turner’s rotary steam engine, the one that was basically a vane pump. His machine shop was sorely lacking in some of the basic tools, such as a boring bar. To make the precise holes in the part we had to use an end mill cutter on the part, centered on a rotary table in the milling machine. That led to tapered holes and bad fitting parts, so eventually Bill had to part with some scarce cash and buy a few more tools.
I soon found the company was financed by shares of stock from several small investors, the largest of which was a real estate company in Carson City. A couple of times when money was low in the bank, Bill would call them and send me over to the real estate company to get my paycheck.
While I was at work in the shop, Carolyn called around to find a place to rent. Bill eventually found the phone number for the house behind the shop, and when Carolyn called, they agreed to let us rent it for a while, as they were living in Reno, but hoping to move into that house later.
On Friday evening the owner came over, showed us the house, which included a stove that he swore cost $700, although I thought to myself he got took badly if he paid that much. It was well used, and when Carolyn baked the first cake, we had to prop up the rack on some empty Dr. Pepper cans because the racks didn’t fit the oven. We paid the rent, which was very low compared to California rents, so we were going to have a little more money to spend, I thought.
The following weekend we went back to Woodland, CA, rented a truck, cleaned out the house and got the rent settled with the owner of the house we had been renting. We got a little money back on the rent that we had paid that we weren’t going to be using, since we were moving out well before the end of the month. The truck was full, the little red Toyota was full, Rick’s ’54 Ford pickup was loaded with my CL450 Honda motorcycle, our daughter Darlene, and boxes of household stuff, and we were ready to roll. The Toyota was hitched behind the truck with a tow bar, which didn’t fit the bumper very well, but I thought it would be OK if I were careful.
The return trip over the Sierras was not easy. Just as we started up the foothills and I downshifted the truck I was driving, I saw Rick passing me. I wondered if he was just in a hurry, before I noticed that his right rear wheel was coming out from under the truck. His rear axle bearing had sheared off, and he had no brakes. He skillfully steered the skidding pickup over to the side of the road next to the guardrail, with sparks spraying from the axle parts dragging on the pavement. At the same moment the rental truck motor quit running, so I was forced to pull over next to the guardrail, too.
Carolyn was about to come unglued, screaming that Rick’s truck was on fire. It really wasn’t, since the burnable part, the tire, had left the pickup and rolled off the road. The smoke was coming from the brake fluid on the hot metal of the backing plate. I reached down and found the fire extinguisher in the rental truck and told her to run up and give it to Rick just in case. His truck stopped about a hundred yards ahead of ours. In a minute it was clear that there was no fire hazard under the pickup truck and Rick and Darlene were OK, but a little shook up. They all soon came back to where I was down with the rental truck.
I raised the hood and had Carolyn crank the starter while I looked to find out what the trouble was. Very quickly it became apparent that there was no spark to the plugs, and a little searching found the primary wire from the coil, mounted on the firewall, to the distributor was broken. The terminal was missing on the distributor end, meaning some mechanic had “fixed” the wire when it had broken before by wrapping the end of the wire around the post and tightening the nut, leaving the wire too short. When I downshifted, the motor rocked in the mounts and yanked the wire loose. I went back in the household stuff and found a wire on a desk lamp to sacrifice, and soon had the rental truck running again.
I pulled the truck up to Rick’s pickup, and we transferred everything over to the rental truck, since it was obvious that we were going to have to leave Rick’s truck where it was. We unloaded the motorcycle and tied it to the front of the truck, with the wheels sitting on the front bumper. Rick wasn’t happy about leaving his pickup, but neither of us had the money for a tow truck then.
All four of us squeezed into the rental truck and continued east toward Nevada. We hoped that nothing else bad would happen on the rest of the trip, but no such luck was in store.
In the little town of Newcastle, CA, we pulled into a gas station for fuel. It was on a hill, and I had to turn a large circle to line up with a gas pump. As I turned, I saw the Toyota come loose and roll backward, snapping the safety chain as it went. I rolled back down the hill and crashed into a large Pontiac parked by the bathrooms, just as the owner of the Pontiac stepped out of the bathroom. Nobody was in either car, and nobody was hurt.
After I got the truck safely parked, I came back and apologized to the lady and we looked at the damage to both cars. The Toyota had almost no damage at all, just a little dent on the back bumper and a broken tail light. The Pontiac bumper was badly bent, and both of her parking/turn signal lights were broken. That made no sense, since her Pontiac was much wider than the Toyota, and the Toyota could not have caused that much damage. I also noticed that the medallion which originally was in the middle of the Pontiac grille was missing and nowhere around on the ground.
I asked her if there was prior damage to her Pontiac, and she gave some noncommittal answer. I offered to pay half her damages if she got an estimate of the cost of repairs, and I gave her my Silver Springs address, which was a P.O. Box, since there was no rural delivery there. I got her address, also. Neither of us had insurance then, as the states had not made it illegal to be poor and own a car yet.
Her car started and ran just fine, and I got the Toyota hooked back up to the rental truck, and reinforced the bumper clamps with some wire I found somewhere to prevent it from detaching again. I tied the safety chain back with some of the same wire, even though I knew now that the chain was inadequate to the task.
We continued over Donner Pass on Interstate 80 and arrived in Silver Springs late in the night. I just parked in the yard of the house, and we all went in and fell asleep until morning, when I had to return to work.