Another Boringly Obvious Observation
Not Worth the Time It Takes to Read
Do you remember the massive Ross Steering Gear recall?
Of course you don’t. Please bear with me.
Thirty-five years ago a truck driver on a high-speed freeway lost control and crashed, killing a slew of people. Soon after, another trucker lost control of his rig and more people died. Tractor-trailers all over North America were veering wildly and crashing, and no one knew why. Trucking stopped. Supply chains broke. Every fleet and independent hauler had to pull over and wait for a fix.
At last, crash analysis fingered the Ross Steering Gear. Picture a big doohickey that transfers the motion of the steering wheel to the motion of the front wheels. In addition it assists the effort, turning manual steering into power steering. When it fails, the driver is forced to muscle the entire forward force of the vehicle by him/herself. Suddenly, under split-second driving conditions, truck drivers were finding their steering wheels almost frozen.
Truck builders—Freightliner, Peterbilt, Kenworth, etc.—had to launch massive recall campaigns to rejig the pressure relief valves that were the culprit.1 All of this backstory finds yours truly in a garage full of guys staring at a Ross Steering Gear and betting on how much it weighed. Covering your legal ass is the first order of business in every motor-vehicle recall, and that starts with crafting legal boilerplate so that if someone gets hurt it’s not your fault. And that starts with a warning so that if someone lifts the gear and hurts their spine the onus is on them, thus the weight guessing.
Each guy silently squatted down and lifted the gear and wrote his guess on a sheet of paper. If you’re a guy, life is chockablock with this kind of pissing match.
In this crew of grease monkeys and engineers I was the sole journalism major, but I’d lifted weights since high school. I wrote. And I lifted weights. I’d just never combined the two skills.
The stupid “journalist” would never know what anything weighed, but I squatted and deadlifted and wrote down 78.6 pounds. The knowledge was less in my head than in my legs and arms. It just felt like 78.6 pounds. My head had to trust my muscles, and that was tough. My brain hadn’t a clue.
It really was an everyone-laughed-when-I-sat-down-at-the-piano moment. We put the gear on a scale, and it weighed 78.6 pounds. Copious whistling and backslapping ensued. To add to the lesson, I can recall the feeling of triumph—but not the amount of money I won. Another argument in favor of emotion over cash.
In writing workshops this moment of complete surprise always comes back to me. So often younger writers develop a fantastic technical skill, but have almost no experience to write about. At the same time, older writers have a wealth of stories but little skill for telling them. In both cases it’s a matter of combining the two assets.
Years ago the writer Doug Coupland told me about a study that supported the theory that the final major development in a human brain occurred around the age of thirty-one. Only at that age could people first combine their experience with their formal education. So it tended to be at thirty-one that people created their masterpiece. Or first masterpiece. Whatever the case, it’s at thirty-one that they can mix every facet of their schooling and their lives.
It’s shocking how quickly younger writers pick up a storytelling method, but a little sad when they have so few ideas to flesh out. At the same time, it’s amazing how many good ideas older writers have… but so few tricks they have for executing those brilliant ideas.
In both cases, it’s just a matter of time, if they have the patience and can trust that both qualities are necessary. In my experience they give up before they gain either the life experience or the storytelling skill.
If you were here right now I’d tell you to squat down and write with your legs. And with your brains. Write with your whole person, but mostly with your legs.
At Freightliner it was an engineer, Mo, short for Muhammad, who discovered this flaw and saved the day. He was awake for most of a week in doing so. It seems that if a driver cranked the wheel too hard in one direction the force would explode the pressure relief valves and all the hydraulic fluid would leak out.