In today’s disposable digital world, the greatest loss might be the the art of temperamental machine manipulation. There’s a particular satisfaction that comes with being uniquely capable of “making the damn thing work.” Like the Jukebox at Arnold’s for the Fonz, or the rabbit ears on an old tv for my uncle, some machines only recognize one master.
I myself still have a couple contraptions that require “the touch.” One is a wireless receiver with an on switch that, in anyone else’s hands, refuses to behave. I keep it around just so I can helpfully walk over and bring the thing to life, savoring the dumbfounded look on the other person. In the field, such relics of technology can be recognized by the piece of tape over their switches that read, “Do not touch,” or “Call Bob.”
For a couple of years I worked at a television station that was such a mess, only two people on earth knew how everything worked. For job security, Bob and Larry refused to show anyone else the tricks.
But the greatest temperamental machine in my life, and the source of my appreciation, was my grandfather’s pickup. As a young boy, I pestered the old man until he taught me that certain, quality machines only respond to a delicate combination of mechanical know-how and colorful phrases. (Some of these phrases would also get a pretty good response out of mom, when I tested them out later.)
Grandpa’s truck It was a 1958 Chevrolet Apache. Now, if you’re picturing a beautifully restored garage queen, you can forget that. This was his work truck. My grandfather was a crusty carpentry foreman, and the truck was a mechanical extension of him; they may have had some crust in common. It was the color of dirt and the seats were patched with duct tape. There was a long crack in the windshield that he had halted by drilling a tiny hole just ahead of it. I can still picture his hands on the wheel, one split nail healing from a forty year battle with hammers, and a Pall Mall or Lucky smoldering.
It had been a bronze and cream two-tone beauty the day it rolled out of a factory in Van Nuys, but by the time I was able to ride in the passenger seat, the old girl sported plenty of rust, and a lumber rack that was installed with little thought to anything but utility. It was a truck from the days when the hooks along the bed weren’t an option because it was assumed you would be hauling cargo. Why the hell else buy a truck?
My grandfather convinced me and anyone who asked that he was the only human alive capable of driving the thing. This may have been true. He was sure as hell the only person I ever saw get her started.
The process always began by popping the hood with a loud metal groan, and fiddling with the old inline six. Once the engine had been sufficiently fiddled, he’d lower the heavy hood, careful not to slam it and undo those mysterious adjustments. Then we’d climb up into the cab and he’d start in on the choke and ignition, feathering the throttle just so, sweet-talking and swearing in turns, until, almost miraculously, he managed to coax the old girl to life. After letting it idle a bit, we would bounce along together on the torn bench seat, a transistor AM radio tuned to KCBS news and sports as we drove to the fishing spot.
Near the end of his life, he sold the truck to a man up the street who has since restored it into a shining, mint-colored garage queen. More than one male relative had offered/begged to buy the truck with the same plan, but the old man wasn’t about to have someone else in the family learn the trucks secrets. He didn’t have time to teach the technique, he’d say, and “she’ll just be more trouble than she’s worth to ’em.” I don’t know if he was more worried about the new owner’s happiness, though, or the truck’s.
I respect that. After all, Houdini didn’t show his hand, and a man’s gotta leave a few mysteries behind him.