Growing up on a frontier meant that you became a mechanic – whether you wanted to or not. It also meant you often used what was on hand rather than what the manual specified. Parts stores were few and far between so we would patronize the junkyard as often as an auto supply store.
That trend continued for me long after I left Alaska. Between service in the Army as a motor officer and “shade tree mechanic duty” to save money as a parent I ended up with grease under my fingernails and scraped knuckles well into middle age. I could brag about my skill and knowledge as a “meck-an-neck” but my success had to do more with the modular system Volkswagen used in designing their cars. Before graduating to my 2001 turbo-charged New Beetle I had performed every type of repair (short of an engine re-build) on the string of VWs that passed through our hands in the decades beforehand. ,
My system was fairly simple: I would examine a problem part or area from as many angles as possible, looking for any spot that was obviously bent, broken or charred, being careful to confer with friendly mechanics on questionable calls. 90% of the time if a spot looked “bad” it was bad (broken) so most repairs entailed simple replacement – like repairing an old TV by replacing tubes. It was a good system, but every once and awhile it didn’t work .
..as happened in 1996 when I was teaching a basic sculpture class during the short summer term at Roane State Community College in Harriman, Tennessee. The class was going extremely well ; using the same syllabus as we did during regular terms created an intensity that pushed students into doing better work than they’d normally put out. The class had started out great and was rolling along nicely, but ten days into the term my Vanagon broke down. Since the break-down happened on the trip home at the end of the week AND I had access to a temporary loaner car I figured I wouldn’t worry too much about the situation.
Brimming with confidence I made a leisurely start to my automotive chores late Saturday morning, secure in the knowledge that my skill would make short work of the problem.
Within ten minutes I was worrying.
Fuel was not being delivered in the proper manner to the cylinders, and I figured out that the Engine Control Unit (ECU) was the source of my troubles. No problem – it was the most modular of all modules in the vehicle and replacing it would be a matter of snapping the old one out and the new one in. I don’t even think a screwdriver was required for the job. Cleaning my hands off I happily picked up the phone and called my favorite parts supplier Ron. I told him what I needed and he went off line for a moment as he looked through a catalog for price and availability.
He got back on the phone. He started to speak, stopped for a moment and said “Are you sitting down?” I chuckled- Ron and I routinely bantered back and forth during these kinds of calls so I replied with some sort of forgettable wise-crack then said “So what are we talking about? $400?”
I sat down.
Bear in mind that I was a freelance artist supplementing my income with money made as an adjunct design instructor. I had my wife, two teen-age boys and an infant daughter to support, I was barely keeping my head above water in the sea of student-loan debt from graduate school and the ancient HVAC system that kept our home marginally habitable during brutally hot East Tennessee summers was in dire need of replacement. A sum like sixteen hundred dollars was not something that was going to just pop out of thin air for me.
I could do nothing more at that point so I asked Ron to check other sources for a better price for the faulty unit. I called the owner of the loaner car I was using and was able to secure use for the next week – but only for the next week. I had seven days to figure out a solution.
Teaching a compressed course takes a lot of concentration so I didn’t think about that dead ECU very much during that following week, but come Friday morning the specter of a dead van loomed menacingly like a Tupperware tub of potato salad pushed to the back of the fridge and forgotten for a month. I dutifully donned coveralls and started checking, prodding and testing electrical components in search of a solution. I finally reached a point where my aching back would no longer let me lay underneath the van to work, so I removed the defective ECU and brought it into the shop where I could examine it under more comfortable conditions.
The cover to the ECU was held in place by bent metal tabs that clipped around the edge of the base. It was a simple move to straighten the tabs back out to allow the cover to be removed and as I carefully worked with pliers and screw-driver I imagined the hardest part of the repair to be repairing whatever “broken, bent & charred” parts that were preventing the computer from functioning correctly. Imagine my surprise and dismay when I opened the unit to find a circuit board that looked as good as the day it was manufactured, with no obvious defect to repair.
My heart sank. I looked skyward and said “Lord, I have done everything within my power to repair this thing. It’s in your hands now!”
At most three seconds passed between those words being spoken and my son Conrad entering the shop carrying the cordless phone. “It’s for you, Dad” he said, “I think it’s some guy named Spigot or Fawcett and I think he’s from Chicago” It was Bill Fawcett, editor and book packaging expert who had used some of our art in a collectible card game a few years prior. The game had been an attempt to jump on the Magic: The Gathering bandwagon in an economical manner by using second rights art but it hadn’t done too terribly well. We had gotten an initial fee when we first sent the images in but the royalties had been few and far between.
Bill was calling to tell us that they were converting the tangible card game into an on-line version and that they needed to just buy us out instead of worrying about royalties and book-keeping in the future.
Then he apologetically told me that they could pay us “only $1500”. I immediately burst out laughing which flustered Bill quite a bit but when I finally got the chuckles under control enough to explain the situation with the broken ECU he immediately asked for my street address and offered to overnight the check to us. Then it got even better: the minute Bill rang off Ron the part-man called to tell me that he had been able to shop around for a better price for the unit so in addition to having enough money to repair we were able to catch up on some bills that had been netting us collections calls for the previous month.
You know, very few people are comfortable with the idea of spiritual matters or divine communication in these times. We marvel at Biblical miracles but many doubt that sort of thing could happen now. I doubt that I am the only Believer that would be both thrilled and terrified at a Divine visitation of any sort…though I entertain no illusions about the state of my own (lack of) spiritual progression. I imagine my own Final Judgment to be brief; a quick scan of a crumpled index card with a “Do we really need to talk about this David?”
This incident made me stop and think. While Bill and Ron would both scoff at the idea of being dubbed angels, the timing and interplay of their words and actions were as miraculous and yielded results as precious as that found in an Old Testament story.
… though maybe not quite so dramatic.