Friday, October 13, 2006

Gimme A Brake

My father has always been one very good auto mechanic. He used to help fix seemingly unfixable problems on stock cars that would run the modified NASCAR circuit. Of course, he's been retired for years now. Back in the seventies, he owned a front-end alignment shop in Flemington, New Jersey. It didn't take him long to gain the reputation of being the best around. People from all over would bring their cars to him. There was another guy in town that had been there a lot longer and did the same thing, but there was plenty of business to go around. As a matter of fact, the two liked each other. One day, the other guy suffered a terrible accident at work and went to the biggest and best alignment shop in the sky. That really bothered my father.

I remember when I was 17, let's see, that would be in 1969, I bought a 1965 Mustang. With air conditioning and an 8-Track cassette. AM-FM, too. I was the man! FM had come into vogue around then, but most cars from 1965 only had AM. It gave me enough confidence to go get me a genuine girlfriend, a real knockout, to boot. Unfortunately, Mustangs were not known for having big back seats. The following summer, I needed new front shocks. I had never worked on a car up to that point and never planned to, not with a father who knew pretty much everything about them. Besides, cars were still a new thing to me, after riding bikes most of my life. He used to let me "help" him when I was a kid, to make me feel good, but I never really did anything because I really didn't help all that much.

One day, I called him and asked if he could put new shocks in for me. Sure, go over to Carver's Auto Parts, get what you need and come by Saturday morning. OK, great! I was getting tired of getting seasick every time I went over a bump in the road. So was my girlfriend.
That Saturday morning, I stopped by, parts in hand. He told me, "See those tools over there? They are all you're going to need to replace those bad shocks."

"What do you mean?" I protested. "I thought you were going to put them in for me."

"No, you're going to have to learn how to work on a car and this is a good place to start." When he told me that, I began to dislike him for thinking I was ready to work on my own vehicle. I wasn't and I think he sensed if he had told me beforehand that I was going to do the work, the job would never have gotten done. "I'm going to be right here to give you any help or advice, so don't panic."

One thing about my father's tools, you could eat off them. They were always neatly arranged, too. AND YOU'D BETTER RETURN THEM THAT WAY! Oh, he didn't expect me to remember where they all went, but they'd better be clean. "No one wants to reach into a toolbox and grab a dirty, greasy wrench." He was right. He was right about something else, too. I learned how to work on my own cars over the years and I've probably saved tens of thousands of dollars because of it.

In the late seventies, my good friend Frank had a little Japanese import. I think it was a Subaru. Frank sold industrial coatings for Dupont back then and needed a small, fuel-efficient car that was very dependable. Because of all the miles he'd put on it, the rear brakes finally wore out. Front brakes wear out three times as quickly and those he maintained. After so many miles it was time to do the rears. I called my father and asked him if I could use his shop on Saturday to do the job for Frank. He normally didn't work weekends so it wasn't a problem. These were drum type brakes and the shoes were what needed replacing. Since Frank wasn't all that educated when it came to working on cars, I figured we'd both go to the parts store so I could make sure we got the right parts.

My father had a rack you'd drive up onto. "OK, Frank. Slowly drive up the ramp and I'll tell you when to stop." So far, so good. After removing the tires, I unbolted the wheel drums. After they've been on a car for some time and been subjected to the elements, they can be really tough to remove. They were. After finally getting them off, I started to disassemble the brakes. I compared the old parts with the new, to make sure everything matched up. Everything was going well. I installed all of the new parts. I checked and checked again to make sure everything was correct. Then, I tried to put the drums back on. No way. They wouldn't fit over the new brakes. I thought of everything. I looked again to make sure everything was correct. Yup. I compared old parts with the new. Everything was on right, but, those drums would not go back on. No way, no how. I even thought of sanding them down. I must have spent hours trying to figure the mess out. Of course, Frank didn't have a clue.
I phoned my father and explained the dilemma. "Are you sure everything is right?" he asked me. I told him yes.

"Could you please come down and take a look? I mean, I've tried everything." Reluctantly, he said yes and Frank and I waited. When he pulled up and got out of his car, he immediately went over to the exposed brakes on the left side
to do a little inspecting. Then, he walked up to us. Clearly, he could see the looks of frustration and anticipation in our eyes. Methodically, he opened the driver's door, reached in and disengaged the emergency brake.

"You think you two dodos can finish the job without any more help?" I felt really dumb.
I told you Frank didn't know much about cars. Apparently, I didn't either, but I sure did learn a good lesson.

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