July 17, 2006

Wheels On Fire

by peterb

Tonight I helped a friend change a tire on his car. I was calm, efficient, and helpful, and we got the tire changed in under 10 minutes.

The funny part about this is that I know that if it had been my car, I would have anxiously dithered around for a half hour before working up the will to fix the problem.

Car repair is a talent, and I don't have it. I understand it in theory, but in practice I find that I lack a certain something that makes it practical. Patience, perhaps, or just sheer stamina.

A few years ago I had a motorcycle, a 1982 model Honda CX500. I say "motorcycle," but for those of you who have seen these rhinos, it's really more like a tractor on two wheels. It had a small oil leak, and I noticed it getting worse over time. Eventually, I traced the problem to the crankcase gasket which was rotting away. And, in a fit of optimism, I decided to replace it.

My friend George had a good garage; I had the service manual for the bike. What could possibly go wrong?

In fact, nothing went wrong with the repair. That is, nothing tangible. But there was something ethereal that went sour, and the experience has stayed with me forever.

The gasket I needed to change was on the front of the engine. That means that you can't reasonably just pop the front of the crankcase off. Essentially, I had to completely dismantle the bike to get at the engine, and then I had to dismantle the engine to get at the part I needed to access. Off came the seat, the gas tank. Drain the lines, remove the carburator — so far, that's all pretty easy. From there, things get sort of hazy. Each part was carefully put on the floor in roughly the order I took it apart, with notes to help me get it back together.

Eventually, I replaced the gasket. That part was particularly annoying, because the part of the engine I was putting the gasket under couldn't actually be physically removed without taking the forks off, which I didn't want to do. So I had to perform the operation with acrobatic contortions. But perform it I did. The gasket was on.

Then, I turned around.

Spread out before me on the floor were several hundred parts, ranging in size from large to miniscule. My clever organizational system seemed like a vanished mirage.

The prospect of bringing my bike back to life seemed as unlikely as that of resurrecting a frog after dissecting it in Junior High School. I felt anxious. I started breathing fast. A thought entered my head, and I couldn't help myself: I said, out loud, "I will never be able to put these pieces back together in a million years. I can't do it."

At that point, George walked in to the garage. He didn't say anything. He just pulled up a chair, and read his book, and sat there. "George, there's no fucking way I can put this bike back together, man." He looked up. "Sure you can. Just start at the end and work your way back. You can do it."

That, it turns out, was all the help I needed. I started at the end, and worked my way back, and although the sun had gone down and it was way past the time that all decent people had gone to bed, my two-wheeled tractor was back together, and running.

For some reason, changing that tire tonight made me remember that story. I'm not sure why. The interesting thing to me is that everyone has their own comfort zones. I have a cousin who, if he encountered a torn-apart engine, would gleefully jump right in. Conversely, a tangled computer or software problem would aggravate him, but to me that's an exciting mystery. You'd think that car repair and computer repair would be similar enough that people would react the same way to both. But somehow — at least for me, and at least on the emotional level — they're not.

But I have to admit, during tonight's tire change, I was glad to have had the chance to be George for once.

Posted by peterb at July 17, 2006 09:12 PM | Bookmark This

I learned to fix vehicles the way a broke student does. My vehicle broke. I spent way too much time fixing it. Only I didn't really fix it because the problem came back and I poured through manuals and fixed it again, etc. I guess I learned a fair bit about fixing cars and acquired a deep distaste for the activity. A while back I must have forgotten about that because a friend picked up an extra vehicle to repair "for fun" and I did the same. What a fool. I gave it to my brother instead.

Posted by Doug at July 17, 2006 09:27 PM

The curse of developing an ability to repair things, is the inability to trust anyone else to do the job properly. "Hell, I can fuck it up myself for free..."

It's even worse when you own old odd-ball Italian sports cars.

If for some reason you do want to learn, a motorcycle is the perfect place to start.

Posted by Mark Denovich at July 17, 2006 09:51 PM

Gear Heads and Techs are two different breeds. I am most definitely the second. My wife is more the first. She can turn a wrench better than I can. The only place that the two sort of meet in the middle is a strange half-breeds: the audiophile and the do-it-yourself engineer. They tend to have some “we can (re)build it” construction capability, as well as a reasonable level of tech savvy and troubleshooting expertise.

Posted by Duncan at July 18, 2006 01:02 AM

Being able to change a tire isn't thar rough though, its not like changing an oil pan or something that requires tools that don't ship with your car.

Old cars are actually the best to fix, because they are typically built to be easy to repair. (bad for the enviroment though).

I also agree about starting on a motorcycle, they are fairly easy and relaxing to fix (and if not a motorcycle, then a bicycle). Also, its great if you can make your own parts with some metal working skills.

Posted by Aaron at July 21, 2006 09:49 AM

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