I was 15, and I needed to work on cars – but I didn’t know it.
Half a year earlier, my family had moved to Williamsburg, Virginia, from my lifelong home in Richmond. I still hadn’t connected to the new area or to nearly all my mother’s family in the city: grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and more cousins. My parents’ ongoing and ugly divorce had left me between fathers, in the same way I was between family and family, Richmond and Williamsburg, boy and man.
My mother promptly volunteered my help, and so there I was, shrinking near the wall of my uncle’s garage, a two-bay labyrinth of tools with very foreign-sounding names.
At my age, Uncle Dale had worked three jobs, roofed houses, and played tight end. I, on the other hand, was a scrawny kid who spent most of my time indoors with books. A self-proclaimed redneck, Uncle Dale belonged to the wild.
Flipping through a stash of bargain-bin CDs, Uncle Dale put on his favorite country hits, and the two of us got to work. He laid out the necessary materials: socket wrench, filter, pan, oil, and rags. Raising the car with a jack, Uncle Dale explained the steps. Get below and find the drain plug, twist it off with the socket wrench, and drain the oil. Change the filter, pop the hood, add new oil, and just like that, you’re done.
Easy for him to say at 6 feet, 2 inches, and 220 pounds; difficult for me at 6-foot-zero and 145.
Underneath the car, the impossibly tightened drain plug confounded my sense of direction. How did it go? Righty loosey? Lefty tighty? I struggled. I twisted. I threw my weight against that stubborn, stuck bolt. Stubborn and stuck it stayed.
“Everything OK, Noah?” my uncle said.
I hated to admit it wasn’t. Silently, I planned for a new gym regimen. Gathering my strength one last time, I recited a mantra from “The Old Man and the Sea”: “a man can be destroyed but not defeated, a man can be destroyed ...”
It went nowhere. I emerged defeated. “Uncle Dale, can you give me a hand?”
Two minutes later, the oil was draining.
That first time wasn’t fun. I probably wouldn’t have returned if it hadn’t been for my mother’s insistence on frugality. My second oil outing wasn’t much better, nor the third. But I finally got comfortable under the hood. I remember the first time I loosened the plug on my own, the first time I finished it all by myself. In the years leading up to college, Uncle Dale taught me to change brakes, rotate tires, check fluids, and more. I’m no mechanic, but compared with most people my age, well, I ain’t too bad.
Uncle Dale always offered me ice tea afterward and asked how things were. After a while, I stopped caring how long the jobs took. I was there to talk, listen, and learn.
We started spending more time together. If a few weeks went by without contact, Uncle Dale would call to say he needed his “Noah fix.” I’d respond by saying my Dale levels were low, and we’d make plans.
Before I went to college, Uncle Dale invited me over for a home-cooked meal and gave me a set of tools.
“I just want to let you know that you can take your car to a mechanic in the future,” he said. “That’ll break my heart, but you can do it.”
Remembering that first failed oil change, I realize how little I understood then. In the throes of teenage confusion, I thought my semi-intellectual English-major shtick meant I couldn’t get my hands dirty. But working on cars is a Robertson family rite of passage. I didn’t have a choice – and it’s a good thing, too.
I needed 10-cent George Strait CDs; torn and loose jeans, cowboy boots, and a baseball cap. I needed “y’alls,” “ain’ts,” and “druthers.” I needed some confusion, a little frustration, and then ice tea.
I needed to grow but didn’t know how. Uncle Dale taught me. And along the way, I learned a few things about cars.