Mechanics I have known (and loved)

As an inveterate buyer of used cars - especially cheap used cars - I am no stranger to auto mechanics. Like any craftsman, a good mechanic is evidence of how well and how quickly one can work when one possesses that fortunate combination of know-how and the right tools. I stand in awe of good mechanics for the same reason I salute plumbers and electricians: They have mastered crafts I seem incapable of learning, despite my having lined my bookshelves with all the "For Dummies" books I could get my hands on.

My first car was a 1973 Dodge Colt, which I bought in 1981 for $900. The first thing I did was cover up its sickly lime-green with a $75 paint job at Earl Scheib's in Newport News, Va. The fresh coat of coppery brown looked mighty good, but it belied the mechanical problems the beast was harboring, and they were legion. When I finally took an educated look under the hood, I found that wooden bungs had been hammered in where bolts were missing, and sheets of cardboard had been cut to size for use as gaskets. And they had held up pretty well, too - until I became the owner.

I stumbled upon a mechanic named Gary, a British transplant who impressed me with not only his skills, but also with having an actual diploma on the wall from some technical school in England. Distraught at the variety of fluids that were seeping out of my car, I approached Gary with hat in hand. "Can you do anything for her?" I begged.

He popped the hood and looked over the engine with the calm demeanor of a judge of champion hogs. "This is a good engine," he pronounced, with something resembling admiration. "The hemispherical engine is the same one that propelled the Japanese Zeros to Pearl Harbor."

"Really?" I gushed unpatriotically, suddenly feeling that there was hope for my shiny but ailing vehicle.

"Give me a week."

I gave Gary the week, and when I returned it was to a car with a new lease on life. "The cylinder head was warped," he said as he ran a hand through the air by way of illustration, "so I evened her up with a layer of unvulcanized rubber." I took my lean machine home and got another couple of years out of her, thanks to the faith-based initiative of the first truly fine mechanic I'd known.

Others followed. When I moved to Maine I had to start my search from scratch. I weeded out mechanics with the determination of a man moving through a wheat field with a scythe. I even bypassed some of the seemingly competent, for no other reason than that they groaned when they saw my car. I was in search of altruism and someone who would see the same qualities in my vehicle as I.

That's when I discovered Walt, the brake expert who nursed my discs along, visit after visit, blinking the flakes of rust from his eyes as he patiently went about his business. And Andy, who showed me how to do some simple repairs, "so you won't have to pay me to do something you can do yourself." And Chris, who went about auto electrical work with the determination of a detective, following wires and circuits like a bloodhound until he found the culprit responsible for a bum rear defroster.

But the king of the hill is Doug, a wiry old Mainer who is the consummate optimist and never seasons his willingness to work on my 1989 Dodge Raider with comments such as, "if you really want to put money into this thing." On the contrary, Doug routinely listens carefully to my woes and then pronounces, "By golly, we'll fix her," before seizing his tools and snapping to work.

I visit Doug so frequently with my Raider that I sometimes grow self-conscious about it. I find myself wondering just when enough will finally be enough, for both of us. But just when my faith in my clinking, clattering vehicle begins to flag, Doug bucks me up with a "By golly, you just go to work and expect to see her at the end of the day." And my spirits rise.

Such was the case during the recent cold snap in January. The Raider woke up only reluctantly one morning. I was able to start her, but she coughed and spat something awful. I couldn't get her up to highway speed, so I lurched along a back road, all the way to Doug's. When I got there he came out to meet me, wiping grease from his hands with a rag. "I knowed it was you," he said; "I could hear you coming."

"I think this is it, Doug," I said morosely as I leaned under the hood with him. "I can feel it."

"Now you just go to work," said Doug. "By golly, I'll take a look at her and we'll have you back on the road."

For the rest of the day I was preoccupied with my vehicle. Finally, at 5, I trudged back to Doug for the grim verdict. When I got to his garage my car was humming in place. "The carburetor," said Doug. "I got her pretty well adjusted now. She shouldn't give you a lick of trouble." And then I watched as he ran his hand over the edge of the hood. "She's a good girl," he said.

Thanks to Doug and the other fine mechanics I have known, my car should have miles to go before it sleeps (and miles to go before it sleeps). By golly.

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