Friday, August 24, 2012

Grease Monkey

Recently, my son needed new brakes put on his car. To most guys, this is something they love to hear. They will now have the opportunity to get oily and dirty and use some of those tools hanging up neatly in their pegboard-lined garage. They will get to go to an automotive parts store and go through catalogs with some guy with the name "Stu" emblazoned across the left side of his chest, ordering and purchasing brake pads and drums, rotors and calipers and other such items. A literal dream come true for most guys. Notice how I say "most" guys.

The internal-combustion engine and I have never had a close relationship. All parts connected to the internal-combustion engine and I have never had a close relationship. I basically have known how and where to put gas and oil in the vehicles I have owned. Having said that, by means of full-disclosure, I should probably mention that I have, in the past, run vehicles out of both gas and/or oil. When I pop the hood on a car, I might as well be looking at the inner-workings of my wife's mind. For the most part, I don't understand it, and I probably never will.

I've always figured that there is a finite amount of room in a person's brain. A long time ago, I decided to fill my cranium by studying the creative works of Da Vinci, Rembrandt and Don Martin of MAD Magazine. Because of this, I determined that I just never had the capacity to know how to replace a spark plug. That was my thinking when I signed up for art class in high school instead of shop class or the Future Farmers of America.

However, throughout recent years, I have tried to develop a better command of how vehicles work. I have determined, that it would be much handier, not to mention cheaper, working on my own vehicles instead of taking them to a garage every time some little thing goes wrong. To increase my knowledge, I've started watching more NASCAR races. All I've gotten from this so far is that I take way too long to change my tires and fuel up.

Since my mechanical knowledge is still at the kindergarten level, I did what every red-blooded American male over the age of 45, who is too cheap to pay a professional mechanic to replace his son's brakes would do – I asked my brother-in-law if he could do it. He smiled broadly and said "Sure, I'd be happy to." I told him that would be great and that I would be there to lend a helping hand in any way I could. At that time, the smile left his face.

I have "helped" my brother-in-law on motor vehicle projects in the past. When I say that I "helped," I use the word in the broadest of terms. In this particular instance, and most others, I was what is known in the world of automotive mechanics as "the trouble-light holder." For those of you who may not know what a trouble-light is, it's the light bulb in a socket surrounded by a wire cage and connected to a long cord. It has a hook on it so the mechanic can hang it near his work area. The trouble-light is a very beneficial piece of equipment to have, and in my opinion, it has always been a great honor to be the trouble-light bearer.

In my long history as a mechanical moron, I have held the trouble-light on many tasks. I've held it for cars and trucks, tractors and combines and even an old Ski-Doo snowmobile that didn't like to run in cold weather. And my trouble-light holding expertise hasn't been contained to the automotive industry. I've been the torch-bearer for several plumbing and basement carpentry projects throughout the years. Many times, I pointed out to my father and older brothers that there was a hook on the light and they really didn't need me to hold it. In their own loving way, they would usually ask, "But what else are you good for?" I couldn't argue with that kind of logic, so I would silently go back to holding the light. I guess that I'm kind of an idiot savant when it comes to trouble-lights. (Insert your own joke at this time.)

For this particular brake replacement project, my primary focus was to make sure the trouble-light was held in the proper position to shine the optimum amount of light on the wheel well compartment and brake assembly. It sounds simple, but it's not. I tend to get distracted fairly easily. Let's face it, when your main job is to hold a light, you have lots of time to look around at other stuff. I had time to read the box that the new disc brakes came in. I had time to read the label on the WD-40. Unfortunately for my brother-in-law, I needed some light to read all of these things so he was probably having a rough time replacing those brakes in total darkness.

Many times, the trouble-light holder will become the tool-getter guy. Much like the head nurse during a surgical procedure who has to find the "scalpel" or the "rib-spreader" for the surgeon, I have to track down the specialized tools of the mechanic, such as a "screwdriver" or a pair of "pliers." Often, this will end up with me going through my brother-in-law's well-organized tool chest. He's got some cool toys, I mean tools, in there. For instance, he has this laser thermometer thingy that I guess is supposed to be used to gauge the surface temperature of different parts of the engine. By the time we, I mean he, was done with the brakes, I knew the surface temperature of everything in his garage, including a few cats. Who knew working on a car could be so much fun?

Whenever he would pick up a screwdriver, I would shout out, "Righty-tighty, Lefty-loosey!" to show-off my mechanical mastery and to let him know that I was still part of the project. He would laugh but little does he know that every time that I have picked up a screwdriver during my 46 years of life, I have silently thought "righty-tighty, lefty-loosey" to myself.

To make a long story not quite so long, I am happy and proud to report the brake replacement procedure was a success. Except for a couple of times when a part was stubbornly rusted in place, and I actually had to teach my brother-in-law the proper swear words to utter, the project went off without a hitch. (Can you imagine a mechanic that doesn't like to swear? Neither can I.)

There were several things I learned that night working on that car. I learned, after watching my brother-in-law scrape his knuckles after a dangerous pliers maneuver, that he really needs to have some Band-aids in his tool box. I learned that you should really check that you're getting the correct item while you are at the auto parts store and not finding out when you get back to your brother-in-law's house because it's really not that much fun to make a return trip back to town. But most importantly, I learned that black cats are basically the same surface temperature as yellow and calico cats. Isn't that hard to believe?

Now that I'm practically a full-fledged mechanic, I might open my own garage. I'd like to call it "Wally's," but since Gomer Pyle worked at "Wally's Filling Station" on the "Andy Griffith Show," there might be some copyright problems. At the very least, I might start buying old "junker" cars and get them running like they did the day they came off of the assembly line, so I can resell them. If I get enough clunkers in my front yard, I shouldn't have to mow any more. Two birds, one stone.

Until then, I'll probably be headed over to my brother-in-law's again. I've had this annoying "Check Engine" light on my Jeep staring at me for a couple of years now …

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