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  • Writer's pictureJim Martin

On Universal Joints and Amusement Parks

Updated: Nov 17, 2023

The next issue The Dart began to display was a tendency to squeak. It began slowly and quietly. So, both BOB! and I did the only obvious thing. We ignored it. That worked for a while until the noise became so obnoxiously loud it was impossible to ignore. The Dart didn’t squeak unless it was moving. Idling at a stoplight, it just sounded normal: like a car in dire need of a tune up. But as soon as you pulled away from said stoplight, the noise would start—slow at first, then gradually faster. Squeeeeeeeeak, squeeeeeak, squeeeak, squeak, squk, squk, squk, sqk, sqk, sk, sk, sk, sk, sk…

[If you are more interested in Barbershop Harmony than universal joints (though I'm aware that's a tough call), you can jump to the Barbershop stuff here.]

One day I pulled in to a gas station to put $6 of gas into The Dart. Approaching a stop created the same squeaking sound, but in reverse, from fast to slow—sk, sk, sk, sk, sk, sqk, sqk, squk, squk, squk, squeak, squeeeak, squeeeeeak, squeeeeeeeeak. While I was focused on carefully rationing the gas into the tank, a guy in mechanic’s coveralls came out of the garage nearby. “I can replace that universal joint for you,” he said.

I had no clue what a universal joint was, of course, but I truly appreciated the free diagnosis inherent in his offer. “Thanks,” I said confidently, “but I plan to take care of it this weekend.”

“Suit yourself,” said the mechanic not unkindly, “but I’d get to it soon. It sounds like it could come apart any second.”

The modifier “universal” attached to the noun “joint” lent a certain foreboding to the idea of what might happen should one “come apart.” But I managed to get this out of my mind for the remainder of the trip home—which only consumed about $4.50 worth of gas.

That weekend, delighted to have a wingman for these errands, I strolled into the auto parts store with BOB!. At the counter I said, “We need a universal joint for a ’69 Dodge Dart Swinger—the one with the Slant Six,” with a studied air of disinterested confidence. The man consulted his rack of catalogs, disappeared into the bank of shelves and emerged with a cardboard box roughly the size of a small paperback novel.

The box seemed too small to hold a “universal” anything. But when the auto parts store guy quoted the price at $29.95, we decided to take it on faith. Back at the little house, we examined the thing. And here I must digress yet again.

Before enrolling in college, I’d had no idea what an engineer was—other than someone who wore striped overalls and drove a train. But I had a friend from high school named PJ who was also attending UMass and who was studying mechanical engineering. My roommate, Brad, it turns out, was studying chemical engineering. (Both of these guys will figure in to the story later.) Through PJ and Brad I developed an appreciation for what engineering was, and what it could accomplish. (This was all happening during my several torturous months as a computer science major.)

As BOB! and I examined the universal joint, I was enthralled. It was essentially a piece of forged metal in the shape of a plus sign, with heavy-duty bearings at each of the four extremities. The crank shaft, coming from the engine was attached to one axis of the joint, and the drive shaft was attached to the other axis. This created a flexible joint between the two that could operate smoothly as the car went over bumps and through turns, even when the crank shaft and the drive shaft changed angles with respect to each other.

It may not sound like it in writing, but it is such a simple, elegant solution to the significant problem of transmitting a huge load of torque coming from the slant six at the front of the car, to the drive wheels at the back of the car. The U-Joint kept that linkage consistent regardless of the angle between the crankshaft and the drive shaft. Brilliant. And all for $29.95.

Installing the thing was a little less elegant.

As we were extracting the old U-Joint, the mystery of the accelerating squeaks was revealed. Several of the bearings on the old unit were shot. One bearing was so bad that its innards had turned to powder. The old joint came apart as we finished unbolting everything, and the engine end of the drive shaft hit the pavement with a deep “thunk!” “Great!” I said to BOB!. “We’re half done.”

But the re-assembly was the decidedly inelegant part. The new U-Joint didn’t seem to fit in the very precise amount of space at the union of the crank and drive shafts. No matter how hard we tried, or at what angle, the pieces would not come back together. I am thoroughly convinced that the mechanic from the gas station would have had some clever way to slip the new joint it with very little sweat or rust in his eyes. BOB! and I were not so lucky. We worked the problem all afternoon with no success.

Finally, I had the brilliant idea (I don’t mind telling you) of removing the drive shaft entirely. BOB! was unconvinced of this idea’s merits. He expressed a concern that there may be some sort of fluid in the transmission at the back of the car that might be released by such an endeavor. “Nonsense,” I insisted, with the confidence of someone who had already seen one car admitted to the junk yard, “what could go wrong?”

I slid the drive shaft out of the sleeve that positioned it to engage with the transmission in the rear of the car. As soon as the rear end of the shaft exited the sleeve, a viscous black liquid began to pour onto the pavement. I squirmed around trying to avoid the substance while at the same time quickly re-inserting the drive shaft, which turned out to be fairly heavy. I’m not sure how much liquid we lost, or how important that liquid was, but clearly the drive shaft was going to stay in position from now on.

In the end, the solution to installing the new U-Joint turned out to be the use of force. We just compelled it into place with a series of (careful) blows. We bolted the crank shaft and then the drive shaft to their respective axes of the U-Joint, threw an old towel over the oil slick, and jumped in the car to test our handiwork. After cranking it over the requisite number of times, the slant six finally chugged to life, and we took The Dart for a spin. The absolute silence of the new universal joint was music to our ears.

Canobie Lake Park

The end of that semester (and my time as a computer science major) finally arrived. My roommate Brad, who had been looking for a summer job, decided he would join us at Canobie Lake Park. For that was the amusement park in southern New Hampshire to which we’d been assigned. The park let us know that there were lots of summer job openings if we had friends who needed them. Brad, the chemical engineer, was probably better suited for an internship at DuPont or something constructive like that. But the prospect of a summer at an amusement park was more than he could refuse.

We packed up The Dart and headed to Salem, New Hampshire to join all the other employees for an orientation a day before the park opened. The Dart had no trouble ferrying all five of us, and our stuff for the summer, in one trip. There was leftover room in the trunk.

At the park we were met by the same small roundish man who had heard our audition back in Boston. He introduced himself as Dave—the representative from the talent agency. He quickly shunted Brad along to the appropriate “park staff” representatives for his specific orientation and training.

Dave brought us to the large auditorium in the middle of the park. He led us to a room at the back that was to serve as our dressing room for the summer. There he asked us to sing through selections from the setlist we had developed and debuted at the Harvard Coop. Dave was pleased with the setlist, adding that we sounded even better than we had at the audition.

Next, he revealed to us the wardrobe we’d be sporting as we sang to the guests at Canobie Lake that summer. As he rummaged through a couple of boxes, Dave seemed to belabor the point that the agency’s “master wardrobe designer”, a man apparently known as Jake, had taken great pains in designing what we were about to see.

First, Dave produced four straw “Skimmer hats.” Those are the straw boater hats with the flat brims you’ve seen every Barbershop quartet wear since hats were invented.

The only problem was that while the agency had solicited all of our measurements, they hadn’t managed to find a hat large enough to fit me. Squimbo, Tommy, and BOB! looked great in theirs. Mine had to be compelled onto my skull by force. This was disappointing, but not surprising. I have yet to meet a person on planet earth with a larger head than mine.

I first noticed this phenomenon in little league. The other kids on my team used to wear their batting helmets over their baseball caps, as was the style back in those days. I on the other hand, couldn’t find a helmet that could be forced down upon my bare dome, much less one that would accommodate my head and my ballcap at the same time. Mine was the cranium that laughed at “one size fits all” labels. Had I lived during the time when intelligence was measured by the size of one’s skull, I’d have ruled the world.

My skimmer hat fit better once I removed all the padded lining that was intended to make it comfortable. But since each of our shows was only going to be about 20 minutes long, I figured I could endure it. On the upside, the hat gripped my head so tightly there was no way I was going to lose to an unexpected gust of wind… or a tornado.

Next, Dave produced matching sets including a vest, bowtie, and arm garter for each of us. It’s hard to say for sure what was running through Jake the master wardrobe designer’s head when he dreamed these up, but they were something to behold. The unifying theme of each of the three pieces was a shaggy kind of silvery spangles that had a prismatic effect on any light that hit them.

This material would later be identified by some of the other performers at the park as “eyelash” material. They were hideous. Apparently, Jake’s mastery stopped short of the Barbershop world.

Setting the costumes aside for the time being, we toured the park to determine the most interesting places where we might sing throughout the day—places where people might be waiting in lines, or resting in the shade, or otherwise congregated. We ended the day with a tentative time and location for each of our seven daily shows.

As the orientation day came to a close, we picked up Brad and headed off to an address we’d been given by Dave. There, he told us, we would find our lodgings for the summer. During the 30-minute drive, Brad told us all about his orientation and training experience—most of which seemed to have to do with mastering techniques for cleaning vomit off amusement park rides with a bucket of water. He informed us that he’d been assigned to a ride called The Paratrooper for the summer.

Brad and I were good friends. So, it was with mixed feelings of guilt and glee that I contemplated the irony of his having very successfully completed an Organic Chemistry final just a few days ago, only to find out that he’d be spending the entirety of his summer cleaning up partially digested organic material that had been projectile vomited from The Paratrooper. Brad himself seemed rather sanguine about the prospect, however.

The address given to us by Dave took us to a real estate office. We paid a deposit and were handed the keys to our new digs. We pulled The Dart into the parking lot of what, in its prime, must have once been seedy motel. Clearly it had since fallen on hard times. The dilapidated building formed three low and rather dank “wings,” not unlike an incomplete hexagon. We located the doors matching the numbers on our keys. There were two rooms among the five of us.

Somehow it seemed to already have been decided that BOB! and Tommy would take one room, and Brad and I would share the other with Squimbo Pie. This, I believe, was in an effort to stabilize the average maturity levels in the two rooms. Squimbo, as you will find out, was still in the process of growing up. Apparently, it was hoped that the more mature pheromones of his older roommates would prevent such youthful excesses as the drinking too many wine coolers. It was worth a try.

Also staying at the formerly seedy motel that summer were roughly ten singer/dancers who would be performing the other shows at the park. And rounding out the entertainment was a magician named Tab, and his lovely assistant Julie. We sized one-another up the way you do when you wonder how 11 weeks of working and living together might turn out. I had my doubts about Tab the magician, and a vague concern about wine coolers, but other than that, it seemed like it was shaping up to be a good summer.

We eventually settled in for a solid night’s sleep in preparation for our first official workday at Canobie Lake Park.


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