The car mechanic
September 9, 2007
Greasy fingernails and skinned knuckles are a rite of passage for the backyard mechanic. But it’s worth it. For me, few things are more liberating than a mechanical challenge successfully met with my own two hands and a few basic tools.My most recent automotive adventure was replacing a leaky radiator in my Subaru Outback. After I had proudly removed this large, metal appendage from the innards of the engine compartment, my 14-year-old son marveled: “You’ve just taken out its liver!”My son is rather impressed with my wrench handling, but my wife tends to look askance at such endeavors, wondering aloud whether my time would not be better spent rewriting my latest novel or climbing a ladder to stain the sun-bleached siding on our home.Nope, I tell her, I’m a man doing manly things in a manly manner like other men. All I need to make it official is a girlie calendar, a pair of oil-stained coveralls, a baseball cap emblazoned with an STP logo, and a knowing expression on my face when the hood is raised on a troubled vehicle. “Hmmmm … sounds like the knuten valve …”I could always drop off the vehicle for the certified mechanic, but that would diminish my sense of independence in a world ruled by mechanical implements. When something breaks down, it gives me the chance to meet the offending machine on my own terms.This hasn’t always been a success story. Thirty years ago I completely rebuilt the engine of my ’66 VW Beetle. My efforts got me about a hundred miles down the road before I realized it was operating on three cylinders and about 10 pounds of compression. Still, the fact that the thing ran at all made me feel like a wrench mensch.Living in an age where NASCAR is becoming a national religion, I struggle to keep pace with the latest automotive innovations, even when car designers make it next to impossible to tinker with them.My VW Jetta is a case in point. Open the hood on that baby, and you’re greeted with plastic coverings and metal shields that make it hard to find the dipstick. With help from my Jetta guru Randy, I have successfully installed a skid plate and an engine heater.I mention these things to my wife, and she smiles with wan encouragement: “Are you sure you want to do that?” My answer is a knowing nod and a description of arcane parts and processes that conspire to provide us energy-efficient mobility. Soon, she regrets having asked.Then I drive the car up on ramps, crawl underneath it, and stare at the mysterious array of appendages called the suspension or trace the confounding matrix of wires and hoses that define the electrical and cooling systems.After a long and trying diagnostic session, which usually involves a dozen e-mails with Randy or a session on a mechanic’s website, I apply tools to parts and mire myself in a labyrinth of procedures that challenge every brain cell in my cranium.What’s strange about all this is my stark realization that the automobile I’m repairing is just another fossil-fuel burner, a contributor to global warming, a motive force for personal luxury, and another hungry mouth to feed at the gas station.A better approach, and more in keeping with my values, would be to dismantle all the machines in my life and return to the organic, natural ways. That would reduce emissions, simplify my life, keep my fingernails clean, heal my scuffed knuckles and keep me safe at home.I will suggest this option to my wife and son in an effort to convince them that the life of a Luddite isn’t so bad. So, if you see me walking down the Fryingpan pulling a wagon to the grocery store, you’ll know I prevailed.Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays.
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