Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Haiti Generator Repair Story

                                             The Haiti Generator Repair Story
                                 This is a true story that happened to me in Haiti     
                              Written 12/20/2013 and rewritten 2/6/2016 unedited
                                                          Howard Yasgar

      This story will be appreciated by anyone who ever tried having their vehicle worked on in a backward foreign country. It will also be appreciated by anyone who is familiar with what a car generator is.
     This is a 100 % true story, and when it happened, I couldn’t believe what had happened, and I am not sure I even believe it today, even though I saw it happen with my own eyes.
      It was 1971, and I was visiting Port Au Prince Haiti to call on several customers that I had there. At the time, I was in the automotive parts rebuilding business in Miami, Florida, and I had a lot of experience in overhauling and rebuilding automotive starters and generators as well as exporting them.  
      It was in February when I made this particular sales trip, and I had brought along a friend from Miami named Paul Sherlock. Paul was not only my friend but he was a parts supplier to my company, my intention was to show Paul around Haiti, and introduce him to several of my customers.
      Because most of my customers were located in the capitol city of Port Au Prince, I decided to stay at the Castle Haiti Hotel.
      To assist us in getting around Port Au Prince, we were using my favorite cab driver and friend, Toni Richmond.
    Tony owned a 1956 Dodge automobile, that he used it as a taxi cab, which was a pretty high class car for Haiti at the time.
     On this particular February morning, Toni appeared to be very nervous.
    While we were at breakfast, he discretely showed us a ballot he had in his pocket, but it appeared that he was very concerned about showing it to us.
      I watched as Toni constantly looked over his shoulder to make sure no one like the Tonton Macoute were looking at us, then when Toni was sure no one was looking, he showed me his ballot.
     Toni’s ballot was in French so I didn’t know what it said but I saw there was only one name on it “Jean Claude Duvalier.
      I later found out that is wasn’t an election it was really a plebiscite, Jean Claude Duvalier’s father, who was called Papa Doc, was electing his son to succeed him and be president of Haiti for life.
      To clarify things, Haiti, in 1971, was ruled by a Voodoo dictator called Papa Doc Duvalier, he had formerly been a Haitian back country doctor before being legally elected and then taking over the country.
      Papa Doc Duvalier employed his own private army of thugs called the Tonton Macoute, which in the local language of Patois meant Bogy man. The Tonton Macoute all wore Levi jeans and loud polyester shirts and they all carried .45 caliber chrome plated pistols in their waistbands. They were a scary bunch of characters that everyone tried to avoid if possible,
      We didn’t know it at the time, but we were in Haiti the very day that Papa Doc had chosen to hold the plebiscite.
      When we got to downtown Port Au Prince, we could see that the Haitian army was already trucking in hundreds and hundreds of peasants from the countryside all waving small black and red Haitian flags mounted on small sticks.
      It appeared that Papa Doc wanted his fake election to look legitimate, he later reported that 99 percent of the population of Haiti voted yes for his son to succeed him.
      We had no idea that so many people would be coming downtown so I asked Toni to drop us off to at one of my customer’s stores, and come by and pick us up later, after he had voted.
      The customer I wanted to see that morning was a fellow named Hermon Francoise.
Hermon came to Miami twice a year to buy used automobile starters and generators, he then shipped them to Haiti as scrap metal.
      Once he had the starters and generators in Haiti, he washed them in kerosene and then sold the parts for a lot of money calling them rebuilt. He was a pretty sharp guy and he had a good scam going.
      After Toni had voted, he came by and picked Paul and myself up, he said that there was something going on that he wanted to show us.
     We then drove towards the Haitian palace, it was difficult as the streets were just swarming with people. When we got there, I could see that a row of news cameras were all set up to film the event, and the palace lawn and front driveways were just jammed with people.
      Toni, edged his way past the palace gates and started blowing his horn, the people thinking we were foreign dignitaries or something, began getting out of our way, and slowly but surely Toni drove all the way up to within a few hundred yards of the palace.  
     When we were about 300 feet away from the Palace, there were lots of army guards pushing the people back, but from the position we were in, I could clearly see a balcony on the second floor with closed doors behind it.
     We weren’t there for more than 5 minutes when I saw a short black fellow with glasses and grey hair, step out on the balcony and wave to everyone, it was Papa Doc himself.
      A moment later this big burley young black guy, wearing a suit that seemed to shine brilliantly in the sunshine stepped out, he was standing beside Papa Doc and waved, I noticed that his hair was bigger than his head. I knew immediately this was Jean Claude, Papa Docs son who the people on the street all called “Basket Head”.
      It was hot and I had already opened the passenger side door of Toni’s car, and when I looked up, I could swear Papa Doc was actually waving to me, so I stepped half out of the car and waved back.
      Within a few minutes, both the father and son stepped back inside the palace and I saw the balcony door close.
      The crowd then started to dissipate, and Toni started up the Dodge as we slowly followed the massive crowd off the palace grounds.
      Were probably about half way to the palace gates and the boulevard when I smelled rubber burning, I knew what the smell was right away, and then I saw smoke coming from under the hood of Toni’s car, it was the smell of the cars fanbelt burning up.
      Toni stopped, I said, shut off your motor as I smell a fanbelt burning, so that’s when we all got out of the car and Toni opened the hood, and like I had said it was, a burnt fanbelt.
     Toni reached in to the engine compartment and pulled out pieces of the shredded fanbelt, so when I saw him doing that, I reached in and tried turning the cars generator pulley. I found that it was frozen solid, just as I had suspected it would be.
     To me, the diagnosis of the problem was easy, the ball bearing in the generator had gone bad, and that caused the generator armature to freeze up so it wouldn’t turn. Once the generator armature stopped turning, the fan belt instantly burned up and shredded, making the terrible burned rubber smell, and not having a fanbelt also overheated the engine. I had seen this problem many times in the past.
     I knew, that if I were in Miami, a good used, or rebuilt generator for Toni’s 1956 Dodge, could be bought in any junkyard for about $10.00 and they were plentiful. So I wasn’t too concerned about the problem, but I had forgotten that we were in a place like Haiti.
     After a few minutes of waiting for Toni’s car to cool down, Toni said he had a good friend who was an automobile electrician. Toni said that the electrician had a repair shop nearby, and we should be able to drive there once the car cooled down.
     Toni was right, we got to the shop fairly quickly, but I could see that the first problem was that the electricians shop was not actually a shop, it was just an alley way between two buildings.
     The dirty trash laden alley had a wooden work bench, with a roof built over it. Other than that, it was just a dirty empty space between two buildings.
      I looked behind the bench and there sat two fellows who appeared to be taking a nap.
Tony walked over to them, they woke up and they all shook hands.
      I saw Toni explained our problem to them in their local Patois language.
     On top of the workbench was a broken butcher’s knife, a rusty pair of pliers and a medium sized beat up Craftsman screwdriver. There was no test equipment of any kind in sight.
      Within a matter of seconds, the hood of Toni’s car was open and with the rusty pliers the guys managed to remove the burning hot, Dodge generator.
      They placed it on the bench and disassembled it using only the pair of pliers.
      Paul and I both knew the generator rebuilding business, so we assumed these guys knew what they were doing. We both thought that they would quickly find some good used parts or a good used generator and fix the problem, so we walked away to sit on a bench across the street in the shade.
      After about fifteen minutes passed, and we saw that no one had gone anywhere to look for anything, we walked over to the car. We saw that Toni was laying in his cars driver’s seat taking a nap, so then we walked over to the mechanics bench.
      We were absolutely stunned at what they had done, they had removed the frozen up ball bearing from the front of the generator, and with only using the screwdriver and broken butchers knife they had removed all the burnt out wire from the generator armature.  
      Paul and I both knew what was possible to be done to repair a generator and what was not possible to be done. We saw that both these guys were attempting the impossible.
     They were going to remove some old wire they had in a burnt out electric motor under the bench, and put that old wire in Toni’s burnt out generator, to fix it.
     When I saw this, I didn’t know what to say, I had never heard of a more crazy idea in my life, but I also knew these guys were Toni’s friends, and I didn’t want to get into the middle of a confrontation, so for a moment I just stood there speechless.
     When I looked at Paul, his brow was all furrowed up as he watched what these guys were attempting to do.
      As we both stood there speechless, a young boy appeared, Toni said he was the electrician’s nephew.
      I asked the boy if he spoke English, and he said yes. So I picked up the horribly burned out ball bearing from the generator, and I asked him if he knew what it was, he said “Yes”, so then I asked him if he knew where to buy a new one. He said “Yes”, so I told him to go and buy one right away, he took the burned out sample and ran away down the alley. I knew that a new Japanese ball bearing cost me .35 cents in Miami.
      I went back to watching the other two electricians. One was peeling the old used wire off the electric motor on the ground, and the other guy was attempting to put it in Toni’s generator armature. We could see that besides from being used wire, it wasn’t even the right size.     
     I knew at this point I had to say something to stop Toni from going any further and wasting any more of our valuable time.
     It was obvious to me that we would soon kill the entire afternoon here with no hope of ever getting his Toni’s car running.
     I turned to talk to Toni, just as the young boy returned holding the ball bearing he had found. I looked, but not only was it the wrong size bearing but it was also burned out as bad as the sample I had given him.  
     Neither Paul nor I could imagine we were standing here in Haiti, in the 100 degree heat, and really involved in this stupid situation. So I said to Toni, look Toni, I know these guys are your friends but they will never ever fix your car, everything they were doing was wrong. I said please stop them now.
     Paul and I, will walk down the street to my friend Hermon’s store, and we will get a good used generator for you.
     So, after having said that, Paul and I turned to walk down the street to Hermon’s store and buy a good used Dodge generator.
      Now, at Hermon’s store, we explained the generator problem to him, and Hermon said he had plenty of good Dodge generators, but he was sorry that he couldn’t sell me one.
     I was stunned, so I asked him how come he wouldn’t he sell me one.  He said it was because I knew how little he paid for the generator in Miami.
     He said, “Haiti is a small country, and if I sell you a generator cheap, your cabdriver Toni, would tell everyone in Port Au Prince, and soon the whole city would soon know about it and I could never sell a generator for a high price to anyone again. It would destroy my business.
     I couldn’t believe I was hearing this conversation, especially from a friend, and by now both Paul and I were very tired and worn out, we were both soaked with sweat.
     It was getting late and we had now wasted the whole afternoon fooling around with Toni’s generator.
      I said, Listen Hermon, give me a generator for free, and I will give you ten of them to replace it, next time you are in Miami. He thought about it a moment, and then gave me a good used Dodge generator for free.
      Paul and I walked all the way back to Toni’s car, I was carrying the generator on my shoulder.
     Toni was leaning against his car and smiling, the car was running with its hood closed, the two electricians and nephew were nowhere to be seen.
      Paul and I knew they could never have fixed Toni’s generator, so what had they possibly have done?
      I opened the hood of Toni’s car, and to this day I can’t believe what I saw. They had found a 12 volt Ford generator somewhere, and mounted it on Toni’s Dodge car, but because the generator was off a Ford, it didn’t fit the car right, so they wedged a big rock from the street between the generator and the engine to hold it tight.
     Paul and I were stumped, because we knew that the electrical system on a Dodge is an “A” circuit, and the electrical system on a Ford generator is a “B” circuit, they are not compatible, but here it was, Toni’s car was running perfectly.
      I think this could only have been possible in Haiti where Voodoo is practiced.