Sunday, October 10
Still got the touch
Years ago I graduated from the Navy’s electronics school at Treasure Island in the San Francisco Bay. I was then sent to the USS Enterprise, CVA(N) 65, the navy’s biggest, newest and first nuclear-powered surface ship. The ship had just completed its very first deployment to the Mediterranean, and still had that new aircraft carrier smell. My job was to maintain about 30 or so pieces of electronic equipment, mostly radar stuff. I was assigned to the Combat Information Center, the secret space where all the nifty war-fighting strategy was implemented. The rest of the people in my shop were Data Systems Technicians, so named because they maintained the computers and peripherals that supposedly made war-fighting more certain (ha!).
I always had an interest in how things worked. When I was a little kid, my Mickey Mouse watch quit working, which gave me the opportunity to take it apart and find that one of the spindles on a gear had bent, probably the result of my rough handling. I straightened it and felt good that I made a dead watch live again. On the Enterprise, it soon became known to the crew that if something electronic broke, I could probably fix it. All of my radar equipment came with detailed manuals and schematics; the stuff I fixed for my buddies had nothing to refer to, schematic-wise. Radios, tape recorders, and even the admiral’s personal television set fell into that category.
On one of our cruises, we had a television crew aboard ship filming a story for a news show. For the audio portion of the film they used a fancy portable tape recorder, made in Switzerland, that I had only heard about. It was so expensive you could almost buy a new Porsche for the same money—honest! It had broken and the TV people were desperate; they were out at sea with no way to get a new recorder and no one to get theirs fixed. They took it to the officer in charge of electronics on the ship, and he said, “Take it to Hurley.”
I was thrilled to dig into the guts of something so exotic. Each of the transistorized circuit boards in the recorder was contained in its own little steel box with wires coming out: motor-speed control circuitry, oscillator for the FM modulator to the recording head, amplifier and pre-amp were all in their own little boxes. Of course I didn’t know beans about what was wrong, so I just used the knowledge I had from fixing radar repeaters, recognizing things like amplifier classes, oscillator types, and so on. Long story short, I got it working and NBC finished their filming. I never saw my name in the credits at the end of the story, though. (Actually, I never saw the story, either.)
Today I rehabbed the old fixit ability and tore into the air conditioning controls of our Toyota Highlander. I had previously ordered a Toyota manual on CD to find out how to get to the circuitry that controlled the A/C unit. The manual said to remove the entire dashboard! Gad! Not that! Many screws and fasteners would have to be located and carefully removed, and I just didn’t want to get into that nonsense. So I did a quick search on the Internet and discovered that to get to the combination radio/climate control, all I had to do was pry away a bezel that conceals the fasteners. I used a broad knife that was made for spreading cake frosting to gently pry the bezel off, then took out six screws and unplugged about six wire harness connectors. Voila! After removing another couple of dozen screws I got to the several circuit boards that control the A/C unit.
The next part reminds me of an old-time radio show, where a newlywed couple is stranded in the countryside, a menacing UFO is right in front of their car, and they’re trying to turn on the radio to see if anyone else has spotted such a thing and reported it to the local radio station. Of course, the radio doesn’t work. The guy (it’s always the guy) crawls under the dashboard and finds the problem—a broken wire. Well, it happens in real life too. A wire from the temperature control knob to the main circuit board was broken off right at the surface of the board. How I spotted it was almost by accident. How it broke, I couldn’t say. It must have been broken from Day One, and just managed to keep in contact till it got jiggled or oxidized or something. I got a new piece of wire and soldered it in, bypassing the broken one. After reassembling the unit and reinstalling it in the dash, I started the engine, turned on the A/C, and for the first time since June, cold air came out the vents! A miracle! The Toyota agency had charged $55 to diagnose the problem and wanted another $947 to install a new control board. I had saved us almost $1,000 and it only took about an hour and a half. Karla was unbelieving until she felt the cold air. Frankly, so was I.
All reinvigorated now, my next project is to figure out how to close the lid on the composter.