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My father was not always the easiest man to get along with, but in one respect he was magnificent: He was unfailing in his devotion to machines of almost any variety. He could talk to me at length on the virtues of, say, the 1966 Chevrolet four-barrel carburetor or the drawbacks of the Wankel rotary engine. Talking, however, was not really his strongest suit, for he was a man of action. As he was fond of pointing out, talking would never make an engine run more smoothly. He encouraged me in my first steps toward automotive literacy: He allowed me to hold his sockets and wrenches when he worked on the family cars. And when I was 12, he and my fearless mother bought
me a motorcycle.
It was a 50-cc Benelli motocross bike -- neither new, nor large, nor powerful, nor expensive. But it gave form and life to my imaginings.
No longer did I have to confine myself wistfully to magazine photos of high-speed turns and hair-raising rides through rough country. I had the thing itself -- the device that would make these experiences possible, at least to some degree.
And, although I did not know it at the time, I also had a new kind of lexicon. The motorcycle was a compendium of gears and springs and sprockets and cylinder heads and piston rings, which between my father and me acquired the force of more affectionate words that we could never seem to use in each other's presence.
Almost immediately the Benelli became a meeting ground, a magnet for the two of us. We would come down to look at it -- even if it was too late in the day for a good ride -- and my father would check the tension of the chain, or examine the spark plug for carbon, or simply bounce the shock absorbers a few times as he talked. He'd tell me about compression ratios and ways of downshifting smoothly through a turn; I'd tell him about my latest ride, when I leaped two small hummocks or took a spill on a tigh t curve.
For the first time I could remember, we had a common stake in something. Though he might not know whether I was reading at the eighth-grade level or the 12th-grade level -- or whether my math scores lagged behind those of the rest of the class -- he was delighted to see that I knew how to adjust a clutch cable or stop after a controlled skid. These skills were a source of genuine adventure for me, and I came to life when he observed my progress.
But this was only part of our rapport with the motorcycle. My father found few occasions to be overtly tender with the family, but he could be tender with a machine. I began to notice this in the countless small adjustments he regularly made. His touch on the cranky carburetor set-tings for gas and air was gentle, even soothing; at least it seemed to soothe the motorcycle, which ran smoothly under his touch but not under mine.
I found that, in time, this tenderness buoyed me up in its wake. If my father was, in his dreams, a flat-track mechanic, then I was his driver; he owed me the best he could give me; that was his job. This dream of his bound us in metaphor which, at its heart, was not so different from the kind of straightfor-ward love another child might have received from a more accessible father. I did not know this then, not exactly. But I knew, when we both hovered over the Benelli's cylinder head or gearbox, adjus ting a cam or replacing a spring, that he would not have done all this for himself alone.
Yet there was a secret to our new language, a secret that only slowly revealed itself. The bands of our words were strong, but too narrow to encompass the worlds rising on my horizon.
Almost without knowing it I began to acquire other vocabularies -- the taciturn and subtle speech of girls, the exclamations of independence, the wrenching words of love and the loss of loved ones. In this I began to leave him behind. He could not talk of these things with me. He remained with his engines; and long after I had ceased to ride it, he would from time to time open the gas jets, prime the carburetor, and take my motorcycle for a spin around the block.
But as it seems that nothing is ever wholly lost, this vocabulary of the garage and the flat-track speedway still has a kind of potency, a place in the scheme of things.
When, recently, I had dinner with my father, after not having seen him for nearly a year, we greeted each other with the awkwardness of child cousins: We hardly knew what to say. I had almost given up on the possibility of a prolonged conversation until I happened to mention that my car needed a new clutch. Suddenly we were safe again, as we moved from the clutch to the valves on his souped-up VW and the four-barrel carburetor on the '66 Chevrolet Malibu, still pouring on the power aft er all these years. We had moved back to the language of our old country. And though one of us had journeyed far and had almost forgotten the idioms, the rusty speech still held, for a time, the words of love.