“Just hold that wire,” insisted my oldest brother Erik. “Nothing will happen, I promise.”
He and my other brother, Werner, were working on an old Sachs engine our dad had brought home for them. Dad wanted them to learn something practical.
“Why should I hold it?”
“We need you to hold it so the engine will start.”
“Are you going to shock me?” I asked.
Their faces were creased with sincerity – masks of good intent. “Honest. We would never do that to you, would we Werner?”
“Just hold the wire so we can get this thing to work.”
“But I’ll get shocked…”
“Not if you hold the end of the wire tightly.”
“It just can’t happen.”
“Not at all,” agreed Werner.
“Oh, alright.” I held the wire for them while Werner knelt and braced the big engine between his legs, staining his tan corduroy pants with engine grease. Erik balanced himself and kicked down on a big kick-start lever with a mighty tromp. A huge blast of electricity jolted through me. I leapt back and hit the wall. Erik and Werner burst out laughing, “You idiot!” Erik shouted, “Don’t you know better than to hold a spark plug wire?”
My aptitude for mechanical things always seemed worse when my brothers were around. Like when Werner pointed out that my bicycle wheels didn’t spin very easily. We had our bicycles upside down doing the maintenance my dad insisted was important for our maturity and development.
“Spin it and see,” he said. I spun the front wheel and after a few turns it stopped.
“Now spin mine.” I did and it spun like a top, on and on and on. “You have to loosen the bearings in the wheel hub.” He pointed out the slim little nuts in there and left me to it.
“Why’s your wheel wobbling like that?” Erik asked a few days later. I was loaded with thirty copies of the Toronto Star for my paper route. The front wheel had been turning freely ever since the adjustment. Maybe too freely.
“Werner showed me how to loosen it.”
“And you believed him?” Erik demanded. “You’ve got to tighten those,” he said, pointing to those nasty thin nuts I had spent an hour on. They were losing their six-sided shape every time I wrenched them with the old adjustable wrench. I unloaded the bike, flipped it over, made the adjustment in the growing darkness and took off to deliver the papers. By the time I got back home there was a suspicious grinding sound coming from the wheel hub.
“You listened to Erik? No wonder you screwed it up,” observed Werner, “better do the back wheel now. Even them up.”
By the end of the week Dad was really mad about me needing two new bicycle wheels. All that remained of the ball bearings were some bits of steely gravel. The bearing cups were full of cracks and unusable.
Things were always breaking down at our house. My dad, who had plenty of mechanical aptitude was kept pretty busy, fixing stuff.
Like the night Werner cannon-balled onto our big old bed dozens of times and the thing began its death rattle. Already one end was sagging.
“Werner you’re wrecking the bed!”
“So?” He dived onto it again and it rattled more dramatically. “It’s fun,” he pointed out. The low corner got even lower. He got off, took a run at it and cannon-balled into it again. The bed shook like a wet dog.
This time a belly flop.
“You’re wrecking it, stop! Dad’ll kill you!” Werner ignored me and dived onto it again. The lower half collapsed onto the ground and the footboard crashed, leaving deep gouges in the wooden floor.
“Oops!” grinned Werner. We tried to fix it with a wrench but couldn’t. Needless to say I didn’t get to sleep well that night in a bed that was 18 inches lower on the end, like a ship sinking by the stern.
Did I say we were always wrecking stuff? It’s true. Either that or chasing each other around the house with something sharp. I’m not sure if mom and dad ever realized why I wanted to go out with them wherever they went, but it was safer than staying at home.
For a long time I avoided working on my bicycle and mechanical things in general. Instead I devoted time to things like practicing shooting things with my slingshot or learning archery. If they’d had a rifleman’s badge at scouts I would have tried for that. Just for self defense of course.
Dad bought us a Meccano set with all the little steel brackets and flanges and nuts and bolts, telling us, with some pride, how he had made Meccano displays of windmills and such for the toy shop where he grew up in the old country.
“Let’s see vat you can make, boyss,” he said. My brothers made simple little racing cars with moving wheels. He was disappointed: they should have been made to steer or had a differential. I made a gallows with a little steel Meccano man hanging from it by his neck. It had no moving parts whatsoever. He shook his head in disgust and said something in Dutch about my mechanical aptitude.
Fast forward about fifteen years. I was in University and needed a car. I bought a 1967 Volkswagen station wagon for $400. It was reliable, free of rust and had been fastidiously maintained by a philosophy grad student who found truth in things like working on his car. My dad would have liked a son like him. The car was great and I drove it for two years before my lack of mechanical aptitude confronted me. The car needed an engine job and I didn’t have money to pay a mechanic.
Erik, who was visiting from out west, was reading on my couch.
“Hey Erik, how about helping me fix this engine?”
“Do it yourself. You got two hands,” he said and turned a page in his magazine. A day later he tossed a book on my table: How to Fix Your Volkswagen, For the Compleat Idiot, by John Muir. “Read that,” he instructed. “It’s all you need to know.”
It had every kind of repair for every kind of VW ever built. From the Beetle to the Microbus and the station wagon model I had. It was illustrated with clear drawings of only what you needed to see, and the intro chapter, about people with no mechanical experience whatsoever, gave me confidence. The book was even ring-bound to stay open to any page. I discovered the book also had a running philosophical commentary about all sorts of other things in life.
So I bought some tools and spent the better part of a weekend methodically removing and dismantling my VW engine. I labeled everything, read over every paragraph several times and worried every minute. When I had reassembled everything and put the engine back in there was great apprehension.
“Turn the key,” I told myself, but I was afraid of what might happen. A voice in my head was saying; “hold this wire”. I walked around the parking lot. I smoked a cigarette. I stared at the car from a distance and hummed a little tune. The key was waiting, dangling in the ignition.
Had I crossed some plug wires?
Had I wrecked the duel carburetors or not attached the gas lines properly? Would this little car erupt into a fire-bomb and immolate my human remains as a sacrifice to technology?
Finally I turned the key and there was a pleasant grumble as the four little cylinders fired up. The engine idled happily.
I was ecstatic like a new father. I had created life.
Over the years I worked on many Volkswagens and helped my friends fix theirs as well. Werner had the same station-wagon model I did. We collaborated on dreaming up unusual paint jobs – he did a desert camouflage, and later a tree frog design. I painted my car plaid. First it was a Barclay tartan – just to create the painful visual assault of yellow on black and white – on a car. It gave me a headache just to look at it. Later I changed it to a more sedate Black Watch tartan. Foot-wide stripes of blue and green on a black background.
One weekend I was helping Werner wire some speakers into the back of his car. While he fiddled with the fuses I ran a secret wire from his distributor cap to the speaker wire.
“You better show me where you want that wire to run,” I called.
“Under the trim,” he said.
“I can’t get it in there.”
“It’s simple. Just stuff it under.”
“I don’t want to wreck it. You’d better do it.” With a deep sigh Werner extricated himself from under the dashboard and came back to where I held the speaker wire. He stuffed the wire under. I waited until he began attaching it to the screws on the speaker.
“Hey Werner,” I said.
“What?” he grunted.
“Hold that wire,” I said and turned the ignition key. The audible snap of the high-voltage spark was almost as satisfying as the shocked look on his face.
It took a while to learn mechanical aptitude but it was worth it.