Tuesday, July 03, 2007


Or, Notes on the Mojo of Automotive Field Repair

One of the glorious parts of being young in a rich country is the ability to combine poverty with freedom, to maintain a state of economy based on selfish tradeoffs instead of on the unremitting brink of cold, hard nature. Being responsible to no one is an incredible liberty. Insufficiency with a visible lifeline is totally worth it for the good stories.

As a student (or a recent student), you're not worth very much skill-wise, probably neck-deep in debt and sinking, and that beer money has to come from somewhere. I lived in a succession of shitholes that were comical in their abjection, from the uninsulated summer cottage (memoirs of Spring Weekends a decade past still carved into the wood paneling; we bought a dartboard to match the pattern of holes in the wall) to the cat-damaged apartment block maintained by a scary-looking backwoods dude (3/4 of the apartments unrentable) to the old Victorian house that fit a ping-pong table on the screened porch (fucking bliss; too bad no one got along).

Getting me to class or the lab from the series of condemnable shanties was, naturally enough, a series of dilapidated wrecks, a half dozen versions of chugging death (averted!) on wheels, replete with rotting hoses, bald tires, rusting bodies, misaligned doors, shot rings, corroded batteries, rotted mufflers, stuck valves, name it. Statistically, these shitboxes should have failed in a stunning variety of ways, but somehow the same things seemed to go wrong over and over again. I'm pretty sure I can still pinpoint a dying alternator from miles out (even though they should outlive any car), and I know exactly how to hobble an automobile home when it's spewing coolant all over the highway. There's a certain mojo, some weird mystical juju, that sends recurring themes my way. Or so it pleases me to believe sometimes, and who am I to tempt the fates?

Now if I were being scientific about my problems with cooling systems, I might note a possible correlation with the tendency of a young Doofus McDreamy to rear-end people when futzing about at low speed. These accidents tended to produce spectacular results in a tinfoil and chewing gum jalopy, and didn't agree with radiators very well at all. I am not an enthusiastic mechanic, but necessity can drive these things, and for a rank novice, I remain proud of my creative re-assembly of that '82 Dodge Ram 50 in my senior year of college on the snowy driveway of the wannabe Delta house. (It was only technically a truck, incidentally. Think a Dodge Omni--remember those?--with an improbable pickup bed behind it. I drove it because it was free.) The collision took out the water pump as well as the radiator, some other things too, but I got it together without too many leftover parts, and eventually even bought a stock fender in the right color and replaced the grille. Even though I thought the milk crate made it look sort of badass, I got pulled over enough for good reasons.

The five-pound hammer (I wasn't ready for bluegrass yet) that I used to pound the thing back in shape was considered lucky and I still have it, mostly for pounding in rebar these days. I accumulated tools randomly over the next ten years, and they'd gain or lose mojo based on how successful the project was. I got in the habit of keeping a supply of them in the car. The summer following the accident (after one of those eight-month eternities--O, youth), I was foolish enough to attempt a road trip in that thing clear across the state of New York.

I should have been more worried about the clunk-n-rattle in the front end, should have been more cognizant even then of my special radiator magic. I had needed to tighten the belt to the water pump before the trip, which seemed to shut it up. The part was salvage--frugality demanded no less--and when I picked it up, a friendly junkyard dog trotted right up and pissed on my leg. It was a special time. The shaft inside that water pump had already suffered unknown levels of wear and deterioration, but was decent enough to choke and sputter a bit before giving up the ghost.

It happened on the highway, in Middletown, NY, on one of those scorching August days. The temperature was spiking again. (Uh-oh.) I turned on the heater and slowed into the shoulder, trying to assess my chances here. Not good. I pulled over and felt the cap--it was ice cold, but the engine was in the red. Kill it, wait. The stretch of road is clear in my mind, the highway gently curving around the dry, grassy hillside. Somehow, an hour or two of redlines and pauses got the thing off the exit, and I was fortunate to catch an older guy out watering his lawn. I begged a few minutes with the hose, and he was good enough to supply a milk jug of water to go. As I filled her up, steam coursed angrily from the front and back of the radiator.

I hadn't given up on getting across the state, or, failing that, at least back home, and I parked it in the first place I could, and prayed for an auto parts store within walking distances. My habit of unlocking the door with a coat hanger convinced me that leaving my tools--which aside from my stereo were the most expensive things I owned--in the truck, and I loaded them into my duffel bag and hiked a couple or three until I found one. I bought, optimistically, some pour-in radiator sealer, a gallon jug of antifreeze, and some RTV silicone. As I walked back, I was struck by fat raindrops, and a crack of thunder followed as though Zeus himself were hurling personalized juju from the sky onto my errant head. My gym bag included two days worth of clothes, the better part of a wrench set, a small but decent hydraulic jack, and a gallon of liquid. I had the handles around my shoulders so I could wear it like the backpack it wasn't. It hurt.

Sometimes my memories look like action photos, snapshots in time. This one is a classic, lit by lightning, for it's rather late by this point, and there's me eyeballing the radiator, trying to tell if it's rain coursing off of it, or if it's just spewing more coolant. I uncapped the RTV and squirted it prodigiously into the general area of the breach, a whole tube's worth of orange goo sticking through the fins like icing. The sturdy screwdriver I used to gently spread it is still stained, and for years afterward, that tool bore some serious mojo indeed. Bedraggled, dejected, I unpeeled the plastic from my sodden wallet and sprung for a hotel room, agreeing to pay for it when I grew up. The truck never made it out of Middletown. A year later, I got a ticket driving through there on other business. Fuck Middletown, New York.

I'd have preferred not to go back through that bad mojo burg, but you can't go through life with superstition weighing you down. It might have been through Middletown that the cooling lines went on the minivan last week. There was serious stress on the system what with the summer heat and the stop-dead traffic. At least it was slow enough to wait until evening to reveal its overheating. (I still habitually watch the temperature gauge.) It hung like the day's ominous cumulonimbi, but it was about as enjoyable as family vacation can get, and minor adversity can be uplifting when the mood is right. Soaked to the bone and fleeing the park in a thundering torrent, had us giggling uncontrollably, and here I was cranking drinking water into the radiator in the middle of it again, and praying the family truckster got us back to the hotel.

More field repair in the morning: the leak was not in the radiator, but it was huge, and I epoxied the living shit out of the guilty heater lines and stocked up on gallon jugs for the eight hours home. We needed them, but damn if we didn't make it. As far as auto repair goes, I don't even bother to change my own oil these days, but I'm still not about to fork over five hundred bucks to pay for something I can fix jury-rig myself for ten. I shortened the corroded section, and made the rubber hose six inches longer, and that worked out fine too. I made sure to use my old orange-stained screwdriver to tighten the clamps. Completely rehabilitated the motherfucker.

You look for symmetries to bookend events in the arc of life. I couldn't have ended this bad luck streak on a more positive note, nor started it on one more comically heartbroken. I'm glad to have the story, but now it's only a story, purged from my current reality. Given the hypothetical chance, I'd love to be once again driving some wreck or other back to the projects, with life's realities still ahead of me.

And we all nodded at him: the man of finance, the man of accounts, the man of law, we all nodded at him over the polished table that like a still sheet of brown water reflected our faces, lined, wrinkled; our faces marked by toil, by deceptions, by success, by love; our weary eyes looking still, looking always, looking anxiously for something out of life, that while it is expected is already
gone--has passed unseen, in a sigh, in a flash--together with the youth, with the strength, with the romance of illusions.
from Joseph Conrad's Youth