Wednesday, August 24, 2016

What Do You Have Under the Hood?

Rock Island, August 1977

When I was growing up in Rock Island, most boys were obsessed with being "men," doing exactly what men were supposed to do and nothing else.  The slightest of shifts in your hips as you walked, the most subtle of wrist movements, the tiniest bit of animation in your voice was proof positive that you were not a man at all, but a sissy, a "fag," or a girl.

Even if you got your body gestures, walking, and talking perfected, you could still give away your inner girlishness by not being knowledgeable and enthusiastic about three things: girls, sports, and cars.

The only one I had any hope of accomplishing was cars.

There was no way I was going to kiss and hug girls, sports were too confusing, but I had just got my driver's license, and Mom let me borrow her car sometimes.  Knowing how to fix a car was an attainable goal.  Masculinity within my reach!

The only problem: I was an aesthete, an intellectual, into Renaissance poetry and statues of naked men.  I couldn't tell a hammer from a nail. I got a D- in shop class.  I got carpentry and building toys for Christmas, and left them untouched in their boxes.

But I perservered.  In August 1977, I went to my father and asked him to teach me how to "fix cars."

"You?"  he asked in surprise.  "You hate mechanical stuff."

"Well, most mechanical stuff.  You couldn't pay me to solder an iron onto a lathe, or whatever.  But a car is different."

"Ok, I can give you some pointers.  There are three things about cars that every guy should know: how to change a tire, how to change the oil, and how to repair a carburetor."

1. Change a Tire.  

Dad took me out to the garage, popped open the trunk, and showed me where the jack and spare tires were stored.

"You've seen the ladies with flat tires on the side of the road, waiting for someone to help.  If you can change a tire, you'll be sure to get their phone number!"

What about a guy on the side of the road?  I thought.  

  And of course, if you're on a date and the tire goes flat, you'd better be able to change it, or the girl will think you're a sissy."

He showed me how to jack up a car and "unscrew the lug nuts."

I couldn't get the wrench to work.  It just slid along the nuts.  Finally Dad grabbed the wrench and did it himself.

"Well, you get the idea, anyway."

2. Change the oil.

"A garage will do this for you, but imagine how impressed the girls will be when they find out you can change your own?"

"And the guys,"  I said.

This involved getting under the car and unscrewing a gross greasy thing.

I balked.  "I'll impress the girls with my wit and charm, thanks."

3.  Fix the carburetor.

Next Dad showed me how to open the front hood and prop it up.

"Knowing what's under here is the key to impressing girls."

It was an incomprehensible mass of wires and pipes.

"Here's your fan belt, your carburetor, your radiator, your angler, your glockenspiel."

I stared into oblivion, imagining a hot guy with his shirt off straining over the engine.

"Loosen the rod here, angle the pipe so the screw goes counter-clockwise, then re-up the uptake on the valve here.  This knob goes with this fuel injector.  Then you just sort of squeeze the triangulator down the revolver, and gently push the socket into the wrench."

I stared into oblivion, imagining a hot guy with his pants off straining over the engine.  Dad hadn't mentioned the benefits of not knowing how to fix cars.

"Now you try."

I turned and headed back to the house.  "Thanks, anyway.  I'll just pay someone to do it."

Preferably a guy with his pants off.

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