Auto Fundamentals

Standing on my tip toes, I watch as papa and dad toil over a roughly idling engine. I see papa holding the handle of a screwdriver to his ear, the slotted blade pressed against a smooth part of the engine that looks like an upside down bread pan with chipping orange paint. He walks over to the other side of the engine and repeats the process.

“’Can ‘ear a loose lifter on this side” he says, setting the screwdriver down on his tool cart. 

“What size are the bolts on the valve covers? Half inch?” my dad asks, scanning papa’s tool cart for the right socket.

“Seven sixteenths. Get a deep well on a three-eighths drive with a two inch extension.”

Papa turns to me. “Go grab us a couple of rags on the back bench, Meat Head.” His term of endearment for me.

I scurry to the rear of my grandfather’s two-car garage, savoring the fresher, less polluted air that still lingers back there. Looking for a container of old towels and cut up t-shirts I know reside back here but not being able to locate them, my legs start to turn to noodles and my stomach turns over. I can’t find the box of rags and I know they’re waiting on me. I hear the rapid snapping and clicking of a ratchet being turned. Come on!

Finally I spot an oil-stained Pennzoil box shoved up against the far corner with a dingy terry cloth tail wagging out of it. I boost myself up, using the rusted bottom shelf as a step and I hook the oil-soaked cardboard container, bringing its contents within reach. I fish out three relatively clean rags and scamper back toward the engine bay. The bread pan cover has now been placed on Papa’s tool cart; I can see a pool of oil collecting at the bottom.

Laying the rags on top of the fender they are leaning over, my presence goes unnoticed. Their hands are moving quickly and skillfully, like ER surgeons racing to save a life slipping away. With one of the two orange upside-down pans removed, the engine is hemorrhaging oil with every pulse of the engine’s revolution, covering the hands and inner fender with viscous brown fluid. My dad grabs a rag with a hand that is momentarily free from other duties and he mops up the oil leaking onto the searing exhaust manifold and burning off like a refinery. They’re mumbling back and forth in the tongue of Mechanics, a foreign language to my 8 year old self.  The tips of their oil drenched fingers dance in between rapidly heaving rods and springs, giving turns of the wrench here and there. Then waiting, listening, before they repeat the cycle again.

Papa reaches his hand out and grabs the screwdriver stethoscope. He carefully positions it amidst the flurry of mechanical motion and again places his ear to the end of the handle.

“I ‘ink so,” he says, snapping up a rag and giving his dripping hands a cursory wipe.

My dad picks up the orange cover and replaces it on the engine, suturing up the motor’s opening with the tightening of a half-dozen bolts.  By now even with the cracking white fiberglass garage door open, the noxious combination of Marlboro and Camel Lights smoke mixed with uncatalysed exhaust makes my stomach queezy and my temples throb. But I’m a man-in-training, and if it doesn’t bother the two men working, I won’t let it bother me.

As they finish mopping up the oil slick around the engine I casually glance up at the poster hanging on the portion of dingy white wall above some scary looking piece of machinery with stone disks that belches sparks and growls when its fed metals. I felt funny as I gazed up at the warm, sensuous curves of Miss June, and it wasn’t the fumes. I didn’t know just what all I was looking at, but I knew that I liked it and shouldn’t get caught gawking.

“’Ey Meat Head!” Papa growls with his gravelly voice, “climb up ‘n th’ truck and rev it.”

My eyes grow big as saucers with a mix of exultation and fear. And although both lids snap closed in a vigorous blink to stop the fumes from stinging, as I walk to the open driver’s side door I am no less anxious. The step up into the late ‘70’s Chevy seems gargantuan. And while everything about the trucks exterior and interior seems rugged and intimidating, I am tentative and cautious as I climb onto the edge of the slippery vinyl seat.

“Just a little,” papa bellows over the loud engine. I see my dad glance at me from around the opened hood. His eyes are expectant and issuing both silent cautiousness and encouragement. Swallowing my nerves, I reach out my right foot and apply a little pressure to the long skinny pedal. Nothing happens. I push a little bit harder and the engine roars and the cab rocks as the accelerator rushes toward the firewall.  The small garage seemed to amplify the engine’s roar like a rocket motor in a tin can; I instinctively cupped my ears.  Like a reflex I yank my foot off, frightened at what I had just done. Oh no!

Rev it!”

I guess and hope that papa means he wants me to repeat my last act of chaos, and so I put my foot down again, mating my dinosaur-shaped sneaker soul to the ribbed hard rubber pedal. The cab shakes again. This is kinda neat. The exhaust roars and as I let off the gas pedal, everything settles back down. I like this!  I repeat the process one more time before papa says “Alright!”

But it was too late. I couldn’t smell the smoggy, carbon-monoxide rich air anymore. My ears were ringing, but I was smiling with delight. I had fallen in love with horsepower.  

* * *

“What size you need?”

“Should be a three-eighth head,” I say, reaching out a hand for the ratchet outfitted with the right sized socket.

I loosen and remove the bolts holding the intake manifold on and give the hunk of heavy cast iron a yank. A quick sigh at the weight escapes as I carry it over to my bench and set it down. The water pump, the timing cover, the radiator and the grill have all been removed already to give me enough working space to pull out the old camshaft and replace it with one that will give me upgraded performance. The first stroke is set to top dead center and so I set about loosening the rocker arms and pulling out the pushrods and lifters. Finally I pull the old timing chain and cam gear off from the front of the engine.

The lobed slug of steel slides out with a little wiggling and jiggling and a lot of steady pulling pressure. Freed, I set it on the edge of my work bench, the only part of my workspace not covered with dismantled Small Block Chevy parts.

“What’d you say you got for a replacement?”

“A Comp Thumper Hydraulic Roller. Putting on new Ultra-Pro lifters and Magnum ‘rods, too. I  also have a new Holley 300 Aluminum intake and Pete Jackson gear drive coming.”

“Papa always like to put the noisy gear drives in.”

“That’s what I ordered,” I say smiling as I coat the lobes and bearings of the new camshaft with lots of moly lube.

“He’d be proud.”

“Thanks, Dad.”

I don’t know exactly when I learned how to speak Mechanic, I just wish that my Grandfather had lived to see his tentative and gun-shy Meat Head learn to turn wrenches with the same sort of fledgling adeptness I used to admire in his grease-stained hands.



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