Aching for acres of twisted metal

If anything can still be described as a thoroughgoing male domain it is the auto junkyard. There's something about the acres of twisted metal, the whiff of lubricants, and the general buzz and clank of automobile dissection that has a primal allure for my gender. I never pass a junkyard without wishing I were inside, picking and excavating, looking for bits of treasure, jawing with the mechanics, hobnobbing with my fellow scavengers.

At this point I need to mention that I have a particular need for junkyards. My 1989 Dodge Raider is of an age where new parts are hard to come by, thus making junkyards my last, and sometimes only, resort.

But even used parts are hard to find. Rare is the junkyard that has a Raider available for gutting and plucking. I have often pondered the why of this. Is it because the car is so well made that most Raiders are still on the road (1990 was the last production year)? Or do other members of the Raider community simply beat me to the junkers?

I recently discovered a junkyard here in central Maine that I had overlooked for years. This was partly because of its nondescript name: Highway Service Garage. The second reason was that the roadside office, so-called, was a good two miles from the junkyard proper.

About a month ago I called the Highway Service Garage in search of a rear bumper, as mine had rusted clear through. "We got one Raider," rasped the voice on the phone. "You can take a look at her."

My heart sprouted wings. Within the half hour I was there, maneuvering around tow trucks, pickups, and potholes as I searched out a parking space in a patch of gravel. The front office was represented by a wooden shack. The floor was littered with engine blocks, carburetors, oil pans, and parts I had never seen before and whose function I couldn't begin to guess. Behind the cluttered counter, three weathered men jostled about as they processed orders, fingered parts with their blackened hands, and answered customer questions. The whole space bespoke metal, gaskets, and oil. A country and western lament crackled on the radio. I was in heaven.

When my turn finally came I asked about the Raider. "A mile down the road," said one of the men. "Make your first right, go up the hill, make another right. Can't miss it. Take what you need. Got a tool kit?"

I nodded with alacrity.

"Then go!"

Like an explorer setting sail, I lit off in my Raider, harboring nothing so much as the feeling that I was taking it to see a relative who didn't get out much anymore. I found the first right with no problem, and I found the hill after that. Then the next right, and there it was, laid out before me post-apocalyptically: a strikingly silent, stark landscape of cast-off cars. There must have been 2,000 wrecks. Heaps of cars. Stacks. Wedged everywhere. My heart sank. How, I asked myself, was I going to find the Raider in this mess?

The only approach was a scientific one. I turned my car onto the first gravel path to the left and slowly, carefully – for there were potholes and junk everywhere – I began to creep and weave, looking first left then right, left then right. This went on for a good 20 minutes. And then, just as my frustration was peaking, there it was: a dark-blue Raider sitting alone, rather forlorn, in its own little clearing. Its hood was up and the passenger door ajar.

I stopped and got out. With measured steps I approached the Raider and ran my hand along the side panels, then rested it on her front right fender. So this is it, I thought. The last sad scene. And then, without dwelling further, I took out my tool box and did the thing that had to be done. In short, I went to work.

When I had finished, I had managed to transfer to my car the rear defogger switch, the windshield washer and coolant overflow reservoirs, two pieces of trim, a cover for the utility compartment, a few custom screws, a carpet bar, and – something I thought I'd never find – the coveted Raider insignia which had long ago fallen off my fender.

I returned to the office with my gleanings, the fruits of the Highway Service Garage's honor system. I splayed them out on the counter and the three employees huddled around them, as if I had delivered gold to be assayed. They looked the parts over, exchanged glances and a shrug or two, and then the head man spoke. "Four dollars?" he said with a flick of his eyebrows.

Oh happy day. I dug out the cash and exchanged it for the goods, which I quickly gathered up in my arms. As I left the office I turned back and took one last look around, at the buckets of rusted bolts, the gaskets hanging like sausages from the ceiling, the oozing cylinder head smack in the middle of the floor. In this age of political correctness, there are those who prefer to call such places "automobile recycling centers." Let them. For I know that a junkyard, by any other name, would still smell, and look, as sweet.

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