Saturday, November 12, 2011

Built to Fail

Frank and Pete, although they had never met, shared at least one thing, a respect for Classic cars, including Babe, my 1967 Camaro.
Frank is known as "The Alignment Man", literally. I got to know him shortly after struggling into Palm Desert having driven Babe from the rainy weather of British Columbia to the desert sun of Southern California. I figured she'd like it better down there, and I would likely drive her more than I do at home. En route we had lost 3 tires, one each day, due to the age of the rubber (apparently it's illegal for shops to put tires that are more than eight years old on a car). But even after purchasing 4 new white walls, Babe showed a suicidal inclination to veer left hand play "chicken" with oncoming vehicles. That soon led me to Frank's small 3 bay shop at the very back end a rundown, cinder block building in the poorer part of town.
Arriving early, there seemed to be no one around, although all the doors were open. But after a few minutes an old golden Labrador, followed by a tall, muscular man in his mid-60s, carefully stepped down from a circa 1960 RV parked in the corner of the parking lot. It was Frank's home; making for a short walk to work and a convenient and cost-effective security response. Frank walked with a stiff leg, looking every bit the Vietnam vet. It seemed to me that he was surviving in a back eddy of society, still suffering from the war wounds, both physical and emotional. Despite being unimpressed by the tiny, disheveled office that could have qualified for an episode of "Hoarders", I immediately trusted Frank. He clearly knew his classic cars. He seemed almost delighted in taking Babe on a test drive while I minded his shop. On his return he not only described the required fix in detail, but listed other unseen issues that would sometime need attention. After doing what was needed, and charging me a modest amount for the work, I asked him for the name of someone he trusted to check some mechanical issues I had noticed. His answer surprised me. With a redesigned tone he muttered, half to me and half to himself, "All my friends that know old cars are either out of the business or dead".   
Another search led to Pete's Automotive, a going concern on the outskirts of town. Pete was an unassuming man of Mexican descent in his late 50s, who proudly wore his name prominently displayed on his left chest pocket and cap.  He carefully, almost reverently, inspected my car, nodding his head in appreciation at what great shape she was in. Looking at the antifreeze fluid dripping slowly from the undercarriage, he immediately diagnosed a bad frost plug as the culprit. These plugs are built to fail by popping out if freezing occurs, thereby avoiding significant damage to the motor. After inspection, Pete, like Frank had done, identified a list of problems Babe was having. Her brakes were seeping a little brake fluid. The oil sending unit was leaking oil. The alternator was missing the bolt that attached it to the block. The headlights were out of kilter. The list went on. "The car is in great shape," he stated, "but at her age, there are lots of things that can go wrong. They just wear out."
Getting older, even though staying in good shape, means things can go wrong or just plain wear out. If we were cars we would get traded in or relegated to the wrecker's yard. Parkinson's disease is just one thing that seems to hasten certain types of breakdowns. But we are all facing the reality of getting older. In a way, we are built to fail. The question we all answer, intentionally or otherwise, is, "How will we respond?"
I get frustrated with Babe sometimes. At 45 years old, almost 15 years younger than me, she does not perform like she used to. She lacks the modern technology and conveniences that new cars take for granted.  Given her life expectancy, I probably spend more on her than she is actually worth. But despite the clunk her transmission makes when cold, and the wind whistling through the age-stiffened rubber window seals, there is something encouraging about a ride in Babe. She still turns heads. She has a graceful sort of pride. She seems to smile at me and gently say, "I am weathering the challenges of aging. What about you?"

1 comment:

  1. Another great post Bob ~ our grandsons would like the cartoon picture ~ I like the comparison between your car and one that has been sadly neglected ! Have a great day !