Paul Andersen: Fair Game
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO Colorado
Describe yourself as a backyard auto mechanic in liberal circles, and suspicions are immediately raised. People will nod slowly, study you quizzically and move to the other side of the room.
Reveal bloodied knuckles and grease-encrusted fingernails while discoursing on motor-oil viscosity, skid plates and fuel injectors, and you will be suspected of NASCAR followings, NRA sympathies and GOP leanings.
The world of feeler gauges, torque wrenches, gear pullers and universal socket extenders is a foreign landscape. One reason is that today’s cars are complex as hell and often call for special tools, computer diagnostics and obeisance to exalted professionals.
The other reason is that mechanical dalliances are widely viewed as being beneath car owners who are, in truth, mechanically ignorant and fearful of exploring an inscrutable world designed by Rube Goldberg.
The average car or truck owner has been conditioned not to work with their hands and never to open the Pandora’s box of mechanical quandaries. Fewer and fewer homes are equipped with grease rags, Liquid Wrench, dog-eared operating manuals and “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.”
To counter this loss of independence it is necessary to delve into, as I did recently, the domain of timing belts, water pumps, coolant reservoirs, serpentine belts, gaskets and tensioning devices, all of which derive from the creative mind of modern man. An awakening occurs when you open your valve cover and expose the oily, glistening lobes of a camshaft. Unity occurs when you recognize in disparate parts a mechanical whole that conveys you bodily through the world in relative ease and luxury.
My friend Randy is a trusted mentor on my VW Jetta TDI. Both of us drive one of these 50-mile-per-gallon masterpieces of German engineering. Our most recent foray into my Jetta required an eight-hour operation replacing the timing belt and water pump, which we did in my driveway on a warm day in March.
The shade-tree mechanic discovers a world few laymen ever see, a world of intricately made parts assembled meticulously for the utility of motive force that most people take for granted. It is only when the machine fails that one appreciates a smooth-running mechanism.
Mechanical procedures invite philosophical discourse in the way Aristotle and Plato ruminated on the human condition. Both are mysteries that confound and delight. A car is a link to Promethean magic. The humans who drive them represent infinite complexity. Together, man and machine form parallel universes of wonder and awe.
“Deus ex machina” means literally “God out of the machine.” The expression stems from a theatrical device for resolving unsolvable problems through divine intervention. For example: When a character gets into trouble, he is rescued by an angel, much the way Mitt Romney seems propelled through the primaries on Moroni’s wings.
While auguring the guts of my machine, I knew that God was in there. As Randy the energy analyst points out, my 90-horsepower engine provides me about as much work as 900 strong men. If you burn 20 gallons a month (1,000 miles), then for about $80 you have 900 tireless energy slaves at your beck and call. Our mechanical ritual is a testament to the power of the machine, the thrall of fossil fuels, the tight grasp internal combustion has on us.
I thought of John Muir, a nature lover and pragmatic Scot who was also a brilliant inventor and mechanic. Muir would have shouldered Randy and me out of the way to get an up-close look at the inner workings of a turbo diesel powerhouse.
“What would he make of the car?” Randy pondered. “Did he ever own one? Maybe he would think of cars as he did sheep and detest them! Or … he was probably good with his hands, and he had machines around his farm, although his beard might have gotten caught in the serpentine belt!”
God is not out of the machine – he is embodied by it. That’s why we inwardly genuflect before our cars as holy, sacred, all-powerful, self-imbued and self-defining conveyances. Being a mechanic – even for a day – puts one closer to the god of personal mobility, a god we worship with heart, soul and various credit cards.
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My first step onto the natural lake ice is tentative as I launch off on a thin, stainless-steel blade. Will the ice support me? Will I go plummeting through into a hypothermic bath?