Rusty Hersig: New riders of the silver sage

Rob Swanekamp, PE

Rusty Hersig was traveling through the Dakota Bad­lands on a typical blazing-hot, Saharan-dry August afternoon. Despite the weather, he was feeling well. For one thing, he was homeward-bound, after a highly successful consulting gig at a refinery in Montana, where he completed the upgrade of a heat-recovery steam generator, whose acronym (HRSG) spawned the last half of his chosen professional name.

For another thing, he was bar­reling down the interstate in Fre­on-cooled, genuine-leather comfort, courtesy of the super-charged 1958 pickup truck that he and his father had restored as part of Rusty’s high-school shop project.

Yet one more reason for Rusty’s high emotion was that he had just visited his favorite roadside stop in Wall, SD—perhaps the best watering hole in America. This is a place fro­zen in time—an earlier, grand time when American business travel was ruled by long, relaxing road trips and charming mom-and-pop diners, not over-crowded airplanes and rubber-chicken sandwiches.

Wall is a place where kitschy is spelled with a capital “K” and it’s where Rusty had, just a few min­utes earlier, enjoyed a frosty Root beer and juicy bison burger. He was feeling so good that he was singing along to the CCR tunes blasting from his eight-track tape player. No CD player would be suitable for a truck of this vintage; or this man.

For Rusty Hersig is an analog man living in a digital world. He is SO old-school that the only movie player you’ll find in his home is a VCR. And it’s a coal-fired one.

Rusty was singing loudly, though certainly not well. “Jeepers creepers,” he suddenly interrupted his singing, saying to himself, “That must be the tenth one I’ve seen today. Wonder what’s going on?”

He then touched the brake pedal to disengage the cruise control and begin slowing his truck. What had caught his eye was a motorcy­clist sitting on the shoulder of the road. Though Rusty didn’t know enough about motorcy­cles to identify it, he was look­ing at a Harley-Davidson Electra Glide Classic—a plush, top-of-the-line machine that sets the worldwide standard in long-haul touring bikes. If motorcycles were built to trav­el on water, the Electra-Glide is the one you would choose for a transoceanic voyage.

Unfortunately, this particular ship seemed to be DIW (dead in the water). Rusty pulled over and walked back toward the motorcyclist. Through the heat waves shimmer­ing above the asphalt, he could see that the biker’s leathery face was sun-dried and cracked— like the landscape through which they were traveling. Sprouting from the biker’s face was a beard as wild and uneven as the silver sagebrush dotting that landscape. A tattered red T-shirt reading SEMPER FI hung loosely over the biker’s lean, wiry torso. His Red Wing work boots were grease-stained and caked with dust. Above the interstate noise, Rusty shouted, “You need any help, sir?”

Pointing toward the enclosed trailer that Rusty was towing, and scowling menacingly, the biker shouted back, his voice sound­ing like an exhaust system riddled with holes, “I don’t need no help from no stinkin’ RUB! And don’t call ME sir! I work for a living.” “Rub? Huh?” Rusty replied, somewhat confused.

“Oh go on! Don’t play dumb with me,” the motorcyclist hollered back. “I can spot a Rich Urban Biker from a zip code away! You doctors, lawyers, vice presidents pretending you’re rebels on the weekend, then back to your suits come Monday morning after wiping off your fake tattoos with baby oil.

“You’re trailerin’ your bike, aint­cha? I’ll bet you got your factory leathers inside, too—neatly packed on quilted hangers! You wannabes just don’t get it! Sturgis is sup­posed to be about the call of the open road, man: The freedom, the wind in your hair!” He removed his hat to run his fingers across his sweaty and obviously balding head and then continued, “Or at least the wind on your scalp. So you best take your manicured motorcycle and your pretty little trailer, and get on outta’ here!”

That’s when Rusty realized why he had seen so many bikers earlier in the day: It was the week of the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally—the annual holy pilgrimage for the Har­ley faithful, which draws thousands of riders to the small South Dakota town in a seemingly endless, single-file procession.

After such a gruff exchange, the typical motorist would have walked back to his truck and driven away. But nothing about Rusty was typi­cal. Having spent decades working in the engine rooms of ships and in powerplants, the silver-haired Sea Dog had grown to not only be com­fortable with—but to actually enjoy the company of—mangy-looking, gruff-talking, gritty characters. With few exceptions, he had found that the meaner their exterior, the more hard-working and trustworthy the character inside. Or, as his biologist wife might say: The harder the tree bark, the richer the xylem.

So he stood his ground, smiled slightly to put the stranger at ease, and replied, “You got me wrong, friend, I got company equipment in there, not a motorcycle. But if you let me give you a hand, maybe we can get your bike runnin’ so’s you can get to Sturgis and meet up with the rest of your gang.”

“My GANG?” the biker shouted even louder, his scowl tightening until it was a full-on stink-eye. He stepped back, as if he suddenly real­ized that Rusty had some contagious disease, and continued, incredulous­ly, “Mister, you been watching too many old movies. I ride ALONE! Always have! Always will!” Then the biker craned his neck to see around Rusty’s trailer.

Spying the words “THE FEW THE PROUD” custom-painted on the truck’s tailgate, the biker’s scowl melted until Rusty thought it looked something like a smile. Yes, those tobacco-stained teeth were now clear­ly displaying a smile. Again the biker spoke, this time more agreeably, “Gotta’ admit, though, I DO like your tailgate, brother.”

Rusty looked back over his shoulder and grinned, “Yeah, that’s my daddy’s handiwork. See, after he got home in one piece from Iwo, he never let us kids travel anywhere without the Marine colors riding along. He was mighty worried when he first found out where Uncle Sam was sending him.” “Yeah,” the biker nod­ded, understanding, “I went through a similar thing when I learned where Uncle Sugar was sending ME.”

Rusty figured the man’s age to be fifty-something and guessed, “You mean Vietnam?”

“Yeah,” the biker answered. Rusty replied, “I was tendin’ boilers on a destroyer in the Gulf of Tonkin at the time, so I took enemy fire only once a month when the skipper drove us close enough to shore to draw combat pay, but I know that you fellas on the ground had some HARD fights over there.”

“You can say THAT again,” the biker grimaced. “The hell of it is, after we won all those fights—and I do mean ALL of them—after we pushed the NVA back, our side gave away the victory. You know, Con­gress didn’t bother to enforce the terms of the Paris Peace Treaty, after the NVA violated them by roll­ing their armor into Saigon. It was as if, after taking Berlin, FDR had given the city back to the Germans.” Rusty nodded his understanding and replied, “We won the war but lost the peace.”

Then Rusty extended his right hand to the biker. “Rusty Hersig’s my name and I want to thank you for your service to our country. And in case nobody said it yet, “Welcome home.” “Thanks,” the biker said. He reached out his big, right paw to meet Rusty’s handshake. “I’m Shane O’Malley, but my friends call me Tumbleweed. Tell me, you got much experience fixin’ Harleys?” “Not a lick actually,” Rusty conceded, “but I got 30 years experience fixin’ other kinds of powerplants.”

“Other kinds?” the biker repeated questioningly. Scowling even meaner now, the he continued, “Oh crap! You’re referring to some o’ them Jap­anese motorcycles, aintcha?”

Rusty chuckled. “Nah, I’m refer­ring to big electric-generation pow­erplants.” “You mean like coal plants and nuclear plants?” Shane asked.

“Yeah, LIKE those,” Rusty said. “In fact, back in the day, I worked on EXACTLY those, but most of my jobs these days are in cogen plants or combined cycles.” “Never heard of a combined cycle,” Shane replied, “Is that one of those European racing bikes?”

Rusty chuckled again, “Nah, it’s the type of powerplant that we usu­ally build these days. Not too many coal or nuclear plants are being con­structed any more, at least not in the US of A. It’s called a combined cycle ’cause it’s a combination of a conventional steam plant and a gas turbine.

“Oh, I see,” the biker said. “But how is that gonna’ help you fix a motorcycle engine?” “It’s all a simi­lar process, really,” Rusty answered emphatically. “See, we don’t follow some cookbook troubleshooting guide. We figure out what’s wrong by apply­ing ‘first principles.’”

“Like Connie?” Shane asked. Rusty twisted his face in confusion, “Con­nie?” “Yeah, Mr O’Connor actually,” Shane said. “He was MY first prin­cipal. But Sister Bernadette sent me to detention with him so many times that he let me call him Connie.”

Again Rusty chuckled, “No, I’m talkin’ about the first principles of science: Like the laws of physics and thermodynamics. Things like that.” “Well,” Shane replied, “I guess it won’t hurt to give it a try. Come on over here and have yourself a look. But don’t move nothin’ unless you check with me first!”

“Got it,” Rusty acknowledged. Squatting down next to Shane to take a close look at the Harley’s engine, he asked, “What can you tell me about your engine trouble?” “Well,” Shane offered, I think my carb’s just gone out of adjustment—that’s all. Prob­ably just needs a little tweaking, so that’s what I’ve been workin’ on. I shudda’ gone for the fuel injection option when I bought this ride.”

“Hmmmm,” Rusty said thought­fully, “not sure a car-tuning prob­lem makes much sense. How could the fuel/air ratio suddenly go so far out of adjustment that it stalled the engine from high load/high rpm? You WERE moving along at inter­state speed when the engine quit, right? And if it’s a carb problem, why do you have the tank cap off, the gas line removed, and that fuel filter in your hand?”

The savvy questions surprised the biker, but if he knew who was standing in front of him, they wouldn’t have. Those who know him say that Rusty was genetically engineered to troubleshoot machin­ery. You see, his great-grandfather, Robert Perry, was the engineer on the first transcontinental railroad trip completed in 1869.

“Not bad, for a college boy,” Shane said, responding to Rusty’s questions. “Guess I’ll have to level with ya. See, at first I thought it was a carb adjust­ment, but I already fiddled with that and it didn’t help.

“So now I figure it must be some junk clogging up the fuel line. Musta’ blown into the tank when I filled up 10 miles back.” “Yeah, that sounds more likely,” said Rusty. You didn’t fill up with any of that ethanol, did you? ’Cause if you did, that low-Btu crap could be your problem.” “Nah, I buy only the REAL stuff—no decaf for me, thank you very much.”

“That’s good,” said Rusty, continu­ing, “How about the source of igni­tion? Did you check that yet? In order to achieve combustion, we need all sides of the fire triangle: fuel, oxygen, and a source of ignition.” “No I didn’t check the sourceofignitionyet!” Shane barked back, rolling his eyes and mimicking the exact words. “I’ve had this problem before, and it’s always been in the fuel system. So I know. . . .”

“So you ASSUME!” Rusty inter­rupted. “See, Shane, in my line of work, I find lots of guys afflicted with that same medical condition. I call it ‘premature evaluation.’ What I’m trying to say is that in troubleshoot­ing machinery, the key is to state no more than what you TRULY know. That allows you to ask the really simple questions. See, it’s not what’s wrong with this fuel system, but what’s wrong with this combustion process. And judging by that rat’s nest of wiring,” Rusty continued, “there’s a good chance that the prob­lem with this combustion process is electrical in nature.”

Shane shot a still skeptical eye toward Rusty, but a part of his brain was listening. “Well, guess it wouldn’t hurt to pull a plug and run the ol’ spark check,” Shane conceded. “If nothin’ else, it’ll show you I’m right and get you outta’ my hair.” He removed a spark plug, and with well-insulated pliers Rusty offered from his equipment trailer he held it up against the crankcase as he pressed the start button.

When no spark appeared, Shane shook his head in dis­belief, repositioned the plug, and ran the check again. He ran it three more times. “Hmmm,” is all he managed to say, shooting Rusty a sheepish grin. Rusty returned the smile, struggling to avoid any hint of “I-told-you-so,” then silently motioned the biker to check his igni­tion wiring.

After inspecting the wiring for several minutes, with Rusty qui­etly peering over his shoulder, Shane spied one particularly suspicious-looking, oil-drenched lead. “S’pose it could be this grounding wire off the ignition coil. Seems a little loose,” he said.

“Hell, yes, it could be that!” Rusty exclaimed, before jogging over to his equipment trailer and returning with rags, a can of silicone spray, and a fistful of plastic tie-wraps.

Now clearly enjoying the situa­tion, he said, “Here you go Mr Tum­bleweed, these will get you blowin’ down the road.” Shane nodded his thanks and used the items to dry off and neaten up his ignition wires. Then the biker took a few steps closer so that they wouldn’t have to keep shouting, and Rusty noticed the man limping badly.

“You get that bum leg in ’Nam?” Rusty asked. “Yep,” the biker replied, “Got myself shot up pretty good over there.” With that, he rolled up his sleeve and thrust his forearm in Rusty’s view to show off his tattoo—a massive dragon running from his wrist all the way up to his shoulder. He said proudly to Rusty, “Check THIS out!” “Impressive,” Rusty said, “You get that in ’Nam?” “Yep,” Shane replied.

Rusty then pulled out a set of feel­er gages from his toolkit, saying, “I happened to have these in my trailer, so later on, if you need to check the spark-plug gap they might be useful.” “Oh crap!” Shane replied, “Put those damn things away!” They remind me of the steel-ruler torture they put me through!” “In ’Nam?” Rusty asked. “Nah, Catholic school,” Shane said with a wink and a grin.

Satisfied with his ignition-wiring clean-up, Shane reached up to try the start button again. This time the engine responded with that pat­ented Harley rumble. Shane shouted numerous ‘thank yous,’ and ‘much obligeds,’ then mounted up, put ’er in gear, and sped away, waving with his left hand. As the distance grew, the roar of his engine faded ’till it was as silent as when Rusty arrived on the scene. ccj

The foregoing is dedicated to my friends and heroes: Grossvater Joseph Hermann and Gerald Heitz, Buffalo, NY; Dave Johnson, Helena, Mont; Ron Pierzina and Gary Welsand, Bozeman, Mont; and Walter Wooten, Ann Arbor, Mich.