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Shadetree mechanics
by Newt Harlan

Have you looked under the hood on your truck lately? Sure is a bunch of stuff in there nowadays, ainít it? Letís see, I recognize the oil filler cap, and thereís the dipstick where you check the oil, or is that the one to check the transmission fluid? It must be the for oil, Ďcause way back here in the back is another dipstick that looks like itís probably for the transmission. Iím not sure, but Iíll bet these four things on either side with the wires hooked on Ďem are the spark plugs, and I know this big olí thing up on top of the motor is the air filter, because thatís where, every time I have my oil changed, the mechanic pulls it out of to show me all the crud and corruption and explain, as usual, the filter needs changing again.

The radiator is still sitting here up in the front where itís always been, and I can recognize the battery, looking about the same as it always has, bolted in its bracket up here by the radiator. I know one of those bottle looking things is for the windshield washer and the other is for the overflow from the radiator when it heats up, and it is also where you put in the anti-freeze, or coolant as they call it nowadays. But thatís just about all the stuff I can recognize.

Reckon what all the rest of this other stuff under here does? Some things I can probably stand here and figure out, but I donít even have a clue on a lot of it. Man, these vehicles, the way theyíre making 'em nowadays, you damn near gotta be a rocket scientist to even raise the hood on one, much less do anything like working on it. I used to could change the oil and stuff like that, but now I just carry my truck on down to the mechanic shop and let them do it. Hellís bells, they got all the tools, the computer hookups, and they even have a permit to dispose of the waste oil.

Things havenít always been this way. Growing up poor in the country made me and most of my friends pretty fair shade tree mechanics by the time we reached our mid teens. We were all driving when we reached high school, and just about everybody owned their own car, or at least a semblance thereof. Between keeping our cars running and helping with the mechanic work on the tractors and other equipment, we usually sported the scraped knuckle and dirty fingernail trademarks of the shade tree brotherhood.

My first car was a í52 Ford ďsalesman special.Ē A ďsalesman specialĒ back in those days was a 4 door sedan completely stripped of extras -- no radio, no heater, no nothing except a front seat and a back seat, a steering wheel. And four doors that would sometimes open and close, if you held your mouth just right, and four tires that may or may not have tread on them. The main problem for this teenager was the car had no radio, just a plate covering the hole in the dash where the radio should be. The salesman where I bought the car generously threw in a radio he found lying around the shop, which he said I could install later. As it turned out, it was a Chevy radio and wouldnít fit into a Ford and besides all that, the damned thing didnít even play.

I think it took about a week for me to find out the car was doctored to hide its faults when I bought it and actually burned almost as much oil as it did gas. Caveat emptor applied to used cars in those days too, probably more so than today.

At least I had my own car. So what, if I had to put a quart of oil in it daily, sometimes two? It was my own car and, thankfully, I could work on it, because work on it I did. At least every other day, I had to fix something on that damned car. It soaked up every dollar I could make from my weekend and after school jobs and I even wound up selling a couple of pure-bred cows so I could get a re-built motor. Finally, I got the old car in pretty good running condition and even had a radio that worked. After all, I was a card-carrying shade tree mechanic.

Back then, being a teenaged shade tree mechanic carried certain obligations. For instance, when you came upon a vehicle broken down on the side of the road, especially one with a pretty girl driving, you were obligated to stop to see if you could be of assistance.

You walked up to the vehicle with a certain swagger and inquired if you could be of help. If the problem was a flat tire, you changed it, got her phone number and sent her on her way. If she were out of gas, you retrieved the spare 5 gallon can you kept on hand for emergencies and put it in her tank. She would start the engine, thank you, give you her phone number and be on her way.

If she wasnít out of gas, youíd walk to the front of her car, open the hood (hopefully on first try), and peer in. Usually, the problem would be something that just jumped out at you, like the primary wire from the dingus to the frumpish was disconnected, so you just reconnected the wire, closed the hood and the young lady started her engine, thanked you, gave you her phone number and went on her way.

If the problem wasnít a flat or lack of gas or, after opening the hood, you discovered it wasnít something simple, and in fact you had no idea what may have been wrong, all was not lost. You simply placed your right hand in your right hip pocket and your left hand in your left hip pocket, then walked back and forth around the front of the car, looking in at the engine and shaking your head, occasionally removing one hand or the other from your hip pocket to wiggle a wire or test the tightness of a bolt. None of this did a bit of good, but before long some fool who probably knew absolutely nothing about motors came along and fixed the problem. Then all you had to do was tell the pretty girl to crank it up and collect her phone number. That was the code of the shade tree mechanic.

Fast forward to today.

After having been a shade tree mechanic in my previous life, I always feel obligated to stop for someone with a breakdown at the side of the road. With todayís gas prices being what they are, out of gas is usually the problem, but with todayís gas prices being what they are, my handy 5 gallon can is dry. In fact, I donít even have a 5 gallon can in my truck, since the last person who ran out of gas didnít bother to bring it back. So, I offer to give the pretty girl a ride to the service station to rent a gas can and buy some gas.

She offers to call the cops on her cell phone, since Iím probably some kind of pervert just looking for an excuse to get her in my truck. Besides, sheís already called her boyfriend whoís the starting right tackle for the Houston Texans to bring her some gas and if I know whatís good for me Iíll get my ass out of there . . . Naturally, I get my ass out of there.

I decide itís probably a good thing she was just out of gas, because if I had tried to raise the hood it wouldíve taken me at least six jerks to get it open and, once I did, Iíd recognize exactly what I did at the start of this story -- essentially nothing. What about the old hands in hip pocket trick? That one wouldnít have worked either because nowadays everybody knows only high dollar mechanics who diagnose troubles with a computer in an air-conditioned shop, have the answer to these things theyíre building today.

Like my old granny used to say, ďMechanics need to make a living too.Ē Granny really didnít say anything like that, but I had to end this thing somehow.


    Newt tells us about himself:

    I was born, raised and educated in Texas. With the exception of a few brief sojourns and the 4 years during the Vietnam Era that I spent riding around on airplanes courtesy of the U.S. Air Force, I've spent the more than 65 years of my life within spittiní distance of the place where I grew up. I managed to cram a four-year college degree into nine years and by virtue of that remarkable feat, I am a former student of six different schools, which sure helps the odds of rooting for a winner in sporting events. The academic standards committee had a moment of weakness and I was the fortunate recipient of a degree from Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas.

    I'm Southern to the bone. The sound of ďDixieĒ being played gives me goose bumps and I stand and remove my hat. My yard dog, B.J., controls the squirrels, cats, meter readers and peddlers around my place. Iíve picked cotton by hand, plowed behind a mule, churned butter, shelled back-eyed peas, and for the first 12 years of my life, went without shoes from April until October. Several of my friends regularly hold conversations with mules, but as of yet I canít get the danged mules to answer me. I think grits are as much a part of breakfast as bacon, eggs and cathead biscuits. I think ainít is a perfectly good word and donít plan to quit using it just because some damnyankee dictionary writer arbitrarily thinks it ainít.

    I've been married for 30-some odd years and have beaucoup kids and grandkids. I'm now retired after having spent the better part of the past 37 years traveling around Texas, Louisiana, and the Gulf Coast areas of Mississippi and Alabama, trying to sell steel products. My hobbies, in no particular order, include writing, grandkids, hunting, fishing and visiting the local watering hole to swap honest lies and research material for stories.

    E-mail Newt at: Newt281@embarqmail.com

    Want to read more of Newtís stories at USADEEPSOUTH? Click these links:
    Olí Red and the Armadillo
    Telephones and memories
    Tastes like chicken


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