The Soapbox

This page written circa 28 February, 1999.

Rachel! Get the Benz!

To the left you see a picture of Tony and your humble author with the one that did not get away: We are holding the head off the engine of the car that is behind us, and whose head gasket inconveniently failed last week. Inconvenient such a thing always is. This time it was especially so: Not only does a head removal cost thousands of dollars (Wolf quoted about $2000), but it happened just as Andrew and Deborah arrived for two weeks stay---grunt! I am seriously indebted to Tony for his invaluable partnership in the job of repair. About $200 later, including $65 in the 14 head bolts alone, she is back together.

The exercise brought back a lot of memories. The first time I took the head off a car was in about 1980, and it was Andrew's Passat. The job was a stinker, as the gasket was viciously stuck to the block, and we were working in the car park behind 216 Pyrmont Bridge Road. The sunlight faded on the Sunday, and as Andrew needed the car for work, we had to give up and send it to the mechanic.

Andrew and I had a lot of mechanical adventures. A year or so later, we repaired the same Passat's drive shaft. I was reminded of this event by finding the peculiar tool required for the CVJs of Passats.... (We won that time.) We had some wonderful maxims devised in that time. SNIDIME is something that happens to one often in car work, we discovered: "System Normal: It's Dripping In My Eye". We got snidimed, and oddly enough I kind of enjoyed those times.

Working on a car was something like cooking. We saw a movie about that time, I think it was "Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe", a film of the filmmaker doing just that, in fullfillment of a wager. We adapted a phrase from the film to read "A man should not go so long without working on a car". It is painful in some ways (grazed knuckles, grease under the nails, lost time), but you get a lot of satisfaction from solving the problem and working with your hands to achieve something. I was actually a bit sorry that Andrew seems no longer to relish such "boy stuff", as D called it.

Tony, like others of my friends, had a great advantage over me in things mechanical: they had fathers who posessed skills and tools, and from whom they could learn not simply how to do such miracles, but that they are doable. Believeing that takes time. At the age of 21 I had virtually no experience with engines or metalwork or woodwork. I had not been able to learn by watching anyone, by osmotically collecting the idea that problems are soluble with a smattering of know-how and the knowledge that they are soluble. I remember when I started dating Carolyne, her (then 8 year old?) son Martin was (reportedly) astonished by simple things: If a light switch failed, I got tools and fixed or replaced it. If the car stopped, I worked out why and repaired it. She told me that he was "staggered to discover that such things could be done" or words to that effect.

I want Amelia to be able to watch me and to have the power. Amelia, you will probably never want to fix a car, to make a train set work, to get slotcars to run faster, to rebuild the operating system of a PC, to fix a lightswitch, to assemble furniture, etc., but it is very important (to your own self esteem) that you prove to yourself that you can do that sort of thing.

I imagine it was sensible for Andrew not to dive into dismantling the Benz... after all, he came for a holiday, to see Santa Rosa, and to be with friends, not to fix cars. The weather has stunk, and we have been overloaded with cars and work and baby. I guess that when I see Amelia, in a month or two, she will not want to fly planes or visit train shops. Nevertheless, this sort of visit is for me a chance to "commune" with the person, not see the sights or drink the wines, and I reckon that one of the best ways to do that is to embark on a project. My idea of a good time is to get close to someone, and it does not matter all that much if it is drinking on the balcony and hardly talking at all, or exchanging cracks about grazed knuckles and oil drips from under a broken car.

I can't resist telling one last tale. Tony's brother and my friend Peter are on a management course of some sort, along with a few engineers, amongst others. They get divided into groups, and John and Peter are in one group together. One of the people running the course comes into the room and dumps a model car kit on the table. "I'll be back in 10 minutes", she says, "will you put this together while I am away". So they open up the kit, and they put the car together, no problem. She comes back, looks at the car in obvious dismay. "My next point", comes the comment, "was to say how it is impossible to do a job without instructions... how did you do that?!?". Comes a reply to the effect of "Who needs instructions for anything that easy?".

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