My Cardboard Box

Of Man and Machine

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The Blue Swede was at the garage again this week for some follow up work. Nothing major, just the schtuff that happens to a 20-year old car that’s been all over the country and now resides in the Mojave. But as I drove to work, I noticed that the driving tics I have weren’t… normal. I’d look down and see the speedometer needle at fifteen miles faster than my usual sedate speed. The braking was firmer. And many of the usual engine and transmission-shift-cue sounds weren’t there. The Blue Swede and I didn’t have the same ‘feel’. I realized was going to have to recalibrate myself with the car. The ‘aura’ wasn’t there.

That realization coincided with a comment I’d made at Sippican’s blog when he was talking about earthmovers:

I know little about earth-moving equipment. But if you want to know how to take a destroyer from 25 knots in a 180-degree hard right turn, to a dead stop alongside an anchored aircraft carrier half a a football field away…

There’s a phrase: “merging of man and machine”. It’s been used in auto commercials and when describing the latest fighter or motorcycle. Often it has to do with touting the latest technology, which is sometimes true.

Sometimes it has to do with design. Once during an aircraft familiarization field trip, I spent nearly an hour in the cockpit of an F-18 while the pilot and I eagerly discussed damn near every feature, quirk and handling trick. It felt ‘right’. I understood when the pilot mentioned it being like an extension of himself; he could almost think about where to go and and it would follow along. I caught hell for delaying the bus for twenty minutes, but it was worth it.

But sometimes it’s something almost approaching ‘psychic’.

The best car I ever drove was the Mazda RX-7 turbo. It too, felt ‘right’. Part of it was its cockpit-design, but there was something else. I didn’t have to look to find the controls. I knew what it could and could not do. To get kind of weird, it was almost like I had an aura that wrapped around the car. When I was forced into the curb by a jerk driver in downtown Washington D.C., I felt pain in my ribs as the car’s rocker panel scraped the concrete. Weird, but it happened.

I’d get the same feeling about the ships I ‘drove’. It wasn’t the same, since you were giving the orders to others handling the controls, but you learned the ships’ little quirks, their temperament, the hitches in their gait. The minesweeper was like a cork, practically bouncing off the waves in high seas. But when one got attuned (we used a phrased borrowed from the submariners – “in the bubble”) to it, you could practically make it dance – spinning it in nearly its own length, moving the bow around by inches as your sonar searched for its deadly little prey. You felt the twist in your body; sometimes we’d joke at the guy ‘driving’ because he’d move his body in tune with the ‘sweep.

The destroyer also liked to run, and could handle well despite its sail area (the amount of flat superstructure affected by the wind). When you got “in the bubble” , it ran like a dream, though you couldn’t get the same feel due to its size. I once got it to practically stay still with its sow pointed at a landmark during a night-time commando-launching exercise, though there was a stiff wind and choppy water. The refueler was a huge, powerful, lumbering and sometimes clumsy beast; it wallowed in the trough of waves as the fuel and water in its tanks sloshed around (despite the baffles). Yet it could move hard and fast when needed, as it was designed to keep up with the aircraft carriers and escorts it supported. The best description came from an Iowa farm boy: “this thing runs like a Percheron”.

A co-worker who teaches tango often describes the feeling of surrealism, almost a merging, when both dance partners are in tune. John D. McDonald once wrote nearly the same thing about lovers during the act, when at its best, the only thing between them is “a membrane”.

It’s not the same thing when racing a car or sailing a ship, but it’s close.


Written by PappyBro

September 23, 2011 at 21:54

Posted in Musings

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