The Governor


July 27, 2018

Back when we were in Oregon, waiting breathlessly for Larry’s calls, and I swear, it was just like being a teenager and waiting for that boy to call, except this time everyone in the house would fall silent when the phone rang, there was great confusion about why the bus wouldn’t idle. Looking back at the old posts, it seems we thought it was a vacuum leak, and maybe it was in part, for the problem did seem to get better before being solved, but I never took the time to explain was the question of the governor.

No, I’m not talking about Jerry Brown, here (again), but instead what is better termed a “Mechanical Governor.” Here’s the dictionary definition:

“A device automatically regulating the supply of fuel, steam, or water to a machine, ensuring uniform motion or limiting speed”

Somehow in the patchwork of calls with Larry, and in switching back and forth talking to him, we only belatedly realized that the governor was at fault with the bus. Apparently my father told Ariana something about the governor being maybe the source of the problem, as he had it disabled years ago, but somehow that information never percolated through to Larry, who tried in vain to get that old governor to work. I still feel bad knowing that Larry tried and tried to make it work, when if we had just asked Dad, he could have told Larry it had been purposely disabled years ago. Finally, Larry simply removed the governor, and problem solved, leaving the electrical short as the next issue. Now, this might seem like a very minor issue, and in fact it is a very minor issue, and hardly worth spending time explaining, except for what the governor meant to me.


From the moment Ariana mentioned the governor, I knew what it was. I mean, I had never realized that VWs had governors, or why this might affect the fuel mixture and lead a car to die in idle, but I knew what a governor was, and that’s the story I want to tell here.

Last June, the chair of the English Department where I work, Dr. Jim Garrett, died unexpectedly. It was a total shock to everyone, and all this year I have carried thoughts about Jim with me, unsure of what to actually do with them. To say that I admired Jim would not even be a little bit accurate. For me, Jim was everything I ever wanted to be as a person and a professor, a man I saw as so remarkable and funny and odd and inspirational and intelligent and organized that I knew full well I could never be like Jim, but he gave me something to strive for. His kindness was legendary, and his loss still impacts those who knew him. I never saw Jim as a father figure, and never considered myself worthy of being his peer, but I did feel a kind of recognition in him, as we bonded over obscure folk music, or I made him laugh telling him about my camping trips. In fact, I wish nothing more than that Jim were here reading this, although I am sure he would have more important work to do, and I know I would have been unbearably nervous if I ever thought he was reading my shoddy prose.

But here’s the point: Jim is why I knew what a governor was, instantly, and when Ariana said that word, I flashed back to a meeting with the Composition faculty at school. We were discussing the policy of Directed Self Placement—allowing students to self select English courses in a bid to do away with so-called “remediation,” and Jim told us: “We will keep the governor on,” meaning that we would not allow students to place themselves willy nilly with no advice, and then he laughed his instantly identifiable giggle, and made some remark about how he was throwing in 19th century language by habit, not because we knew what it meant. Jim specialized in that era, and I had read a great many novels from that time, but even I wasn’t sure I knew what it meant, so I Googled it when I got home.

In some ways this is just one of the many random coincidences of life and this trip, and as I have admitted, I was engaging in magical thinking, looking for portents and signs as we tried to leave, but in that moment, in my father’s backyard, the sky lit up with the Milky Way, it felt like Jim was there with me. The governor, I thought, as I went to sleep that night. Of course, it would be the governor.

After we had the governor removed and the bus began to run, albeit without signals or brake lights, I wondered a little about whether or not we should have removed it. The lovely folks in Mendocino told us that they always removed them—waste of time—so that helped, and one Volkswagen owner we met in LA told us it was “like the pancreas, just take it out,” although I hope he meant appendix, and so far the new mechanic seems not to care that it is gone, so I imagine we are fine. After all, it seems of little use to control for speed in a world in which cars move so much faster than the Bus, and if need be, I’m sure Robert can locate one on the many sites that cater to VW owners looking to rebuild. Robert’s new hobby, is looking for parts as though the bus is a vintage guitar desperately in need of rehab; I half expect he will order a Whammy bar or new pick-ups for it. But at that moment, in the mysteries of whether the trip would happen or not, of whether or not the bus would run, that connection to Jim was oddly heartening to me, and I only wish that Jim was here so I could tell him the tale, which I’m sure he would listen to politely, offer some advice about VWs and governors, as I am sure Jim knew about this obscure topic just as he knew about everything else, and send me on my way feeling all the better for having stopped to talk to him, which was exactly how Jim always made me feel.


Memory Catchers at San Simeon State Park, 2015


Note on this blog: I’m starting to think of this as “Flogging a Dead Horse/Bus,” given that we have been back for almost three weeks, and I am still posting these pieces. Here’s the deal: I have a Post It note I wrote when I came home with the topics I hadn’t had time to cover on the trip. Here’s what I have left: Precious Cargo and The Bus in LA. That will really finally be it, until we take a trip, anyway. I have some commitment to finishing this for reasons that remain unclear to me even now, and there is something in the routine of the writing that has captured me. When it comes time to write, I go out in my back yard, the skyline of LA in the distance, and I set up this laptop at the table, and it ties me back to the past, back to the trip, but it is also a forward motion (only I have no idea where I am going). Soon enough the summer will end, school will return, and this will be my grading papers time of day, but until then, I just want to finish the job.

Often on our trips I make these hanging mobile things that I call “Memory Catchers” because they capture the memory of when I was on the trip. I use a hand powered drill and sea shells, rocks, driftwood, some beads, hemp, whatever I find on the beach or in the bead stores of Morro Bay and Cambria. Some years I make many of them, some years just a few, and I often give them out as Christmas gifts. We have them around our house, and as the years pass, they fall apart, but as I pause to retie one, I never fail to remember where I was when I made it. That’s the purpose of continuing this, I think. We pause to reflect so infrequently in our lives, and yet as a teacher, I know well the power of reflection. If I don’t write these things down, perhaps I will forget them, or they will be buried under the daily onslaught of news, so I sit here even now, the sun sinking slowly, waiting for the full moon to rise, and as always, I am not sure just what I will discover, but I am sure that I will learn something from the exercise.

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