When I was four or five my dad started a project. We went to my great uncle's house, cut down a tree and pulled out the frame of a 1975 Toyota Land Cruiser. I only remember looking at the stump and thinking, "That's a car?" Later, we found parts in our favorite junkyard. I would take crushed cans for a quarter while my dad would find parts. We would go to Carquest and he would ask about whole engines, while I looked at the different displays on motor oil.
My favorite memories are making chai; I would get the ‘little-dipper’ bear cup, and Dad would take the ‘Big-Dipper’. Then we would head out to the garage and I would learn the names of the tools as I handed them to Dad, "10mm wrench." "Philip's head screwdriver." "Impact." We spent many nights like this, Dad on the creeper, with engine oil on his forearms, and me on the concrete and parts everywhere.
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When I was 11, my family moved to Mason City, Nebraska. A skeleton of a house on one side of the tracks and our tin-building shop on the other. Dad was going on an entrepreneurial adventure, and bringing us along for the ride.
Dad would work around the clock, there were nights when he would just run across the tracks to eat supper and then dart back to do maintenance. If I wanted to see Dad it meant I had to be in the truck or in the shop with the tools. I chose the shop, or rather Dad forced it on me. The shop had cold concrete, and the walls were coated in welding burns. When the train rushed past the rafters would shake, and dust would fall like rain from the ceiling. My legs would ache from standing, and the ache would amplify the cold. Some days I would be covered in icy water, from washing trucks, and other days I would have grease up to my elbows, adding to my freckles. You start to wonder if it’s a curse, but everyday looking back, it’s a gift. Dad gave me that shop. Soon I was in charge of fixing grease zerks and air filters and oil changes and my own Swede speed.
In high school Dad gave me a 1984 245 DL Volvo Wagon, it was free from a salvage yard and didn’t even start. But it was my first car, the love of my life, the car of my dreams. It was tan, with brown seats, a knob radio, it also, smelled strongly of mouse pee and had mouse remnants on all the upholstery and needed a new fuel system and wiring harness, but that was mere detail.
The Volvo consumed my junior summer, free time was spent just sitting in the car, cleaning the interior, propping open the back hatch and sitting in the folding rear seats, tuning the radio just right, imagining the place we would go. Someday I could cross the country, Moscow, San Francisco, Main, The Smoky Mountains, The Grand Canyon, all in this first car. But the car wasn’t meant to be. It was a high school class; I drove it all of 48 miles and sold it because it could never take me cross-country. Not even nostalgia could save a car that weary.
After that first car, Dad gave me something a little more reliable, a 1995 Toyota Pickup. I didn’t think it was my dream car, but after 10,000 miles, it holds part of my home. It was my last project with Dad hovering over my shoulder. I pulled the hubs apart on it, my senior year. When you take apart a hub, you start by pulling the wheel. Just five lug nuts zipping off. From there you take off the brake caliper, disconnect the propeller shaft, and go for all the seals and bearings. You can slide your finger around the cone’s edge, like around the top of a glass, and feel the ball bearings spin beneath. Blue grease coated my fingertips as I packed it back together, filling all the crevices. I broke open the hubs so that I could replace them with lockout hubs. Dad explained why I needed them, “So you can get two more miles to the gallon.” When the wheels were disconnected from the shaft they could move freely, making my 4-wheel drive, real 2-wheel drive. When winter comes, Dad laughs proudly as I tell him that I get to turn on my hubs.
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The ‘Big-Dipper’ mug sits next to the ‘little-dipper’ mug on the brown rollaway. Those nights we would listen to the radio, and I would adjust his old stereo so that we could get just the right rock station, other nights we would only listen to the crickets in the backyard or the neighbor kid skateboarding. The garage was small, and my Dad didn’t quite have all the tools. But we still managed to get the work done. I couldn’t reach all the drawers in the rollaway, and if I could most were too heavy. My Dad still made me try. When it would get late, we would go into the house and wash our hands with orange soap in the kitchen sink.
Now we mostly drink coffee. I still adjust that radio. Sometimes we still listen to the sounds outside, but now they are mostly trains and June Beetles. Now my Dad has all the tools, a mill and lathe, and two rollaways. I can find every tool, and now the hired men ask me where things are. The shop is still too small, even though it’s grown. It seems that some days I spend just as much time on the creeper as my Dad. Now we stand together over the stainless steel sink and scrub our greasy arms up-to-the-elbows together. The dark 90 weight blends with my Dad’s dark arm hair, smudging, turning to suds, while the extra freckles of my arms slowly wash away.