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Nicholas Strakon
Publisher & Editor-in-chief
  Ronald N. Neff
Managing editor


Wright from Washington City

  March 25, 2021
Freedom and the Art
of Motorcycle Maintenance


WHEN I WAS YOUNG, it was understood that broken things could be fixed, and that many things could be fixed by their owners. A 1969 motorcycle I bought from Sears came with a collection of tools and a thick manual including parts diagrams and numbers, and comprehensive repair instructions. They enabled me to carry out any necessary work on the bike, from adjusting the brakes to rebuilding the engine. Any tools I didn’t have, I could buy from Sears.

That little motorcycle was a real education for a restless teenager. It was my first taste of real freedom: the ability to go where I wanted, when I wanted. Riding it was glorious. I savored the fall in temperature that chilled me as I passed an irrigated field or rode under trees, and other sensations known only to members of the motorcycle cult. But, more important, it taught me the skill of fixing machines.

When a low tire almost made me the grill decoration of a large truck, I discovered that a policy of benign neglect toward my steed did not work well. I couldn’t afford to pay a mechanic for the necessary repairs, so I turned to the handy maintenance manual and the huge inventory of genuine parts from Sears. My initial ham-handed attempts to tune the engine resulted in a massive BANG when the new ignition points I had installed came loose. The end of the muffler skittered down the street like a low-flying artillery shell — as luck would have it, right past police headquarters.

My skills improved, however, and were almost up to the challenge when my father gave me his dead 1963 Volkswagen Beetle as a character-building project. With the help of another handy manual, I pulled the engine in my neighbor’s grease pit: a deep rectangular hole in his garage floor over which I rolled the car, giving me access to its underside without lifting it. The procedure called for popping the fuel hose off and quickly sticking a pencil or something in the end, to keep the gasoline from spraying out. Of course I dropped the pencil, and was rewarded with a shower of gas pouring over me, inches away from the red hot bulb of the trouble light illuminating my frantic efforts to find it.

When I eventually got the car back together, I drove it carefully, listening obsessively for any sounds that might indicate trouble. I had almost begun to relax about 5 minutes on when a deafening, high-pitched screech almost made me soil myself. I parked the car and sheepishly used my family’s pickup to tow the wretched thing to a garage.

The next day the mechanic called me. “Can you describe that sound you said it made?” he asked.

“It was really loud, kind of like a low-flying jet or something,” I said.

“Well,” he said, and paused. “I think maybe that’s what it was.”

That car served me well for many years, as have the skills I learned fixing it. And my case was by no means unique. My best friend in high school had a ’46 Chevy pickup that required frequent work, especially on its busted starter motor that required us to use the included crank to get it started. And it was not uncommon to see people fixing their cars, even in our comfortable middle-class neighborhood. Across the street from my semi-rural junior high school, there was a guy who worked on a full-on ’55 Chevy dragster in his garage. Every once in a blue moon, he took it out and blasted down the street to test it. We kids thought that was terrific, and it didn’t seem to cause much of a stir among the adults.

Few boys today are able to have the kind of adventures on which I look back so fondly. For instance, one of the few bright spots in my miserable time at junior high school was metal shop class, where I learned basic metal-working skills, such as welding and operating a lathe. How many public schools now offer such instruction? Instead, every student is expected to go on to university, or at the least community college, while skilled manual jobs go begging.

In those days, my two favorite magazines, Popular Science and Popular Mechanics, catered to men and adolescent boys like me. Fully half of each was dedicated to DIY projects from furniture to electronics. And every issue of Popular Science included an advice column in which Smokey Yunick, a famous race-car mechanic, answered car-maintenance questions, as well as a short story posing a car-repair problem with the answer at the end. Today Popular Science still has a “DIY” section. It carries articles such as — and I’m not making this up — “Turn climate data into a knitted accessory and a crafty conversation starter,” and “These 4 DIY spice mixes will kick your cooking up a notch.”

Old Smokey would have a stroke.

The culture that encouraged me to dirty my fingernails seems to be disappearing as part of the ongoing feminization of the American male pushed by educationists and other societal parasites. There are other factors, too. Both average testosterone levels and sperm counts are falling. So perhaps the problem will be solved when we simply stop reproducing ourselves. Of course, many modern household items either don’t lend themselves to repair, or are too cheap to be worth the bother. But cars can still be worked on by anyone of modest intelligence willing to make the effort and buy the tools.

But perhaps not for long. The city of Sacramento, California, recently passed a law making it illegal for regular citizens to perform any but the most minor maintenance on their vehicles. You can change the oil and the brake pads, but anything more demanding is verboten. Under that regime a few years ago, I would have had the choice of changing out the clutch on my aging car and risking legal repercussions, or spending a thousand bucks or more at an authorized repair shop.

This coincides with moves by manufacturers to make it impossible to carry out repairs on their products without their permission. John Deere is perhaps the worst example: they’ve made it necessary to call a company rep to electronically enable a tractor or harvester accept a repair, or risk having it refuse to start. Tesla severely restricts repair, too, and most parts can be ordered only from the company. Other companies such as Apple do their best to restrict repairs to their own authorized representatives. The trend seems to be to make us completely dependent on “authorized” sources of repair, which in turn has led to the establishment of a “Right to Repair” movement — a development that would have been risible not so many years ago.

This trend is just part of a greater tendency in which Americans become more and more passive. The telescreen, the Panic Pandemic, and the repression of masculinity in boys mired in our juvenile day-prison system, are all contributing factors. The future looks to be the end of self-reliance: a population without personal resources or initiative, wholly composed of docile and pliable consumers — Take your Soma and do as you’re told. Ω

March 25, 2021

© 2021 David T. Wright
Published in 2021 by Thornwalker.

Contributing editor David T. Wright is TLD’s official handy man: he keeps the lights on in our penthouse offices and the limos running in our motor pool. Be sure to visit his blog, Life and Death in Bizarro World.
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