When I was young, and the dream of shortstophood was strong, I would practice the throw from deep in the hole with stones.
The first baseman would be a tree. Solid thonks, one after the other, were my reward. Misses sounded like animals scurrying through the underbush.
One day, a miss went nearly a mile. It skittered through a small open field and through a fence. Still with some steam on it, it proceeded out into a slightly sunken avenue and bashed into the window of a passing bus.
Instant spider web! And an instant retreat home.
The cops never found me. But I have wondered all these years about bus windows and bus maintenance in general. The other day, now that the statute of limitations has passed, I decided to have a look at the massive Metrobus maintenance shop.
"Please don't call it a barn," Jim Krik cautioned, right away. "That's streetcar talk." He said it the way the guide tells you not to take pictures on the White House tour. I got the point, not to mention a hint of the pride Kirk's 209 maintenance workers take in what they do.
They do it in a great, green shed at 2250 26th St. NE., just off Bladensburg Road. Jim Kirk, 58, is superintendent. He has held the title since 1970, but he has been in the bus mending business in Washington since 1941, or more than llong enough to remember streetcars.
Both kinds of vehicles used to be fixed in the same place - Fourth and P Streets SW. Thus Kirk's competitiveness. But streetcars died in 1962, and the bus maintenance shop was opened later that same year. It is now responsible for a fleet of 2,250 buses.
"Are we busy?" repeats Jim Kirk, with incredulity. "If you can move around here, you work."
What you work at is anything that makes a bus comfortable, cool, warm, safe, operative or inoperative. The men at the Bladensburg shop not only fix and maintain every Metrobus that serves the Washington area; they often rebuild them.
To do so, they have $1.5 million worth of material and equipment on hand at any one time. The inventory includes everything from a $42,000 roof painting machine to a $1 metal clip that holds transfers.
Yes, there's a window-making machine. It is, to say the least, well-used.
"We used to replace half the windows in the fleet every year, thanks to all the damned vandals," said Kirk. Things are a bit less violent nowadays, but by no means perfect. "These guys," said Kirk, motioning at two carpenters, "they'll knock out six or seven thousand windows a week in their spare time."
But the biggest time-and money-consumer in bus maintenance is engines.
That is the heart of the Bladensburg operation. Engine work consumes nearly a third of the plant's 140,000 square feet, and nearly half the staff.
Most of the heavy stuff is done on the "chassis line" - a row of ten hoists. Nearby are a series of lathes, work-benches and cleaning machines, where defective or dirty parts are cleaned, modified or rebuilt.
Manufacturers warrant buses to the same extent as many car manufacturers: 100,000 miles or two years on the engine and drive train, 50,000 or one year for parts and labor. The difference is that bus warranty work is done by the owner not the dealer. "Who knows 'em better than we do?" Kirk edplained.
He has had plenty of opportunites to learn a certain bunch of buses. In 1973, Metrobus bought 620 new vehicles from American Motors General Corp. of Mishawaka, Ind. Problems with the AMGs have been so numerous and longstanding that they have become a joke around Bladensburg.
All 620 AMGs have been back in the shop three times for complete overhauls. In addition, said Kirk, they have proven far less durable than other makes in the standard areas - engines, clutches and brakes. "We got 620 lemons, minus six," said Kirk, shaking his head. What he meant is that five of the AMGs mysteriously burned up shortly after delivery, and one was wrecked.
Work on the 620 AMG buses was completed fairly quickly, Kirk said. But other work had to be delayed as a result. For example, Kirk said, a flaw in the air conditioning compressors of 900 General Motors buses has taken seven years to correct. "We just haven't had the time," Kirk said.
Another thing the shop does not have, and never has had, is women.
"If they apply for it, we can't stop them," Kirk said. "It's just that not that many have applied."
They might have, and might now, if they knew that a fully experienced Metrobus mechanic makes $8.07 an hour. But Kirk figures it's a matter of feminine nature. "They do a lot of talking," he said, "but they don't want to get their hands dirty."
There is plenty of opportunity for that around Bladensburg. The steam cleaning room was my personal favorite.
Two men stand ankle-deep in floating crud in a room that looks like a burned-out basement apartment. All day, they aim a caustic solution through high-pressure hoses at engine parts that are coated with whatever coats the streets of Washington.
But the real job of these men is to save money. Repairing or rebuilding a dirt-caked carburetor would take many times as long and cost even more times as much.
Another intriguing room was the one where they make the signs.
As Kirk and I looked on, two men were making a batch of "destination rolls" - the big signs that tell prospective boarders where a bus is heading. Unfortunately, Kirk explained, only about 130 of the system's 160 destinations can fit on any one roll.That's why certain buses never serve certain routes.
The Metrobus system has come a long way since it was privately owned, Kirk said. Then, routine work was often difficult to finish because of time and money pressures. Now, the routine stuff is really routine, he said, and there are even some efforts at predicting trouble. "We know every bus in the system that isn't getting 100 miles to a quart of oil, for example," he said.
"But I don't know, I guess it hasn't changed that much," said Kirk. "We still just fix whatever comes along. There's just more of it all the time."
Kirk never knew it, but I made a silent vow right then to throw a stone again.