By Mike Sokol
Golly, I can’t believe I actually made it to 65 last month! Of course, my twin brother, Joe, is 20 minutes older than me, so I was sure to remind him of the fact that he turned 65 before I did.
In any case, 65 is a great time to reflect on things I’ve done in the past, and things I want to do in the future. I’m hoping for another 30 years, and that’s not just wishful thinking. My grandmother was 87 years old when she died and didn’t have a gray hair on her head (Thanks, Grandma). And my dad is still kicking at 90 years old and doesn’t have a gray hair on his head either (Thanks, Dad). I’m noticing a few “highlights” in my hair, which my wife is apt to point out.
But no matter what the state of your hair is, or even if you have no hair left, I think that life should be about what you’ve done before and what you plan to do next. So without further ado, here are some of the highlights of what I’ve done over the last 65 years and a few possibilities for what I would like to do in the next 30 years, if the good Lord’s willing and the creek don’t rise.
Trailer lights: My first real paying jobs were hooking up trailer lights for our neighbor’s camping trailers when I was probably 10 or 11 years old. Seriously! My dad had bought a Cox pop-up camper for our summer vacations and was clueless how to hook up the 4-pin trailer connector into the taillights of our Plymouth station wagon.
As many of you know, I had already been experimenting with electrical circuits starting around age 6 or so and knew a little about soldering from watching my uncle hook up my train set. With a few hours of tinkering I got it all figured out on my dad’s car.
But it didn’t stop there because my dad bragged to the neighbors about how his son hooked up his trailer lights, and soon I had a little side business going. I charged $5 a head to hook up trailer lights on a half-dozen other cars in the area. Not bad for 1965, when minimum wage was around $1.25 per hour. At that point I was hooked on fixing things.
Perpetual motion generators: My first failed invention was when I was around 8 years old. While visiting my grandmother I heard her complaining about the high cost of her electric bill. I figured I could invent a perpetual motion machine that would make enough excess energy that I could bleed off and power her house for free. I even had visions of scaling this up to power the entire city block and possibly the country.
Yes, visions of grandeur and world domination filled my head at the age of 8, but it didn’t work. The basic principle was an electric motor driving another electric motor wired up as a generator, but since the drive motor had a bigger pulley than the generator, I figured the extra RPMs on the generator would translate into extra power. Boy, was I wrong.
The idea was to have one set of switches to get the motor and generator up to speed (with the generator spinning faster, of course) and a second set of switches that would disconnect the motor from the 120-volt outlet in the basement and cross-connect to the generator. Sounds plausible, doesn’t it? Well, I did build this in the basement by myself at the age of 8 (what were my parents thinking?), so it got up to speed OK off the power line, but when I flipped the switches to perpetual power all sorts of things shorted out, popping the 15-amp fuse in the basement outlet. My mom came running down the stars telling me to unplug my invention, and that was the end of perpetual motion and my bid towards world domination. Sorry it didn’t work out.
Car crazy: When I was 14 my dad scored a free 1959 VW Beetle that someone didn’t want anymore. So I drove it around in the woods until I blew up the engine, then I taught myself how to pull a VW engine and rebuild it from cheap parts I found in the junkyard.
Yes, I was installing pistons and cylinders and bearings in a VW gas engine by the age of 15. No YouTube or Internet was available at that time, so I depended on World Book Encyclopedia and the Popular Science “Model Garage” for inspiration.
Since my dad was a history teacher and my mom was a nurse, I didn’t have anyone to tell me what I was doing was wrong. So I just kept blowing things up until I finally got it right. Not a bad way to learn, albeit a bit dangerous.
Diesel engines: The summer I turned 16 I was working in a gas station that was also a truck stop, and there was a mechanic who rebuilt diesel truck engines. Yes, like huge 6-cylinder Cummins engines for Mack Trucks. Yippee!!!
I got to help with all of it, even though scraping out the oil pans and moving around big truck tires was dirty work. But I learned how to use a micrometer on the crankshaft to calculate main bearing oil gap, the best way to polish cylinder bores, ways to torque head bolts to many hundreds of foot-lbs., and even how to use a huge cherry-picker lift to install the engines back in the trucks. When these engines started up it was like a symphony to me. I helped put those engines together and was there for their first new heartbeats.
I soon began rebuilding car engines for all my motorhead buddies, and quickly learned how to synchronize carburetors on a Triumph Spitfire or a Dodge Challenger 440 6-pack, plus I did complete rebuilds down to pistons and rings on dozens of other ’70s cars for my friends and family. How cool is that for a 16-year-old kid who loves engines?
Big 3-phase power: I also started my own rock band at the age of 15, but that’s another entire adventure I’ll discuss later. However, I did go to college for Mechanical Engineering and before I graduated I scored a job with Corning Glass designing and building packaging machines for an automated production line. Initially I was just a draftsman making blueprints for the mechanics in the shop, but in a few years I was rewarded with the position of system controls designer for the engineering department.
I had been studying under the tutelage of my boss who was the plant EE (Electrical Engineer) and already had been taking Electrical Engineering classes through Cornell University. So when my EE boss quit one day, I became responsible for all sorts of cool (and dangerous) 3-phase electrical power hookups and troubleshooting with a team of a dozen mechanics and electricians for a million-square-foot warehouse and 100,000-square-foot production building. I had befriended all the electricians in the shop by that time and learned a lot from them, and turned myself into a pretty decent power engineer.
So in 1978 I went for my Master Electrician’s License and aced it. Mostly this was so I could hook up huge lighting systems for my rock bands, but I was officially a card-carrying Master Electrician. Even more fun.
Nuclear missiles: My next gig was building and calibrating nuclear missile guidance systems for a military subcontractor, and I did move on to start my own board-level computer repair and integration company in the ’80s and ’90s. But more on all of that later, as this is getting too long already. But yes, one of the guidance systems we built had a failure sending an armed nuclear warhead someplace it wasn’t supposed to go. Oops!!!
Future shock: For the future, I’ve decided to stop doing sound for big rock shows, and instead concentrate on teaching electrical safety to RVers and Live Sound Engineers. Oh, I’m also restarting my How-To Sound Workshops with a major pro-sound magazine backing me with gear and assistant teachers. But instead of teaching these seminars at 36 to 40 cities each year (Yes, I really did that!), at most I’ll do perhaps 4 to 6 of my Church Sound University (CSU) conferences a year. That will give me time to restart my ’80s band with my best buddy Karl so we can play out once a month. No, I’m not making any of this up.
In short, I think retirement shouldn’t be about slowing down. It should be about doing the things you love the most and giving back to the community that brought you here. So my future plans include more articles in RVtravel and RVelectricity, more RVelectricity seminars around the country (as well as my Church Sound University programs), and more fun gigging with my best music pals from the last 50 years. See you on the road!
Let’s play safe out there….
Mike Sokol is an electrical and professional sound expert with 40+ years in the industry. His excellent book RV Electrical Safety is available at Amazon.com. For more info on Mike’s qualifications as an electrical expert, click here.
My life wasn’t anywhere near as exciting as yours but I did work as a firefighter-EMT for 28 years. Very rewarding career even with some bad things here and there. Been retired 20 years now and enjoyed every minute of it. Hope you continue to enjoy life to the fullest, too. Sounds like you have a great plan and outlook on life. Welcome to being “retired.”
I too learned a lot from my dad who was a cabinet maker and contractor. I worked for him on construction jobs and learned everything from cement finishing, plumbing, electrical, welding, etc. I went to college and got a degree in engineering (chemical) and over the years was always the neighborhood fix it guy. My motto was “IF I can’t fix it, it ain’t busted”. A couple of years ago I bought an RV (35 ft. 5th wheel) and my RVing buddy said I was lucky because I was a fix it guy. He told me that if you own an RV and can’t fix most anything that goes wrong with it, you will be frustrated. How true that is. When the first things went wrong with my RV (under warranty), I took it into the dealer to get fixed. Six weeks later it supposedly was fixed. It wasn’t and the things they did fix were poorly done. From then on I have fixed everything myself. I admire you Mike, because you are teaching RV owners and others on how to fix basic things themselves. It will save them a lot of time and frustration.
I think we’ve lived semi-parallel lives, Mike! My dad was an aeronautical engineer and perfectionist, so grew up with a fully operational machine shop in our garage. Dang, the stuff I made and times that shop almost burned down. Ah, memories. I appreciate all the man-skills I learned from my dad. And now my son is a deck officer on an oil tanker and is an engineer by training. Talk about jack of all trades!
I’ve passed on most of the tools, milling machine, and lathes (plural) to him and I swear he could build an airplane from his shop. OTOH, my son-in-law can’t change a light bulb but luckily he’s married to my daughter who does know how to change a lightbulb and a lot more.
Love your column. You can never know too much about electricity!
Hey Mike, I think I have you beat. My twin brother is 46 minutes older than I, and I heard about it often in the younger years. I too am 65, now retired. I too was a pro audio contractor for about 25 years and had achieved my electrician’s license up here in Ontario Canada before I got into contracting. We didn’t cover as large a jobs as you did, but it has been fun all the same. Now I work with audio and video editing in my home studio, and do sound for a small bunch of other retired guys who have a band. When they feel like playing! And it should go without saying that I am also an RVer, and have spent countless hours repairing, upgrading, altering etc our 38″ Carriage Carri-Lite. Including installing a larger 120/240 VAC 50 A larger panel so I could correct all the mistakes the factory made in grouping circuits. One day I’ll do some videos on it. Great to follow you stuff! Blessings,