At last, I'm proud to be a motorhead

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I'm a serious motorhead. I like things loud, fast, and cool. Always have. My grandma often embarrassed me in front of my friends: "His first words were 'vroom vroom wheels.' " That's likely; but it didn't bear repeating, in my adolescent opinion.

My mom got me a really dorky bicycle when I was old enough. Unsatisfied, I set to modifying it. But I had no money. So I went to bicycle shops within 10 miles of my apartment and scrounged through the trash for stuff they had tossed. It was good stuff, to a fourth-grader. When my tastes graduated beyond dumpster bikes, I repaired the bikes of kids in my neighborhood to earn the needed cash.

In sixth grade I traded the bike I had spent a couple of years piecing together for a dirt bike. My dad came to town for a visit and put an end to that, trading me down to the slowest thing that still had an engine. Undeterred, I set to fixing it up.

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And so my life has gone. Buying and trading and racing and fixing and selling and wrecking and experimenting. I bought a 1959 VW Bus with a blown engine for $75 when I was in the ninth grade. A couple of days later, I picked up a wrecked VW Beetle as an engine donor. I sold the seats for what I'd paid for the Bug, sold the wreck for the same, and sold the bus with the new engine for a good profit. Then I bought the next one. I had owned 20 cars by the time I went to college.

Then it gets cloudy. In college, I decided I wanted to amount to something. I tried to get away from cars and motorcycles. I earned a degree in music, and was only a few classes shy of an English degree. All the while, I tried to deny myself those baser motorized instincts.

I was only partially successful. It was hard to avoid the sheer practicality of being handy. When I needed a plane ticket back to Alaska for Christmas break, I traded a friend for an engine installation in her Saab. I was working in the dish room at school for $4 an hour, so the $20 an hour I pulled down fixing cars was hard to pass up.

When I graduated, I felt it was time to devote myself to something better. I spent the next 10 years trying, unsuccessfully, to get away from my mechanical interests. The low point was one snowy day when I was repairing a car I'd bought at a junkyard. I had no garage, and no real driveway. In front of our cabin was just some sawdust thrown on the moss common in that part of Alaska. The snow was melting as it mixed with the sawdust on the back of my neck. When I thought it could not get worse, a buddy from college came on the radio as anchor for a major new public radio news program. I'd studied hard; why was I lying in the snow stuffing a transmission into a car while he was in a nice heated studio?

One night I ran into a friend at the grocery store. He had just left his respectable job as news editor of our local paper. I was staggering around from lack of sleep, having spent the night before in the woods repairing my junk logging truck before delivering my load. I was at the point of tears. Exhausted, broke, master of a universe of broken-down machinery. What a loser.

I was going to tell Sam how smart I thought he was. He and I were meeting at an early-adult crossroads. He'd made the right choice, I thought. He had security; I had junk. But I didn't have a chance to tell him. Instead, he asked me about the road out at Rosie Creek. Was the heavy snow this year slowing me down too much? Were those shoe-pacs as warm as he'd heard? How were log prices? Boy, did he wish he could be out there, too. "You have no idea how hard it is to be stuck in an office," he said. "So what?" I said. "You know you're doing something valuable." "Oh, sure," he said. "Do you know how many meetings I went to today?"

It was a rare exchange: Two grown men, wondering aloud to each other if they had taken the right road.

A few years later, I made the leap. I have embraced my gear-headedness. Everyone has a role to play, I figure. I dig machines: I derive great satisfaction from understanding, modifying, and rebuilding them. The time passes pleasantly, and I help people. I've got the job I wanted when I was 12.

Last weekend, I went to a reception for some famous Russian choreographers. It was OK. I'm not an artist or an intellectual, but I don't sweat it now. When one of the Russians found out I was a car guy, he and I politely swapped car stories for the rest of the afternoon.

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