Sunday, December 18, 2011

Small engine repair

There is a moment in any male’s relationship with a small engine—snow thrower, lawn mower, weed whacker, chain saw, leaf blower, outboard, whatever—when he realizes it’s not going to start. No matter how many times he tugs on the rope. No matter how hard. No matter what gerunds he mutters under his breath as he does.

A bond has been broken, A relationship compromised. If this were a marriage, you’d be on your way to counseling. Luckily you’re just a guy with a broken machine. All you need is a trip to the small engine repair shop.

The small engine repair shop. Is there any place happier? The 30-weight-oil-and-gasoline smell. The 16th-of-an-inch patina of gunk on every surface. The repairman’s grease-stained cup with its half inch of cold coffee. The tools—two levels more sophisticated than you have at home—laying right where he can find them whenever he needs them.

There is the quiet, slightly acerbic competence of the small engine repairman himself. Deep down inside, every real male yearns to be that man. To be a professional putterer. To dig around in an engine for a second or two, then tell a customer who lives three tax brackets up the road, “Well there’s your problem right there. Your coil is shot.”

Or your butterfly valve is stuck. Or your set screw fell out. Or any of a million other little “Well there’s you problem right there,” problems the customer won’t understand.

I doubt there’s any feeling on earth quite like realizing your customer has no idea what you’re talking about. Hot darn. It’s open season on his billfold.

And as a small engine repairman you work for yourself—usually just a few steps from the house. If you need a snack it’s right there. You can’t fire yourself and the only retirement you have to worry about is whether or not to retire to the sofa for a nap.

I have a son—an adolescent. One of these days, he’s going to come to me, arms full of brochures from four year liberal arts colleges.

“What should I do, Pop?” he’ll ask. “Where should I go?”

I’ll lead him to an open window. We’ll stand there and listen to the whine of all those small engines in the distance. I’ll hand him a brochure from the local vocational-tech school.

And I’ll tell him, “Three words, my boy—small engine repair.”