The pavement is damp but at least I’m not laying in a puddle.
Why is it always the middle of the night?
“You got the flashlight?”
I feel pressure on the side of my calf, where my brother is touching me with the tool so I’ll know it’s there without looking. A trick passed down from father to son. I worm my hand out under the fender of my 1984 Volkswagen Jetta. The pressure transfers to my palm and I maneuver the light up next to my eyes so I can peer at the back of the engine block.
My ensuing monologue is . . . nevermind.
In truth, I have been colossally stupid. Lost in the desert long after dark, with a leaking radiator pushing my temp gauge into the red, I should have stopped to let the engine cool and then limped along a little a time, until I found civilization. Instead I pushed the engine too hard and blew the head gasket getting to a gas station. I don’t know it yet but the whole head is shot and the high-temp plastic rings around the plugs have gotten so hot they liquefied and flowed down into the cylinders. I have a full top-end rebuild ahead of me to get my faithful ship back on the launchpad. At the moment I would settle for limping.
Soon we’ve done everything short of starting the rebuild. We’ve had the Gaffer on the phone from the East Coast to advise. Can’t do much more without ordering parts.
Mel climbs under to have a look for himself and we lay there for a minute grumbling, then drag out for a break. Shut the hood and sit on it. Convenience store crackers and swigs from a two-liter of Mountain Dew. I bash his shoulder with mine while he’s chugging and he jerks to keep from spraying fizz.
We start to grin. Can’t help it.
We’re filthy, greased to the elbow, exhausted, and in our fifth or sixth hour of roadside wrenching.
And, truth be told, we’re having a great time.
The Gaffer has a favorite quote from Chesterton, “Inconvenience is just an Adventure wrongly considered” or some such. He found the quote late in life, but we’d already been raised in it. Maybe he’ll write a book someday: “How to have a good time having a bad time.” Maybe we are the book. Some would say we live our father’s credo to the point of insanity.
Some would say.
Anyway, it’s stood us in good stead over the years. And that’s not the first or last thing my brothers and I learned in an engine compartment.
It’s a pretty good one, tho.
We got that motor turning powered by about one and a half cylinders, two prayers and a constant stream of verbal encouragement. Mel followed in the car we borrowed to drag our tools out there, and we limped home on the back roads at 20 mph.
Two weeks later the new head and gaskets arrived and we started tearing down the motor. My friend’s little brother wandered out to see what we were doing. He said he was planning a summer rebuild project with a friend back home in Wisconsin. High school seniors with big ideas. Neither of them had loosened a bolt before.
“Any advice on being a mechanic?”
We told him to label his cables and thread bolts back into the hole they came out of. Take your time. Read the manual. Buy lots of WD-40 and let it work a good long time.
What can you say in five minutes? He wasn’t exactly taking notes.
When I start thinking about the things I have learned about engines or from them, over the years, the list gets rapidly out of control. Just ask Pirsig.
But I think my favorite, and maybe the most important, is what I would call “the pleasure of figuring things out.” That’s what draws me to the workshop, time and again. (That and the need for basic transportation.)
An engine is an orderly system of individual parts, often beautiful in its simplicity and efficiency. Repairing one takes a certain kind of seeing and reasoning. For the most part the pieces are designed to be taken apart and put back together using a simple set of standard tools. The challenge comes in seeing the way the parts work and which one is broken, then sussing out how they fit together, taking them apart and then fitting them back.
It ain’t always fun or easy — We like to say an engine isn’t yours until it’s soaked up both sweat and blood — but wrenching brings a deep and tangible satisfaction. No matter what the problem, it can be figured out and fixed — given enough time and the right parts. And the more I work on it, the more I come to know my vehicle, even to love it in a way. To admire the forms and functions of it. When every part has my fingerprints on it, I start belonging to it, participating in its work. And, yeah, that really is a new level of ownership.
The Jetta, well . . .
I ran short of time and parts and then the cops stole it from the curb in front of my house (another story). My Nighthawk consoled me. I decided not to get another cage after that.
My motorcycles haven’t spent too much time on the side of the road (except that one truck incident) or needing major repairs. Couple of flat tires and a worn out battery or two. Their systems run a bit simpler. But every time I pull into the shop, even just for an oil change, I feel my brow smooth and the knots ease in my shoulders. Here with the steel and the oil and the fuel, here with the sweat and the blood and the elbow grease, we’re gonna figure some things out. We’re gonna take it apart, understand it and make it work better.
The Mentor once said of my brother and me, “A Gee man is a born mechanic, but they all want to be poets.”
But I ask, how can a poet be great without the eyes of a mechanic — seeing things for what they are, how they ought to fit or come apart, which bits are worn or wearing out. If the poet truly lives and writes to help us understand the world, he’ll find a hell of a lot of wisdom in the turning of a wrench.